Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Love Bloggo: The Devotion Project

Ignorance is powerful.  It closes people's minds to that which is different from them, and creates a barrier that is difficult to break down.  Ignorance means an unwillingness to understand, to find common ground, and to accept diversity. 

The media is powerful.  With constant bombardment of advertisements, television, and the internet, the modern human is an unwitting subject to cultural suggestion, soaking up values, norms, and ideals like a sponge.  This can be good, or this can be bad.  The media is driven by money, and dictated by and directed to those who have that power.  This is why the stories being told on television and in Hollywood are primarily hallmarked by cisgender straight characters, almost always white. 

But media also has the power to be good.  There are stories with other types of characters, because these humans exist.  And it's hugely important to show them, to make them visible, and to let their voices be heard.  How else can we balance the power?

The Devotion Project does exactly that.  But this is perhaps a fortuitous side effect to the project's true purpose: to demonstrate happy, loving LGBTQ couples and families so that LGBTQ youth have role models to look up to.  With six videos planned, filmmaker Antony Osso has completed four mini-documentaries focusing on LGBTQ love stories - detailing not only the more romantic anecdotes about first meeting and falling in love, but as well dealing with the trials and tribulations affecting two people that promise to spend their lives together.  Short, sweet, and well-told, each film successfully paints a portrait of two individuals wholly in love, devoted to one another and their life together.  These couples are fantastic role models for young members of the LGTBQ community, who are so frequently deprived of positive images for their futures.

But what makes these stories even more powerful, on a larger scale, is that these unions are also fantastic role models for straight couples.  And it's here where ignorance can truly be stamped out.  Nothing is different when it comes to love.  Humanity is the same, whether gay, straight, bisexual, or transgender.  Raising a child is no different.  Having a family is no different.  Navigating the complications of a relationship is no different.  Ultimately, loving one another is no different.  By showing what is the same across all cultural, sexual, and gender identities, The Devotion Project is a huge step forward in the effort to break down the barrier between ignorance and acceptance.

I encourage you to watch all four videos completed thus far.  They're all gems, although "More Than Ever" and "Listen from the Heart" are particularly touching - make sure you have tissues!  As for the final two videos, The Devotion Project is still seeking funding.  If you'd like to donate, go here.  But at the very least, please take some time to watch the films, and even share them.  The more people that engage in these stories, the more we can work towards better LGBTQ visibility in the media, and positive representation in the common cultural landscape.

Because The Devotion Project proves one thing: that love is the most powerful of all.

"More Than Ever"

"Say Only Yes"

"Listen from the Heart"

"My Person"

You can also follow The Devotion Project on Tumblr.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mad Men: Ownership, Objects, and "The Other Woman"

It's not unprecedented for Mad Men to drift into the exploration of issues such as sexism, racism, and homophobia - all of which were drastically different in the 1960s than they are today.  But no episode of the show has been as brilliant, evocative, and horrible as "The Other Woman."  And while it's certainly worthwhile to talk about the episode in terms of plot development, character arc, and larger storyline - as you might with any other hour of television - the most important investigation of "The Other Woman" is without a doubt under the lens of feminism.

In 1967, the world was different.  It's easy to watch Mad Men and covet Joan's wardrobe and Don's fedora, or chuckle at all the indoor chain-smokers, or marvel at how The Beatles are spoken about as contemporaries, not legends.  But the show makes the effort to go even deeper - to pull the curtain back on the insidious normalcy of prejudice: towards women, towards black people, towards Jewish people, towards Japanese people, towards gay people.  Mad Men has characters that fall into these categories, because these people still existed in the 1960s, even though society at the time wished they didn't.  And the disadvantages these characters face as an inherent and unshakeable fixture of their existence are often displayed by the show, yet can be ignored by a modern viewer.  

In the case of "The Other Woman," Mad Men painted a disturbing portrait of womanhood in 1967, framed with the misogyny of ownership and a discourse on the voice of woman.  Peggy, Joan, and Megan were all struggling to make decisions for the betterment of their own selves, trying to be in charge of their destinies and fulfill their own personal identities.  Yet, these decisions were entrenched in a man's world, on a man's whim, and with a man's permission.  

For Joan, the decision concerned her body.  Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has been fighting to win the Jaguar account all season, and in "The Other Woman," they finally got a guarantee for the ticket: Herb Rennet, the head honcho, wanted a night with Joan - and not just for dinner and drinks.  This bold proposition quickly spiraled out of control at the hands of Pete, who was so focused on the "prize" that he never stopped to hear Joan's opinion on the matter.  After all, this is business, and there's always someone who has to "go the extra mile."  In this scenario, that person was Joan.  Joan could sleep with the head of Jaguar as requested, thereby securing the account, and in return receive $50,000 for her time and body.

But Mad Men crafted an episode that went beyond the discussion of business prostitution and Joan's dignity.  "The Other Woman" simultaneously showed us the ad campaign for Jaguar, which provided the stark backdrop demonstrating what exactly defined a woman's place in the world of men.  Because the Jaguar was impractical for the married family man, it was instead advertised as "a mistress," a fulfillment of desire.  Megan summed it up succinctly: "a wife is just a Buick in the garage."  So, an easy and disturbing exercise in feminist critique would be to rewatch "The Other Woman" and replace every instance of the word "car" with the word "woman."  There is little difference, in cultural suggestion of 1967, between a living human woman with free will, and a car.  Mad Men delineated it all with Ginsberg's winning line: "At last, something beautiful you can truly own."

Of course, this all relates back to Joan, as the quiet nucleus of this episode.  How much does it cost to own a woman?  To have her exactly how you would like her - customized, for you to control, to exist for your every pleasure?  Joan was placed at the center of this discussion, and yet, she got little say in the matter.  She could no more express her opinion about being owned than could a shiny red Jaguar.  Pete goaded her by comparing her to Cleopatra, a queen, and Roger and Bert, while seemingly unsupportive of the plan, never bothered to address Joan directly.  Lane only encouraged her to leverage partnership in the company simply to cover his own ass, which is sitting on secret embezzlement and financial problems.  

Only Don ever took the initiative to speak to Joan in person about the matter, when he discovered Pete actually propositioned with a deal.  Rushing to Joan's apartment, Don assured her they didn't want to do business with people like Herb Rennet.  With tears in her eyes, she held his face, told him she was fine, and wished him luck for the ad pitch.  What we didn't know, at the time, was that Joan had already made her choice.  Brilliantly cross-cutting Don's building pitch with the horrifying dread and tension of Joan at Herb's apartment, Mad Men hit the thematic notes with precision and power.  Don asked, about obtaining beautiful things: "What price would we pay?  What behavior would we forgive?"  Simultaneously, we see Herb unzip Joan's dress, and Joan's eyes fill with tears and a stoic, detached determination.  If that weren't emotionally traumatic enough, the denouement for this peak was the unsettling reveal that sank in with the quick flutter of Joan's emerald green robe.  She had already sealed the deal before Don got to her.  And suddenly, it seemed so clear, as the scene repeated itself.  Christina Hendricks' lowered eyes and assured "I'm fine" became one hundred times more heartbreaking with the new information, as we realized that maybe, if Don had gotten there sooner, she wouldn't have gone through with it.

Or would she have?  There's plenty of debate as to whether or not it's in Joan's character to accept the offer, or if she'd have too much self-respect to say no.  However, I find this discussion to be beside the point.  Inspecting Joan's moral code to look for clues indicating one way or the other seems to suggest overlooking the fact that she was propositioned in the first place.  Why scrutinize Joan's ethics and not the ethics of the men surrounding her, refusing to speak up?  I will say, though, that  Mad Men portrayed this scenario with the right kinds of grace and power when dealing with feminist issues - yes, Joan was powerless, but she was not a victim.  She had no control over the situation she was in, except in her one choice: to say yes, or no.  It's not an easy choice.  But it's Joan's choice, and the narrative was very clear that Joan made her choice.  However, the choice did not begin with Joan.  The choice came to Joan because it was placed there, by the misconception that woman, and her body, could be owned - purchased and delivered for customer satisfaction.  For Joan, she didn't have a choice about her body or her place in the world.  It is 1967 and she is just one woman, raising a child by herself.  She is just one woman, making one choice, in a man's world.  She did the best with what the world gave her, while trying as much as possible to retain her dignity and identity, to the extent that the world would allow her.

"The Other Woman" also presented Peggy with the opportunity to improve her future.  Even though she's in charge of all accounts except Jaguar, she's somewhat dissatisfied with her job.  This episode found her selling a successful (gender-swapped!) ad idea on the fly and yet Don rewarded the location shoot to Ginsberg, who technically held the account.  When Peggy protested, Don was quick to assume she just wanted to go to Paris and threw money in her face.  Literally.  He threw money in her face.  From there, Peggy was encouraged by Freddy Rumsfeld to move on from SCDP, despite her loyalty to Don, and seek a position up the ladder.  Even though she was emotionally reluctant to do so, she pursued the interest, won herself a $19,000 salary at a competing firm, and had to give Don her notice.

It couldn't come at a worse time, as Don had just realized that Joan had gone through with the Jaguar transaction and became a partner of the company.  And it was particularly telling, what with the frame of the episode, that he didn't take Peggy's speech seriously at first.  Earlier, we saw Don literally throw money in Peggy's face so that she would leave him alone, and at the end, he tried the same tactic - but this time to coerce her to stay.  What price would you pay for something - or someone - you valued?  This instance of a man trying to buy a woman plays in direct contrast to Herb and Joan.  Peggy is being bought for her talent, and loyalty, and dedication - not for her body.  The distinction is clear - notice that the writers gave Joan a moment of intellect with Herb, correcting his botched metaphor using Arabian and Greek myths.  But this bit of intelligence is ignored, and she is instead instructed to remove her dress.

But Peggy, even though she chose to leave, was rewarded for her choice.  Her farewell with Don was emotionally distressing, and particularly fascinating under a feminist lens.  Instead of shaking her hand as you might in business, Don instead grabbed her hand and kissed it, holding on from his seated position with the amount of worship one might save for a queen.  Combined with the moment where Joan mournfully watches Peggy's retreating back as she walks out of the office, I was at my fill of emotional devastation for the hour.  I worried that Peggy might not be making the right decision.  But then, as Peggy stepped into the elevator, a smile played at the corners of her mouth, and Mad Men gave us the greatest music cue in the Kinks' "You Really Got Me."  I breathed a sigh of relief, unable to resist the charm of success.  Peggy's gonna be okay.

From the looks of it, so is Megan, who held the final choice of the hour.  Having done well on the audition, she received a callback for a Broadway show.  The only problem: it would require her to live in Boston, away from Don, for three months.  "Forget it!" he barked, and just like that, Megan was expected to relinquish her choice.  But Megan refuses to just give up her own personal aspirations simply to please Don.  Not only that she suspects that he doesn't take her seriously - her dreams are petty and meaningless, and likely to stay unfulfilled.  

Now, I don't understand Megan hate.  I really don't.  Because this character is great.  Not only does she seem to be tapped into zeitgeist of the growing feminist movement, she manifests it in her actual relationship with Don.  She flat out tells him she does not intend on failing.  Three cheer!   She also explains to him that if she were forced to choose between her love and her career goals - something that has happened on countless occasion to women through history - she would choose him.  But she would hate him for it.  This honesty from Megan is refreshing, as is her ability to understand her own emotional spectrum.  (It seemed rare on this show before she showed up.)  So, Don relents, and "allows" Megan to go on her final audition.  But tellingly, the only moment we see from this is the casting directors asking Megan to stand in front of them and turn around, so that they may look at her.  In that moment, Megan was no more than a Jaguar in the showroom, spinning silently on a dais, waiting for a man to choose her.

In the end, Joan made partner, Peggy had her new job, and Megan may still have a shot at the role.  Each achieved some level of success.  But at what cost?  Navigating their own lives involved being at the whim of men's desires, and worse yet, wallets.  What price would they pay?  What behavior would they forgive?  They had choices, yes.  But they live in a man's world, where they are often objects, to be purchased, and looked at, and bought.  This dictates what kinds of choices they have access to, and redefines the ways they go about trying to make the choices they do have.  "The Other Woman" gave a nasty glimpse into this world, in 1967, and highlighted it with tragic accuracy.  There may be several ways to look at this episode, but from no other perspective is it more disturbing than under the importance of women, and their access to personal choice, self, and success.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The RBI Report: "Goodbye"

If you wanted to watch a satisfying, cohesive, touching finale to wrap up Glee's original high school conceit... well, you're shit out of luck.  The best possible way to achieve this is to watch the first five minutes of "Goodbye," give or take a minute or two, then fast-forward to "You Get What You Give."  Then, shut off the episode.  Just turn it off.  Because the majority of the scripted scenes were cobbled together with the blowhard intent to be what Glee was originally - which wouldn't be an issue, except it's done so with the methods that Glee operates with currently.  So what resulted was a top-heavy mess of an episode, with rushed and shallow dialogue that forced false resolution, created unnecessary conflict, and ultimately brushed off some characters and relationships, while glorifying others.

"Goodbye," written and directed by Brad Falchuk

It's not hard to figure out what makes for a satisfying finale.  Glee even seems to understand this to a basic degree, trying to stuff in as many moments as possible paying off original dynamics and focusing on the growth and changes these kids have made.  Each senior (well, almost each senior) had an individual narration and scenes doled out to them to either honor their past or open a question for their future.  In theory, this isn't so bad.  But with Glee, "honoring the past" comes out "patting ourselves on the back for something that never happened" because the fact of the matter is that "growth" is rarely present on this show.  "Growth" and "development" are actually "boomerang change that will be in constant and unpredictable flux until we need to stop telling the story."  So almost every hearkened moment in "Goodbye" was marred with some aspect of self-delusion, like the writers were stubbornly trying to tell us (literally, through dialogue) that this is how it was all along, with the frustrating conviction of a really bad magician trying to cover up his cheaper tricks.  So not only was it conceptually flimsy, but the execution was pretty shoddy as well.

As for the future, it really doesn't bode well to have to tell the audience exactly what every character's plans are in one episode alone.  There are eight graduating seniors, and that's assuming that the audience doesn't care at all about the juniors.  (Which is probably untrue.)  There's just not enough time, and Glee did itself no favors for these resolutions in a few areas.  For "Goodbye" itself, the focus on the future was far too unbalanced between the focus on the past as well as between the individual characters themselves.  Characters who were shown to have had no actual plot about their futures were abruptly dropping their reveals casually into conversation, while others suddenly had unnecessary and overworked twists in their plans.  Surprise!  Santana suddenly has money to go to college, but she might want to go to New York instead!  Surprise!  Finn's going to waffle on this last-minute life dream of acting because he doesn't think it will honor his dad!  Surprise!  Brittany's not graduating and there's nothing anyone can do about it!  (Okay, fine, that last one may have been unnecessary, but it sure as hell wasn't overworked.  "Brittany who?" ask the writers, as the audience weeps.)

All of this should have been introduced way, way sooner.  With no time on the clock and choices to make, it became blatantly obvious which characters the writers care to bother with, and this was perhaps the most disheartening thing about the finale.  Its choices revealed a clear and undeniable pecking order when it came to this show's ensemble, and by displaying it in full view, the writers didn't really do what any good finale should: pay homage to the shoulders the show sits on.  In the case of Glee, it's the notion that every kid has a home in the glee club.  Outcasts and misfits aren't cast out; they fit in.  Even despite all these kids' differences, they became family; that is the whole story of the show.  And yet, there were precious few moments dedicated to this concept of "the group."  Remember in my "Nationals" recap, where I said the competition episode was too group-centric, and lacked individual point of view?  "Goodbye" suffered the opposite problem, and I suspect the writers would have done better to switch their approaches between the two.

It turns out, by episode's end, that the most important entity in this universe is not the New Directions, but Rachel Berry.  I still can't believe that "Goodbye" didn't end with the glee club in a group number.  How could it not?  It's perhaps the easiest thing to check off a "series finale" to-do list.  But instead, in an astounding lack of clarity by the writers, everything wrapped up with Rachel Berry, who, having postponed her dreams, was literally forced on a train to pursue her future.  This is a show about misfits in Lima, and it ended in New York City with Rachel leading her own cliché musical number.  Since when was this show The Rachel Berry Show?  I love (some version of) Rachel, and I am 100% okay with considering her a main character - if not the main character.  She is an emotional focal point, and there is little to argue there.  However.  This whole show is not her story alone.  This story is about the New Directions.  Marginalizing everyone else so that Rachel could have her big moment in New York City is beyond insulting.  It's a slap in the face, really.

(As an aside, does anyone remember the joke on 30 Rock spoofing young dreamers who burst into song when they arrive in New York City?  Rachel's Big Finish felt exactly like that... except no one was joking.  I must have a charcoal heart, because I think I would have paid actual money to see a homeless man yell at Rachel to shut up as soon as she started singing in Grand Central Station.  Honestly, I think Glee could have actually done something along these lines and pulled it off.  The show used to satirize situations like this, but then somewhere down the line they devolved into the very thing they were satirizing.  If a little such zing were introduced, it'd deflate some of the heavy emotion from the previous scene, and actually serve as a kickoff to next season instead of an overindulgent misfire at honoring the past.  Because I imagine S4 is going to [should?] deal with Rachel Berry negotiating her Dream New York with the Harsh Reality of New York.  If nothing else, having a vagrant shut her up would prepare her for potentially being around Santana more.  I'm not saying Homeless Man Yelling at Rachel would have been the #1 thing about "Goodbye" I'd change, it just amuses me and is somewhat defensible from certain angles.  Humor me; I need something to get me through writing this recap.) 

Rachel's decision to stomp off to New York and achieve her dreams wouldn't be so bad, if only it were her own.  This is a character who prized her own dreams above all else, and when finally having kicked open the door to achieving them, she made a conscious decision to close it again, absently hoping that it might stay unlocked.  Who is this person?  I'm all for embedding Rachel Berry in a friend group, and providing her with the social acceptance she did not have at series' begin.  However, every writerly decision made for Rachel in Season 3 has forced her into this development and made her pay the price for having friends.  It's been wedding, or dreams, and she's never been able to have both.  And she still doesn't!  

There are so many things wrong with this storyline.  First, I cannot even comprehend how quickly the writers were able to throw Rachel's resolve in reverse.  Her world fell apart in "Choke," when she blew her NYADA audition, and it's taken countless other characters hoisting up her self-esteem to get her back on track.  She pestered the hell of Carmen Thibodeaux, strong-armed a solo for Nationals so she could show off her chops, and finally this all resulted in what she wanted: an acceptance letter.  But as soon as she can't have her best friend and boyfriend at her side?  She won't take it.  It's as if the writers want us to be completely exhausted by how much screentime they devoted to Rachel's troubles, while simultaneously making her the biggest brat of all time for turning down something so many people - including herself! - fought so hard for.  If Carmen Thibodeaux knew about this, I guarantee she'd have a few choice words for Rachel Berry.   

The second thing that's disappointingly bad about Rachel's goodbye is that her decision was made for her.  Her one choice, all episode - to stay in Lima - was skipped by without any pause for consideration, which only weakened Rachel's current character.  We didn't see her make that choice; she just told us about it in narration.  It didn't help that she also told us she has everything she ever wanted out of high school, and that postponing her Broadway dream was like "coming to her senses."  Who is this person?  She is a stranger to me.  Then, when she's perfectly happy (so she says) to go get married, she's actually being hijacked and taken to the train station - where everyone is waiting for her, assumedly with explicit instruction from Finn to use force if necessary.  (A friend texted at this point and laughed at what Finn must have said to convince them to show up: "Come help drag Rachel on the train after I dump her in the car on the way there.  I'll buy pizza after.") 

The idea that choices are being made for Rachel "for her own good," is terrible writing. Glee went out of their way to force Rachel's story as The Most Important Story, given its place at episode's end, and yet, she is not the hero of her own story anymore.  That role belongs to Finn, her fiancé, who oh-so-nobly sacrifices their relationship and their epic love for one another so that she can pursue her dreams.  Now, I don't mind that they break up, and I don't mind that Finn might be more realistic about staying together than Rachel.  I don't even necessarily mind that he wants to "set her free."  However, this is something, that in order to be a good story, needs to be told in scenes where they discuss this.  It must come about organically, onscreen, with both parties contributing their opinions in order to reach a mutual decision.  And all characters' choices need to be their own.  There are no heroes here.  Foisting the sacrifice on Finn's shoulders and depriving Rachel of any choice is just bad storytelling.  And moments like Finn running after her departing train, which might, under different circumstances, actually be heartfelt, are instead just laughable and examples of Glee's hollow execution of High Cheeseball.

Of course, in their own way, the writers tried to set up Finn's all-encompassing decision by showing that he is, in fact, hesitant about his future.  Apparently now is as good a time as any to bring Finn's daddy issues back into the picture, and catch us all up on what he feels about the previously-pedastaled, now-tarnished image of his father.  Turns out Finn wants to honor his dad's legacy, which apparently doesn't translate into an acting career, and so he makes the offscreen decision to join the army, without discussing it with anybody.  (We assume.  It happened offscreen, so we can only guess.)  The break-up with Rachel was also specifically foreshadowed with another pointless wedding planning scene, where Finn felt a "weird vibe" from Rachel, like she might not be happy with her choice of husband.  (I think he may have just been sensing the pod person that has replaced Rachel since, oh, mid-season.)  I have absolutely no idea why this needed to be addressed, because it's not even really foreshadowing.  Finn broke up with Rachel so that he wouldn't hold her back in the wake of his rejection from New York, which is actually rather sweet, when completely lifted out of the bullshit that Glee wrote into the scenario.  It doesn't have to be such an inferiority complex, or established as an issue before the inciting incident (acceptance letters) even happened.  Mostly, I'm just annoyed that when Finn expressed insecurities, Rachel returned with a dubious, "you think I'm the one who's settling for you?"  Which is just gross.  Yes, writers, we know that Finn was a Cool Guy and Rachel is a Loser.  We thank him for being so charitable to lesser beings, and are glad that the lesser beings recognize their good fortune.

Actually, this concept ruined what would have been such a (rare) lovely moment in "Goodbye."  Will assigned the seniors to sing to the juniors, and the juniors to sing to the seniors - as a whole.  The seniors' performance, as a hand-off to the younger kids, was great!  The juniors' performance, however, was inexplicably written away from group inclusion, and instead penned as an specific homage to Finn Hudson himself.  I just... I don't understand.  This decision makes no sense, and only serves the greater obnoxiousness of "Goodbye" as an episode: some of these characters are more important than others, and everyone within the narrative seems to know it.  The same thing happened with Kurt's solo, which he dedicated to the "men in the room," because they were so noble and secure in their masculinity to not treat Kurt like an inferior for being gay.  Give all those boys awards, they weren't assholes!  Why was this written this way?  As far as I see it, Kurt hasn't interacted all that much with the boys, and in the beginning, they were distant and uncomfortable by his sexuality.  The only who hasn't been, in a scripted, storyline sense, is Sam.  And then they never interacted again.  But it doesn't matter, because straight people deserve a thank you for not being bigots.  Never mind Kurt's forgotten relationship with Mercedes, or the possibility of singing to his dad, or even having a bit more realistic scene dealing with the prospect of a long-distance relationship.

In fact, even though Kurt is probably #3 in order of importance, as deemed by "Goodbye," the episode didn't treat the character all that well.  The scene with Burt was nice in theory, although a bit misguided in execution.  I didn't love the idea that Burt basically said "I lost you when you started to become yourself," and while I love the idea that he would take a step into Kurt's world as a gesture to their symbiosis of differences, it was framed more as a "hey, remember when?" which really was there for the audience to benefit from.  I actually feel like Kurt would be scarred by watching his dad perform Beyoncé, and the gratuitous flashbacks to Kurt's performance were completely unfounded, and for the audience only.  (It's Kurt's POV!  Why would he flash back to watching himself perform "Single Ladies?"  It makes no sense.)  I would have much preferred Burt offering to sing with Kurt, in an embodiment of their "meeting in the middle" dynamic.  

The difficulty of Kurt's long-distance relationship with Blaine was also waved away quickly, perhaps because the writers knew he wasn't going to get into NYADA anyways.  And how awful that Kurt didn't have a single moment for the narrative to focus on his rejection letter?  He has been on the same path as Rachel this season, and while Finn and Rachel got their front-seat breakup to address Finn's future, Kurt is left completely unanswered.  It's not even that we don't know what he's going to do; I'm fine with a cliffhanger.  That's not the issue.  The issue is that we had no moment to mourn the death of Kurt's dream.  No, it didn't need to be a huge teary number like "Cry," but there needed to be at least a moment.  As it was, he got a rejection letter, then spiralled away from the narrative completely.  It wasn't even insinuated that he had any part in pushing Rachel into her future, when it seems, based on all characterization, that he would

Unanswered questions and ignored emotional reactions also plagued Santana's storyline, and, by extension, Brittany's.  Santana's future was decided for her (I'm sensing a theme) a few episodes ago, wherein Sue and Brittany got her a scholarship to the University of Kentucky.  Of course, we immediately wondered, "Santana?  Louisville?" - but Santana didn't second-guess it until "Goodbye."  She gives some consideration to ditching college and heading off to NYC, but wants advice from her mother.  Yes, we finally got to meet Mama Lopez!  Gloria Estefan was fantastic as Santana's mother, and I wish dearly that we were able to meet her sooner, and with more (read: better) content.  

As is, Señora Lopez appeared to want Santana to go to college, and that's when the bomb dropped.  And by "bomb," I mean "something dusted under the rug and used only once for another character's purposes and then forgotten about completely."  Brittany's not graduating!  This is just the final nail in the coffin on how terribly the writers treat this character.  (On any other comedy, Brittany would be the scene stealer.  For awhile, on Glee, she was.  Now she's basically a ghost.  A silent, one-dimensional ghost.)  The implications of Brittany's erasure as a member of the senior class (president, no less!) are nauseating.  I'm not just talking about how Puck got a multi-episode arc out of potentially failing, while Brittany's isn't a big deal.  It's more that Santana seems surprised that Brittany isn't graduating, which suggests that either Santana is not paying attention to her girlfriend, doesn't think her girlfriend has problems with her grades, or that the writers are just not on the ball.  I vote that last one.  It's half-assumed, by the characters in the narrative, that Brittany's too dumb to graduate and nothing can be done about it.  But the writers never fully incorporated this idea, which means they're operating on the assumption that as an audience, we too are just assuming that Brittany's too dumb to graduate.  Which means that the writers absolutely think that Brittany is too dumb to graduate, and never chose to address that as anything other than incontrovertible truth.  How insulting.

What's even worse about this is that even when Brittany's announcement is made, it's not manifested into any emotional depth for her character.  Santana is outraged, then it's simply presented as another option for her future - maybe she'll stay behind in Lima with Brittany.  What is actually a real character moment for Brittany is shrugged off in favor of Santana's precedence as a fixture on this show, as established since the middle of Season 2.  Santana ranks higher on the list than Brittany, so naturally, Brittany's story developments affect only Santana's incorporated narrative.  But even "Goodbye" swung the impact of Brittany's news away from Santana's emotions and kept it strictly as a reason to stay local next year.  The emotion of the scenario was never manifested onscreen in any way.  Singing to Brittany during "You Get What You Give" was cute, but not really in keeping with their supposed emotional state after learning Brittany's high school fate just a few scenes before.  Not only that, but I can't believe the complete and utter lack of focus on Brittany during "In My Life."  Here she is, sitting with kids a year younger than her, saying goodbye to someone she shouldn't have to say goodbye to, and yet, there's barely a close-up.  The performance is supposed to be about Finn Hudson, after all.  I can't help but think Santana would have walked out of that number for its Brittany-related implications alone.

Instead, Puck was given the furrowed brow and sullen stare, because he still had unfinished character business to wrap up.  Was he going to graduate, or not?  Somehow Puck's lack of class attendance and book smarts doesn't translate to the same doomed inevitability of Brittany's stupidity.  Truthfully, the payoff to Puck's storyline could have happened an episode sooner, and we wouldn't have had to slog through so much crap to learn his fate in "Goodbye."  But "Props" only gave him the chance to take his test again, and this episode had to see him through the sitting of it.  And, because the writers had nothing else to do with Quinn, they boomeranged her into Puck's storyline for the final conquest over European Geography, the high school diploma, and the show's own canonical history.

I don't know if you realized, but Quinn is in love with Puck.  She has no regrets whatsoever about sleeping with him even when she was dating someone else, and certainly no regrets about that transgression resulting in a baby that got her kicked out of her own home.  She slept with him because he had swagger, and not because she was feeling fat that day.  She would never give her virginity to someone so self-pitying and down on life as Puck seems to be right now.  The guy she fell in love with (remember, that happened) was a badass!  The guy she knew won football games and ate the contents of a pepper shaker on a dare!  No one deserves her love more.  Because yes, she loves him.

Now, here's the thing.  There was a lot of sarcasm in that last paragraph, and I apologize.  But before you yell at me, let me say this: I don't mind it in concept.  Quinn and Puck did have a baby together, and yes, that gives them a strange bond that they'll have forever.  I don't mind that Quinn would want to help Puck.  I don't mind that they talk about their relationship.  I don't mind that the writers want to give them a nod, considering they were set up as potential romantic interests early on.  I don't even mind the idea that after all this time without virtually any interaction, Quinn loves Puck.  In some way, she probably does.  However!  This was terribly written.  The execution on all of these concepts was absolutely atrocious.  

It wouldn't be as bad if the dialogue weren't so on-the-nose.  The suggestion that Puck needs his mojo back and a kiss could give him confidence isn't terrible - when it's a construct that manifests in a storyline that shows me, and doesn't yap at me about it.  None of Quinn's dialogue felt at all like someone talking about their own feelings so much as the writers funneling in all the support they could muster for a Quinn/Puck kiss at scene's end.  Do they not understand that Quinn and Puck having a complicated relationship is actually really interesting?   I actually like the idea that they have an unspoken bond, even if they didn't interact at all during Season 2, and only in the first act of Season 3.  But instead of speaking to the fact that there might always be mixed feelings for what transpired between them, Quinn had words shoved in her mouth that basically rewrote history.  I never felt like Quinn ever liked Puck because of his swagger.  She only started to like him when he treated her kindly, and then in a bout of writer irresponsibility, he was actually quite a jerk to her and the relationship dissolved.  The only connection they've reliably shared was Beth, and that's fine.  A baby is a huge connection, and will always have some relevance to their lives.  However, a baby does not equate romantic love.  And just because Quinn says she has no regrets about Beth and losing her virginity, does not mean that she always has, and I wish she had been given dialogue that addressed that nuance.  We saw firsthand how the Puck-Beth situation obliterated Quinn's established existence, and even if it was for the better, we saw her miserable for quite some time.  Ignoring that is insulting to Quinn, and Puck, and their relationship.  

So no, I don't mind what the writers were attempting to achieve in concept.  It's actually kind of a neat genderswapped Sleeping Beauty angle, you could argue, and I like the idea of having a kiss or meaningful interaction that doesn't appear to launch into a dating relationship.  There's a lot of subtle, complex emotions to play with between Quinn and Puck, but the writing razed them all to one oversimplified and misguided expression of love.  Honestly, this could have all been saved if there was some indication that Quinn was purposefully behaving that way because she knew it would work.  I don't mean to say that she "tricked" him, per sé, but it's the easiest fix for making sense of her sudden emotional expression.  In the end, I would have rather had a meaningful heart-to-heart that fleshed out the complications in Puck and Quinn's dynamic and given them a nuanced payoff to their stop-and-start but always-there relationship.  Alas, there was neither.

Unfortunately, this same cloud loomed over Quinn's other "Goodbye" scenes - with Rachel, and with Sue.  They did fare slightly better than Puck's simply because the writers weren't trying so hard, but they were still marked by some sticky moments.  With Rachel, Quinn basically surrendered to the constant struggle of Rachel trying to be her friend for three years, and manifested that friendship in the most healthy (read: least Quinn Fabray) way - she bought Rachel a train pass to get from NYC to New Haven.  This is actually an exceptionally sweet gesture, especially considering that Rachel hadn't even gotten into NYADA yet.  But the action was shuffled under by bad dialogue that basically amounted to "so glad we're friends now!!!" and washed away completely with Quinn telling Rachel that indeed, she and Finn are "meant to be."  Ugh, gross.  Look, I'm fine if Quinn's at peace with Rachel dating Finn now - for all intents and purposes, she really should be.  But her character arc is about so much more than letting her ex date a girl she once hated.  Looking at it that way entrenches the entire narrative in Rachel's point of view, and thus this inclusion was so clunky, because it's the Glee writers forcing their characters to talk in a way that only people watching the show would.  Quinn Fabray has no concept of "endgame," or "who should be with whom," because she is a character in this nutty world.  The idea that Glee is using its own characters to flat-out address other relationships as "meant to be" is weak - and cheap - writing.  And it's even more insulting that Rachel hopped on board, and told Quinn she always thought that about her and Puck.  Hark, is that even more heavyhanded setup to the Quinn-Puck kiss?  Why, it is!

The Sue scene fared similarly to the Rachel scene, in that it was conceptually strong, but suffered bad dialogue.  Sue telling Quinn she's retiring Quinn's old uniform is another great gesture, and I quite like the idea that Sue confesses admiration for Quinn, and pride over her perseverance in high school.  Quinn went through a lot, and I like when other characters recognize that.  (Partly because it's a rarity.)  But at the same time, Sue also dropped the phrase "You're better than me... you're slightly less evil," and there Glee goes again giving characters dialogue that would only be expressed by people watching the show.  Look, villains don't think they're evil.  Quinn doesn't think she's evil, and if Sue does, it's simply because she's Sue Sylvester and a comic villain.  I'm so sick and tired of the "villains" on this show talking about how "bad" they are.  Everyone is the hero of their own narrative, and the idea that Glee forces their own story constructs into the mouths of their characters is beyond insulting.

Of course, I'm making my way down the list of Important Characters (as Deemed by "Goodbye") and finally arriving at what is perhaps the most insulting material.  Mercedes Jones and Mike Chang were completely deprived of any narration or individual treatment whatsoever.  The writers instead forced their future plans into a rapidfire conversation, where we learned that Mercedes got a recording contract in LA, that fell in her lap thanks to Sam's "Disco Inferno" video, and Mike is going to school in Chicago?  I don't know; it went by so fast and transitioned so quickly to Santana that I got whiplash-induced memory loss.  We didn't even get any real moments addressing what Sam and Mercedes, and Mike and Tina are going to do with one half of their couples graduating off and moving away.  What, they're not "meant to be" like Puck and Quinn or Finn and Rachel?  They're not even going to have a brief and Nicholas-Sparks-inspired conversation about it, like Kurt and Blaine?  There's not even a random suggestion that one of them might try and stay behind, like Santana and Brittany?

Basically, this sucks, and is an easy summary of what went wrong in "Goodbye."  Mercedes and Mike are characters on this show, graduates in the senior class, and valued members of the New Directions.  The idea that they were shuffled so quickly aside to showcase other characters and their stories (which weren't even that good to begin with) just shows how frustratingly hypocritical Glee is about their theme of inclusion.  This trickled down even from story construction into the tiniest of scene choices: the graduating order was deprived any ounce of logic (aka, not alphabetized) and instead, the seniors crossed the stage in almost exact reverse order of determined importance: Mike, Quinn, Mercedes, Puck, Santana, Kurt, Finn, and Rachel.  Logic deprived?  Characters ignored while others were glorified, and group dynamics ultimately shuffled aside?  These were the hallmarks of "Goodbye," and it's especially frustrating to know that this is what we're given for the end of the show's original conceit.
Yes, technically, Glee is renewed for Season 4 and allegedly has some sort of "revolutionary" new framework up its figurative sleeve, with all the same characters.  But the first three seasons of this show were about these kids coming together, so their parting ways is indeed the end of an era, and deserved to be marked as such.  There's plenty of emotion to be found there, and yet Glee ignored most of it.  Truthfully, they knew where to find it, as there were two moments in "Goodbye" that felt emotionally authentic and well-written.  Actually, the writers got there so quickly that I thought perhaps the whole episode would be rife with this sort of happy nostalgic pain that goes along with closing a chapter.  "Goodbye" began with Will walking through the hallway towards his glee classroom, as the sound of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" drifted towards him.  The number was the first performed by the original New Directions, pre-Finn, and the same fivesome were performing it again as a last hurrah, just for fun.  If this were not enough to get the emotions stirring, they actually cut back and forth between the two performances, as though Will were seeing his kids all grown-up and feeling like their first steps were just yesterday.  This was surprisingly fantastic, and one of the few believable and appropriate moments honoring Will's relationship with the kids - perhaps because it suggested Will as a father figure more than a best buddy. 

Unfortunately, this quality didn't last.  The only other emotionally resonant moment in “Goodbye” was the performance of “You Get What You Give,” wherein all the seniors got a chance to be adorable and teary-eyed as they said goodbye to the juniors as a group.  There was even a bit of clever choreography!  The seniors began the song standing, then got the juniors up and dancing with them, only to be left standing in the seniors’ place as the older kids sat back down.  A simple, strong action, right?  It communicated, through dance, what was happening in story.  Combined with all the permutations of endearing individual interactions, I couldn’t help but feel my heart swell at this.  If only the whole episode was just fun musical numbers where the cast cried and smooshed all their faces together.

So while Glee did carve out a few successful moments devoted to giving a curtain call to these characters and relationships that we've loved for three years, the episode ultimately failed to hit the emotional beats it needed to satisfyingly close the book on the original gang.  Fettered with shallow and expository dialogue, it forced false resolution, drummed up unnecessary conflict, and ultimately revealed a nasty hierarchy of individual characters' importance that trumped any suggestion that these kids are a family.  In short, it completely knocked its legs out from underneath it, in a stunning display of clueless self-sabotage and smug self-congratulation of the show's true purpose, meaning, and story told.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: F
Plot: D
Characterization: C
Episode MVP: Brittany Pierce, because the writers don't care about her.
Poll: Will you watch Glee next season?

Monday, May 21, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x14 - "Previews"

Smash introduced a new character in "Previews" - the Guilt Monster!  It roared into the narrative starting at about the first scene, when Ivy got a call from Karen's phone the morning after picking up Dev in a bar.  From there, Guilt Monster quickly became Ivy's unwanted best friend, and Dev's tempestuous mistress.  It checked in with Julia, which is territory well-charted by now, and decided to skip over Derek completely.  I'm also fairly certain Guilt Monster had something to do with the final minutes taking place in a church, so maybe it's somehow related to Sam.  If anything, we should really be asking ourselves: can Guilt Monster play Marilyn? 

Alas, Guilt Monster would still be as damaging and ugly, even in a blonde wig.  "Previews" continued throwing obstacles in the way of Bombshell, which in turn gave rise to conflicts for the characters.  It's nice to see Smash finally reach this place where the show-within-a-show can more naturally cause change in its participants, while not being shoved to the background in favor of petty drama.  We got to see so much of the production, onstage, as intended!  Call me a dork, but I loved watching the pieces knowing that Julia and Tom wrote everything together - if only we'd gotten to see them interact more with the creative process throughout the season!  "Previews" hinted at moments here and there, like showing Frank and Leo's reactions to "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," for instance, but I do think this could have been more strongly set up during the whole season.

Of course, Bombshell didn't go off without a hitch.  The main problem stemmed from the fact that no one applauded at the end.  Yikes.  Apparently you can't end a musical with a suicide, even though Julia blatantly reminded everyone that this is, in fact, how it happened in real life.  But Eileen wants a standing ovation, and so she put Julia (and Tom?) to the task of penning a new ending - a task we probably won't see completed onscreen, but oh well.  Luckily, Julia has her pesky love affair storyline returning to her, as Michael Swift renewed his role as Can't Take a Hint Guy.  Turns out being asked back to Bombshell is the same as an invitation to Julia's pants, in Michael's mind, and so he tried to rekindle their romance.  Awkward.  She literally had to push him off of her, and this was basically the nail in the coffin for any sort of wishful romance for Julia and Swifty. 

Julia was also quarreling with another man in her life: this time, Tom, whom she has not forgiven for allowing Michael Swift back on the premises.  It hurts seeing the show's best couple openly fighting with one another, and it packed an even greater punch in seeing how much it hurt them.  How heartbreaking were the tears in Tom and Julia's eyes during their auditorium argument?  It was a rough fight too, as both of them clearly knew how to hit each other right where it hurts.  And the chilly silence when Julia showed up to the church and refused to greet Tom!  Yeesh.  But in the end, Smash chose wisely to not drag it out, as Tom and Julia both shelved their grievances and apologized.

Bombshell's crickets-inducing ending had one other damaging effect: it shattered Rebecca Duvall's confidence.  She was already insecure about her performance and desperately needed Derek's constant guidance and approval.  But no applause?  It destroyed her.  So much so that she started choking...?  No, that was her peanut allergy kicking in, as apparently she was poisoned via peanut-infused smoothie.  (Can we all agree it was Ellis?  I hear no nays.)  And that was enough for her: even though she was medically cleared to perform, she backed out of the show and left the role of Marilyn empty.  Now, I'm not opposed to this construct in theory.  But really, she didn't sign a contract or anything?  I guess I can wait to see how Smash handles the logistics of this, but honestly it boomeranged so quickly into an "OH SO IT'S KAREN VS. IVY AGAIN" moment that the show seemed to be purposefully ignoring the rest of the fallout (and plausibility!) of Rebecca's departure. 

It's not like she was getting any likeability points this week, though, in conjunction with her affair with Derek.  True, she comes out of the situation better than Derek, simply because it's not certain Rebecca even knows who Ivy is.  Derek, however, seems to be in full awareness of the situation and simply does not give a crap.  Ivy cornered him and called him out on his lack of communication after the slipped "I love you," as well as the fact that he's sleeping with the new star.  And instead of acting in any way apologetic or remorseful, Derek simply condescended to Ivy.  He's a director, and the star needed his attention.  What other way is there?  I almost expected him to slip a scornful "duh" onto the end of his sentences!  Somewhere in there was a backhanded compliment about Ivy being a professional, and when it was all said and done, I was basically rooting for Ivy to dropkick Derek off the side of a cliff and into a pit of fire.

Truthfully, I wouldn't be opposed to doling out a similar fate to Dev, who bad-decisioned his way into a mess of a situation.  He's at least regretful of his behavior, as he can't seem to shake the Guilt Monster in the wake of his one night stand with Ivy.  But at the same time, I can't help but scowl at the writers who are penning Karen as being apologetic of her behavior to Dev, and wanting to go ahead with the engagement.  No!  No no no!  I can't seem to decide if this is me actually being super invested in Smash, or if I'm yelling about bad story plotting.  Maybe a little of both?  Regardless, the idea that Dev and Karen might be headed towards matrimony on the heels of all their unresolved arguing, tangled up in Karen's apologies and Dev's two incidents of infidelity, is more than a little unsettling.  Mostly, it manages to alienate me from Karen despite the fact that I should feel bad for her.  Let's get some new material for Karen, please!  Something that involves a backbone, and minimizes the opportunities in which she simply does whatever she's told or expected to do.  Break Karen free from that boring character construct, please!

Karen's doormat status is only fueling the guilt in not only Dev but also Ivy.  Apparently this is the turning point for Karen and Ivy's relationship, for Ivy in particular.  She pleaded with Karen not to be nice to her, complimented her, and even hugged her.  Of course, I like this idea in theory, but I fear the writers are holding up this tentative dynamic on the tentpole of Ivy's guilt, and it's not going to be good when the truth inevitably gets out.  Everything that could possibly be built on this halfway friendship is resting on shaky foundation, and I'm hesitant to want it built up any more.  I'm also not terribly keen on the idea that guilt is affecting the way Ivy treats Karen.  It's no coincidence, perhaps, that Ivy becomes the "Other Woman" on the heels of her own boyfriend cheating on her, and so it'd be natural for the writers to draw a line between Ivy's transgression against Karen with Derek's transgression against Ivy.  But no real connection is made, beyond simple parallel, and I'm afraid Ivy's guilt is manifesting in a way that will have no great outcome for any possible friendship with Karen. 

Ultimately, I just feel bad for Ivy, who, yes, has made some bad decisions, but also has been dealt crappy hand after crappy hand - and emerges from most of these situations with very little power.  She has no control over her relationship with Derek.  Dev is now treating her like garbage.  We don't see as many onscreen interactions with Tom and Sam, suggesting that she's been marooned a bit from their friendship since the two started dating.  And truthfully, she doesn't get a whole lot of respect from anyone in the ensemble except Ellis.  When a character's only cheerleader is Ellis, you know this isn't a good thing.  Truthfully, I still can't figure if Smash realizes that they're writing Ivy to be the most sympathetic character, to the point where she's actually the underdog of the whole show.

"Previews" capped off the hour by going to church, where everyone looked appropriately guilty for how reprehensibly they behaved all episode, except Karen and Sam, who adjusted their halos and sang a song for everyone.  These entanglements are firmly set in place to explode in the finale, aptly titled "Bombshell," and I for one am torn between ducking for cover and grabbing the popcorn. 

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: B-
Character: B-
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Julia

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The RBI Report: "Nationals"

I suppose it's a bit stupidly obvious to say that your experience with Glee as a whole affects how much you may or may not like an individual episode.  But, as we're beginning to tie up loose ends and wrap up the stories that have carried this show's original design, I'm finding this statement to be extraordinarily true, at least with my own viewing experience.  "Nationals" was defined largely by emotional moments intended to pay off previously-set-up stories and dynamics - and whether or not the resolution worked for you is really dependent on what you've felt about the relationship, development, or storyline they're intending to pay off.

"Nationals," written by Ali Adler, directed by Eric Stoltz

I actually enjoyed the first half of "Nationals" more than the second half.  It was great to see the whole of New Directions all crammed in a room trying to practice, even if they were fighting.  I actually would have liked more of these moments with the kids, from the kids' points of view, before the competition.  Instead, the scenes were used simply to remind everyone of the stakes, establish Will as the vehicle for the New Directions' collective emotions, and introduce pointless obstacles.  For example, in order: we got brief bits of dialogue to jog our memories about Quinn's struggle to fulfill her promise to dance at competition, as well about Rachel's expectation that Carmen Thibodeaux might come to the performance and consider reversing her NYADA decision.  Stakes?  Check!  Will's scene with Emma also served to remind the audience about the glee club's collective struggles and placed Will as the bearer of that burden and anticipation - even though he's not the one performing.  (I smell a Teacher of the Year Award coming soon!)  And, obstacles: Mercedes ate a bad burrito and may not be able to perform.  Cue Quinn and Tina's induction into the Troubletones, and an actually kind-of-amazing opportunity for Sue to nurse Mercedes back to life with hopefully legal elixirs.

Together, these pre-show additions seemed formulaic and didn't really have lasting impact.  I would have preferred to witness these concepts embedded into more meaningful moments, so the resolution would have better payoff.  Why not give Mercedes a more personalized moment of determination to overcome her illness and perform her last glee competition?  The Troubletones taking care of her was sweet, but mostly a throwaway action, completely background to the scene.  I'm not saying Mercedes needed a Rocky-esque getting-better montage with Sue coaching her (although come to think of it, that could have been hilarious) but something a bit more substantial than what was given would have strengthened the scenario.

Even previously established storylines didn't pay off all that meaningfully: both Rachel's and Quinn's recent struggles deadlined at Nationals, and while they both found success in the episode, neither had a significant moment of payoff.  Sure, there were some single shots of Quinn during "Edge of Glory," and I get that it's hard to communicate the triumph of successful dancing any further than filming... successful dancing.  But how about a moment of relief after the triumphant performance?  Literally, an exchange between Tina and Quinn amounting to "you did it!" and "oh thank god" would have sufficed.  This is a character who got in a car accident, lost the use of her legs, made a promise to dance at Nationals, went to physical therapy, learned to walk again, and successfully fulfilled her promise.  Why no specific moment of celebration for that?

The same goes for Rachel: here we have a character who had her dreams ripped away from her the minute she stumbled just the slightest bit.  Everything was riding on this Nationals performance, and while it's certainly rewarding to see Rachel deliver a pitch-perfect rendition of "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" complete with Carmen's subsequent approval, I do wish there was a moment where Rachel learned her fate.  Are we to assume that Carmen has changed her mind, and will give Rachel another chance?  Really, I would have liked to seen a moment, post-performance, pre-judging, where Carmen somehow communicates to Rachel that she has another shot.  Why wouldn't you show us Rachel's face when she hears that news?  I wanna celebrate her success, dammit!  I'd also like to believe that Rachel's performance itself was what changed Carmen's mind.  As much as I love Jesse St. James - and am appropriately gutted by the fact that he appears to be hopelessly in love with Rachel, enough so to approach Carmen and recommend her personally - I'd have rather had a scene between Rachel and Carmen than Jesse and Carmen.  In the end, I want to know that Rachel earned this, and even though she got a little help from her friends, it was ultimately her own talent that won her another chance.  I'm at least still hoping that perhaps we'll see Rachel receive the good news next episode, and the writers won't have let the moment of payoff pass them by completely.

It's hard not to be frustrated by the lack of payoff for Rachel's and Quinn's run-up-to-Nationals storylines when other stakes were haphazardly thrown in and paid off equally as poorly.  In addition to Mercedes' illness, we also got Finn placing an unnecessary bet on the New Directions winning, as well as an unnecessary scene with Unique before the Vocal Adrenaline performance.  I'm not entirely sure what the point was of this latter inclusion, other than to give Kurt and Mercedes another chance to be supportive godparents to Wade/Unique.  It doesn't help that the scene basically aligned transsexualism to "conjuring up" an alter-ego; Wade claimed to be unable to call upon Unique, but Kurt and Mercedes encouraged him to fight the nerves with Unique's help.  Between this deliberate bifurcation of Wade and Unique, and the repeated "he/she" "him/her" references, "Nationals" waffled a bit on Glee's positive representation of transgender issues.  On a completely shallow note, I was bummed that Unique's vocals were a bit overshadowed by the backing music and voices, and that she also had the same basic costume that she wore in "Boogie Shoes."  But, it was great to see her win the MVP trophy, and I chuckled at the blatantly-mentioned possibility for Wade to transfer to McKinley next year.  

Truthfully, "Nationals" had a hard time negotiating the emotional resolution of the group as a unit versus its individual members.  Will and Emma's early scene sought to adjust that problem by channeling the glee club's collective emotional experience through Will himself.  On the one hand, that scene is nice to remind the audience that the glee kids are school misfits and celebrated within the halls of McKinley for absolutely nothing.  And it sets up the "Tongue Tied" sequence where we did get to see the kids celebrate.  But in that vein, I do wish this idea had been weaved into a scene with the kids themselves.  How often do we get to see the whole gang together in one room, communicating, without adult supervision?  I love the idea of having a moment to see the conflicts and personalities clashing before Will and Emma even show up.  Even when they were there, we got to see a surprising peacekeeper in Santana, who maintained the peace by threatening to harm everyone.  (Sorry, sorry.  She just goes to her yelling place.  She has a lot of rage!)  It would have been great to see a bit more into the group's stakes manifesting through the kids actually in the group.  Yes, this club represents all the misfits and outcasts.  But the misfits and outcasts are the ones actually performing - what are they feeling about everything?  "Nationals" only really scraped the surface here, and I think it could have been more strongly delineated.  Hell, even if we got a brief shot of each kid before the curtain went up, just to see their faces - is it fear?  Confidence?  Are they in their element?  The pre-show moment with Santana, Brittany, and Quinn was sweet, but a bit distracting from the stakes because they were so cute and chipper.  An Unholy Trinity moment during "Tongue Tied" would have been just as sufficiently meaningful.  

Of course, Will was established as an early emotional focal point for a reason, which was to set up his Teacher of the Year win at episode's end, complete with special messages from Finn and Rachel and a very special performance of "We Are the Champions."  This was perhaps the only emotional resolution hammered in sufficiently, and yet it's also here where my personal experience with Glee got in the way of me enjoying it at all.  Because as Finn and Rachel were talking about how great a teacher Will is, I had an actual kneejerk reaction.  Suddenly, it was like an involuntary montage of Will's terrible teaching moments flickered on in my head, and I couldn't shut it off.  While Finn talked about how Mr. Schuester taught them all to dream, I couldn't help but see flashes of him yelling at Mercedes for being lazy, yelling at Quinn for being selfish, and yelling at Rachel for being uncooperative.  There was an unstoppable parade in my head: Will doubting Brittany's intelligence, Will kicking Santana out of the glee club, Will trying to seduce Sue to humiliate her, Will trying to play Rocky in the school musical to be closer to Emma, Will not being able to speak Spanish and refusing to admit it, Will criticizing Santana's and Mercedes' dreams without trying to help them, Will hardly interacting with any of his students individually except Finn.  I'm sorry, but I beg to differ that Rachel Berry "couldn't have done it" without Will.  At this point, the only character who can believably cite continual positive influence from Will Schuester, as a teacher and mentor, is Finn.  With everyone else, it's been far too long since Will has been an actively effective educator.  

Besides, since when does Will Schuester = the New Directions?  These kids changed each others' lives through coming together, as a unit.  Will just conducted the train.  So honestly, I had trouble believing the magic Glee was trying to sell with "We Are the Champions" and the hug-receiving line between Will and the students.  On paper, it's sweet.  But there's far too much murky material from three seasons that lingers in my memory, and it was enough to drag down what was clearly meant to be a touching moment.  (Down the line, I kept thinking, "What the hell did that kid learn from Mr. Schue?")

This urge was a bit easier to fight during "Tongue Tied," simply because the sequence was so damn endearing that I couldn't stay fussy for too long.  It was a great payoff to see the New Directions showered with confetti instead of slushies, and celebrated in the halls of McKinley.  Yes, it's probably unrealistic.  Yes, they'll probably boomerang back to Loser status the next day.  Yes, you could say that the Rachel yearbook moment is a bit cheesy, and that the Santana-Becky moment paid off absolutely nothing between the two characters, and that no one cares about two random girls cheek-kissing Rory.  But somehow, it worked.  (What didn't work?  Slipping in a rushed resolution to Will and Emma's chastity.  Gross, Glee!  No one wants to know the teacher finally got laid after his kids won Nationals, and the fact that it somehow played as a reward for Will - with no word about the change from Emma's POV - made my stomach turn.  Cut back to the happy faces and the confetti, for the love of humanity!)

Truthfully, it's messy and difficult to give emotional resolution to all the characters and situations, especially when they've been set up but never developed.  Now is not the time to finish the business you started but never continued!  In that vein, the parts of this episode that really worked for me were the ones where I could fill in with my own appreciations about what this show has haphazardly accomplished through the years.  I'm bound to take a journey down Will Schuester's Bad Teaching Express when they try and convince me otherwise, and likewise going to grumble about individual character payoffs being dusted under the rug in favor of things that aren't really that important.  But watching happy faces and competitive singing?  I can sit back, remember what I choose to remember about these kids' journeys, and even get a bit teary-eyed at the progress.  This is in fact how I enjoyed the New Directions' Nationals set so much - the distribution of songs was pretty great, and they were as polished, cohesive, and balanced as they've ever been.  So I just imagined a world where learning to perform as a team and allocating solos and learning who worked well together specifically was a scripted part of the journey to this moment.  Similarly, the ladies of the Troubletones were fantastic, so I just pretended that their previous treatment wasn't complete bullshit, and also tried not to focus too much on the fact that apparently the New Directions is lady-divisible by Rachel Berry and then "all the other girls."

So really, how much you enjoyed "Nationals" depended on how easily you could block out your bad memories, drum up the good ones, and ignore a lot of the bullshit Glee has supplied for the middle part of their story.  When the bulk of an episode is emotional resolution, there are a lot of factors that need to be previously established and developed for the payoff to truly work, and while Glee can't go back and fix their lack of consistent development, I still don't think they truly capitalized on their situations to get maximum emotional payoff.  But, that's just me.  And I'm pretty grumpy.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: C
Plot: B
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Mercedes Jones
Poll: Was Lindsay Lohan robbed for Freaky Friday?  (I say yes.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The RBI Report: "Props"

If you wanted to, you could rag on "Props."  Yes, both Puck's and Tina's storylines probably should have happened way (way, way, way) sooner.  Yes, Shannon's storyline about domestic abuse is still a dour topic for this show to handle, especially when having to put it side-by-side with comedic material.  And no, it still doesn't make sense for Sue to be helping these kids with their competition for Nationals, or for Rachel to have hung all her hopes and dreams on only one performing arts school.

But I don't really want to rag on "Props."  Because despite these slight drawbacks in what was put forth conceptually, the bulk of the hour was executed rather well - and if you showed it to me as a standalone episode of a show I knew nothing about, I would probably like it quite a bit.  Emotionally, it hit high highs and low lows with relative ease, and therefore felt very much like early Glee.  This show originally set itself apart with its handling of quick-witted absurdism with surprisingly poignant (but restrained) sentimentality, and unfortunately "Props" is one of the few episodes since Season 1 that has managed to recapture that charm.  This isn't a shock, though, because if you look at "Props," it's basically the payoff we never got to Season 1's "Preggers."  In addition to the tonal parallels, there's resolution to the argument about solos between Tina and Rachel, as well as to seeing Puck through his anger against his label of "loser."  And ultimately, you have to wonder if it's not a shock because "Props" was penned - and directed by - Ian Brennan, the brain that came up with Glee, and one of the few writers on staff who consistently manages to give their episodes the right balance of emotion and snark.

"Props," written and directed by Ian Brennan

Normally, when Glee turns their own shortcomings into storylines, it's a terrible idea.  There's a little sting of bitterness even when Tina mentions that she doesn't speak all that often - her only line in the episode - and usually I just want to yell at the writers, "YOU WROTE HER THAT WAY, YOU IDIOTS!"  (And then Blaine gets another solo.)  So when it manifests in storylines?  Usually I rage.  Both "A Night of Neglect" and "Asian F" brought Mercedes and Tina to the forefront as feeling overshadowed by Rachel Berry and underappreciated by the club as a whole, and both episodes were handled disastrously.  For Mercedes, the former made it seem like she simply wasn't bold enough to be a star, but still needed Rachel's approval, and the latter made her look like an irrational diva.  Meanwhile, Rachel usually comes off as either completely innocent, a total tyrant, or as charitably self-sacrificing.  For Tina, she's been mostly a non-issue since she willingly gave up her solo to Rachel in "Preggers" - apparently she doesn't mind if Rachel gets the spotlight.  And really, only in "Preggers" was this conflict about Rachel's solo time handled even remotely well, giving consideration and likeability to both parties.  But Tina and Rachel never actually spoke to one another about the issue - until "Props." 

What works about "Props" is that Glee didn't try and give an answer as to why Tina hasn't gotten many glee club solos.  It's not because "oh, you didn't work hard enough," or "oh, you didn't want it bad enough."  The show went out of its way to remind the audience that Tina has been the ultimate team player and hardly ever rocked the boat.  She's an original member, even when Puck and Finn were still tossing slushies their way, and yet she's never really had a chance to step into the spotlight.  Basically, Ian Brennan took all of our collective thoughts about Tina's marginalization by the writers and channeled into the storyline.  But where he deviated from pattern (aka, made it good) was that Tina was actually afforded a chance to shine, both on the stage, and in storyline - without making her a bitch, a pity case, or a selfless yet passive benefactor.

Weirdly, the zaniest part of the episode helped tremendously to make this storyline work: Tina bonks her head, and comes up Rachel Berry.  Naturally, as Rachel Berry, Tina gets a solo, and it's easy to be pissed at Glee for this.  But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the way the body swap played out.  I like that in this construct, the writers are basically admitting that all Tina needs to get a solo is to literally be Rachel Berry.  It's a refreshing admission of the problem all along without trying to excuse it, and simultaneously gives Tina the screentime, solo, and standing ovation she deserves.  Because it's clear that Tina-as-Rachel is still Tina.  She's hesitant when handed over the performance, and even needs a talking-up by Kurt-as-Finn to drum up the gusto for on-the-fly performing.  And she nails it.  She doesn't nail it because she's Rachel Berry, she nails it because she's Tina Cohen-Chang.  She only needed Rachel Berry's platform to get the standing-O.  

What's even more refreshing about the body swap is the lesson Tina learned: she's just as good as Rachel Berry, which she knew all along.  Yes, Tina-as-Rachel got all sorts of pressure from her peers, but the point of the "crazy dream" wasn't to show Tina "how hard it is to be Rachel Berry," which was set up as something from Rachel's POV but luckily not enforced by the narrative.  It was one of the best choices all episode to avoid rubbing Tina's face in her own self-confidence by showing her how difficult it is for Rachel - and an even greater choice to swap that directly out with a reassurance of Tina's talents and abilities.  The good choices continued further with Tina-as-Rachel going to Rachel-as-Tina to tell her she appreciates her - something Rachel-as-Rachel never really does.  In return, Rachel-as-Tina encouraged Tina-as-Rachel to not give up on her NYADA dreams, and in another great choice, said that Rachel Berry giving up is "not the Rachel Berry I know."  The idea that this body swap also inadvertently addressed Rachel's post-failure identity issues with a wry smile is actually rather fantastic.  And it was all capped by a great piece of light-hearted snark from Tina-as-Rachel that reiterated the main conflict: "I can't believe how supportive you are when I can't even be bothered to thank you for your tremendous supporting performances!"

From here, the storyline manifested in Tina trying to help Rachel convince Carmen Thibodeaux to attend their Nationals performance in Chicago, and the fact that this was a positive lady-lady interaction was basically enough for me to give it a solid checkmark without any other info.  Tina and Rachel were allowed to work their stuff out together, without anyone else interfering!  But even the particulars of the dynamic were pretty great.  I loved the idea that this episode raised the question: "what makes Rachel Berry so special?" - first from Tina, then from Carmen, both rather facetiously.  And the idea that Tina was the one to appeal to Carmen makes so much sense, because Tina is able to communicate to Carmen that yes, Rachel is a pain in the ass, but she's the best.  It makes Tina likeable, but not a martyr, and ultimately tips the balance between these girls back towards the center.  Rachel now owes Tina a huge debt on the road to her success, and that construct actually helps the situation tremendously - Tina was able to do something that Rachel could not do on her own, and Rachel finally realizes the importance of having a supportive teammate, and neither "lesson" was hammered in.

There were a few suggestions of this storyline that didn't sit well with me, because they were a bit too heavyhanded.  The idea that Mike scolded Tina for rocking the boat was unnecessary.  Why must the dudes on this show accuse the ladies of selfishness and throw around the word "disappointed?"  This is usually the bread and butter of Will Schuester and Finn Hudson, and it was strange and, well, disappointing to see it manifest through Mike.  Mike's the one who threw a similar tantrum to kick off "A Night of Neglect," so it doesn't make much sense for him to condescend to Tina for her storm out.  And ultimately, Mike's approval of Tina was so tangential to the point of the storyline, that adding it was insulting.  Similarly, Tina's scene sewing costumes (capped by Mike's approval via weirdly lurking eavesdrop and smile-nod) felt too much like Tina was "learning a lesson" about hard work and her "place," supporting Rachel  Good job, Tina!  Your boyfriend is pleased you've finally come around and stopped acting all irrational!  And you're happy sewing costumes with the noobs!  Sigh.

I don't mind the idea that Tina (re)discovers that everyone must play a part, but it worked far better through the extension into Rachel's character crisis.  I actually teared up quite a bit when Rachel asked why she was helping her, and Tina replied, "Everyone has a part to play.  Maybe this is mine."  But it's a tricky balance to maintain, communicating that Tina really is okay with being supportive, without making that an excuse to keep her in Rachel's shadow.  Given Tina's past storylines with Artie and with Mike, I don't doubt that being dependable and supportive is actually part of her character, and I like that Glee lets her be that consistently - and now with someone who's not her boyfriend.  But how do you negotiate that with wanting more, in terms of the glee club dynamics?  This is a show that has annoyingly given the flattened "attention whore" angle to Rachel, Mercedes, Santana, and even Brittany, to a degree.  I like the idea that there's a female character who doesn't need to be the center of attention.  But as a fan, I want Tina (and Jenna Ushkowitz) to be treated fairly by the club and in the narrative, and it's honestly not that much to ask.  So striking that balance between putting Tina in the spotlight, letting her demand that without being unlikeable, and then letting her be okay with a support position without marginalizing her again is difficult.  Ultimately, even considering the few hiccups, and the fact that Ian Brennan can't go back and change a bunch of storylines to make this situation better, "Props" handled Tina's relegation as well as it possibly could, and better than I anticipated.

As mentioned, the scenario was aided as well by the overlap with Rachel's current storyline.  The basic fact that Rachel and Tina were both allowed to have their own points of view without sniping at each other about them was great.  And even though this bit of Tina's development happened rather late in the game for her character, it came at a perfect time for Rachel's.  Rachel, despite having been "the star" for so long, is still struggling against rejection and her own sense of self.  Placing that sense of self-doubt against Tina's perception of Rachel as a girl who gets everything provided much-needed nuance to Rachel's portrayal as an extremely talented yet oft-ostracized teenager.  Usually, Rachel interacts with Kurt, who reinforces her status yet talent through his similarity, or she's swung into contrast with Finn, Quinn, or Santana as popular kids who have bullied her, but learned to see the Rachel Berry light.  It begs the question: is Rachel wildly successful, or wildly unsuccessful?  There's little middle ground.  But putting Rachel with Tina helped strike a balance between the two, because technically Tina is the same as Rachel, but they're not that friendly.  Rachel emerges as a mix of her extremes, and the extremes that the narrative forces on her.  Yes, she gets all the solos.  Yes, she's a pain.  But yes, she has the voice, and the focus, and the drive.  She's kind to Tina, and respectful, but not pitying.  (Offering to pay Tina off legitimately cracked me up.)  And Tina returning the favor by supporting Rachel through this NYADA snafu despite being envious of her created a dimensionality for Rachel's character that, for me, makes her comeback more meaningful than all of Finn's compliments, Kurt's solidarity, and Quinn and Santana's bequeathing her a prom queen crown combined.

And, before I move on, I have to give the cast credit for their performances in the body swap.  Pretty much every one was pitch-perfect, but special shout-outs are in order.  Chris Colfer was eerily flawless as Finn, right down to the slouching and weird half-smile facial expressions.  Kevin McHale's Santana was gloriously bitchy, a practical carbon copy of Naya Rivera's narrowing eyes, pursed lips, and slight neck roll.  Every cut-to moment of Puck and Finn as Blaine and Kurt was hilarious, especially Mark Salling's portrayal of Blaine as having a constant, self-satisfied smirk.  And lastly, Jenna Ushkowitz's rendition of a Rachel Berry solo was so spot-on that I kept rewinding to rewatch because I was laughing so hard.  Arms lightly lifted out, eyes shut, hands on stomach, face scrunched up on the runs?  Actual hilarious perfection.  (Special secondary shout-out for Jenna Ushkowitz's non-swapped scenes: girl can wield an angry monologue like nobody's business.  She is a righteous blade of equality, after all.)

Good acting performances weren't hard to find in "Props," though, as Dot Marie Jones continued her understated yet powerful portrayal of Shannon Beiste struggling with her personal life.  I will say, although this storyline has been questionable both in purpose, necessity, and even execution, I appreciated the effort to make it meaningful to Shannon's character development.  It is heartbreaking to know that this woman, who has had low self-esteem in the romance department since her introduction, has wound up in an abusive relationship.  But it was incredibly rewarding to see her stand up for herself, while simultaneously delineating the complications of her scenario.  Shannon's "what does [loving you] say about what I think of me?" was tragically relevant to the way her character has been historically wielded, and I love that she's emerging from the scenario with development.  She has shame about what's happened, but she's leaving it with her ring, and with him.  This already-great dialogue was capped by a chills-inducing exchange: "Who's gonna love you now?" / "Me."  I can't stress enough how much I respect Dot Marie Jones' flawless performance throughout this entire storyline, cover-to-cover, frame-by-frame, even despite the flaws of the bigger picture.

Of course, Shannon didn't come to her conclusion without a little push in the right direction.  Honestly, if you'd told me that Puck was going to be the one who helped her out, I'd have scoffed, then laughed, then probably wept a little bit (and not in the good way).  But "Props" did this storyline, and dynamic, a few favors.  The first big favor was actually that help came from someone who didn't know he was helping.  This show is obsessed with its White Knight Saviors, and this was another all-too-ready example for a Hero to step in and save Shannon, especially considering that the Lady Force of Sue, Roz, Santana, Tina, Mercedes, Sugar, and Brittany resulted in no change despite their efforts.  In lesser (read: crappier) episodes, Puck could easily be made fully aware of the situation, and step in with protective male instincts, inadvertently taking agency away from Shannon and her choice.

But Puck was a completely unwitting accomplice, which, in addition to keeping Shannon's choice her own, and therefore stronger, it also makes far more sense in terms of how much students really know about teachers' home lives.  It was nice to see Santana, Mercedes, and Brittany reaching out to Shannon at episode's beginning, but their knowledge of the situation made it unrealistic to believe that they could "save" Shannon, and ultimately it would have deprived her of her own choice.  (Same for Sue's involvement.)  Shannon reaching her own conclusion as she witnessed Puck go off the deep end of violence felt much more organic, and integral to her character moment.  This also raises the point that Puck's actions in the episode were anything but heroic.  He was not an all-consuming Good Guy; he was, like Shannon, someone who everyone thinks is immune to being hurt.  That connection is really the strongest that Glee could create between Shannon and Puck, and I appreciated that their dynamic turned out to be mutually beneficial and not a pity party for either side.  

In a way, Puck's treatment in conjunction with Shannon mirrored Rachel's treatment in conjunction with Tina.  Like Rachel, Puck is a character that can easily vacillate between two extremes: with some characters, he's an offensive and tireless jerk devoted to misbehavior and carousing, but with others, he's a misunderstood sensitive guy who wants to be more than who he is.  Glee has never been able to really merge these representations, and so Puck is boomeranged between the two stereotypes depending on whether or not the writers need him for comedy or drama.  This has also deprived Puck of any real development over the seasons, and so he's stuck with only two extremes to identify him by.  But with Shannon, Puck's portrayal is some mixture of the two: he makes bad decisions, like busting out a knife in a fight, and even hauling out his enduring delusion that every woman wants to be with him, but he's also incredibly understandable.  His breakdown about feeling worthless was heartbreaking, and his decision to dress as a woman for the sake of his team was cheer-worthy, though misguided.  "Props" finally gave us a developed, nuanced Puck, one that has demonstrated that he cares, but without absolving him of his flaws in favor of empathy.  This is something that Glee truthfully should have accomplished quite some time ago.

Speaking of "Lola," I do appreciate that the writers are at least now pretending that the New Directions puts in preparation before their competitions.  I chuckled to see that apparently the kids sew their own costumes from actual dress patterns, and that Glee tucked little moments of Sue and Schue debating the set list to reassure us that they weren't wildly unprepared like last year.  Of course, this also led to the (supposedly comedic) construct that Sue keeps trying to spice up the routines with distractions like props and slightly offensive sensationalizing, like incorporating little people or forcing Kurt to dress in drag.  Most of these suggestions were intended as background comedy, which was, for the most part, ignorable in its offensiveness given that the characters treated it as actually offensive.  The idea that Sue zeroed in on Unique as Vocal Adrenaline's secret weapon was slightly ridiculous, though, as she hounded Kurt to put on a dress and adopt a female alter-ego called Porcelina.  This frame was dumb, unfounded, and slightly offensive, and could have been eradicated completely if not for the opportunity it gave for Puck to introduce "Lola" and show that he cared about the team winning to set up his storyline's resolution.  The idea the Kurt didn't want to dress as a woman just because he is gay is 100% defensible, but the narrative somewhat disregarded "dressing as a woman" as something less than an expression of personal identity, with Puck "stepping up for the team," and that's messy considering how well it handled Wade/Unique previously.  Basically, the best thing to do is to get Unique back on the scene to show off how fantastic she is and put all this talk to rest.

And, because this is Glee, there had to be a sappy realization about New Directions discovering their "unique factor" before going into competition.  Of course, what sets them apart is the fact that they came together despite their differences.  Sure, it's a bit sentimental, but it wasn't clunky or heavyhanded, as it emerged naturally from the Tina-Rachel storyline, and felt strangely like a payoff to the body-swap in particular.  Not only that, but it wasn't prolonged, leading swiftly into the long-awaited Tina-Rachel duet, and smoothly transitioning as the kickoff to the Nationals episode.  Who couldn't be excited after seeing everybody dance onto the bus, ready to go compete their little butts off?  I couldn't help it; I grinned like a fool.

In all, "Props" had some shortcomings that it inherited simply from other storylines and underdevelopment from previous episodes.  But within its own walls, it sold its narrative with very few glitches.  It gave equal and fair consideration for its characters' individual development as well their interactions with others, and hit the right beats of comedy and drama to make the stories engaging.  For the first time in awhile, the episode itself had me caring about the characters, without having to muster up my own defensiveness about how they're (mis)handled by the show.  As we get ready to close out Glee in its original high school format, "Props" may be the closest we'll get to having the show we fell in love with back, and I'm going to try and revel in it as much as I can.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Tina Cohen-Chang
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