Friday, September 28, 2012

The RBI Report: "Makeover"

I don't really know what to expect from Glee anymore.  Sometimes I think the show might be on the verge of surprising me,  but most of the time, those moments are fleeting, and then extinguished completely by the plodding insistence of disappointing predictability.  Yet somehow, this predictability occurs in a world that doesn't actually make sense.  This harmonious contradiction, apparent in tonight's episode, has caused me to awe at the universe Glee has created for itself.  How does this place exist?  Obviously, this is a world where singing and dancing in the streets of New York is commonplace, and everyone shares freely their wildest hopes and dreams.  It's an existence where upstart interns with no experience impress Anna Wintour in their first week on the job, and a world where makeovers solve seemingly insurmountable problems (someone should tell the United Nations).  But even when Glee tries to do "harsh reality," it still turns out in a weirdly heightened hyperbole that's just as unrealistic as the whimsy.  "Makeover" fell neatly into this pattern of dashed hopes and implausible predictability, and I don't know whether to marvel or gripe at the feat.

"Makeover," written by Ian Brennan, directed by Eric Stoltz

"Makeover" was, I suppose, a loose-fitting theme for the new directions (New Directions?) being taken in the lives of Kurt, Rachel, Will, and the student government candidates.  I have no complaints with this theme in theory; it's in the particulars where, of course, things get a little messy.  Let's start with the most literal makeover and work backwards, shall we?

Rachel, now living in New York, mentions offhand that this new environment at NYADA doesn't feel all that different from her time in high school.  Mean bitches flank her when she's walking places and insult her, à la Season 1 Santana and Quinn.  She feels misunderstood, underappreciated, and out of place.  This is great, right?  I love the idea that Rachel starts out at NYADA exactly how she started at McKinley: as an outcast.  It lets her go back to Square One without undoing her development, and lets us see how Season 4 Rachel might react to the same circumstances Season 1 Rachel dealt with.  In other words, we can witness the evidence of character development while simultaneously giving Rachel more opportunities for growth!  Unfortunately, though, all of this storyline potential funneled into a single line of Rachel's dialogue, meant to kick off the suggestion that she just needs a makeover.  Remember in Season 2, when Quinn Fabray had actual Problems with Self-Esteem that were solved neatly by a haircut?  It's a wonder what cosmetic changes can do to let you off the hook from actually creating character development onscreen!  Snip, trim, there goes a multi-episode arc.

Don't get me wrong; I do think that changes to appearance can definitely affect the way a person perceives themselves, carries themselves, and projects their image into the world.  Kurt had a very good point about real life being a lot like high school, and Brody had an even better point about Rachel's outsides catching up to how she feels on the inside.  They're nice little bon mots.  But I guess the part of me that's interested in seeing Rachel have an identity-based character arc feels a little cheated when she just traipses through the closets of Vogue, starts wearing eyeliner, and suddenly feels a lot better about herself.  Are there really not psychological issues to play out?  I suppose the other bothersome aspect of it is the insinuation that Rachel must shed her old, dorky self and become "sexy."  Two episodes now have dealt with Rachel adjusting her image to be more provocative and "adult," and I'm not sure it should be so clear-cut.  Obviously, growing up and moving away from home usually begets a new wardrobe of some kind to match the changing needs of your life.  But there's this clear narrative presence of "the Old Rachel" and "the New Rachel," and the distinction makes me skittish.  What was wrong with the "Old" Rachel, exactly?  Why is it so necessary that she change?  Can't this be framed as growth?  Can't we see "Old" Rachel's skills serve her well in her "New" life, and let that be development too?

Of course, this "New" vs. "Old" construct is also being channeled into Rachel's love life, which is a choice that I personally find boring and flat.  Rachel's identity conflict as Former and Current self transposes neatly into her relationship conflict: Former Boy Finn, or Current Boy Brody?  Under this construct that the writers have blatantly taped to a frying pan and smacked us over the heads with, Rachel choosing change means choosing Brody.  (I mean, duh.  They sang "A Change Will Do You Good" and then Rachel wanted to cook him dinner, which is not really her style.)  Clinging to "Old Rachel" means choosing Finn, and maybe a reindeer sweater.  (Let's choose to remember the Season 1 episode where Finn told Rachel he liked the way she dressed, and forget all of the awkward bad boyfriend things from Season 2.  Yes, let's.)  Why can't choosing "New" Rachel or "Old" Rachel just be about Rachel choosing Rachel?  Why can't Rachel's identity crisis be about her utilizing the good things in her "former" identity and polishing some areas to meet her new environment?  Why is it so black and white, frumpy vs. sexy, unassured vs. self-confident, Finn vs. Brody?  Gimme some gray areas, Glee.  And while we're at it, can Rachel have the support and friendship of a lady, for once?  I'm tired of this snotty-girls-are-mean-to-Rachel-but-the-cute-boy-notices-her construct.

Anyways, I thought Glee was going to surprise me because Rachel seemed to be willing to move forward with this guy who was super vocal about being into her (even though I find that a bit creepy, but hey, diff'rent strokes... please don't make that dirty).  I like seeing Rachel self-confident and happy, even if the writers are maneuvering her there a bit weirdly, and it's always nice to see any female on this show have some semblance of power over their own relationship status.  As Rachel and Brody's makeout seemed to be headed towards at least PG-13 territory pretty quickly, I thought I might be surprised.  I thought Glee might have zigged when I expected it to zag, and I was prepared to give kudos.

But then came a knock at the door, and I knew exactly who was standing beyond it, and what exactly his purpose was.


So really, no surprise there.  So close, Glee.  So very, very close.

Kurt's storyline in "Makeover" was so predictable that at no point was I ever really expecting to be surprised, but that's not to say that parts of it weren't well done.  It was lovely to see Kurt in an environment that appreciated him, even if it came on a bit quickly.  (In the non-Glee-universe, we'd really need to have at least one episode of Kurt at Vogue before becoming invaluable to his boss, but hey.  This is Glee universe, where Kurt gets hired in one interview with no experience, has special access to high-security areas, and doesn't get chastised when breaking in to said high-security areas.)  The narrative also did the interesting thing by making Kurt's mentor, Isabelle Wright, an express "kindred spirit" to Kurt himself, by giving her an almost-identical backstory.  She's from Ohio, considers herself a dreamer, and recently experienced utter failure.  Just like Kurt!  Sure, on some level you have to wonder if Isabelle Wright is being set up to be the Will Schuester of in her strange ability to be best friends with teenagers.  But at the same time, Sarah Jessica Parker is endearing in the role, and her scenes with Chris Colfer have a certain kind of irrepressible charm to them, even with the complete lack of realism.  It's like they live in some Cotton Candy World where it's all fashion and dreams and cutesy duets, and to be honest, I'd love to spend the day with them there as well.  

Unfortunately, Kurt's acceptance into the fashion world is cramping Blaine's style, and he's starting to feel lost without him.  Even though they're having adorably-choreographed Skype sessions while watching TV and eating popcorn (well-staged, Mssrs Brennan and Stoltz), Blaine is beginning to feel disconnected from Kurt.  So, he decides to make a change at school.  He starts joining (really weird) clubs, and runs for President.  Blaine says that last year was the Seniors' time to shine, and this year is his turn, apparently forgetting that he starred in the school musical, co-hosted a televised Christmas special, and sang a sizeable chunk of the Top 40 charts in as series of grand solo spectacles.  But hey.  Maybe hair gel causes memory loss.  

Anyways, Blaine decides to challenge the incumbent Brittany S. Pierce for President, who accepts the task by choosing Artie as her vice presidential candidate and sends Sam to be Blaine's.  Not unlike last year's Senior President mini-arc, this storyline was kind of a hot mess from multiple angles.  Sue did us a solid and pointed out for us the absurdity of an all-glee race, as well as the sudden appearance - and needlessness - of vice president candidates.  I for one was also confused by the addition of "Celebrity Skin" featuring Sam and Brittany - it's not like they were running for the same position or on the same ticket... was the point of the number just to watch these less-than-scholarly students dress up for a political career?  I still don't understand.  It was... fun, though?

But truly, the worst parts of the Student President storyline were the choices and implications made for Brittany's and Kurt's characters (and another example of me on the verge of being pleasantly surprised, only to have my wonder snatched away by terribleness).  First, the entire storyline - and Blaine's campaign - was built on the fact that Brittany didn't do anything during her tenure last year.  This lack of activity conveniently coincides with the period of time where the writers forgot about her character completely, from about "The First Time" all the way up until her only presidential action, in "Prom-a-saurus."  Funny how that worked.  Honestly, the insistence that Brittany was a terrible president feels like another instance of Glee pointing out their own flaws but refusing to do anything about them.  It'd be one thing to say that Brittany was a terrible president, and then give her a chance to be a great one.  Second chances, right?  A built-in storyline for Brittany.  

I really did think Glee might take Brittany seriously in this episode, with the opportunity for redemption as president, and an unexpected serious moment about Brittany's intelligence.  (Artie has to break it to Brittany that most of the student body plans on attending the debate to hear Brittany say something dumb.)  But instead, everything turns out to be the absolute worst for Brittany's character.  Again.  She tells Artie he can do all the work as vice president, and then completely self-sabotages in the debate.  The latter moment was where I really thought Glee was going to surprise me with Brittany S. Pierce, and only gave me a knife to the gut as the situation changed horrifically.  As soon as she said "I love you" to the students of McKinley, I really believed, for a split-second, that magic might be happening.  I thought that Glee might be showing us that Brittany could win the election not because she was popular, or hot, or "slutty," but that she had real qualities that could be valued by the narrative and the other characters in it.  Brittany S. Pierce told the student body "I love you," and my heart swelled.

But then she kept talking, and the two-dimensional Dumb Girl portrayal took over with a vengeance.  Brittany claimed to love the school so much that she'd do away with weekends and summer vacations, and lost herself the election in one fell swoop.  How insulting.  If Glee insists on bringing this character to the verge of development and repeatedly smacking her back into the punchline of a bad joke, then I would rather they just leave her as a supporting character.  Stick to one-liners.  Don't attempt a storyline with Brittany at the helm if it's just going to repeatedly turn out like this.  Just let Heather Morris dance, and deliver jokes.  Stop disrespecting the character.

The other nasty insinuation of the Senior President storyline came with one single line of dialogue, from Sam.  After Blaine wins and still feels bummed about Kurt's absence, Sam tries to cheer him up with the bonds of friendship.  Don't get me wrong; I'm 100% on board with the apparent plan to make Sam Evans close personal friends with every single glee club member this season.  But Sam offers the bonds of brotherhood to Blaine, stating that he never felt that kind of kinship with Kurt.  This insinuation that Kurt's great and all but straight guys seem to feel more comfortable with Blaine because he codes more "straight" or "masculine" is just gross, and completely unnecessary.  Especially coming from Sam, whose introduction to the narrative consisted solely of his choice to sing a duet with Kurt, an openly gay guy, even if it might harm his reputation!  The very action that let us know who Sam Evans was as a character is now barely there, because he's simply reinforcing a misguided notion that straight guys just can't relate to gay guys like Kurt.  This is all made worse by the fact that Blaine just won the elected office that Kurt lost a year ago.  

Look, it is wonderful that Glee makes the effort to demonstrate male homosexuality on a spectrum as opposed to in stereotype.  The existence of Karofsky and Blaine and Sandy Ryerson and Chandler and Sebastian and Wade, in addition to Kurt, all serve to show, more than most television shows do, that there is no 'type' of gay man.  There are different representations, and some are more "masculine" than others, and it's important to debunk myths and reject stereotypes.  However!  In the case of Kurt and Blaine, it is clear that Kurt codes more "feminine" than Blaine, who likes football and boxing and is included in boys' numbers far more frequently than Kurt ever is.  And it's also clear that the writers insist on drawing this line between Kurt and the straight guys that, no matter how many positive storylines with Finn or Sam, always seems to boomerang back to the same suggestion: there is an inherent alienation between Kurt and the straight guys not necessarily because of Kurt's sexuality but because of Kurt's femininity.  This is not only an issue of homophobia, but an issue of sexism.  From all corners, it's upsetting.  So congratulations, Blaine.  You are more masculine than Kurt, and you therefore get a leadership position and also some bros.  

But on some level this engendered power imbalance doesn't really matter in the narrative, because Kurt's the one stomping on Blaine's heart by not answering his phone during professional mingling.  Honestly, the thing that made me feel the most sympathy for Blaine was his realization that he only ever came to McKinley because of Kurt, and as soon as he said it, I thought, "That should have come at the beginning."  We should have known, right out of the gate, that Blaine felt purposeless at McKinley, and so then we could relate to him in his pursuit of meaning through presidency and superhero sidekick clubs.  Like Brittany's possible redemption arc, this was a built-in storyline for Blaine: finding something to call his own at McKinley, and finally make his place there.  Alas, the writers blew past this notion, funneled Blaine's discontent into relationship drama, and gave him the presidency anyways, untethered to any character meaning.  Yet again, the writers have a way of screwing over Blaine's character yet still swinging the narrative in his favor for no real reason other than to give him the spotlight.  

Alas, the night's purposelessness arc went instead to William Schuester, who, for some sudden reason, feels unfulfilled by his job.  You'd think starting glee club over with a new ragtag ensemble of kids would reinvigorate Will's teaching, but it's actually the opposite.  Now that he's won Nationals, he feels like he's run out of ideas.  So, an independent arc is on the horizon for Mr. Schue: after learning that funding was cut to Haverbrook School for the Deaf (welcome back, Mr. Rumba), he decides to make a difference by applying to a Blue Ribbon Panel to Defend the Values of Arts Education.  (Forgive; I'm paraphrasing.)

To be honest, this all sounds well and good, but I'm curious about the end result of this storyline.  Glee has already given Will Schuester the possibilities of something bigger than McKinley, and every time, he returned to the students and chose a smaller life in the classroom.  He shelved Broadway dreams for these dumdums, which simultaneously makes Will Schuester really nice and really sad.  Even though he's become a gloriously bad teacher at times, I still find myself wanting Will Schuester to achieve his dreams, for some strange reason.  What's the point of giving him new dreams upon new dreams if he's only going to return to McKinley and claim he wanted to be there the whole time?  It seems pointless.  I just wonder: will Glee surprise me and actually send Will away from the classroom, or will they just get my hopes up and dash me with disappointment at the brink of distinction?  If the result is anything like "Makeover," I'm bracing myself for the latter.

"Makeover" did boast a few good things: Artie not devaluing Brittany because of her intelligence, Brittany sort-of doing a nice thing for Sam, and Sam voting for Brittany even though she was the opposition.  There were also two comedy gold moments in Stoner Brett's championing of the separation of powers, and Becky's refusal to give a xylophone flourish at Sue Sylvester's whim.   Both were actual laugh-out-loud moments for me, which is always welcome in a Glee episode.  But all in all, "Makeover" had a lot of potential that was completely squandered with predictability.  There were a few funny moments and meaningful character interactions, but individually, the character work was actually quite shoddy, and plot turns completely unrealistic yet somehow entirely expected.  

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B-
Dance Numbers: C
Dialogue: B
Plot: C
Characterization: D
Episode MVP: Kurt Hummel and Isabelle Wright, co-denizens of Cotton Candy World

Monday, September 24, 2012

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x03 - "Witch"

The Scoobies are born:
debuting the Slayerettes
and Watcher sidekick!


If I remember correctly, when I first watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Witch" is the episode that hooked me.  And I think the reason why has to do with its place as the follow-up to what is essentially a two-part pilot.  "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "Harvest," steeped in vampire lore and apocalypse-preventing, really provided the skeleton for the series, letting us know what to expect in big episodes and season finales.  But "Witch" fills in the muscle, showing us that not all Buffy episodes will deal with vampire slaying; that there is a whole slew of supernatural misconduct happening on the Hellmouth, and that Buffy will inevitably get tied up in the goings-on.  Not only that, but "Witch" sets a  tone in storytelling that is not only structured smartly for maximum audience enjoyment, but that lets us know what to expect for the rest of the series.

It's perhaps a bit dorky of me, but I honestly wonder what it was like to break the story for episode 3 of a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Where to go from the first two episodes of setup?  The writers created a basic plot about witchcraft, and then made the genius - and necessary - decision to tether it to the characters we already care about.  The main conflict of "Witch" was character vs. character, Amy vs. Amy's mom.  The only issue is that we've never met Amy before.  So, how to make us care?  Make Buffy care.  This construct falls into pattern with Buffy and Willow's dynamic from "Welcome to the Hellmouth."  Buffy sympathizes with Amy, just as she sympathized with Willow, and suddenly as an audience we care about Amy's story.  Double bonus points: we care even more about Buffy, because she's once again demonstrating compassion where not every main character would.  

The writing went one step further, and created a loose parallel between Amy and her mom, and Buffy and Joyce.  While Joyce is not an embittered youth-stealing ex-cheerleader cauldron user, there's still an element of alienation between mother and teenage daughter - especially when they are the only two in their family unit.  What could be a little "out there" for an audience to relate to (a mom using witchcraft against her kid so she could reclaim her youth) is tethered back to characters we're familiar with.  Basically, it's as if the writers are translating for us, making sure we understand what's being said by interpreting it to a level we fundamentally get.  But they're not dumbing it down for us!  It's a subtle decision threaded through the episode's construction, and it minimizes having to do that "translating" in more awkward areas, like dialogue or individual scenes.

"Witch" makes the most of the mother-daughter motif, and capitalizes on the fact that they're suggesting a parallel where there truly isn't one (at least not literally).  Even though Joyce and Buffy have missteps in communication during the episode, ultimately they are not like Amy and her mom, and so the cap on their episode journey is one of harmony.  They connect, even if for just a moment, even if Joyce doesn't know exactly why Buffy's reaching out to her.  It's not even a terribly emotional moment - it's just the right addition of sentiment to conclude their mini-arc and wrap up the parallel that the writers hauled out in the first place.  (It's like children with toys: if you get them out, you have to put them back up!)

With this choice, it's as if the Buffy writers are letting us know: everything is going to tie back to Miss Summers herself.  They even went so far as to put Buffy in danger in "Witch," making the life-threatening peril literally pertinent to Buffy's existence.  Of course, this also gives rise to establishing that Buffy needs people helping her - the Slayerettes, as Willow calls them.  Giles plays the biggest role, administering the spell against Amy's mom and saving Buffy's life.  But both Xander and Willow offer to help Buffy investigate the Mystery of the Burning Cheerleader, and refuse to stay out of it simply because she doesn't want them hurt.  They also both put themselves in harm's way to prevent Amy from getting to Buffy during the pep rally, and even show up again, this time with a baseball bat.  

It's lovely to witness the original Scoobies becoming a team, although I must confess that I'm slightly bewildered by the teenage romance aspects of the triangle.  "Witch" piles on Xander's crush on Buffy, and hints at Willow's crush on Xander.  I'm not terribly engaged in any of these romantic interests, simply because the narrative is already setting them up as unlikely: Buffy refers to Xander as "one of the girls," echoing how Xander earlier referred to Willow as "one of the guys," and on the whole this flirts a bit too closely with teenaged awkwardness for me.  I get further exasperated with Xander's masculinity complex when it comes to Buffy.  His insistence on "saving" Buffy from dangerous situations is really only made tolerable by the fact that Willow is in step with him most of the time.  

In fact, I'm actually more engaged in Willow's support of Buffy than Xander's simply because it demonstrates breaking out of gender norms, as opposed to reinforcing them.  Even though Xander's and Willow's arcs both are perhaps about empowerment and protecting loved ones from harm, I'm inherently more intrigued by Willow's in that she is actively asserting her own identity and not echoing a society-administered expectation of (masculine) identity.  It's tough, because the narrative does a good job of making Xander sympathetic without ever indicating that Buffy "owes" him something.  Moreover, this series does make it a point to highlight the realities of being a teenager, and unrequited and embarrassing crushes are certainly relevant to that theme.  But at the same time I'm already a little bit over Xander's relationship with the opposite sex.  I'm really just here for Willow busting in to save Buffy while wielding a baseball bat.

Beyond the establishment of both character anchor and the foundation of the Scoobies, "Witch" actually sets a storytelling standard for the rest of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes through its use of dramatic irony.  If you watch "Witch" with a careful eye for what information is distributed when - and how - it's actually a pretty masterful example of having the audience baited and hooked with every passing scene.  The main genius of this lies with the use of dramatic irony, the principle of filmmaking that allows for the audience to know things that the characters within the narrative do not.  (This is also the principle that allows moviegoers to shout "BEHIND YOU!" at characters onscreen who cannot hear them.)  The beauty of dramatic irony is that we, as an audience, are selectively allowed to anticipate what's next.  We see a cauldron bubbling with potion way before Buffy and Giles ever get to Amy's house.  This is done so that we can actively try and put the clues together; it keeps us engaged.  Can we figure it out before Giles and Buffy do?  We see a Cordelia doll being dropped into the potion before Cordelia comes to school acting weird and gets in a car.  We may not know exactly what will happen, but we know it can't be good.  So when we see Cordy acting weird, we want to shout at Xander and Willow that something's wrong, because no one else knows what we know, and when Cordy gets behind the wheel of a car, we are all the more fearful for imminent danger.  Dramatic irony means that we know things the characters onscreen don't, and that actively involves us in the narrative.  It's even echoed at the end, when we're privy to the knowledge of what happened to Amy's mom: we see the darting eyes in the cheerleader statue after Amy and Buffy have turned their backs.  No one knows what we know.

It's a powerful device, and it can be used not only for good but also trickery (which is also good, in the end).  This trickery results in a glorious storytelling device: the misdirect.  The narrative gives us information others don't know, so we put two and two together, and before we know it we're anticipating - except we're anticipating the wrong thing.  Yank!  The rug is pulled out from underneath us, and we're delighted by the surprise.  It's like a magic trick, a slight of hand you don't see coming until after you know how it was done.  In fact, "Witch," as an episode, fits this description perfectly.  Throughout the whole piece, we're expecting that Amy is engaging in witchcraft to act out against her tyrannical mother, but actually, it's the reverse.  There's an actual body switch, and Amy turns out to be Amy's mom.  Misdirect!  (Sure, there's an eensy plot hole where you have to wonder how Amy's mom in Amy's body only made third alternate when she was a cheerleading champion back in the day, but we can let it slide for the sake of the reveal.)

Buffy even takes the "misdirect" concept down to the most basic building blocks of storytelling: dialogue, and shot placement (editing).  We first see this in "Witch," and we'll see it again and again and again, and I guarantee you'll never actually get tired of it.  It's delightful every time.  This, my friends, is the "cut-to" moment.  It's classic misdirect at the smallest level, and Buffy makes good use of it for any purpose - comedy, horror, suspense, tragedy.  In fact, within the first few minutes it's hauled out for comedy: we see Giles chastising Buffy for besmirching her sacred birthright.  Serious, right?  Cut to: Buffy standing innocently in a cheerleading outfit, wielding pompoms.  You can't tell me you didn't laugh.  I laughed.  I laugh every time.  But you can also use the "cut-to" moment for suspense: Buffy comments to Willow that maybe nothing bad will happen.  Cut to: a shadowy locker room, complete with eerie dripping faucets and a foreboding score.  Something bad seems sure to happen.  And actually, this is a misdirect back-to-back.  Buffy's "famous last words" indicate to us that there is danger, and we're expecting something scary - and supernatural - to come from the shadows and attack Amy.  But cut to: Cordelia slamming Amy's locker shut.  The horror genre "jump" moment is given to Cordy, mere mortal, but who's a monster of a whole other kind.  She threatens Amy, and walks away.  The result we expected was not the result we got.

Ultimately, "Witch" works from the ground up and uses storytelling devices to not only engage and entertain the audience, but to indicate to them what this series is going to be all about.  It's not just vampires and Hellmouth lore.  There's not always going to be the looming threat of apocalypse, or issues concerning Buffy's duty as a Slayer.  The material that's going to carry Buffy the Vampire Slayer through most episodes is going to look a lot like the material in "Witch."  There will be storylines that tether meaningfully back to our core characters, insights into what it's like to be a teenager, and things that go bump in the night.  This content will also be assembled with the intent to engage the audience and keep them hooked.  So in some ways, "Witch" is a promise to its viewers: get ready.  We're taking you on a ride.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The RBI Report: "Britney 2.0"

It's a ballsy move, in the fourth season of a rapidly over-inflating television show, to include the phrase "2.0" in an episode title.  I guess, in an ideal world, "2.0" would just indicate that it's a new incarnation of something we're familiar with.  Bigger, better, faster, stronger!  But "2.0" can also easily mean "oh hey we did this already," and unfortunately, much of "Britney 2.0" fell into that latter category.

"Britney 2.0," written by Brad Falchuk, directed by Alfonso Gómez-Rejón

Of course, "Britney 2.0" used the same angle as "Britney/Brittany" - it tied the work of Britney Spears to the student Brittany S. Pierce.  But while "Britney/Brittany" actually had little to do with Brittany S. Pierce, "Britney 2.0" endeavored to give Brittany the A-story.  To be honest, that might be the only new thing about the episode: Brittany S. Pierce was intended to be the hero of her own storyline.  And for one hot minute, I thought she might actually be!  The episode began with a Brittany narration that turned out to be actual dialogue.  She seemed really optimistic about repeating her senior year, and is basically declaring that positivity to the entire hallway.  But then, after realizing that she's doing her voiceover outloud, we get the real narration.  The real voice in Brittany's head.  And that voice is worried.  It was a rough summer, and she misses Santana.

How promising is this?  This lovely little construct alluded to the fact that what goes on in Brittany's head does not necessarily match what's coming out of her mouth - something we previously thought to be untrue, thanks to an endless parade of bad one-liners that were strung together to somehow create a character portrait.  In one simple scene, I thought maybe the Glee writers could turn it around for Brittany.  They actually created the idea that Brittany was having an identity crisis!  I love characters in identity crisis!  But ultimately, this narrative didn't really happen.  Brittany's trajectory felt exactly like Brittany's character for the past three seasons: shallow, scattered, and confusing.  

The first misstep came in the overused notion that the glee club can somehow sing actual emotions into people.  No matter how much you serenade someone, it will not fix their problems.  What's worse about that falsehood is that when used in a narrative, it takes every ounce of agency out of the character with the actual feelings.  That person?  Sitting in a chair.  While someone dances around them like somehow it's stirring up magical happy dust to whisk sadness away.  Rarely can this person be the subject of their own storyline when they're just being sung at.  (Remember "I Kissed a Girl?"  Me too, unfortunately.)  Double tactless points for Artie and Blaine singing a mashup of "Boys" and "Boyfriend" when part of Brittany's problem is that she misses... her girlfriend.  

I will say, it was good that eventually, the serenading characters realized that singing at someone does not solve problems.  And it was nice to see them try and get through to Brittany using something she could personally connect to: giving her the spotlight.  But watching Brittany spiral out of control during "Gimme More" (and earlier) was embarrassing at best, especially considering that the plummet was a disaster-by-disaster carbon copy of Britney Spears' actual downward spiral a few years back.  When you sign over your music to Glee, do you also sign over the rights to your personal struggles?  Maybe it's fair game, but for me it felt too exploitative.  I cringed a lot.

What's worse is that somehow Brittany had planned this all along...?  She deliberately spiralled so that she could emulate the grand comeback of her idol.  Oh.  So not only does it just make light of Britney Spears' matching actions, it also raises the question: what was the point, then?  Brittany didn't actually have an identity crisis, just a pretend one, and everything at the end of the episode was the same as it was at the beginning.  Will and Emma still saw a cry for help, and this time Brittany accepted it.  What, she didn't want their help when they offered at the beginning of the episode?  And there's no change with the Cheerios either, or glee club, assuming Will lets her back in after he's done shouting at the students.  The final kicker is that we see Brittany more depressed than ever about Santana during the final montage, as she stares numbly at Santana's "offline" message.  No change!  And she's still actually legitimately sad!  That final shot of Brittany was heartbreaking!  So why go through all that fuss?  No matter which way you shake it, nothing about Brittany's arc makes sense.

I get the sneaking feeling that the writers somehow want us to think Brittany's actually a mastermind, as this is not the first time they've pulled out a "FOOLED YOU!" with Brittany's actions as though it were somehow a rabbit from a hat.  But writing reveals don't really work this way, especially not for a character who has been written as so literally unintelligent.  The early approach, in Brittany's narration shift, worked so much better at illustrating a "deeper level" to Brittany, and unfortunately it was forgotten.  The one good thing about the storyline was the continuation of Sam's Emotionally Perceptive streak: he is now 2-for-2 this season, and it's nice to see a little bond between him and Brittany.  Even though he was intuiting something completely dumb, the friendship construct is still welcome.

Basically, this storyline could have been great.  The writers could have confronted, head-on, the idea that Brittany feels lost without Santana, and acknowledged that Brittany's barely had an identity separate of Santana in the narrative.  Brittany has only ever been a real character when it's in conjunction with Santana's arc, and now that Santana is gone from Brittany's side, there's a real issue in demonstrating Brittany's independent identity.  This was a perfect time to give her one.  Who is Brittany S. Pierce, beyond the dumb jokes and the sex jokes?  We still don't know.  Brittany's identity crisis turned out to be a replica of Britney Spears' identity crisis, and then left completely unexplored and unresolved - talk about insult to injury.

Rachel seemed to be faring somewhat better than Brittany, in New York, although she is still struggling with dance class and missing the AWOL Finn Hudson.  Now that Kurt's there, though, she has a shoulder to lean on, and someone else in her life who can dispense her fortune cookie wisdom.  (Nauseating gem, re: Finn's absence - "Your freedom is a gift he's given you.  Accept it.")  We also got an update on Kurt, who informed us, through clunky dialogue, that he's happy he didn't get into NYADA on the first go-around and he's really grown as a person.  I'm really glad all that character growth made it to the screen, writers, we wouldn't want to miss actual development!  

Okay, okay, that was mean.  Sarcasm is not a friendly mode of communication.  But with a cast this big, the writing is cutting corners by necessity, and we're getting a lot of "oh hey by the way" expositional dialogue. "Show, don't tell" has really vacated the building, and I get a little grumpy about it.

Anyways, I'm entirely off track now.  The whole point of Rachel's storyline was to move her forward in the interactions with both Brody and Cassandra, and the arc basically did that.  Although the Brody stuff was predictable and a bit too reliant on the phrase "I think you're sexy," I did laugh hysterically at Brody intuiting the status of Rachel's relationship with Finn by pointing out the literal writing on the wall.  Was that meant to be funny?  Because it was.  "Oh, yeah.  You're still in love with your ex because... you painted his name in giant letters on your bedroom wall right behind me.  Ah."  Brody should play Blue's Clues.  

But even despite the preposterous visual of Rachel having smeared Finn's name in white paint with hearts around it, "Britney 2.0" created a nice episode-ending action where Rachel painted over the name, with a lovely rack-focus to Brody's orchids.  This can only mean that we are indeed moving forward on this Brody-Rachel business, which is perhaps the best course of action to take.  It's certainly better than languishing Rachel in indecision indefinitely, at least.  We'll only see how this shakes out when Finn inevitably shows up and confusing emotions bubble up.  

Of course, Rachel and Brody grew closer this week because of Rachel's insistence on proving to Cassandra July that she can be sexy.  After being barred from learning the tango on account of her no-sex-appeal, Rachel solicits Brody for a sexy rendition of "Oops I Did It Again."  When Cassandra (somewhat rightfully) reproaches her for the performance, Rachel reaches for a secret weapon: she accuses Cassandra of being jealous of new talent because her own star burned out early.  (Kurt gave us some backstory that somehow Rachel didn't know: Ms. July made it to Broadway It Girl status, only to snap publicly during a performance and lose all chances of stardom.  I'm starting to question Rachel's Broadway knowledge.  Remember when she didn't know that Cats had closed?)  

The great thing about the Cassandra-and-Rachel storyline was that it took their by-the-book strict teacher-eager student dynamic and developed it into something more: turns out Cassandra July is a failed Rachel Berry.  In the tradition of April Rhodes and Suzy Pepper, Cassandra July is a cautionary tale for Rachel Berry. Rachel snapped when things weren't going her way, just like Cassie did ten years ago.  Cassie goes so far as to point this out to Rachel, and gives her a much-needed lesson about second chances and professionalism that no amount of name-calling could impart.  And ultimately, this turn of events creates an instantly interesting relationship between these two women and their characteristics that I hope will be explored further.  Who knows?  A girl can dream.

The final storyline of the evening belonged to Jake Puckerman, who received a visit from his brother and learned about what it means to be a man.  (At this point, we should really just be calling glee club Masculinity Club, in a strange plot twist that would make S1 Azimio scratch his head.)  It's perhaps unfair to say, but Jake is basically Puck 2.0, and it seems as though glee club and the Love of a Good Woman is going to set him on the straight and narrow.  (Eyeroll?)  After having a moment with Marley, where she declares him a guy who's just been hurt, Jake stands up against the bullying of Marley's mom - only to start a fight in the lunchroom.  Magically, Noah Puckerman is waiting in the wings for an intervention!  He encourages Jake to join glee club, and extends the bonds of brotherhood.  Jake accepts, joins glee, and apparently starts to date Kitty somewhere in the middle there.  Because "OH BY THE WAY," Glee tried to do another reveal, where Marley thinks maybe she and Jake have a little spark, but actually Jake is dating the head cheerleader and seems to be confused about it.  Cue sad mopey song.  I think I've seen this before???  Sure, it's technically a conglomeration of the Puck-Quinn-Finn triangle and the Quinn-Finn-Rachel triangle, but any way you shake it, there's a lot of déjâ-vu going on. 

Overall, "Britney 2.0" presented us with a lot of things we've seen before: Rachel moping about Finn, theatre boys chasing after an emotionally-conflicted Rachel, the Bad-Boy-turned-Good-Guy, the Bitchy Cheerleader hijacking an emotionally-confused boy from the Loser Girl, failed pep assembly performances, and characters feeling so sad they just need a good serenade or two.  There's only so much freshness you can mine out of recycled material, unfortunately.  Funnily enough, the covers of Britney's music showed more originality and rearranging than the actual episode content.  Huh.  Maybe Glee's just faking this downward spiral so it can make a stunning comeback.  Britney 3.0?  

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B-
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: C
Plot: C
Characterization: C
Episode MVP: Sam Evans, he of emotionally intuitive superpowers

Monday, September 17, 2012

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x01 and 1x02 - "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest"


I am doing a Buffy rewatch.  

Now, the particulars of this rewatch are flexible - I am 100% willing to accept feedback on how you might like this to go.  I will say that these reviews will not be exhaustive in dealing with all parts of an episode.  I can guarantee that, as with anything, I'll be looking at Joss Whedon's storytelling choices, as well as the specifics of the character arcs, especially as they pertain to women and feminism.  But there's a lot of Buffy reviewers on Ye Olde Internet, and I'd like to retread as little as possible.  Along those lines, I will also be including a commemorative Buffy the Vampire Slayer haiku at the beginning of each episode review, penned by yours truly!  They are part of a collection, gifted to my dearest best friend, by me, on her birthday three years ago.  They are also collecting dust, and therefore will be paraded out as review companions and also evidence of the nerdiest birthday gift ever created on this planet.  But please don't take the haikus too seriously!  They are for funsies only.

Without further ado...


There is one Chosen
in every generation.
Buffy, here we go...



It's fairly common knowledge at this point that the construction of Buffy Summers as a hero is a subversion of horror movie tradition.  To quote Joss himself: "The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of 'Buffy: The Movie' was the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of 'Buffy' was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim."  But what's great about "Welcome to the Hellmouth" is that it immediately introduces this notion - without even involving Buffy at all.  

"Welcome to the Hellmouth" begins with a horror-style trope: a guy and a girl break onto school grounds at night, to fool around.  There's a sense of danger being communicated, and the natural assumption is that this girl might be in trouble.  The guy's clueless, but the girl is nervous, and the conclusion is this: either this guy is bad news for the girl, or there's third party bad news that this guy is going to be no help fighting off.  Either way, it's not looking good for the girl.  

But Joss deviates from tradition with a purposeful misdirect: as soon as he's sure we think this blondie's gonna bite it, he drops the reveal.  She's the one who's dangerous.  This woman is not unassuming, timid, or nervous.  She's in complete power of the situation.  She has lured this helpless guy into a dark alley.  She's the one who kills.  

Before we even meet Buffy Summers, we get an instant idea what this show is going to be about.  (I mean, besides vampires.)  And what's particularly great about it not involving Buffy is that it's a double dose of feminist action.  Buffy Summers can exist as a feminist character in a not-necessarily feminist narrative.  (For proof, look at nearly every female on Glee.)  But by presenting Darla, a villain, as a subversion of the same trope intended for the hero, we can tell that the whole show is meant to be a commentary - and a casual middle finger - to the expectations audiences have for "typical" female characters.  It's not just Buffy Summers who's meant to break the mold: it's Darla too, and by extension, we can expect the same sort of thing for Willow, and Cordelia, and Joyce - all of whom make significant appearances in the first two episodes.

Of course, this subversion's application to Buffy herself is also fantastic in its own regard.  The character and her presentation not only subvert expectations for a female role, but also for a hero's introduction, regardless of gender.  Most hero narratives begin with a glimpse into the hero's life before their "gift" comes to them.  We get to see the hero lead a normal life, unfettered with worry about saving people and fighting evil.  The thrust of their story is about dealing with the change in lifestyle, and having the audience witness every step of that journey.

But Buffy?  When we meet Buffy, she already knows the deal.  Vampires, Slayers, Chosen One, blah blah blah.  She's got it.  She does not want it.  She had it, for awhile, and things did not go well.  She's trying to retire from it now, and start new.  Unfortunately for Buffy, she just so happened to retire to the Hellmouth, and "starting new" really just means "Slaying with an ensemble" now.  But this approach is really great storytelling for the Pilot because it allows for two things.  One, it enables Buffy to have an interesting back story.  We hear snippets of her past, but never the full story, and it hooks the audience. Why did Buffy get kicked out of her last school?  How exactly did she burn down the gym?  How did she find out she was the Slayer?  There are plenty of questions to ask - all of which help subvert the "cute blonde girl" image - and leave for answering later.

Secondly, it removes the element of "things happening" to Buffy from our screens.  So often in hero narratives, heroes don't want their powers and responsibilities.  It's a burden.  They don't really get a choice in the matter - until they do.  Basically, Joss & Co. have fast-forwarded to the "until they do" part.  Buffy knows the deal.  She doesn't like the deal.  But before she makes the choice to embrace her role, she could be easily classifiable as a victim.  And isn't the whole point of this show to not make Buffy Summers a victim?  She's meant to be a strong female hero, and therefore, it's absolutely genius to ensure that Buffy Summers makes her choice in the very first episodes.  We don't see Buffy as a victim of being chosen - we hear about it, but we don't see it.  We see her make a choice.  Strong characters choose.  Buffy chooses.  

Along those lines, it's easy to wish that there were a stronger moment of choice for Buffy in "Welcome to the Hellmouth" or "The Harvest."  It's almost as though Buffy doesn't choose slaying; slaying chooses Buffy.  Events spiral out of control, and she gets dragged along with them in order to protect people.  But perhaps that is the point - and an issue that's always going to be a central conflict for this character and her place in the story.  She cannot choose her destiny because she is chosen.  The chosen cannot truly choose.  Tapping into that reality right off the bat humanizes Buffy as a reluctant hero, and helps create a gray area in the narrative that many good-vs-evil stories simply make black and white.  From the get-go, Buffy Summers is more compelling a hero than a whole slew of her predecessors.

Even though there's not a specific and glorified moment of choice for Buffy, there is still a turning point in the episode, where her attitude shifts from "not my problem" to "entirely my problem."  That moment happens when Willow Rosenberg leaves The Bronze with a vampire.  It seems like an obvious choice, to put the meekest character in danger, which thereby raises the stakes for the audience.  And you could argue that Willow is a stereotypical character to "damsel," which thereby might weaken the decision.  But there are several implications of the choice to endanger Willow that I actually really love.  Mainly, it necessitates Buffy actually caring about Willow before she's damseled.  The easiest option in this scenario would have been to put a man in danger - any man, doesn't matter who - so that Buffy could save him and swiftly hammer in a "Girl Power!" message.  It's a clear genderswap, and simple for the audience to grasp.  There's no need to build a relationship between Buffy and the person she's saving, as long as he's a man.

But Buffy's a reluctant hero, remember?  At this point, she's not going to just save anybody.  In that the writers chose Willow's endangerment for Buffy's call to action, they also created the need for a Buffy-Willow bond.  Boom.  Female friendship intrinsically built-in, and necessary to advance the story.  What's further fantastic about this choice is the manner in which Buffy and Willow become friends: Buffy walks up and wants to be friends with her.  The writers don't create a scenario to bring these two women together; they just walk Buffy over to Willow and have her say, "Hey.  Let's be friends."  This friendship is not of convenience, or accident, or circumstance.  Buffy chooses it, and the writers even went so far as to have her choose it over friendship with Cordelia.  There was an actual clear choice for Buffy, and Buffy chose Willow.  So when Willow's in danger?  It's more than enough to bring our reluctant hero into action.

Of course, this also introduces the idea that Buffy Summers is a compassionate individual.  Buffy's choice to befriend Willow, as well as the choice to chase after vampires because of Willow, tells us a lot about Buffy's character.  She's known Willow for what, a week?  But try as she might to shirk her duties, Buffy can't because she cares.  One simple storytelling decision - damsel Willow - spawned a positive female friendship, an active choice for the main character, and information we can infer about the main character as a result of that choice.  Genius, right?  

Together, these decisions all add up to paint a portrait of a female lead who subverts stereotype within the narrative but never wanders into exaggeration.  Buffy's introduction to the audience is well-balanced, nuanced, and relatable.  She presents as upbeat and perky, but has a back story that's clearly embittered her.  We have a defined idea of Buffy's strengths as well as the responsibilities that plague her.  We see her make choices, make friends, and make jokes.  The narrative even makes jokes for her - when Giles implores her to use a kind of mystical sixth sense for finding vampires, she instead identifies one based on what he's wearing.  She exists both within the narrative, as well as a construct of it, as a seemingly harmless teenager who also kills vampires for a living.  Or is it a girl who kills vampires for a living who happens to be a seemingly harmless teenager?

Regardless, she's the girl who leads the guy following her into a dark alley and takes him by surprise.  By the end of "The Harvest," Buffy the Vampire Slayer has done its job introducing our lead.  She's not the victim in a horror movie just because she's a cute blonde girl.  She's a hero - and a great character.  In just two episodes, we have a clear picture of feminist lead in a feminist narrative - with gray area and solid character choices to boot.  There's no better way to kick off a story.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The RBI Report: "The New Rachel"

Ah, here we are again.  Or rather - here I am again, starting a new season of Glee after having spilled so many words of critique about it.  It's Season 4, the original gang is completely splintered, and the show soldiers on in at least two separate locations.  What can I say?  Curiosity got the better of me.  I'm not sure yet if I'm going to continue blogging the rest of Season 4, but I will say this: all Glee reviews from here on out will be scaled back in depth - and length.  Brevity will be my friend!  (And yours, let's be real here.  I don't want your eyes falling out.)

With that, let's get back to work.

"The New Rachel," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Brad Falchuk

"The New Rachel" saw the start of McKinley's next school year, after the graduation of Rachel, Finn, Santana, Kurt, Quinn, Puck, Mike, and Mercedes from not only high school but also the glee club.  The seats in the choir room are mostly empty, and so the New Directions has to audition new members - and cope with their newfound popularity after winning Nationals and bringing home a big-ass trophy.  Rachel struggles with adjusting to a new life in New York, Kurt struggles with adjusting to a new life in Lima, and Tina, Blaine, Brittany, and Wade duke it out for glee club stardom.  

We began with Rachel, whom we last saw ugly-crying on a train after getting her ass dumped and shipped off to NYADA - for her own good, natch.  I confess, I wasn't sure what to expect with Rachel after the complete devolution of her character last season.  It nearly took a small army to ensure Rachel's eventual acceptance to NYADA, what is it going to look like now that she's there?  Turns out - not pretty.  Rachel's already incited the ire of her supremely sharp-edged dance teacher Cassandra July, who wastes no time in giving Rachel an insulting nickname (David Schwimmer) and telling her she sucks.  To her face. 

Basically, Ryan Murphy has put Rachel on the Cheerios, except the substitute Sue Sylvester wears breakaway leather skirts.  

Not only that, but Rachel's clearly not getting along with anyone at school - and it's revealed in the littlest of ways.  She admits, nonchalantly, in narration, that everyone made fun of her nightly skincare regime and so she has to shower at 3AM.  For some reason, that was absolutely heartbreaking to me, and I almost wish we could've seen a little more of Rachel feeling socially estranged.  It'd be a nice way to hearken back to how she felt at the beginning of her time at McKinley - except now she's actually used to having friends, and it hurts to go back to feeling alienated.  But the writers sort of passed up that opportunity by giving Rachel a hunky new friend within the first five minutes, that existed simply to give her standing ovations and fortune-cookie advice like "don't fight the new you."  It's not that Brody is useless, but... he's basically Season 2 Blaine - a love interest disguised as Obi-Wan Kenobi when our hero feels like a fish out of water.  Meh.  I almost wish he weren't as present in Rachel's storyline yet, just to emphasize her isolation as well as how important it was for Kurt to arrive at episode's end.

(Truthfully, although I completely predicted Kurt's "turn around" nonsense as Rachel called him crying by the fountain, I was charmed by it, if only because it took a romantic comedy trope and repurposed it for two platonic soulmates.  Let the New York adventures begin!)

Of course, Kurt couldn't make a decision to go to New York without some serious poking and prodding from Blaine and Burt.  (Seriously, when will a main character make a decision for themselves again?  I long for the day.)  After his rejection from NYADA, Kurt got a job at the Lima Bean, enrolled at the Allen County Community College, and boomeranged back to McKinley High School far more than one would expect of a successful gay youth.  (Or so New Queen Bitch Kitty seems to think, anyways.)  But Kurt doesn't belong in Lima, and so Blaine tells him just that, proceeding to create an elaborate serenade in front of the whole school.  "It's Time" is a great song, but truthfully, it should have been Kurt's solo.  The number embodies exactly what's frustrating about so much of Glee's writing - especially when it comes to couples.  Rather than highlighting Kurt making his choice after some encouragement from Blaine, we instead get a spectacle of Blaine's encouragement, as Kurt sits there and passively listens to it.  Kurt is not an active character if his loved ones forcibly put him on a plane to New York!  Just like Rachel was not an active character when her loved ones forcibly put her on a train to New York!  Active characters make choices, onscreen!  Truthfully, Kurt never made his own decision about New York, just like Rachel didn't.  What was onscreen were Blaine's and Finn's decisions, unfortunately.

What should have happened with Kurt's storyline is this.  Early on, we needed to see Kurt show some hesitation about returning to McKinley.  That way, when Blaine says, "Hey Kurt, you don't belong here," we know that on some level Kurt feels the same way - even if he's repressing it.  It makes it seem less like Kurt is having epiphanies simply because Blaine's dropping truth bombs.  Maybe we even get to see why Kurt's hesitating - is he afraid he's going to change?  Cue "It's Time," as a Kurt solo of introspection, and perhaps even his actual decision in musical form.  Maybe he starts the song unsure, and by the end of the song, he's made his choice.  Because, c'mon, the lyrics of "It's Time" are much more suited for Kurt's own point of view, and not only that, him singing it would help put him back in the driver's seat of his own storyline.  (Seriously, Kurt was still trying to back out of going in the drop-off line at the airport?  Oh dear.  But it's hard to complain about that when it was padded out with a Kurt-Burt interaction that had me reaching for the tissues.  I never want to see Mike O'Malley choke back tears ever again.  Never!  My heart can't handle it.)

Meanwhile, back at McKinley, the glee club needs not only new members but also a New Rachel.  Or at least, that's what Tina, Blaine, Brittany, and Wade think.  (Oh, yeah.  Wade's here now!  Apparently no audition required.)  The foursome, under Artie's judgment, thus decide to battle it out to "Call Me Maybe" in classic Thunderdome tradition.  Y'know.  With violinists.  Basically, things get heated in the spirit of stardom, and this competition is all wrapped up in a larger storyline involving the glee club forgetting their roots: togetherness, and acceptance.  Yeah, sure, it's tried-and-true Glee schmoop, but it worked.  I don't like seeing these kids mean, even if they are being egged on by rando popular kids.

The target of their antagonism was Mrs. Rose, the overweight lunch lady, who, unbeknownst to the students, is the mom of new recruit Marley.  Mrs. Rose doesn't tell anyone Marley's her daughter, so she can avoid the ridicule.  (This lady is an angel.  She endlessly encourages her daughter to pursue her dreams while simultaneously sacrificing her own visibility in her daughter's life so that she won't hold her back.  Tragic character, party of one!)  But it all doesn't matter when Marley stands up and defends her from the rando popular kids' nastiness, and reveals that Mrs. Rose is her mom.  Sam's the first to apologize for the glee kids' behavior, in a lovely bit of character consistency, because he knows what it's like to not have a lot of money for the shallow things "cool kids" care about.  (Marley's mom sews J. Crew labels into her low-priced clothing.)  They all agree Marley belongs with the glee kids, and is welcomed into the fold.  Of course, such a public acceptance of a loser like Marley means that the glee club loses their newfound popularity, and inductees Wade and Marley both get slammed with the McKinley rite of passage: a slushie to the face.  

As for the New Rachel competition, Blaine is the one who wins out, in a result that shocks, oh, absolutely no one.  I'm still not quite sure why no one remembered that there is actual glee club leadership in the form of captaincy.  We don't need a new Rachel, we need a new captain, which was the position Rachel served in the club.  Not only that, she was co-captain with Finn, so clearly we can spread the wealth here.  Regardless, they're apparently going leader-less, at least on Blaine's "everyone's-a-star" watch, and hopefully with this reinstated policy of tolerance and non-douchery in the glee club, we can stop other characters telling Wade not to dress as Unique during school.  Anyone who tells Unique she shouldn't dress the way she does is almost instantly a "bad guy."  Major unlikeable points, and honestly, after witnessing more than one character telling Wade to lay off the makeup and women's clothes, I couldn't believe it when she reported having felt like she was "welcomed with open arms."  Open arms and a few stipulations, more like.

Anyways.  Let's chalk that up to the glee club forgetting that they embrace their differences and hope it's not a recurring thing.

The final tidbit of the new New Directions storyline belonged to Jake No-Last-Name, who slyly turned out to be Jake... Puckerman.  Somehow, Noah Puckerman, who presumably is wandering around Lima somewhere, does not know he has a brother with the same last name as him... also wandering around Lima somewhere.  Glee writers, I need more details here to help this construct fly!  Did Jake just move here?  Does his dad know he exists?  Is Jake's mom in Lima as well?  Can we meet her?  Can we give her a storyline with Puck?  (Wait.  Let me rephrase.  Can we give her a storyline with Puck where he doesn't sleep with her?  I forgot that I need to specify these things.  Sleeping with inappropriate moms is in no way out of the question for this show.)  There's certainly interesting things to be done with Jake Puckerman, and maybe his arc won't be nearly as erratic as his older half-brother's.  

Truthfully, the storylines at McKinley have just as much potential as the ones in New York.  While it's inherently interesting to watch Kurt and Rachel at the start of their new journeys, I'm almost equally as interested in the reconstruction going on within the New Directions.  There is such a random smattering of students left behind, and I'm excited to see new dynamics shake out.  Of course, there's also four couples split apart in this scenario as well, and it should be intriguing to see how Glee handles that.  Personally, I am really not married to any of them at this point.  These are seventeen- and eighteen-year old kids.  Their significant others won't always stay the same.  They're still growing individually, and that process is more fascinating to me.  It's like Tina's new tattoo says: Make change forever.  Change is good.  This seems to be the motto for the whole season, and I hope the writers embrace it.  Shake things up.  Surprise me.  Impress me.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B-
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: B
Plot: B
Characterization: B-
Episode MVP: Burt Hummel, World's Greatest Dad

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

CINEBLOGGO: Legally Blonde

There’s a strange myth out there that deems feminism and “girly” things mutually exclusive.  That feminists can’t like the color pink, or enjoy getting their hair done, or belong to a sorority, as though this is submitting to the patriarchy and betraying women’s rights.  But the suggestion that these “girly” things are anti-feminist is the real evidence of anti-feminism, because the implication is that women should not want to be associated with femininity.  Isn’t the point of feminism to celebrate womanhood, not shame it from our own bodies and minds?  Rejecting femininity for its “frivolity” only serves to reinforce the notion that masculinity is king and queen, the ultimate power.

There is, similarly, a misconception about the 2001 film Legally Blonde.  With a cheery sorority girl at the movie’s center, and a primarily pink DVD cover, it’s easy to dismiss it as a valid film, let alone a valid feminist film.  Upon closer look, though, Legally Blonde is actually a feminist treasure, supported wonderfully with the existence of its main female and her character arc, as well as the story communicated around her.

When we first meet Elle Woods, she’s attending college in California, serving as the president of her sorority, and expecting an engagement ring from her pre-law dreamboat boyfriend Warner (Huntington III, natch).  But it turns out Warner is actually dumping her, because he intends on heading to Harvard and needs a serious girlfriend - a “Jackie,” not a “Marilyn.”  Elle is devastated by the news, and decides to win Warner back… by attending Harvard Law as well.  This is a decidedly “romcom” premise, and under conventional romcom circumstances, we would probably see Elle meet a new guy who believes in her more than Warner, and when Warner comes inevitably crawling back to her, she would be faced with a choice between men that represented her identity shift from beginning to end.  If Elle chose Warner, she’d be choosing her old self, which isn’t who she really is.  If Elle chose New Harvard Boyfriend, she’d be choosing her new self, and someone who saw her for everything she never knew she was.  And y’know, it’s possible that, if scripted well, it wouldn’t be all that bad.  But Legally Blonde does so much more than that, which transcends romcom convention and typical stories given to main females.  Elle Woods chooses herself.  If anything, then, the love story at the center of Legally Blonde is that of Elle Woods falling in love with her true identity, her real self.  Ultimately, both the film and Elle’s arc demonstrate a shift from a traditional romantic comedy (wanting the guy) to a female-centered identity arc (wanting personal fulfillment) hallmarking Elle’s struggle to prove herself, redefine herself, and embrace herself.  It really can’t get anymore feminist than that.

Most movies concerning themselves with a female empowerment arc would probably show the lady lead differently in the beginning than in the end.  So, in the case of Legally Blonde, it might be an obvious choice to demonstrate Elle’s change by showing her less empowered at movie’s beginning, so we understand how much she’s grown when we’re watching the end.  It makes sense, right?  We’d expect a pre-Harvard Elle to be outwardly unempowered - a bit spineless, not at all shrewd, and least of all self-assured.  But Legally Blonde doesn’t bother with this; in fact, Elle is never portrayed as any of these things because they’re simply not in her character.  Our first real introduction to Elle is in the film’s second scene, where Elle is shopping for a dress.  The saleswoman, thinking that Elle is a dumb blonde with daddy’s credit card, tries to dupe her into buying an out-of-season dress for an exorbitant price.  But not only does Elle see through the ruse, she actually calls out the saleswoman on her attempted manipulation, even throwing in a thinly veiled insult to boot.  And this is the girl at the start of her empowerment arc!

But even though this seems like an oversight in communicating the change in Elle Woods from beginning to end, it’s actually a glorious detail that shows so much respect and affection for the story’s lead.  By showing Elle with smarts and a backbone within the first ten minutes, Legally Blonde is instantly and subtly indicating to the audience one single, beautiful message about her change: Elle Woods had it in her all along.  With this construct, this narrative always has faith in Elle, and her self-empowerment arc, as she herself points out in her commencement speech, is learning to have faith in herself.  You can even notice the no-change change in the fact that the same song plays over the end and opening credits.  In the beginning, when Elle is anticipating Warner’s proposal, it’s “The Perfect Day.”  In the end, graduating from Harvard with honors, it’s the same.  Elle had it in her all along.

It’s hugely important, with female character arcs, to manifest development without changing the character.  Would Elle be the same Elle if she started dressing like Vivian and acting like Enid?  Do we really want Elle to abandon her sorority friends and hobnob with the East Coasters?  I love dearly that while Elle does take some measures to fit in with her Harvard peers, the conclusion is that it’s simply impossible.  Her goal is not to fit in with them, but to achieve comparably to them.  She buckles down, devotes her time and brain power, and works hard to be in the same league as her peers.  But even when she endeavors to dress like them, she ends up wearing a shimmering smoking jacket and fashion glasses.  Ultimately, the film’s message is that Elle only has to be Elle to succeed.  When she’s on her date with Warner in the first scenes, she wears a bright pink dress - her power color.  And when she walks into the courtroom for her last scenes, she wears a bright pink dress - her power color.  Elle hasn’t changed; her power has only shifted.

It’s doubly important to avoid changing Elle’s character when considering the gender politics of the film.  Elle codes as a traditional “girly girl” - before we even see her face or know her as a person, we see her applying makeup and perfume.  Pink is her power color, she does get mani-pedis to de-stress, and she does know the particulars of perm maintenance (after all, the rules of hair care are simple and finite).  The premise of this film involves Elle moving away from her traditionally feminine environment, the sorority house, and into a traditionally masculine environment: Harvard law.  It could be disastrously offensive to suggest a rejection of Elle’s “feminine” past as she finds her true self in her “masculine” present.  But it’s simply not the case.  (Wait, was that an accidental lawyer pun?)  And while it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to believe that Elle would be such a superstar on cases that don’t involve details about hair care, fashion designers, and gay men, it’s important to construct a plot around Elle that rewards her for her “feminine” strengths.  The film even goes a step further to introduce a thematic payoff.  On Elle’s first day, Professor Stromwell quotes Aristotle as having said that “law is reason free from passion.”  That statement basically exalts masculinity over femininity, because traditionally, reason codes “masculine” and passion codes “feminine.”  Lady emotions have no place in the courtroom!  But Elle proves that the opposite is true, and even says so in her commencement speech: passion is key, in law, and life.  What could potentially be rejected for its associations with femininity is actually embraced, just as Elle is.

So frequently in popular media, women receive a message that they should change themselves to fit a mold, and only then will they receive the love of a man, which somehow is the end-all, be-all goal.  To this end, it is not only fantastic that Elle’s power, strengths, and femininity are respected by the narrative, but that her love interest is not overplayed to be a dominant focus of Elle’s journey.  After all, this is Elle’s love story with herself.  It’s lovely that all the other characters, including Emmett, fall in line.  Legally Blonde even goes a step further to give Emmett a little character journey as a result of meeting Elle: she encourages him to have more faith in people, which he in turn invests in her.  He takes a chance in supporting her in the courtroom, and when others doubt him, he specifically recites Elle’s own words: have a little faith.  This wonderful, small-scale romance is made even better by the fact that Emmett never actually “saves” Elle.  Even when she’s down on herself and thinks she hasn’t earned any of her achievements at Harvard, it is not Emmett who puts her back on her horse.  Yes, he offers encouragement and support in the form of the film’s theme by offering Elle a hypothetical about her identity: “What if you’re trying to be someone you are?”  It’s a great touch, but in the end, the one to call Elle back to action is actually a woman: Professor Stromwell.  Hearkening to the idea that these are both women in a man’s world, Stromwell challenges Elle’s choice to leave by basically admitting that she grew to admire Elle’s conviction.  And with that, Elle changes her mind, and continues on her path.

Even beyond this one incident, Legally Blonde fosters and demonstrates positive female relationships across the board.  Elle’s sorority sisters universally support her, whether in her engagement to Warner, or her dream of Harvard.  Elle stands by Brooke even when she doesn’t know her alibi, and even then, refuses to break her promise to keep it a secret.  Elle’s friendship with Paulette serves to give her a home away from Harvard, at Paulette’s salon table.  The “bend and snap” is included to show Elle specifically empowering other woman - and even a few men as well.  Even the classmates who initially ridicule Elle ultimately become her friends.  I love that Vivian is the one to reach out to Elle, and she does so because she respects her.  Vivian specifically states that she admires Elle for not giving up Brooke’s alibi and sticking to her integrity.  Not only that, but they bond over their treatment as the only two women on Callahan’s team of interns.  Joy of joy, these are not characteristics often awarded to female characters in romantic comedies!  And even better still, the message with these women and their relationships is that there’s no such thing as “Marilyns” and “Jackies.”  

Nearly everything in this film lines up behind Elle’s empowerment arc as an independent, self-assured, feminist character.  Small moments like Professor Stromwell questioning Dorky David Kidney impart a lesson about self-doubt; when Elle overhears David being rejected by pretty girls, she springs to his aid when she hears them say that “girls like me don’t go out with guys like you,” because that resonates with her, and the reasons for Warner dumping her.  If nothing else, there is an actual closeup of Elle’s face, grinning wildly as she spots her own name on a list of those having earned an intern position.  The line of dialogue?  “ME!”  

Yes, Elle.  You.  And that’s what makes this film a little slice of feminist heaven.
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