Friday, November 30, 2012

The RBI Report: "Thanksgiving"

There's probably a Thanksgiving meal metaphor here; maybe something about Glee making all their side dishes the main course, or putting too much food on the table, or forgetting to even cook the turkey or something.  I guess the easiest thing to say is this: "Thanksgiving," in spite of a few good flavors here and there, just wasn't delicious.  

"Thanksgiving," written by Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner, directed by Brad Buecker.

Real talk: I wanted to like "Thanksgiving" more than I did.  I have a soft spot for everyone involved, and not just the returning cast members!  I love when editors get to take a turn at directing, as Brad Buecker has done, and I feel for Lerner and Friend because, well, they're new writers and that can't be fun.  Also, their names sound like they should be on Sesame Street and I find that irresistibly charming.  But alas, Lerner and Friend could not sing, count, or otherwise adorable their way out of the mess that their predecessors have left them.  (Should I call them Friend and Lerner?  I feel like that's what should go on my Twitter profile: drshebloggo, friend and learner.)

What exactly do you do with six returning graduates, two NYC orphans, twelve current glee members, one competition, one national holiday, one love quadrangle, one half-baked eating disorder storyline, and countless scattered relationships to try and honor?  I'd say it sounds like the start of a joke, but that feels a bit too mean.  Truthfully, it's just a mess.  And maybe a miracle, frankly, that there were some good moments throughout "Thanksgiving."  But as soon as the episode started heading towards something interesting, it veered in the other direction before anything really great could come of it.  This makes an hour of Glee less a viewing experience and more an exercise in "what could have been"s.  "Let's Have a Kiki" was so sublimely absurd and infectious (and the happiest Chris Colfer has looked about playing Kurt in at least a dozen - two dozen? - episodes) it begs the question: why no New York spinoff with Rachel, Kurt, and the occasional Isabelle?  I know I complained about adults getting involved in the teens' lives, but for some reason, it's more or less believable with Isabelle and Kurt.  Perhaps it's Isabelle's kooky but competent demeanor, or her similarities to Kurt, or the fact that she's not trying to sleep with him, sabotage him, or force her own dreams on him.  Maybe it's just the magic of Sarah Jessica Parker.  (And by 'magic' I really mean Hocus Pocus.)

Regardless, there were countless little wormholes in "Thanksgiving" that made me wish we could zip into those other universes and see what was happening there.  Kurt and Brody bickering about turkey preparation just made me want a three-handed Odd Couple dynamic with them and Rachel.  Quinn talking about her life at Yale just made me want to see how exactly she got involved with all these extracurriculars (and her professor).  The quick glimpse of Sue and Emma in the crowd at Sectionals made me wonder how they're getting along these days.  Unique's hasty "update" on her post-"Glease" choices, combined with her partnership with Mercedes, made me grumpy that we didn't see any actual onscreen development or interaction there.  The same goes for Marley and Santana, which was actually the Number One Oldie-Newbie dynamic to develop, frankly.  Every other pair was fairly expected given the plot, or shared character traits - Ryder/Mike, Mercedes/Unique, Kitty/Quinn, and Jake/Puck.  But Santana/Marley?  Completely unexpected, and the results we barely saw were intriguing.

In fact, what the episode did put forth regarding Santana and Marley, and by extension, Quinn and Kitty, was fairly solid.  It worked reasonably well to have Quinn and Santana argue over their noobs, perhaps because these are two characters who don't often show that they care.  And while I can see Quinn going Mama Bear over another girl in the school potentially getting knocked up by a Puckerman, I sincerely doubt she'd buy into Kitty's crap without trying to get the real story.  Even so, I actually found it endearing how stupidly idolizing Kitty was of Quinn (she has a picture of her in her locker, for heaven's sake), and the Santana-Quinn argument was surprisingly not a two-dimensional excuse for a slapfight.  Quinn touched on a nerve with Santana by basically calling her a coward for not pursuing her dreams.  Whoa, whoa, whoa!  Say what now?  That is actually fascinating.  As is the "TWITTER UPDATE!" (bless) of Quinn being excited about another man defining her life.  And of course, these two notions are buried under six different terribly-developed storylines and completely off-camera... right next to the storyline where Santana cares about Marley's eating disorder because she's been there herself.  Two storylines over from Unique's relationship with her parents, which went from "we love her and accept her no matter what" to "we're going to send you away to a camp."  Lying just below the forgotten detail that Quinn gave Rachel the train pass, not the other way around.  (Unless Quinn fudged the facts because it was more believable that Rachel would do something that over-the-top, and wanted to save face.  I will accept this version of events, but very few reasons as to why exactly they haven't used the train passes.  Those things expire, you know.)

Instead of these more interesting "Thanksgiving" morsels, we instead just got a lot of hot air about Brody and Cassandra having sex, and Kurt and Rachel giving themselves another pep talk about their ex-boyfriends, and superfluous Warbler performances where Grant Gustin is probably questioning, yet again, what exactly the plan was for his character on this show.  Also, during "Whistle," did anyone else doubt if there's ever been a rap performance on this show not done by a white dude?  I cling to Santana's split verses in "Fly" like never before.  (And yes, I do know that Darren Criss is half-Filipino and not technically white.  Arguments abound as to whether or not the same goes for Blaine.  I see both sides.)

The Ryder-Jake storyline was adequate in and of itself, although I question Glee's logic in that it's totally normal to trade girlfriend choices with dance solos.  It wasn't quite framed so crassly, but I won't deny that my brow furrowed at this leg of the love quadrangle.  Plus, I have a hard time swallowing this "we're bros!" d├ętente that Ryder and Jake have created to rise above their romantic opposition, when Kitty's two scenes over scheming to physically and psychologically harm Marley over having a relationship with her ex.  (That is why she's doing it, right?  I can't even remember, and Glee seems to be resting lazily on the excuse that Kitty's a nasty cheerleading bitch and so why wouldn't she?  Sigh.)  

I will also confess that I'm growing to like dear little Jake Puckerman, perhaps because he's the only noob who seems to be unbound by stereotype in the writer's room.  Marley, and Kitty, and Ryder are all still flat on the page, written too neatly in the lines of Rachel, and Quinn, and Finn.  But Jake?  Jake's the "bad boy" who has conversations with the lunch lady no one likes, and secret ballet training.  Combine that with Jacob Artist's sweet little face and he's quickly becoming my preferred 2.0 kid.  And Aisha Tyler's coming to be his mom!  Lord, I pray to all things Teen Jesus that they intend on showing a good relationship with his mother.  This show has been historically all about the dads, what with the "being a man" rhetoric, and Quinn's daddy issues, and Puck's daddy issues, and Finn's and Blaine's and Will's daddy issues, and Rachel's two dads, and Patron Saint of Fathers Burt Hummel.  There's been good dads and bad dads, and focus on lack of dads.  Moms?  Not so much.  There's bad moms, like Shelby, and Quinn, and Mama Sylvester and Mama Pillsbury, and good-but-forgotten moms like Carole and possibly Sue, and drunk moms like Mrs. Schuester and Mrs. Fabray.  May Jake's mom follow in the blessed footsteps of Gloria Estefan as Mama Lopez or Tamlyn Tomita as Mama Chang, our only examples of coherent, existing, and supportive moms on this show.  But if he must have mommy issues, may they at least not be dusted under the rug like Quinn's and Emma's and Finn's and Sue's.  


Now let me discuss, finally, the last two big moments of the episode - Kurt and Blaine's talk, and Marley's collapse.  Despite the Kurt-Blaine phone call's poor placement in the episode (you couldn't have found a better place than right after "Let's Have a Kiki" for Kurt and right before Sectionals for Blaine?), the content was solid.  It was good to finally get the ball rolling on recovery for these two, instead of alternating between "we're not talking" and "I miss him."  I like that we're setting a goal for Christmas, acknowledging their history together, and not forcing Kurt to forgive Blaine any time soon.  It's surprisingly mature for this show to acknowledge that there's a difference between listening and forgiveness, and I appreciated as well that Kurt's actions were framed not with weakness but strength.  Kurt isn't weak for calling Blaine and wishing him well and telling him he misses him.  He's trying to move forward, and, as per Isabelle's advice, trying to do so with acceptance in his heart.  This is actually the picture of strength, and I'm mildly impressed with this wisdom, I have to say.  

As for Marley's collapse... eh.  After two seasons with overworked conflicts that dissolve too easily into an expected Sectionals victory for New Directions, I appreciate the switch-up in format.  There's no confetti or trophy waiting for them at episode's end, just a medical emergency.  I can dig it, in theory.  But this Marley eating disorder storyline is just too terrible for me to be wholly okay with the cliffhanger.  Obviously, I feel badly for Marley, as she's clearly not okay.  But the machinations of the writers to get to this point were just too ass-backwards and forced.  The storyline was overwrought in places it should have been left alone, and underdeveloped in areas it should have been worked a bit more.  It's also one of Glee's rare storylines that carries over from episode to episode, and it actually didn't need to be.  The plausibility of the circumstances is stretching, and about to break.  What's left is the romantic interest of Jake and Ryder and not the mentor concern of Santana, and the shock factor they clearly intended all along: Marley collapsing on stage.  So it feels cheap, and that sucks.  A serious disorder that affects plenty of people like Marley shouldn't feel cheap.  

In all, "Thanksgiving" didn't feel much different from any of the other offerings Glee has served up this year, despite the familiar faces.  Most everything was stretched and contrived to precipitate an end result we're not all that emotionally invested in, padded out with untethered musical numbers, and spread thin with expository dialogue.  What's worse, this episode featured the most appearances by previous graduates, and so every once and awhile we got a brief shining glimpse of something we'd be far more interested in if only the Glee writers would put a light there.  

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: C
Dance Numbers: C
Dialogue: B for jokes, D for content
Plot: C
Characterization: C
Episode MVP: "Let's Have a Kiki"

The Belated RBI Report: "Dynamic Duets"

I'm on my third Glee episode in four days and it feels like my brain is leaking out my ears, so this one for "Dynamic Duets" will be brief.  Cool?  Cool.

"Dynamic Duets," written and directed by Ian Brennan

Is this our first episode doubled up with Ian?  I can't remember.  Regardless, it definitely showed - "Dynamic Duets" didn't take itself too seriously, and was firmly grounded in absurdity.  The theme of the hour was "superheroes," and Ian left no stone unturned in exploiting that theme.  The direction in particular was a bit unhinged, with whip-tos, push-ins, and freeze frames underscoring the devotion to comic book style.  And, even though most superheroes work alone, "Dynamic Duets" went instead with the Avengers theme: there's strength in numbers.  

Ryder and Jake
Finn paired up these two so they could work out their differences through collaboration.  But, duetting only flared up their competition over Marley.  (Ryder thinks Jake is a manwhore who's going to hurt Marley blah blah blah.)  They brawled.  So, Finn required them to share a secret with the other, and, after Jake makes the first move, Ryder reveals he has a hard time reading.  Jake decides to tell Finn, who gets a school counselor to test Ryder for dyslexia.  This was an adequate storyline for these two dudes on the outs, and it's nice to see guys on this show bonding over actual emotional authenticity instead of the "you're teaching me how to be a man" card.  Jake and Ryder's bonding was specific, meaningful, and well-played.  

Kitty and Marley
Meanwhile, over in Girlville, Marley and Kitty's storyline should be so lucky.  The two are paired up for a superhero duet, and of course, Kitty takes every opportunity to undercut Marley's self-esteem with comments about her weight and Marley completely buys into it.  Sigh!  Why do Ryder and Jake get meaningful interactions when Kitty and Marley's are built on sabotage?  It's frustrating!  There's absolutely no reason why the girls can't overcome their boy-related opposition, especially when Ryder and Jake did just fine getting past their Marley issues.  Worse still, Kitty's pretending to be Marley's friend, which makes their interactions all the more frustrating.  If you remove the element of manipulation from the scenario, Kitty and Marley actually have great interactions - Kitty's kind of like Marley's sassy gay friend who says bitchy things but means well.  If only that were the reality here.  There's no coming back from the kind of psychological warfare Kitty's actually waging against Marley, so may as well enjoy the friendly-ish interactions while we can.  If we can.

Blaine and the New Directions
So, like any hero, Blaine is tempted to go to the "dark side," aka back to the Warblers.  This has been brewing all season long, since Kurt left, and it made sense for the show to explore this.  I will say, though, that I'm grumpy about the Warblers singing Kelly Clarkson's "Dark Side," because it has long been a song that my brain associates with Quinn Fabray.  I mean, I know the show doesn't care about Quinn enough to give her that solo, nor would it be in Dianna Agron's vocal wheelhouse, but... all I'm saying is if I had enough fannish devotion, I'd totally be making a fanvid right now.

Anyways, Blaine gives in to the encouragement from that weird dude with the cat, and Sam steps in to stop Blaine from doing something he'll regret.  I did like how "We Can Be Heroes" actually showed the New Directions doing heroic things on a small scale.  For as much as this episode indulged in over-the-top expressions of heroism, they still had the kids participating in volunteer work, which is a lovely display of real-life heroics.  Plus painting montages are always fun.  

Finn got a nice background arc where he came into his own as a glee club leader.  Sure, dialogue like "be their hero, Finn" grates a bit, but I liked the underlying issue of Finn trying to establish himself as an adult to kids that are only a year younger than him.  Plus, it allowed for the coffee bit, which was actually a great little moment of comedy and character insight.  In the end, Finn's guidance to Ryder and Jake worked, and the team welcomed him as their leader.  After all, how better to tell someone you view them as an old person than to give them a fanny pack?  Congratulations, Finn.  The group sees you as an eighty-year-old woman in a casino.  All joking aside, Finn's leadership was actually believable in this episode: well-intentioned, a bit goofy, and ultimately very quarterback-esque, what with the huddle up and the pep talk.

In all, "Dynamic Duets" felt a lot like an Ian Brennan episode from S1.  It was thematically exhausted, but wacky and weird enough to not be taken too seriously.  Kind of like "Funk," which Ian cheekily name-checked in this episode as a bad idea.  (As an aside, how much do I love that Tina and Artie now exist to deliver "bitch please" comments to everyone in the narrative?  If they're not going to be wielded as actual characters, then this is the next best thing.)  "Dynamic Duets" was certainly not the best Glee's ever been, nor did it feature anything I'm personally invested in, but it was executed with tongue in cheek and workable development.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: C
Dance Numbers: C
Dialogue: C
Plot: C
Characterization: C
Episode MVP: Jake Puckerman

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Belated RBI Report: "Glease"

Well, that was an asinine hour of television.  Almost as dumb as the name "Glease."

"Glease," written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, directed by Michael Uppendahl

This week, I'm tripled-up on Glee episodes, so, for time management, as well as my sanity, I'm doing a simple run-through of what was good and what wasn't.  With "Glease," it's a lopsided list, and not in a good way.  Even so, let's start with the good:

I actually enjoyed Finn and Rachel's episode-ending discussion, mainly because it felt authentic to what we've witnessed with them as a couple: it's been good, it's been bad.  We don't always get that even-handed interpretation, and so when Finn started listing Rachel's different types of cries, I braced myself for maximum schmaltz.  But the last one - "crying over a guy," changed my opinion, simply because Finn admitted that Rachel spent much of her time in high school crying over him.  As far as I see it, that's not exactly ideal, and I appreciated that such a downer of a truth was embedded in what would ordinarily be a basic schmoopy and two-dimensional ode to Finn and Rachel's relationship.  I'm intrigued that the writers are cutting the cord between the two (I'm sure it's temporary, but at least it's a firm decision for the meantime) and want to see each character on their own for a bit.  (Although the conflicts this episode found for them, individually, were really dumb, so who knows.  More on that in a bit.)

The dialogue this season has been exceptionally bottom-of-the-barrel.  That's what happens when your cast is comparable in number to the population of a small city.  Each scene juggles someone new, in which they say exactly what they're thinking or what their purpose is, and the audience winces at the blatant dismissal of "show, don't tell."  But!  There was one single moment in "Glease" where this construct didn't completely obliterate any authenticity of emotion, and for that, it goes in the good (miraculous?) category.  While most of Brittany and Santana's pre-show conversation was suuuuuuper on-the-nose and suuuuuuuper expository, the final shot somehow made it work.  I don't quite know how this happened.  Brittany literally identifying all the reasons that Santana should be sad during her solo is not exactly the best way to demonstrate why Santana is going to be sad during her solo.  And yet, something about that lingering shot of Santana looking in the mirror, bubble burst, punctuated the otherwise dull moment with a pang of genuine heartache.  Maybe it's because she didn't look in the mirror and say, "I'm so sad."  Maybe it's because we got a split second of quiet time to spend alone with a character's emotional POV, something Glee is sorely lacking these days.  Or maybe it's just Naya Rivera's face.  Whatever the reason, I was surprised and impressed at the sudden elevation of bargain-basement material.

The news that Puck and Mercedes stay in touch in LA.


The bad - nay, terrible:

Marley's storyline was basically a trainwreck from beginning to end.  The main culprit was one of Glee's classic constructs: Character A, at center of storyline, doesn't have agency.  In order to overcome their obstacles, another character just fixes everything for them, thereby depriving them of a choice, and oversimplifying emotional depth.  Marley's storyline went even further in this paradigm to show all the symptoms of Glee's recurring and gross perception of women.  Behold: Marley thinks she's gaining weight.  Marley panics because her mom is overweight.  Reveal!  Kitty, bitchy cheerleader, is going to comically absurd lengths to sabotage Marley because she hates her for "stealing" her boyfriend (which, annoyingly, didn't even happen).  Kitty convinces Marley to purge as a solution to this nonexistent weight problem, which Marley does with little protest until Ryder finally steps in and tells her she's too beautiful and amazing to do such a thing.  Phew!  I'm glad there was a penis around to save the day.  What would Marley have done with only mean bitches to guide her?

This storyline does no one any favors except Ryder, for being a sweet guy who barges into bathrooms and stops girls from forcing themselves to vomit after a meal.  It puts Kitty beyond the realms of human sympathy, and it makes Marley a spineless putz.  And for what?  A PSA about eating disorders?  Surely there's a better way to do this.  For the exact same result, it'd just be cheaper to put Blake Jenner's face on a billboard in LA with the caption, "Hey ladies.  You're beautiful.  Keep your food down."

Instead, there was never any moment where someone sat Marley down to talk about body image.  There was no "Hey, Marley.  Hollywood wants you to be a size 2, but fuck the haters and be happy with who you are."  There wasn't even a "Hey, Marley.  Yes, we understand you don't want to be the same weight as your mom.  But you're your own person, and as long as you eat healthy foods, with moderation, and learn to love your imperfections, you're the most beautiful you can be."  There wasn't even any acknowledgement that being size-2 skinny isn't the end-all, be-all.  In fact, the episode breezed right by that lesson and had Marley's mom basically reinforce the idea that if she's going to be a star, she has to be thin.  Sigh!  Every step of this storyline felt like a pitstop on the Missing the Point Express, and what's worse is knowing that the writers are forcing Kitty to conduct the train.  Marley showed no sign of body dysmorphia before Kitty basically brainwashed her, and it's slightly horrific to think about the emotional consequences.  Body dysmorphia is a real thing, and yet the Glee writers are weaponizing it into the hands of a high school sociopath and dissolving it with the mere appreciation of a cute boy.  It's obscenely two-dimensional, and a bit unsettling, when you think about it.

Basically, this storyline needed to swerve on that track within the first botched Grease fitting.  Why not have Tina notice the inconsistencies in her measurements, which seems like it would be fairly obvious, and have her investigate the situation?  It would certainly give Tina something to do, instead of get skipped over for solos and then gripe about it.  And putting Kitty in her place would be a nice moment of an upperclassman sticking up for an underclassman, and a hero moment for Tina as an important member of the glee club.  (Don't you dare tell me she's not.)  There's even opportunity for Tina to mentor Marley a little bit, which makes Tina less of an afterthought and Marley less of a social climber in the narrative.

In summary: this storyline is best enjoyed by muting Kitty's and Marley's scenes, and pretending that every time Kitty raises two fingers to tell Marley to purge, she's really offering lesbian sex.  You're welcome.

The second bad thing in this episode was the treatment of Unique.  The issue here is not dissimilar to Marley's - Unique had little to no agency in her storyline, when in fact, she should be the emotional focal point.  Because of Sue Sylvester's squabble with a 19-year-old, Unique has been removed from the play and told she can't wear women's clothing at school.  Now, I understand that it's realistic to think that Unique's safety might be of concern in a small-minded Ohio town.  I get this.  But how fucking sad is it that she can't be who she is, and this outcome is precipitated by a pointless Finn-Sue antagonism?  Boo.  If Unique can't be who she is at school, then at least show me scenes where she can be herself at home.  Show me with her parents, who accept her.  Show her happy, show her fulfilled.  Let her be Rizzo, no questions asked!  I love that this character is representing transgender teenagers, a group that gets little to no visibility in mainstream television, but for the love of humanity don't crap on the character.  It does more to change minds by letting Unique be Rizzo, without any question or doubt.  But even if you're going to give Unique these obstacles, at least let her be at the center of the storyline, with choices and agency and empowerment.  It's the most important trait to give any character, especially one representing outside the kyriarchy.  

What's even more unfortunate about the marginalization of Unique in this episode is that it was done for a lame conflict between Sue and Finn.  Why is it that the adults on Glee are extraordinarily adept at getting way too involved with the drama of young people?  It's an age-old issue, but "Glease" had it bad: Sue has a vendetta against a 19-year-old, and Cassandra July gives her JetBlue points to Rachel Berry just so she can emotionally traumatize her by sleeping with Brody.  How ridiculous is that premise?  First, it's kind of dumb for Cassie to think that sleeping with Brody would hurt Rachel.  It's not even like they're dating.  Second, Cassie shouldn't even know if Brody and Rachel are dating.  Third, WHY DOES CASSIE CARE SO MUCH ABOUT WHAT'S GOING ON IN THE LIFE OF A NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD?  This conflict with Rachel and Cassandra was the absolute worst.  It took the bitchy-female-relationship aspect of the Marley-Kitty storyline, shook it together with the adult-engaging-pathetically-with-a-teenager element of the Finn-Sue storyline, and created a gross Leviathan of No-No-No-Please-Make-it-Stop the likes of which we haven't seen since Shelby stuck her tongue down Puck's throat.  

Basically, every adult on this show needs to be shipped off to a Blue Ribbon Panel of Learning to Have Responsible Interactions with Young People.  The end.

I'm very, very torn about seeing the graduated kids in the halls of McKinley.  On the one hand, it's nice to have them onscreen.  On the other hand, Glee is wielding them terribly, and mostly I just want to think that they've gone on to bigger and better things.  (The actors as well, frankly.)  It's so dumb to randomly toss Mike and Mercedes and Santana into storylines where they're not really necessary!  These characters are already too much like puppets; I don't like seeing every string on the marionette as the writers dance graduated seniors back into the picture for a half-baked appearance.  If all they're going to do is yap about what they're up to and be pushed to the background behind the underclassmen, then just cut them loose!  Absolutely nothing about bringing the college kids back makes sense: why Mike and Mercedes were still there, why Santana was the "obvious" choice for Rizzo, why Kurt and Rachel really wanted to go home to see their exes.  None of it makes sense.  None!

Bottom line: I like seeing the old gang reunited again.  But the transparent ways in which the writers tether them back to McKinley High School is putting them on the path to become one of Glee's classic pathetic adults who can't seem to not be involved with high school drama.

And, while I would ordinarily appreciate checking in on our bereft couples, none of the scenes between Brittany and Santana, Kurt and Blaine, or Mike and Tina gave us any new information.  Why not take the screentime divvied up to all three for basically no content, and allow one couple (my choice: Mike and Tina, since we didn't see them in the break-up episode) an actual plotline?  It would be so much better that way.  Focus, Glee!  I know you have a lot of characters to juggle, but if you try to do right by them all at once, you're not doing right by any of them!  

Including the faceless theater critic was dumb.  It was used as a weird last-minute way to raise the stakes on Marley's performance (to facilitate a Marley/Ryder kiss?) and then just to overly praise the performance, as if we needed to be told, in way-exaggerated language, just how amazing everything was.  Uh, thanks.  That wasn't really necessary.


Okay, there were a few things that came so close to being good, but were interrupted by bizarre decisions in directing.  Detailed here, in all their middling glory:

As mentioned earlier, I loved the Santana moment that preceded her solo, and I loved the idea that Unique got an emotional moment about her loss of the role of Rizzo.  "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" came very close to making good on both promises, and boasted a three-handed solo that I would usually find intriguing in its cross-character parallels.  But this did not work, largely because there was too much going on.  It lacked focus.  Santana's emotions about Brittany and Unique's emotions about losing the part vied for the predominant POV, and the inclusion of Cassandra July flat-out ruined it.  Together, there was actually no common thread between the three singers' emotional POV, and Unique's and Santana's link of sadness was not quite similar enough to be tonally harmonious.  It's a shame, because the vocals on the song were great, and I loved that Unique sang her part from the audience, even though she wasn't under the spotlight.  It was the one element in Unique's storyline that I'd been waiting for.  Unfortunately, its context was a bit muddled.

Similarly, "Glease" made some weird choices involving "You're the One That I Want."  I loved, loved, loved that Rachel had a fantasy sequence where she imagined herself singing the song with Finn - after all, it's the first song they ever sang together.  That was a glorious, lovely decision that actually made my heart pang for their broken relationship.  But then Glee took it too far, and nothing about any of it came to make any sense.  It's one thing for Rachel to get the hallucination, as it were, but then suddenly Finn shared the same one?  And that wouldn't be as bad, I suppose, but then suddenly all the broken-up couples were dancing happily like they had no problems in the world?  What the hell?  It would have been so much stronger to keep the fantasy sequence to Rachel alone, and allow her that moment of sadness.  Then, when she snaps out of it, she sees that Finn is looking at her, and we get the idea that he's thinking the same thing - but we don't have to see him having the same visual that Rachel did.  Because that was weird.

And, more than anything, I was super peeved that every old couple reunited for that number: Mike and Tina, Kurt and Blaine, Finn and Rachel, and Brittany and Santana... but not Sam and Mercedes.  Really, writers?  Really?  You're gonna pretend they never existed?  Even though both parties were in the building, as a result of your dumbass machinations anyways?  Sigh.  

In all, "Glease" was a hot mess of bad decisions, from the spread-thin content and characters, to the poor development afforded to larger conflicts.  Nearly everything was contrived, and brief moments that flirted with authenticity were unraveled by lack of focus and too much going on.  

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: C
Dance Numbers: C
Dialogue: F
Plot: C
Characterization: D
Episode MVP: uh... Mercedes?

Friday, November 9, 2012

The RBI Report: "The Role You Were Born to Play"

Goodness, but Glee has a lot of characters in the mix.  There were roughly sixteen at play in this episode, in varying measures of frantic purpose, and so naturally things were a bit hectic.  But what better way to unite a whole group of singing teenagers than a musical?  Preparing to stage Grease provided the backdrop - and launching point - for most of the night's storylines.

"The Role You Were Born to Play," written by Michael Hitchcock, directed by Brad Falchuk.

So, in an effort to breeze through each character's relevant points as swiftly as Glee does, I'll be doing a bulleted list with commentary.  


Finn provided the backbone for this episode, as he struggled with life's disappointments on the heels of being booted from the army and also from NYC and also his relationship with Rachel.  Poor guy.  I'm actually on board with this storyline for Finn, although I wish he were playing a more active role in it.  Historically, Finn's the guy that stuff "happens to" - but he's also the first one the writers send into other people's storylines.  This episode was really no different, as Finn was encouraged into new opportunity by Artie and Will, and repeatedly showered with praise to help his wounded ego.  Show me, don't tell!  You're wasting screentime by giving multiple characters slight variations of the same dialogue: Finn, you're special and my hero and a leader please don't be sad.  Especially since the episode actually showed Finn being special and a hero and a leader, in some regard - multiple times, with Ryder and Wade and Sue.  Altogether, it was overkill.

Look, I know that the plot point that kicked off glee club's magic was Finn joining.  I know that grants Finn Hudson some narrative swag.  But somehow this idea has extended into the fact that glee club needs a conventionally masculine male lead to be successful.  The lineage begins with Will and Finn, and is now precipitating to Ryder and even Jake.  Apparently, all you need to make a glee club successful is a trip to the football field.  Meanwhile, it's never even considered that someone like Mike or Mercedes or Artie or Tina or even Marley is that "magic element," the "missing piece."  It's not the real music students, or theatre geeks, or dance gurus who are special enough to merit all that attention.  It's the guy who didn't know he had it in him.  So I guess I mean to say, in all of this, that I don't know why we need Ryder.  He's Finn 2.0, who is Will 2.0, and this strange Manarchy is becoming the true backbone of Glee, threatening to overshadow the follow-your-dreams-be-yourself mainstay.  Turns out there really is no greater joy than to help a young boy turn into a man... except maybe watching it happen, apparently.  Over and over and over... and over again.

Finn's involvement with Wade's storyline was both surprising and yet completely expected.  As mentioned, he's the go-to guy for encouragement and heroics and generally just making decisions for other people that should be the main characters in their own storyline.  (Paging "I Kissed a Girl" and also "Goodbye.")  So Finn being the main crusader for Wade-being-cast-as-Rizzo-despite-the-gender-swap is not shocking.  Truthfully, it would have been nice if Wade were more involved in the episode-long discussion that revolved entirely around her.  Having Finn go to the mat for her was a nice gesture, but a bit misguided.  I will say, though, that the episode did a nice bit of nuance to suggest why Finn was insistent on fighting for Wade's casting.  Their final conversation specifically brought up the pain of not knowing if there's a place for you in this world - which is very relevant to Finn right now.  For me, it was a nice way to hint at a specific motivator for Finn (beyond "he's such a hero!!!") as well as provide a little connection between their storylines.  And it was sized appropriately - there was no overwrought and offensive attempt to make Wade's experience as a black transgender teen actually comparable to Finn's fairly cushy straight white male experience.  That moment really did belong to Wade, because we finally got to see her POV, and some pretty solid acting from Alex Newell.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by that. 

But basically, I wish that Finn himself had a lightbulb about trying his hand at teaching - especially unrelated from Will.  Because Will is actually a terrible teacher.  Remember when he resigned from the Spanish teacher position he'd been filling for over two years because he couldn't really speak Spanish?  Good gravy.  Not to mention all his yelling fits and blatant favoritism.  But whatever!  Water under the bridge that I'm clearly a troll under.  My main quibble here is the overly broad job description Will gave teachers: they help kids achieve their dreams.  I mean, I guess that's true.  But, speaking as a person who was raised by teachers not unlike how Mowgli was by wolves... I find it much more resonating to say that teachers are simply trying to get through to kids.  To make a difference in their lives, when that difference can mean opening their eyes to the world and everything there is to learn about it.  Helping kids "achieve their dreams" seems slightly left of center, or at least poorly summarized, on most teachers' list of goals.  But that's just me, and it's not terribly relevant to the episode.  Just my brief turn on the soapbox.  Moving on!

Oh, yeah - one last thing.  Finn's gonna be the glee club teacher-not-teacher now?  I mean, sure.  I'll go with that.  He can write buzz words on the whiteboard with the rest of them.  Maybe after Will's stint in Washington, Finn can start working towards his certification.  The academic nerd in me would be weirdly excited to see that, actually.  Maybe community college will open his brain up just like glee club did!

Will and Emma

Speaking of Will and Washington, we were treated to a continuation of this conflict from "The Break-Up," and the only non-Grease storyline of the hour.  To recap: Will's going to Washington to ensure the achievement of every child's dream, and he wants Emma to come with him for the few months.  Emma does not want to.  Conflict!  Beiste tries to coach them through it, and when Will basically begs Emma to accompany him, she concedes.  But, in another example of characters telling other characters what decisions they need to make (because how else would they fit all these characters into the narrative otherwise?), Shannon basically calls Emma out on defining herself as Will's wife, and implores her to tell the truth about what she wants.  She also says something about how Will loves Emma like a farmer loves his Blue Ribbon pig, which I really hope is not true, for so many reasons.  (Seriously.  Let your brain go in all directions, and realize that every aspect of this comparison is not ideal.)

In the end, Emma tells Will she doesn't want to resent him if she succumbs to his pressure about Washington.  Then they have a conversation they should have had ages ago, in which they sort out what values are important to them in their relationship!  How... adult.  Will says trust, Emma says acceptance, and they realize that those priorities transcend physical distance for a few months.  (Meanwhile, every broken-up couple who succumbed to long distance looks at Will and Emma and says, "Really?  You had this crisis over a few months apart?")  At first I thought this storyline was a bit pointless, considering it boomeranged back to Emma's original opinion from the previous episode.  But there were a few important kinks worked out of their dynamic in the process, especially in regards to Emma's role as "The Girlfriend" or "The Wife."  I'm always here for specific delineation that Emma is not just an accessory in Will's world!  Now, can we get her some scenes without him?  Maybe something that shows us she loves her job and helping kids like she says she does?


Speaking of long-distance relationships, we got an update on Blaine, post-NYC break-up.  To be honest, I'm not sure why we needed one, because we didn't actually gain any new information.  (Except that Blaine's apology gifts involve boxed DVD sets of Gilmore Girls.)  The episode barely remembered just why Kurt and Blaine broke up, finding it totally reasonable to give Blaine a "Hopelessly Devoted to You" solo.  I mean, I'm all for showing Blaine's POV in this scenario, but let's call a spade a spade here, and also give us some details about that spade.  What exactly happened with this cheating business, and can we please remember that it actually did happen?  We don't need to flog Blaine for a transgression that countless other characters on this show have committed, but how about a little reality check on the Olivia Newton-John solos?  Seriously, unless "Hopelessly Devoted to You" was meant to be ironic... it's rather an out-of-touch choice given the circumstances.

I also can't decide if the writers intended Blaine's post-audition crying jag to be dramatic or comedic.  I can totally see it being either one, given that Blaine's comedy tends to come from exaggeration and also Glee is no stranger to comedic crying.  (Sorry, Tina.)  But mostly I just felt confused about what I was meant to be feeling.

One final quibble: we got updates on Blaine's situation with Kurt, and references to Finn's falling out with Rachel - but not one single throwaway mention of Brittany's break-up with Santana.  Sigh!  Could they not think of something dumb enough for her to say about it?  All snark aside, one teensy reference would have been appreciated, for the sake of balance and continuity.  (I'm pretending Glee holds those two concepts dear.)

Mike and Mercedes

And, here we are to another aspect of tonight's episode that was terribly underexposed.  I missed these kids, dammit!  They breezed into town to help out the Grease gang with choreography and vocal training, which makes enough sense to fly.  But there was absolutely no update on what the hell Mike and Mercedes' lives are like now.  Nothing about their schooling, their professional opportunities, their creative projects, or any possible energy exchanges they may have had!!!  (I still think the phrase "energy exchange" is the dumbest and most endearingly hilarious way to describe looking at someone and smiling.  Bless you, Santana.  You have strange definitions when it comes to the world of dating.)  No, Mike and Mercedes did the Hand Jive, and that was about it.  No Mercedes interaction with Sam, and only one free-floating interaction between Mike and Tina.  It was nice to get the screentime for the latter pairing, but having almost no information about their current status made the scene somewhat startling.  We hadn't seen Tina all episode, and only obliquely heard that she refused to audition for Grease because of Mike.  Not only that, but we only knew about their break-up from dialogue references.  I literally have no idea what to make of Mike and Tina's relationship status, and "The Role You Were Born to Play" didn't provide a whole lot of insight either.

The takeaway here: if you're going to haul back two graduated seniors for an episode, then use them.

Ryder and Marley and Kitty and Jake

The New Generation are getting lumped together here.  I don't mind these kids, frankly, although I'm a bit wary of all the Love Square nonsense.  I don't particularly want to be reminded that these four are basically a transposed Finn-Rachel-Quinn-Puck for the younger class.  For my taste, I'm already exhausted with the longing looks, the thinly veiled jealousy, and Kitty's dour bitching.  I do find her dynamic with Jake intriguing, though - they're broken up but on decent enough terms, so they have a snarky, truth-telling, bro-type relationship which amuses me.  Plus, their audition of "Everybody Talks" was strangely charming - and they actually did more than just stand there and sing!  Sure, it was basic walk-around choreography, but hey, they're high schoolers.  I appreciated the effort.  

As for Marley, I rather enjoyed her part in the "One Last Kiss" performance.  It was a Marley colored outside the lines a bit, which is key to making her character interesting.  There's a reason Sue can't come up with a mean nickname for her!  There's almost nothing to uniquely identify this girl, except perhaps her driving caps.  It occurred to me the other day that I almost wish Marley were a cheerleader. The exact same character, but on the Cheerios.  Then you'd have a cheerleader who's in it for the sport of it, and not the high school bitch factory that Glee seems to think it is.  On top of that, it'd create natural conflict for Sue Sylvester that doesn't require her to get involved in random storylines like Wade's simply to fill the role of villain.  But alas!  This is not so, and so mostly I'm hoping for a Marley who shows a little punch and gusto.  (On a shallow note: her hair looked damn good during her duet.  Why hide it under Newsies caps?!)


Finally, Wade.  Or Unique, I suppose.  Glee's not being all that specific in communicating how exactly Wade identifies.  They've bounced back and forth between portraying Unique as a "drag persona" and a real permanent identity for Wade, without delineating the difference.  This episode finally made the distinction, from Wade's own mouth - she feels more herself when she dresses in women's clothes and uses the women's restroom, but it's not easy to do that every day.  On top of that, she says that people see her performances as Unique a drag stunt only - not as genuine identity expression.  (Alluding to the fact that they actually are.)  So!  Hopefully Glee will continue to tidy up this muddled representation of Wade's identity, and start to afford her the opportunity to have her own screentime and POV as a transgender teen.

As for Sue's part in Wade's storyline... it was basically a hot mess.  Kudos to the writers for remembering Sue's place in the Karofsky storyline of Season 2, although boasting about gay Cheerios doesn't seem all that worthy.  (Did she go to the mat for Santana during the campaign scandal?  I can't remember.)  Anyways, Glee always has problems finding appropriate villainy for Sue, without making her an actual terrible human (which she's proved not to be, on occasion), and this opposition to Wade playing Rizzo feels a bit sloppy and contrived.  Not only that, but she's setting her sights on Finn Hudson as an enemy, which is a little sad.  I can't imagine this will play out any differently than Sue's original wars with Will, in the long run.

In all, there was a lot going on in "The Role You Were Born to Play."  Most of the parts that were emphasized strongly could have been scaled back or redirected - particularly in Finn's, Will and Emma's, and Blaine's sections.  Then there was definite underutilization in Mike and Mercedes' parts, and only a few moments where they hit the beats just right.  Truthfully, there are just too many characters to really create well-developed storylines on an individual level.  Moments of choice are rushed and contrived, dialogue is sloppy and expository, and specificity is sacrificed.  Corners must be cut, and "The Role You Were Born to Play" definitely showed that.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: D
Plot: B
Characterization: C
Episode MVP: Wade

Monday, November 5, 2012

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x06 - "The Pack"

Sunnydale bullies
are particularly lame.
'Til they're hyenas.


"The Pack" is one of those Buffy episodes with a truly bizarre premise that somehow manages to make everything work.  Watching the episode, I was completely engaged, and enjoying it.  Then I took a step back and thought, "Wait.  This is about high schoolers who are possessed by the spirits of hyenas and end up cannibalizing their principal."  How on earth do the Buffy writers manage to sell that?  We're only six episodes into this series, and already launching one of our heroes into the throes of magic hyena curses?    But the writers make it work, and what would be jumping-the-shark material on any other show is wielded with freakish agility on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There are a few things of note that make "The Pack" work.

1. It takes itself completely seriously.  This is a bit of a surprise, honestly.  Usually I find that it works better when shows are self-aware, and point out the occasional absurdities of their own mythology.  (This stage comes a bit later for Buffy, in the casual references to the demise of poor Principal Flutie.)  But "The Pack" drinks its own Kool-Aid, and then crushes the cup against its own forehead in an attempt to make you understand just how committed it is.  The episode never allows for the audience to have that moment to step back and have that "wait... hyenas?" moment, because it's too busy demonstrating how sick and twisted The Pack is, and giving them a slow-motion badass montage to a pretty awesome rock song.  I absolutely love that sequence, because it is so drawn-out, and dark, and stylized.   It's self-indulgent and exaggerated, and yet it works.  

2. Actually, the key to #1 lies here: this episode would fall to pieces without the high school drama behind it.  We would not care one iota about hyena bullies if not for two reasons.  One, Xander is among them and he's behaving uncharacteristically.  We want to save him.  Two, Xander's behavior is negatively affecting Willow.  As an audience, we know that Willow likes Xander and Xander likes Buffy - but it's mostly been languishing under the surface, thanks to human inhibitions.  But when Xander basically becomes an animal who operates only on instincts?  That all comes out - and it hurts.  We see his attraction to Buffy, his dismissal of Willow, and worse yet, so do Buffy, and so does Willow.  It's all out in the open for all to see, and we care a lot about how that hurts Willow.  The moment when Xander carelessly pegs Willow with the dodgeball is seriously heartbreaking, as is the scene where Willow tearfully expresses to Buffy that Xander's clearly only picking on her - and there must be a reason why.  Don't cry, Alyson Hannigan!  (Seriously, when Alyson Hannigan cries?  I cry.)

Not only that, but "The Pack" successfully creates a parallel between teenaged bullies and a group of scavengers banded together.  It does more than say "bullies are mean and so are hyena spirits."  It communicates the idea that there's strength and security in numbers, and that the power of "belonging" to a group is everything to high school mean kids.  The very first moments of the episode show the bully group approaching Buffy and taunting her for not being surrounded by friends.  Because in a pack, you're cool and popular.  In a pack, you're untouchable.  And in a pack, you have the power to keep kids like Xander or Willow underfoot.  This was perfectly delineated in the dodgeball scene - a perfect setting of "high school torture" to make it relatable.  During gym class, the pack banded together to pick off a dorkier individual student.  So by making high school meanies pack animals - instead of animals bigger or stronger or more ferocious - this episode offers more than just your standard "tough kid picks on the weak" bully storyline and endeavors to explore psychologically.  The casting was even strong on this idea: the bullies don't look like the stereotypical bullies of most mainstream media; they weren't all football jocks or cheerleaders or even conventionally aligned with polished Barbie-and-Ken looks.  They didn't have any identities at all; there was nothing specific that united them.  They were simply a group of randoms who chose to ally themselves for the sake of their popularity.  

3. Nicholas Brendon does a damn good job acting.  I automatically love any Buffy episode that involves a body or personality swap of some kind, simply because it's exciting to watch the actors deal with the challenge.  "The Pack" is the first foray into that example, and Nicholas Brendon handles it brilliantly.  Like the episode itself, his Hyena Xander takes himself completely seriously, and commits wholeheartedly to the construction.  There's absolutely no warmth behind the eyes, and Xander's usually-endearing smirk turns mocking and sinister.  It's a great performance of doing so much with so little, and being confident that it's enough.

So, even though "The Pack" can be casually referred to as the time demon hyena spirits caused students to eat the school principal alive, the episode is still pretty solid.  Dark and serious in tone, with relatable high school emotions supplying the content and a great performance shading between the lines, "The Pack" transcends its goofy and slightly traumatizing premise to be one of Buffy's more memorable hours.
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