Friday, February 1, 2013

The RBI Report: "Naked"

Having been written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Ian Brennan, and featuring familiar faces like Quinn, Santana, Mercedes, Emma, a headband-wearing Rachel Berry, and even Anchorman Rod, "Naked" may be the closest we'll come to Vintage Glee this season.  And when I say "Vintage Glee," take your pick on the year.  Whenever you liked it best.  Because the episode displayed a surprising range of references to past events and characters in the Glee universe, from Rod and Andrea to Santana's sex tape to Sam being poor and homeless.  There was even a cute group number capping off the episode!  I smiled!

"Naked," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Ian Brennan

Even despite these comforts of yesteryear, "Naked" still displayed a few of the issues plaguing Glee's fourth season: rushed setup, expository dialogue, and scattered focus, in particular.  Conceptually, the episode's storylines seem interesting on the page - Rachel questions whether she's changed too much in her pursuit to grow up!  Sam panics about a low SAT score and overcompensates by funneling all his energies into his other qualities!  Artie feels uncomfortable taking his shirt off for a sexy calendar!  But in execution, padded out with a dumb blackmail story for Finn and Sue, and a sweet-but-threadbare non-arc for Jake and Marley's first "I love you," everything had to be smushed and inverted to make ends meet.

Let's start with Rachel, who faced a big decision regarding whether or not to go topless for a role in a student film.  The plotting in this arc felt weirdly out of order, even though it hit a few good moments along the way.  The idea that Rachel question her identity in terms of new vs. old self is actually a really cool endeavor, especially considering her drastic makeover and turkey-touching this season.  Therefore, "Torn," conceptually, is such a strong idea.  But it's also the strongest part of the idea... and yet it came before the first act was done.  The rest of Rachel's scenes were simply a conversation on actors doing nudity, and the character-based element in the arc went mostly ignored.  

Which is a shame!  For one, Rachel duetting with herself (or vocally masturbating, according to Santana) sounds like something she would have had at least one possibly sexual fantasy about.  Second, the concept itself loans itself well to the kinds of conflicts Old Rachel Berry saw in Season 1, staring herself down in the mirror as she faces another decision that threatens to change who she is in favor of others' expectations.  What a great way to look at New Rachel under the same character constructs we placed on Old Rachel, right?  Obviously, Rachel as a main character is encouraged to develop along her arc, and Rachel as an eighteen-year-old is sure to change as she becomes an adult.  But at what point does she lose herself and become unrecognizable in that mirror?  "Naked" asked the question, and never answered it.  

You could infer, since it was never answered, that all that self-reflection doesn't really matter.  Rachel's decision to not do the topless scene indicates that she's still Old Rachel, and maybe one day she'll take her shirt off for a role and it won't mean she's lost herself.  In some way, this nebulous answer works.  It takes the spotlight off "Rachel changing" and makes everything Not That Big a Deal.  Being naked on film doesn't fundamentally change who you are as a person.  No one really talks about themselves in "new" and "old" versions unless it's New Years, and you need resolutions to break by February.  But I think this last concept is what made Rachel's identity crisis in the episode tantalizing: you only ever know you've changed when it's too late to change back.  You can't flip a switch overnight and become a new person.  (Even though Glee does this on an episode-to-episode basis.)  You merely evolve in your environment, slowly, and before you know it, you're miles away from who you were.  Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?  It's up to you.  But one thing's for sure: you'll never know until after the change has taken place.  It's this kind of irreversibility that helped "Torn" to be an emotionally effective number, but unfortunately, this concept wasn't really explored in the episode at all.

What I would have preferred from the Rachel storyline requires a bit of reordering, to minimize Kurt shaming Rachel for being a "slutty Barbie doing porno," to maximize the emotional impact of "Torn," and to refocus it on Rachel's identity.  First things first: introduce Quinn and Santana as having come to NYC to shop, or whatever.  There's absolutely no believable reason these kids would be able to shuttle back and forth as much as they do, so just pick whatever equally-as-bunk purpose that works the best for your storyline.  They catch up with Rachel, and harmlessly make an offhand comment about her new look.  Rachel, being that she is forever insecure around the erstwhile popular girls, latches onto this comment, and takes it way too seriously.  It plants the seed for her entire crisis.  

Then you raise the question of getting naked for a role, and Rachel kicks into serious self-doubt.  Maybe she talks to Kurt about it, and he voices his concerns in terms of Old Rachel vs. New Rachel (without slut shaming, thank you).  Rachel sings "Torn" with her past self.  Emotional peak.  Finally she talks to Quinn and Santana, and they offer up their rather logical 2-2-2 rule.  It's not about a betrayal of identity; it's about not doing something dumb and permanent for a student film no one's going to see.  Show your boobs another day, Rachel; it has little to do with your sense of self.  As resolution, maybe Quinn and Santana even bait Rachel into doing something that "Old Rachel" would do, like a spontaneous musical number in their apartment, to reassure her that even with new hair and new clothes... she's still the same old Rachel.  Cue "Love Song," and cute frolicking.

Unfortunately, you need more time to let that storyline breathe, and "Naked" didn't have it.  Two pieces of the episode could have been eliminated, though, to easily accomodate it.  First was the plot with Sue and Finn.  Sure, I like finding ways to remind the audience that Sue Sylvester is in fact a character in this show, and one that Jane Lynch has an Emmy for, at that.  However!  I'm tired of Sue vs. student storylines.  And this one went nowhere.  It also featured a mighty fresh line directed at Sue about hypocrisy, which frankly could be turned and pointed at pretty much every character on the show without an inkling of falsehood.  Mostly, I just wished Finn had boasted about cleverly taping the recorder to his underboob.  Missed opportunities!  

Second storyline that could have scooted offscreen belonged to Marley and Jake.  It's not that this one wasn't occasionally sweet, but it was just... basic.  The plotting of these two's relationship arc has been rather rushed and erratic, hitting bullet points only and skimming over actual content.  Instead of devoting an episode to their first "I love yous," why not give them a joint goal or obstacle to overcome?  It allows for actual interaction, and screentime!  Without it, it just feels like the writers are lazily checking items of a list of stages a new couple cycles through.  How boring.  Honestly, the most surprising moment of Marley and Jake's storyline came from the return of the auditorium's grid lights behind their duet!   I feel like we haven't seen them in... a thousand years?  (Song choice, defended!)  Seriously, I remember those suckers behind "Express Yourself" in the Madonna episode, and never again.  Surely I'm mistaken?  Surely this is not something I should get hung up on?  Ah, yes.  Back to the review.

Anyways.  I can't believe I've gone nine paragraphs without mentioning the Men of McKinley calendar.  I was avoiding it.  Alas, I must face the music from Ferris Bueller and talk about high school dudes taking their clothes off for money.  

But do I have to?  Sigh.  I guess it was nice that the insistence on doing the calendar manifested as a character thing.  Turns out Sam got a 340 on the SAT and throws himself into perfecting his body so he has something else going for him.  I like this in theory, but I do think it got a smidge too much screentime.  In that it stretched so long, I kind of forgot that this character angle was happening.  And, I confess, there were certain elements of Sam's arc that poked a few sore spots I have about what stories this show chooses to tell and how.  For instance, when the narrative pulls together to make Sam feel better for bombing the SAT, there is a little misfire in my brain that bitterly wonders why Brittany not graduating last season was dropped into the narrative with a single line, and used as Santana fodder.  Or, when Blaine tells Sam not to worry so much about his body, I have to try not to think about how Marley's eating disorder was used as a reason to alienate her from everyone, and featured in Brittany's "Fondue for Two" web video as a jolly proclamation on the screen, complete with a comedic cat meow.  And, at the end of this domino line of grumpiness, I just hear Sam's voice telling Quinn that her teenage pregnancy and family rejection were mere rich white girl problems.

It is thus difficult for me to wholeheartedly hop on board the Sam Evans Manpain Train considering all these circumstances.  I know this is selective memory that I'm piling together to make a case.  But they are the memories that stuck with me, and I have a hard time setting them aside for Sam's POV.  That being said, "Naked" also successfully revived the memory of a time when I actually liked Sam, with the video Blaine put together of everyone singing his praises.  (Not literally.  I feel like Glee is the only show where I need to specify that.)  Even though I was never really engaged in Sam's crisis of intelligence, I definitely teared up at seeing Tina, Artie, Brittany, Santana, Mercedes, and Finn say nice things about him - things that actually happened!  It hearkened back to what originally defined this character, and his back story... before he became a dumbed-down stripper who does impressions.  Oh, Sam.  I liked you once.  Meanwhile, I'll wait for an episode that deals with "Old Sam" vs. "New Sam" to confront the differences.

The final piece of the "Naked" puzzle belonged to Artie, who felt uncomfortable posing for the calendar when he looks less like CW and more like PBS.  Boys have body issues too!  I seem to recall something similar being put forth in "Rocky Horror Glee Show."  Eh, whatever.  Yes, guys can have body issues too.  Artie's desire to not be in the calendar was 100% valid.  I'm not sure how sexy pillows are emasculating, but the idea that pillows can be sexy did made me laugh.  In the end, the guys still wanted to include Artie in the calendar even though he doesn't have a CW body, and he agreed.  Cue happy episode-ending song.

So, by the end of "Naked," we still don't know where Sue's centerfold is, the students of McKinley have once again completed at least a portion of someone else's college application without their consent, and Santana Lopez seems to be hinting at a move to New York.  That last thing I am 100% fine with; the only thing better would be if Quinn came too so they could keep up their bicker-banter shtick.  But even with just Santana alone, Glee's comedic content gets a huge boost.  "Naked" had some funny moments, and even a few emotionally honest moments, but the construction of the episode was altogether too rushed and unfocused to really make the most out of the storylines' potentials.

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

1 comment:

  1. Santana Lopez for all the awards! I've been grading Glee on a steep curve all year, but I was legitimately entertained by the comedic stylings of the Santana/Quinn duo. I could watch an entire episode of just those two. Quinn, Santana, not Pod!Rachel, and perhaps Kurt.. there's a spinoff I could get behind.

    When I read your suggestions for ways that the Glee writers could have done certain things better (re-ordering of Rachel's identity crisis).... well they just seem so damned obvious, that I am left wondering what in the heck the writers are actually discussing when they are supposed to be working on episodes. How soon do you think it will be before we see Will or Will 2.0 will set her straight about her new attitude and looks?


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