Friday, April 19, 2013

The RBI Report: "Sweet Dreams"

With its half-baked, oft-repeated theme, "Sweet Dreams" felt as though it may have been designed in reverse.  The episode wanted to show Rachel's Broadway audition, Finn partying his way through his newfound college career, and Marley gracing the world with her songwriting prowess.  What better way to tether those concepts together than with a bland attempt at Glee's catch-all theme?  Dreams, y'all.  Everybody's got 'em.  And by God, those special glee kids make 'em come true.

"Sweet Dreams," written by Ross Maxwell, directed by Elodie Keene

Yes, "Sweet Dreams" was a watered-down, messily-constructed, confused hour of television.  But at this point in Glee's season, it has precious few other options.  Fixing the sloppy setups and unrealistic payoffs, the unmotivated character choices and expository dialogue, believably balancing the graduates and the McKinley students -- at this point it requires a restructuring of Glee's fourth season as a whole.  Want to believably sell Marley as a songwriter?  Why not have made that an identifying trait when she joined glee club, to shake up the dynamics and give her something to do?  Want to give Rachel an important audition at the end of the season?  Why not give her consistent storylines in which she works towards that goal, so we're more organically invested in her pursuit and don't require a hurried narration reminding us how obsessed she is with Barbra Streisand right before she's meant to move forward in the arc?  And, if you wanted to give a touching moment with Marley's songs about being outcasts, maybe show the kids having been alienated from their peers instead of subjecting them to in-episode bullying by their teacher.

Will Schuester really was in fine (read: insufferable) form this episode, to the point where I wanted the kids to stage a coup d'appella.  Presumably suffering from Finn-related separation angst, Will snapped at the kids for "openly defying" him, flopped his ego around, singled out and insulted students in front of their peers, and guilted them into thinking they were less dedicated than he. Worse still, the episode made no effort to associate Will's heinous behavior with some kind of emotional reaction to the trauma of last week - when it made that exact association for the behavior of the kids he yelled at.  According to Marley's voiceover, which is apparently the best place to tell us about other characters' possible PTSD, people have been acting weird ever since the gunfire at McKinley.  Somehow this means that Tina dresses all steampunk now (may also have memory loss), and Unique's taking birth control pills, and Sam's subsuming another personality by pretending to be his sometimes-British twin Evan?  Or is that last one just separation anxiety from Brittany's sudden acceptance to MIT?  Any way you shake it, none of that behavior merited rage-insults from Schue, least of all when the issues were chalked up to post-traumatic stress disorder earlier in the episode.  Was the association just to have something to point to when the show's accused of not having any continuity?  If so, it came with a lot of baggage that the writers just ignored.

Anyways, Will didn't really have a realization about being a total ass, and instead lurked in the shadows of Marley's original song, indicating it was more a realization about not giving her a chance than anything else.  The only apology he gave was for denying the dissenters a voice - when it felt like Unique, Sam, and Blaine deserved at least a brief "I'm sorry" for having their teacher flippantly insult and/or shame them.  I mean, really -- "tone down the boob thing?"  Cringe.  Showing Will distressed in the hallway seemed to point towards wanting the audience to feel bad for the guy, but the moment wasn't specific enough to fully understand why.  

So, the most we have to go on is the problems with Finn, who, I'm beginning to think is Will's true soulmate.  I mean, he spends the episode trying to mend their broken relationship, spiraling into an emotion tornado at work, and by the end they've established themselves in a partnership.  While Will's having his own issues, Finn's partying it up at the fictional University of Lima, charging admission to indoor slip-and-slides in the form of girls' bikini tops.  I guess Finn's desire to delay adulthood makes a certain amount of sense, considering the number of times he's tried to step into some vision of his future only to realize he doesn't fit there.  So, naturally, he finds Puck partying too, they get invited to a frat, and then, when Finn misses a sociology test, Puck berates him into realizing he needs to buckle down and study so they can prove to the world they're as special as they've always known they are.  Or something.  The message is laid on thick, and through dialogue, which basically means it's poorly written.  

It's not surprising, though, that a supporting character on Glee steps in to force epiphany on the main character.  A stronger show would have created a situation in which we would see Finn presented with a choice between his studies and his social life, whereupon we would see Finn make the wrong decision, realize the consequence, and course-correct.  On Glee, however, we're treated to an expository voiceover clearly outlining the scenario, a pointless musical number showing us a college party, and then a morning after when someone's handily nearby to serve as moral-giver.  Thanks, Puck!  Finn couldn't have gotten there without you - well, not with the storyline structured the way it was, anyways.

Of course, since this is Glee, Finn got to play that role in someone else's storyline as well.  Rachel spent the episode struggling with what to sing for her Funny Girl audition, and naturally it's Finn who delivers her moment of clarity (after Shelby nudges her in the different direction).  What's frustrating about this, even aside from the outsourced revelation, is the fact that it's used to tentpole an arc for Rachel that's completely incongruous to her original character design.  At least with Puck's advice to Finn, it aligned with Finn's original arc: be more than mediocre, prove that you're special.  Both boys struggled with others' perceptions of them, how to succeed beyond expectations, and staying true to their true selves.  However clunky, poorly communicated, or random - it at least bears some tiny nugget of truth.  Rachel's "moment" doesn't quite have the same level of accuracy to it, and it's not hard to see through the machinations and understand why.  How else to justify dusting off three characters the narrative hasn't bothered with for two seasons to construct a fantasy sequence glorifying the show's original hit song and the impact it had?

See, in order to sell (milk?) this "Don't Stop Believing" moment (Glee's third iteration of their first chart-topper), the writers had to lean on the notion that this was an incredibly special moment for Rachel, as well as the audience (and the show itself).  We "fell in love," as Finn reminded us.  Now, I don't disagree with this necessarily.  "Don't Stop Believing" is, after all, the moment where a rag tag group of misfits came together and formed a unit.  First a club, then a family (if you don't mind dating a few of your relatives).  For Rachel, "Don't Stop Believing" is when she first found herself tethered to a collective.  Much of the first season's conflict came from the tension between a character wanting to be in the spotlight having to function as a member of a team.  Rachel with solos, or Rachel with friends?  You cannot have both.  Then, Glee decided to make everyone drink the Rachel Kool-Aid (Berry-flavored, natch) and embed her in a loving context - as long as she remembered to be eternally grateful for them not being douches to her.  (This context also only existed when the writers needed it to.)

The magic moments of "Don't Stop Believing" were specifically called upon for explanation (we'll ignore the part in my notes where I wrote "OH SHUT UP" in response to that suddenly curious member of the casting panel) -- and Rachel replied, "I wouldn't be the person I am today if [my friends] hadn't believed in me."  I'm not sure if Ross Maxwell was trying to draw overt connections to the title of the song, but frankly the sentiment is not quite accurate for Rachel's relationship to "Don't Stop Believing," and, in turn, her friends.  Rachel's dynamic with others' acceptance is not related to her self-confidence on stage.  Her self-confidence on stage is precisely what alienated her from others, at Glee's beginning.  What Rachel's friends gave to her was exactly that - friendship.  For the isolated girl who got slushied daily, having friends meant everything.  And "Don't Stop Believing" gave her a chance to make friends, and to be a part of something... special.  Rachel Berry already believed in herself.  She just wanted someone to sing with her.  So, the line of dialogue should have been more like "I was thinking about my friends.  I would never have been able to do this on my own."  Yes, it's a bit cheesy, but no less than the original line, and it's certainly more accurate to Rachel's arc.  

If you'll allow me to further endorse this line change: if Rachel had said something about not being able to do it on her own, it would have made everyone's thankless backup roles a little more acknowledged.  As it was, Spotlight Girl tried to honor her team by... singing the solo and imagining them all as her backup.  No, there was no way to make that moment into an opportunity for someone else to sing (it was awkward enough for Rachel to "interact" with spectral visions of her past) - but couldn't something have been done to make it work a bit better?  It's more than a little telling that the most amount of episode screentime for Artie, Tina, Kurt, and Mercedes came in Rachel's fantasy sequence.  Thanks for showing up, guys.  I'm glad we did this in Rachel's imagination and not in last year's finale with your actual corporeal selves.  Final plea for the "on my own" line: it subtly contrasts "Don't Stop Believing," Rachel's first group number, with her original solo title, a song sung about loneliness by a very lonely girl.

In sum: this show simultaneously glorifies and craps on their main character, all the while misinterpreting its own creation.  I don't know how the writers manage this - but they do.

Meanwhile, the Second Coming of Rachel (did anyone catch the owl sweater?) has decided to reveal her singer-songwriter talents and try to get original songs in Regionals.  After all, since Rachel wrote "My Headband," maybe Marley can write something like "My Newsie Cap?"  Nah, Marley's legit (just like Rachel was after Quinn yelled at her) and writes about being an outcast.  And apology ditties on behalf of her douchebag teacher.  Naturally, these dazzle and move the glee club members, and Marley's on track to have a song featured in Regionals.  Which is fine.  A bit heavyhanded, already done - but fine.

The last thread of "Sweet Dreams" involved Roz Washington coming to town and belittling everyone's gun violence experience with a poorly-written joke about growing up in the ghetto.  Ah, yes.  Let's just breeze past that.  Roz finds Sue's departure fishy, especially in conjunction with Blaine's sudden appearance on the Cheerios, which naturally means she swears both Blaine and Becky to an oath pledging not to hex Roz Washington into bringing a gun to school.  Blaine finds Becky's behavior about the incident unusual, presses her for questions, and gets a defensive Becky tantrum in return.  Those used to be so absurdly charming before they ruined her character.

In the end, "Sweet Dreams" is a thematically loose, messily-assembled episode that tries its damnedest to maximize emotions with the least amount of effort.  But as we near the end of the season, with a massive tangle of unresolved storylines pressing the show forward, there's not much else Glee can do but limp to the finish boasting whatever unearned payoffs it thinks the audience will enjoy most.  It's too late to refocus.  

Stray Observations:
  • Glad things aren't awkward between Will and Shannon after she confessed her love to him last week, and he in turn set her up with an online dating profile.  Buddies!
  • Don't think I didn't notice the Pilot-inspired shots of Rachel's hand lifted to the ceiling as the camera panned up and away.  It's included three times.  Once clearly wasn't enough.  Let's really hammer this nostalgia in, gang.
  • To this end, I can't believe the shot of the glee club's "all in" hand gesture (what the hell is that thing called?) didn't get an overhead shot like this one in the Pilot.  (Minus the text, of course.)
  • I'm kind of genuinely concerned for Sam's mental health after seeing him completely devoted to being both "Sam" and "Evan."  Like, this doesn't quite play as a comedic thing.  I worry for him.
  • Between Will, Rachel, and Finn, it seems like main characters on this show only make decisions when other people tell them what to do.  It's maybe the easiest way to remove main character qualities from your lead.  
The RBI Report Card...

Musical Numbers: C
Dance Numbers: C
Dialogue: D
Plot: C
Characterization: D
Episode MVP: Literally no one.


  1. I actually found Will very sympathetic in this episode. It's hard not to feel at least a little bit sorry for a character who's so viciously thrown under the bus by the writers. Plus, doing it to facilitate Finn's triumphant return to the glee club, now as an equal partner because of all that hard work he did while he was gone (like, that one time he beat a guy up and the maybe three total classes he's attended), was borderline inhumane.

  2. I think finding the character's treatment by the writers sympathetic is different than finding the character themselves sympathetic. It's like... meta-sympathy.

  3. I hated the plot, but I loved the musical numbers. "We're the Outcasts" reminded me (in a good way) of "Loser Like Me," which is one of my favorite three Glee performances of all time. Ignoring the plot problems with "Don't Stop Believing," I love the number, and I wish Glee could work it into every episode. :)

  4. Finn / Will - sickening to read into it anything other than the writers giving Finn a reason to be on the show by acting as a coach to the club, and keeping Finn away from NYC & Rachel to drag out that storyline. College sports coaches recruit former players to assist with coaching teams, and that's playing out in a similar way with Finn and Will.

    "Insults" - right, I forgot, Sue would get a free pass for being tough on her students, because she's a cartoon. Will in the past has been attacked for being too noble, but when he cracks down on a student distracting ND, and wasting everyone's time, he gets attacked for that, too. With the gun episode, according to what the students knew during the episode, being a case of Sue screwing up yet again, and committing another of so many borderline criminal acts, Dr. Bloggo wants to instead believe the PTSD diagnosis, while the writers had the teacher moving on, and wanting to get back to the routine of preparing for Nationals without distractions (only 3 more episodes left, and the writers didn't want to return to the gun storyline or its after affects, so back off on blaming the teacher.)

  5. One tiny (yet, in a way, big) detail I deeply hated about this chapter in addition to most of what you've mentioned. This plumpy, horribly dressed, nerdy girl audiotioning with an opera song right before Rachel. She's dismissed mid-song and she stumbles her way out, in a way meant to be "funny". In comes Rachel: pretty, well-dressed, insecure but in a cute way. And a few minutes later, the beautiful and likeable Marley, accompained by her beautiful and likeable friends, singing a song about feeling ostracized and blah blah blah. Excuse me? The show itself mocks supporting characters who are meant to be the TRUE losers, like the opera singing girl, and New directions and their friends are all portrayed in a positive light and obtain everything they wish. It's utterly hypocritical.


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