Friday, May 10, 2013

The RBI Report: "All or Nothing"

For my money, the best possible combination for a well-executed Glee episode involves Ian Brennan writing with either Brad Buecker or Eric Stoltz directing.  Brennan does better than his fellow writers in balancing the absurd comedy and the darker drama that's meant to define Glee's tone, and Buecker and Stoltz both direct with an editor's eye and a penchant for interesting creative decisions.  With Brennan and Buecker teamed up for "All or Nothing," this fourth season finale was about as "all" Glee's ever gonna get these days.  And while there were glimmers of potential - even a few flashes of success - within the hour, the episode couldn't manage all its loose threads, and fell victim to its own overlong, inflated agenda.

"All or Nothing," written by Ian Brennan, directed by Brad Buecker


Ship off Brittany.
So, with Heather Morris pregnant and presumably leaving the show, the Glee writers invented an early admissions offer from MIT, and therefore a reason for Brittany to permanently make her exit.  Now, this "Brittany is a secret genius" angle has been circling untouched basically since the inception of the character.  If Glee really wanted to do this, it should have been done before Season 2, to create an exaggerated supporting character always intended to be a joke.  Instead, Glee developed Brittany into a strength of emotional intelligence through her storyline with Santana - which wasn't necessarily the wrong decision.  It implied that while Brittany was certainly a bit dim, she still had feelings and the ability to understand not only herself but also others' feelings.  Ultimately, this decision made Brittany a real, three-dimensional character, which again, is certainly not a bad thing.

If only the Glee writers had stuck with it.  Because from there, Brittany was rendered as literally, actually, 0.0 GPA-having, non-graduating, unintelligent.  Basically an undeveloped child, she was babied by the characters around her, sexualized by the narrative, and shown to be bitchy, vapid, stupid, arrogant, and disinterested in others.  Of course, there have always been faint and fleeting wisps of awesomeness - from her teardown of BeyoncĂ©'s "Run the World (Girls)" as she campaigns for school president, to her tacit support of Santana's struggles, to her successful dinosaur prom.  But by and large, Brittany's representation onscreen can be summarized by two overriding factors: infantilized ("dumb"), and sexualized ("slutty").  Even glimpses of genuine character emotions, like her rather believably heartbreaking crisis during "Britney 2.0," are erased in favor of something much more shallow and head-scratching.

So, it's too little, too late to really believably make Brittany a secret genius.  But on the other hand, she's had no consistent characterization anyways, so why start now?  And weirdly enough, through the pen of Ian Brennan and direction of Brad Buecker, the episode's opening segment almost worked.  Because they had to go so far beyond the realm of human understanding anyways, Brennan and Buecker exaggerated Brittany's genius to impossible extremes, for the sake of comedy.  It was almost a spoof, and it therefore almost worked.  Brittany casually writing down numbers that are key sequences in quantum mechanics is so far out there that it comes as close to working as this secret-genius idea ever possibly could.  I got the distinct impression that the MIT professors would do far better to study Brittany's brain than try and engage it in academic discourse, but maybe I've just been watching too much of Touch.  (I think I'm the only person who watches that show.)

Brittany's part in "All or Nothing" probably should have been limited to this first scene, and then allowed its earnest goodbyes towards episode's end.  Don't get me wrong, the idea that Brittany has an emotional crisis after being offered early admissions isn't entirely unprecedented.  Hell, the episode itself makes a sly wink to her conveniently-timed moments of emotional overhaul during Britney Weeks.  But these deep throes of anguish that Brittany covers up with casual spirals of narcissism seem to hint at quite a bit of distress, and "All or Nothing" didn't exactly benefit from or even explore that detail.  In fact, there wasn't actually any content in Brittany's scenes - particularly with Santana.  Everything here was simply half-baked, intention clear but only partly delivered.  The idea that Santana rushed to Brittany's emotional aid would be more powerful if, y'know, we actually saw the content of their conversation together instead of cutting to commercial.  The idea that Brittany saved Santana's goodbye for last would weight more heavily if they actually, y'know, communicated something.  The idea that Santana waited for Brittany after the performance would be poignant if they actually spent any lingering time on the specific actions or emotions.  

The problem is this: the writers tried to skimp on words to show that these two don't need them, but they forgot one necessary supplement: the communication that took the place of words.  In seasons past, this used to translate in touching hands and sidelong glances, which served to say more than words (especially words from Glee writers) possibly could.  It was a bastion of Santana and Brittany's emotionally-heavy sidecar interactions, and when used properly, this silent communication was - and is - powerful.  "All or Nothing" was obviously trying to achieve that effect, but fell foolishly short of the standard by failing to supply the communication in the silence.  When Brittany tearfully turned to Santana, there was no moment of held eye contact, no closeup on either face allowing us to watch them simply look at one another, clearly saying their goodbyes without words, and understanding each other perfectly.  They just hugged, and offered a stilted cop-out piece of dialogue that Brittany didn't have to say anything.  Then show me, Glee.  Just because she doesn't have to say anything doesn't mean that she isn't saying something.  This is an important relationship you're wrapping up.  Something needs to be said.  The same issue befell their exit arm-in-arm.  As soon as Santana approaches, we cut away into a wide shot, where we can't have any intimate moment to understand what the emotion is other than 'sad.'  For a couple that was so consistently defined by the gravity of their "in-between" moments and the weight behind seemingly casual touches and glances, this "wordless" goodbye was hollow and disappointingly off-mark, however well-intentioned.

It also bears stating that it's an awfully self-congratulatory oversight to claim that glee club let Brittany believe in herself and how smart she actually is.  Sorry, Glee.  Not every kid fits into your glee-club-as-savior device, and it feels cheap when you force it.  That's not to say that glee club isn't or wasn't important to Brittany - but it perhaps came in another way.  Thinking instead of her season-ending speech to Santana a few years back, the club's value to Brittany is not dissimilar from its true value to Rachel: it gave an already self-confident and misunderstood young woman a group of real friends.  Brittany was assumedly friends with offscreen cheerleaders, and Santana only, and emerged as an affable member of the glee family, and a connecting friend between many of them.  

Well, okay.  Sometimes.

Reveal the Catfish.
If you weren't suspicious before the episode, the visual placement of Unique in the foreground of Marley's confession was a clear giveaway that she's the lady behind "Katie," Ryder's Mystery Girl.  But it's little surprise anyways, because "Katie" first makes her appearance in "Feud," where Ryder and Unique initially air grievances over Ryder's transphobia.  At the time, I actually hoped that Unique would be Ryder's Catfish, to illustrate a sad but salient point about trans* acceptance in society, and the challenges faced by Unique as a young transwoman trying to find love in a world that puts up every obstacle in front of her.  

Unfortunately, while the basics of this storyline came to fruition, the execution was a bit left of center.  Because Ryder's Catfish was a "mystery" for the last act of the season, we've been primarily with his point of view.  So the framing on the Catfish story was really about Ryder's emotional betrayal, and not about Unique trying to connect with a crush behind the innocent ease of anonymity.  "All or Nothing" did selectively do its best to show us Unique's POV, to some level of success.  My heart broke when Unique explained to Marley how good it felt to be a part of a real human connection without her gender identity being an obstacle.  And Buecker made a great choice in filming Unique's confession straight to camera.  While you can argue that the decision only serves to highlight Ryder's overriding POV, I think there's something to be said about being visually confronted, eye-to-eye, with a black teenage trans* kid telling her side of the story.  It's here where I wish the POV was given over to Unique almost entirely, and she was allowed a real scene with Ryder to apologize for lying, and earn a do-over on their human connection.  But Ryder was still pissed, and announced he was quitting the glee club, so it doesn't look great for any recovery on a Ryder-Unique friendship.

Which begs the question: then what was the point?  If it wasn't to illustrate how the physical body complicates issues of gender identity and how others stubbornly adhere to their visual perceptions of truth instead of listening to someone's authentic voice, then why do anything at all?  Especially if the outcome doesn't appear to be a road to recovery for Ryder and Unique, or the promise that they can be just as emotionally intimate in real life as they were when Ryder thought his soulmate was a cisgender, straight, thin white girl.  Instead, what results in a confirmation that Unique will only be able to be herself when there's no physical presence to confuse, incense, and alienate people who might otherwise offer genuine companionship, or even romantic or physical love.  It's assumed as out-of-the-question that Ryder could actually be attracted to Unique.  And what a crappy message that is.  I don't care if Unique lied - she had a completely understandable reason to, and there needed to be at least the hint of sympathy and forgiveness from Ryder's side of things.  (Not an exuberant-then-awkward hug.  Unless these two are going to be genuine love interests next season, then it's not necessary.  And even then, it's not the best action to set out with.)

Oh, yeah, Regionals happened.  The main problem with competition episodes these days is that no one, not even the writers, care in any real way about content.  We all just go slackjaw and glass-eyed during competitions, as we listen to misfits sing for ten minutes.  The issue is that there's no story in any of the performances this season, and since there's so much other storyline nonsense going on in competition episodes anyways, Glee uses the special stage time almost as a palette cleanser, a built-in moment to disengage and presumably enjoy.  There are no stakes anymore, because none make sense, and the obstacles they've invented in the past have been terrible and gone nowhere (see: Marley fainting).  None of this really matters, and yet we all have to put in the time and hear the songs.  And inevitably, the writers accidentally give us a group that out-performs the New Directions, and still somehow loses.  (As soon as Jessica Sanchez and her fierce posse of WOC started singing the empowerment lyrics of "Wings" I knew there was no chance in hell for the Hoosierdaddies to win, even if they sounded pretty damn great.  The ghost of Troubletones predicted only disappointment.)

Rachel's Big Audition.
Rachel sang "To Love You More" for her Funny Girl audition, which came in one scene only, and wasn't addressed again.  The episode deftly transitioned to Rachel's performance through a bit of clever cross-cutting with the McKinley set, but that was about the most interesting thing to it.  Untethered from everything else, it felt like the scene's importance had to be hastily constructed through editing, and Buecker overdid it.  The whirling camera and cuts to impressive shots in a tiny room didn't quite work for me; I wager the performance might have held more power if it were kept small in one continuous take, as though we ourselves were sitting at the audition table and listening to a tiny hopeful Jewish girl sing her best Barbra (or Celine, I suppose) to the drab ceiling.  But as soon as Rachel was done singing, she bowed out of the episode anyways, and it was a pretty ho-hum season-ender for the Main Character Formerly Known as Berry.  

Blaine's Big Question.
I seem to remember Blaine being denied fatherly permission to ask Kurt to marry him, and yet here he was ring shopping in the very next episode.  Sigh!  Apparently the thrill of legalized gay marriage is cotton in that boy's ears.  Yes, it's all very exciting, as a larger issue.  It's a wonderful world-widening for the LGBT community, which fictionally comprises Kurt, and Blaine, and new characters Jan and Liz (and Unique and Santana and Brittany, let's not forget).  But it felt very much like an exercise in pointlessness, aside from giving due screentime to guest stars Patty Duke and Meredith Baxter.  There was very little story here, and so much of the time was given over to dusting the current non-(dating)relationship of Kurt and Blaine under the rug and cooing over Patty and Meredith and how times have changed.  It also felt self-indulgent enough that I half expected Liz and Jan's list of Game-changing Gay Events to end with "the episode of Glee where Kurt comes out!"  (I would not put it past these writers to be so self-congratulatory under the guise of meta.)

Anyways, it makes very little narrative sense for Blaine to propose to Kurt, as discussed last week, and yet here we are moving forward with it without any real effort taken to make it mean anything in the story.  There's nothing to suggest that Kurt and Blaine would get married now, and there's no suggestion of consequence if Kurt says no or yes.  It's poorly-designed from all angles, and seems to exist only as a flat and misguided celebration of gay marriage and also proposals during sweeps and finales.  Ah, the sanctity of television ratings.

Finally marry off Will and Emma.
After their botched nuptials, we can apparently assume everything is hunky-dory between these two last-we-checked lovebirds and they can live happily ever after in the complete bastardization of their original fairy tale construction.  Surprise wedding, y'all!  Let's pinch this into the last seven minutes.  Disregarding the complete random and hurried inclusion of this wedding, it still didn't quite ring true.  While I'm all for Emma doing the big speech, I'm just not sure about the choice to describe Will as her "hero, one true love, and inspiration."  I'm also not sure how I feel about so explicitly referencing their scene from the Pilot, which seemed inevitable as soon as Emma said "I remember."  It's a personal pet peeve of mine when characters reminisce together onscreen, to pretty much any shared event, whether we saw it or not.  It just falls flat for me, and with the added rushing of Will and Emma's vows, I couldn't really get in the moment.  I wish that they'd chosen different specifics for the callbacks, like how Emma was the one to convince Will to stay at McKinley in the Pilot, reconnecting him to his passion.  Or how Will was able to get Emma comfortable just by having a conversation with her, as friends.  Or how they both went through a lot of heartbreak to earn each other.  But no, they went with the gum-on-the-shoe story, and somehow despite the reference, their vows felt oddly formulaic.

Oh yeah, reveal Sue's baby's paternity.
Randomly, it's Michael Bolton.  He owed her a favor.  Brittany figured it out, using common logic and hard evidence instead of heretofore-undiscovered number sequences.  Strange.

"All or Nothing" tried to do it all, and somehow still came up with a lot of nothing.  It's not really off-par for the bulk of Glee's fourth season, though, and so I've made the choice to step back from reviewing the show.  With two seasons stretching in front of us and so much messy storytelling laying in their wake, I just can't drum up the enthusiasm to keep parsing the episodes.  Ideally, though, I'd like to end my Glee run on a high note (as it were) and will spend the summer hiatus filling in the final reviews for Season 1.  I will also be renewing the Buffy Rewatch.  It feels a bit like this blog is in transition, and I do hope you'll stick around as I regain my footing and set off in a new direction.  

Oh god, I swear that's not a Glee reference.

With that -- thanks very much for reading, and having read.  

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

Friday, May 3, 2013

The RBI Report: "Wonder-ful"

Given Glee's past efforts at tribute titles, I thought for sure we were headed for an episode called "Glee-vie Wonder" or "Stev-Glee Wonder."  So, on a very basic level, "Wonder-ful" delivered a charming summary of the hour's intended theme: the joy and optimism of Stevie Wonder's music.  The particulars, however, were a bit rushed and random.  And, in a hearkening to the Back 9 episodes of perennial theme-drop, I tallied twelve solid uses of the word "wonderful."  Everybody drink!

"Wonder-ful," written by Brad Falchuk, directed by Wendey Stanzler

With the end of the season rapidly approaching, "Wonder-ful" had some loose ends to wrap up.  Remember how Burt got cancer way back at the beginning of the season and then we never saw him again?  Remember Rachel had that hard-ass (or hard-abs) dance teacher who hated her?  Remember Mike and Mercedes are characters who exist and are good at stuff?  We even got loose ends addressed in offhand bits of dialogue!  Will re-proposed!  Emma re-accepted!  They're going to retry getting married!  Oh, and Carole's here!  Yay Carole!

Mercedes and Mike return

So, Mercedes and Mike have come home to help the glee club prepare for Regionals, as they reprise their roles in vocal and dance guidance.  In one single scene, Mercedes may have singlehandedly proved herself a better glee club teacher than Will, in that she actually gave specific vocal advice in addition to vague encouragement.  She also picked out Jake as being a triple threat, and advised him to take initiative with his role in glee club.  For someone who spent so much time struggling in the shadow of the spotlight, it makes sense that Mercedes would pay attention to uncredited talent.  And, it also felt more or less truthful that Jake is uncredited talent in the glee club ranks.  Will went to so much effort to recruit the kid at the beginning of the season, and then somehow seemed dumbfounded at his talent during "I Wish."  We'll see if this pans into a mini-arc for Jake, and what his role will be next week in Regionals.  One thing's for sure - he probably won't have to engage in a diva-off like Mercedes did in her attempt to get her due onstage.  (#gleehatesgirls)

Mercedes' return also brought an update of her life in Los Angeles.  Remember how she had a record deal in the works, thanks to Sam's post-disco meddling?  Wait, let me back up.  Remember how she and Sam dated?  Okay, good.  Just checking.  You'd never know it from watching the show now.  So, Mercedes has been working on her album, only to find out that her producer is going to drop her unless she agrees to show more skin on her cover art - or let a presumably skinnier, "hotter" girl grace the photo in a skimpy outfit.  Mercedes thus has a choice: stay true to self and potentially squander a good career opportunity, or stay ambitiously on the fast track with some expense to her personal and artistic integrity?  Of course, Mercedes chooses the former, and then slays a rendition of, naturally, "Higher Ground."  She's going to be selling her CDs out her car for a while, but I daresay Mercedes has a possible option in vocal education - if Finn can do it, so can she!  Troubletones 2.0?

Kurt and Burt believe in second chances, Blaine runs with it

"Wonder-ful" found us haphazardly checking in with Burt, conveniently at his final doctor's appointment to see if he's cancer-free.  Lo, he is!  Yes, yes, it's wonderful.  But I can't say I felt all that affected by the emotion, considering that we haven't actually seen Burt deal with his diagnosis, or his journey to recovery.  The scene focused mostly on Burt and Kurt's emotion, since they're A Players, but honestly more emotional weight may lie with focusing on Carole's.  It's not often that outsourcing these moments to more supporting characters really works.  But on the rare case that they do, it can possibly pack twice the impact.  Who's been witness to and co-bearer of Burt's struggles, throughout the whole offscreen process?  A lady we never see, who we know to be incredibly strong and supportive.  A moment of Carole's relieved, tear-streaked face as she watches father and son embrace could have gone far to bolster that emotional beat: the sigh of relief at pain subsided, and new horizons before the family.  It's not her moment, but her reaction informs the moment with more content - and context.  (Picky, picky.)

Naturally, this traumatic time and hopeful conclusion leads to Blaine wanting to propose to Kurt.  I mean, this makes sense in a mathematical equation sort of way, in that it's a strict linear progression and a mostly logical context.  But... we haven't built to this at all this season.  In fact, these two broke up in the fourth episode on account of cheating, and haven't been properly given the content to merit such a drastic progression in their relationship.  And because we're one episode out from a finale, it feels like a last-ditch effort to drum up easy intrigue in end-of-season storylines.  Finales are for weddings and proposals and babies and competitions, right?!  Right.  But they tend to work better when the whole season's been working towards that.  And Kurt and Blaine's story this season is not one of two people headed to the altar.  It's more along the lines of two young people learning to handle their complicated relationship under the duress of mistakes, distance, and life changes.  

"Wonder-ful" uses Burt to consistent fatherly effect, though, and he guides Blaine away from foolishly proposing, and reassures him that everything will work out how it's meant to.  Marriage involves mutual vows between two people, not the fulfillment of an ideal, or a means to ensure a "happily ever after" for "soulmates" in a rocky time.  It's an important angle on this storyline that needed to be voiced, and Burt Hummel was the best vessel for the job.  I even felt a little pang of pity for Blaine, sitting childishly on his stool and quietly asking how you know if things will be okay.  I suppose that lack of certainty connects to Blaine's early-season distress over Kurt having moved away and not knowing how to handle that - but it is slightly disconcerting that Blaine's still in that place, apparently, and thinking he can solve the problem by proposing.  I'm not sure Glee meant to do it, but this last-minute, post-cancer, "second-chance" proposal storyline feels less like something joyous and more like something sad.

Artie fears change, Kitty forces him to get over it

I can't quite decide how I feel about this Artie/Kitty storyline.  There were many things to like about it: a new character interaction that's a bit prickly but still affectionate, introducing Artie's mom, an effective emotional payoff, and an Artie solo.  The main thing this arc lacked was Artie's POV.  Kitty made all his choices for him, because she knew he wouldn't, and then finally the resolution came through his mom's blessing.  So the content was all there; it was just arranged in a way that didn't really center Artie in his own storyline.  Mercedes' felt the same way - we barely had time to spend squarely in the characters' shoes, as they were just constantly explaining themselves.  Both Mercedes' and Artie's storylines could have used extra screentime for a chance to simply breathe, and let the emotional anchors of their conflicts feel palpable.  

In Artie's case, it would have been nice to have a scene with his mom before the resolution, establishing their dynamic.  But the narrative needed to get right to Kitty sniffing out Artie's film school acceptance, so we just kind of jumped into the deep end.  Of course, there's also the mystery of Kitty, whose erratic character portrayal is defended in-narrative as purposefully erratic.  Ah, Glee.  That answer doesn't really cut it, but whatever.  It's shoe-horned in there so she can fast-track Artie's storyline by truth-bombing everyone around him and forcing him to confront his reluctance to leave home for NYC.  And I suppose this is why I don't much mind all these haphazard particulars: the emotional core of Artie's storyline was quite strong.  He didn't want to go to film school because it feels selfish somehow to leave his mom.  Here was this woman who supported him and rearranged her whole life for him, and it didn't feel right to repay her by leaving.  This actually felt like an honest reveal, and was played sweetly by Kevin McHale and Katey Sagal.  Not only that, but it was nice to see that while Artie's wheelchair was a part of his worries, they were more grounded instead in the human relationship with his mom.  If only more of the hour could have been devoted to properly delineating this storyline, and giving the payoff its maximum effect.

Rachel braces herself for the Funny Girl callback, wraps things up with Cassandra July

With her Funny Girl callback on the horizon, Rachel faces one last hurdle: she needs Cassandra July's permission to pursue the extracurricular.  Oh, and her dance midterm is on the same day as the callback.  But it turns out that all of this worry and gay-stereotype-gossip is for naught, because Cassandra is one big ol' softie who believes in Rachel and wants her to do well.  That... resolved quickly.  But it's not like we didn't see that coming.  Since Cassandra's inception on the show, it's been pretty clear that she's hard on Rachel because she expects more from her.  They've also flirted with the idea that she sees herself in Rachel, and wants Rachel to overcome the mistakes she herself made.  Then again, they've also flirted with the idea that Cassandra must compete with Rachel and put her in her place, so this whole thing has been a mixed bag.  (Of flirting, frankly.)  

So, now that it's over, the Cassandra-Rachel dynamic emerges as an interaction that had a lot of potential, but that was mostly frittered away in favor of recycled two-dimensional moments and diva-offs over talent and boys.  It lacked direction, and I wish that their story this season was about building from mistrust and disdain to begrudging respect and even the tiniest glimpse of hard-earned emotional honesty.  You know that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy catches Miranda without her makeup, and has a weirdly vulnerable and unsettling late-night conversation with her?  Something along those lines would have been great to work towards in constructing the Cassandra-Rachel dynamic throughout the season.  But given tonight's rather flat "you're special and I was mean" resolution, which lies at the end of all Rachel's interpersonal (female) conflicts, I suppose that's just not what Glee was going for.  Nuance is just not on the menu.  Not when there's 25 characters to feed.

With the finale next week, it looks like we have three questions poised for the wrap-up: will Rachel win the part of Fanny Brice?  Will Blaine propose?  Will the new New Directions win Regionals?  I'm not sure I entirely care.  But "Wonder-ful" set all those questions up, and managed to find other, more interesting material to put forth as well.  There wasn't enough screentime for it to be properly arranged and developed, but little nuggets were there.  And it's always nice to see Mercedes and Mike, and Carole.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B+
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: C
Plot: C
Characterization: B
Episode MVP: Mercedes Jones (and Carole)
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