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


  1. Sorry to hear you won't be reviewing future seasons of Glee... though I must admit I did feel that coming. I myself don't feel very enthusiastic about the next episodes with the terrible mess this show has become. Every lovable character has been horribly transformed and spoiled in several ways, making them unlikeable (Tina, Artie), uninteresting (Rachel), annoying (Kurt), absurd (Sam), nonexistant (Sugar), underdeveloped (Unique) and etc., and the storylines keep becoming more and more incoherent and random. I honesntly can't imagine how they're going to manage from now on (season 4 itself already felt unmanageable). Thanks for the recaps and I'll be waiting to read the Buffy reviews =)

    1. Thank you so much for reading! I appreciate it. :)

  2. Will miss your reviews, as you so articulately express my same thoughts. I like your conclusion: Glee tried to do it all in this ep and still came up with nothing! As they have done all season. The show is a complete mess and the characters have been destroyed.

    1. It really has become a bewildering mess, hasn't it? Thank you so much for reading. I wish I could have done a complete Glee series review set, but I just don't have it in me...

  3. That's really sad to hear. I don't even watch the episodes anymore, but I loved to come here every friday and read the only sane review out there. God, I used to love this show so much, and you are the only one that can still make me feel that love, and bring in the hard truths at the same time. Total respect for sticking with writing your reviews until the end of the season!

    1. Aw, this is a really sweet message. Thank you so much! It always made me smile to know that people still came here to read, even if they weren't watching the show anymore.

  4. Thanks for all the great Glee reviews. This was my last episode of watching Glee as well. I look forward to your Buffy reviews! (and if you wanted to review Bomb Girls or Lost Girl I'd read those too ;) )

    1. Thank YOU for reading! :) I loves me some Buffy, and if Bomb Girls gets cancelled I may need to unleash full season back-reviews just to soothe my soul... (I'd really just rather it get renewed though!!)

  5. last week was my last viewing of Glee (can't Mercedes have just a little bit of success, would that have killed the 'writers'?) and here's what I noticed:

    The original six Glee girls and how they turned out
    Rachel - White - NYADA
    Quinn - White - Yale
    Brittany - White - MIT
    Santana - Latina - cage dancer
    Mercedes - Black - selling CDs in the church parking lot
    Tina - Asian - wait-listed

    1. Sigh. Sigh, sigh, sigh. What a discouraging but completely accurate assessment! Man, this show. Congratulations on quitting too! I'm gonna go find Mercedes' car in LA and buy a CD.

  6. Too bad, your Glee reviews have always been, in my opinion, the most interesting ones. But if it's a trade for Glee s1 and Buffy, I forgive you wholeheartedly :P

    Anyway, this episode just didn't make ANY sense. Like... no. This is getting beyond ridiculous.

    1. Ridiculous, yes - and yet two more seasons stretch before us! I happily trade out for good Season 1 memories and the whole range of Buffy emotions. Thank you sticking with me for so long! I appreciate it!

  7. First of all, THANK YOU for your insightful and intelligent reviews. I really enjoyed reading them.

    This season of Glee has been such an annoying struggle and I am right there with you when it comes to leaving the show behind. It makes me sad that they managed to turn all my beloved characters against themselves. But the way season 4 was handled really doesn't leave the viewers with anything to look forward to in the upcoming seasons.

    So, I guess, my series finale will just have to be the ending of season 3.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I will be checking back here to see what you'll do next. I hope Bunheads will get a renewal and, if so, that you will continue to review that little gem.

    Besides Buffy, have you thought about any other series you'd like to review? Like off the top of my head maybe Lost Girl, Dexter, Chuck, Parks and Rec, Community, The Americans or whatnot...?

    1. Aw, thank YOU for reading them, and letting me know you enjoyed them. Positive feedback always helped me power through late Thursday nights! If Bunheads gets renewed, I'll definitely pick back up with that. I've been sitting on a Community write-up about Britta for awhile now, but it needs a bit of editing. I hope you check back in!

    2. I will definitely check back in and I'd love to read about Britta :) Best of luck with all your new writing adventures. I guess it's time for a new beginning and as much as it hurts that Glee turned out the way it did in season 4, there are so many new series you can find and hopefully enjoy writing about. Take care.

    3. I can't wait to read your article about Britta ! I love Community to death (at least s1-3) but there's always been something about Britta that bothered me, especially in season 3. I'm very interested in what you may have to say about it.

  8. This year's season finale was such an underwhelming mess but your review was entertaining as always. The sad thing about Glee is that even though it has become completely pointless, the love I have for characters like Santana and Rachel will probably keep me watching til the end. God damn you Glee's first season. It's kept a lot of us hooked on a show that just isn't worthwhile anymore.

    Can't wait for the return of your Buffy reviews!! I love it when you get to write about shows with actual character arcs and development. There is always something new to analyze with BtVS.

  9. I stopped watching ages ago but I did love to read your reviews anyway. Pity they'll be ending.

    Look forward to your writing on other things though, best of luck!

  10. Same here, will miss your glee reviews since they are more entertaining and intelligent than the show. I read them in between watching the youtube snippets of songs.

    Looking forward to your Buffy essays, I've been meaning to watch it for the last 10 years.

  11. But the Retro-RBI Report.... :( Please do it!

  12. I have been so busy with two jobs that just this week did I finally watch the last two episodes of Glee. And I was completely underwhelmed. I want to watch the magical first half of the first season again, and then cry the whole time Finn sings.

    I love your recaps. I've read every single one of them, and I've shared my favorites with my friends.

    I hope you'll consider recapping Season 2 of Smash. I finally watched the end of it this week. It was certainly flawed, but honestly, still so good, and I've missed reading your thoughts on it like I did last season.


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