Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The RBI Report: "The Quarterback"

A few words to preface this review --

After the end of last season, I decided to step away from reviewing Glee - the main reason for which being that I wasn’t finding much enjoyment in it anymore.  I was tired of giving the same criticisms of the show, and in some way it felt like my time could be better spent.  I could review a show that was less frustrating, more rewarding, and better at storytelling.  Glee felt tired, and I felt tired of Glee.

Over the summer, Cory Monteith died.  And even though I was tired of Glee, it felt very much like a friend had left my life.  Television is strange that way; it brings people into your living room and makes them feel like family.  Glee is particularly notable for this, as its swift rise in the cultural zeitgeist forged a deep connection between those who participated in its story.  And Cory Monteith seemed particularly notable for this singular familiarity and connection, on this special show in this special medium.  The guy with no singing background, cast specifically for a singing show - simply because he looked into the camera and connected with those on the other side of the lens.

It’s frustrating to see people’s cynicism in response to his passing.  Those claiming that he wasn’t “famous enough” to merit such an outpouring of grief from those who didn’t even know him.  Or worse yet, those reducing him to “just an addict” who doesn’t deserve the love of those who are mourning.  But the fact of the matter is that Cory Monteith was a special guy on a special show in a special medium, and those who say otherwise just didn’t experience the feeling.

I’ve held Glee with a lot of cynicism during my time reviewing it.  It’s a show that never quite capitalized on its own potential, and instead overinflated its ego with self-congratulating spectacle.  It is often maddeningly reductive, thoughtless, and insensitive.  But in its best moments, it is immensely powerful, and the fact that viewers hang on for season after season is a testament to just how good this show was promised to be.

So I try to let go of a little of my cynicism, and return to review “The Quarterback.”  It’s worth my time to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of a grieving family doing their best to move forward, in effect laying their sadness bare for the benefit of millions who only knew Cory Monteith through a television show, and loved him all the same.

“The Quarterback,” written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, directed by Brad Falchuk

I confess, before watching the episode, that I had mixed feelings about the confluence of fiction and reality.  Finn Hudson wasn’t the same person as Cory Monteith, and watching an hour of Glee where everyone talked about how much they loved Finn seemed exhausting. ( Or at least just like every other episode of Glee.)  At best, Finn Hudson was a catalyst who bravely took a chance on connecting with his true self, and encouraged others to do the same.  At worst, Finn Hudson was a self-righteous buttinsky who had far too much agency in others’ storylines and not enough agency in his own.  Glee flattened an otherwise uniquely flawed yet likeable character and used him as a cardboard hero and romantic lead.

But honestly, you can’t extricate this episode from reality.  You just can’t.  Reality is the only reason this episode happened.  Reality runs as a painful undercurrent to the whole hour, because Finn’s face is Cory Monteith’s face, and the pain onscreen is not made-up.  The performances aren’t performances at all.  Even though the circumstances were fictional, the emotions that underpin every moment are very real.

And truthfully, painfully, that’s a large part of what makes this episode good.  It felt organic, authentic, and soul-driven, in a way that Glee hasn’t managed since Season 1.  It focused on emotions, and connections, and tastefully allowed each character his and her own stories and points of view.  How difficult to commend these particular storytelling strengths, knowing that they are borne from heartbreak.

It’s near impossible not to be reminded of reality when watching the fiction.  But even so, I do think the writers created a solid hour of fiction.  There were conceptual decisions to be made, and storytelling execution decisions to be made, and most of the choices made were good, and felt right.   Rather than focusing on the details of Finn’s death, or daring to show immediate reactions, Ryan Murphy & Co. instead devoted their attention on the different grieving processes of those who knew Finn.  Particular focus was given to the Hudson-Hummels, Santana, Puck, Will, Sue, and of course, Rachel.

What worked incredibly well about these stories was the idea that they were grounded to the characters, and the plot surrounding them didn’t get in the way of the emotional journey.  Small obstacles and conflicts underscored the larger emotional issues, and the writing got a lot of mileage out of using symbolism and subtlety to convey them.  Items such as Finn’s letterman jacket and Kurt’s ornate lamp became artifacts of protection and poignance in the midst of grief.  Puck’s plot centered on the theft of the memorial tree, but the “mystery” of who stole it was never the point of the story; it was more about Puck’s inability to move forward without something of Finn’s to hold onto.   Santana’s storyline featured a huge argument with Sue over Finn’s memorial, but it wasn’t really about Santana’s feelings towards Sue, or the memorial itself.  It was more about Santana’s struggle with vulnerability in the face of incredible, laid-out pain.

Certainly, these character-driven emotional journeys reflected the way the relationships that each of them had with Finn.  But what was more resonant, for me, was the idea that grieving Finn served as a specific and meaningful reflection on each character.   Santana struggling to be vulnerable has defined much of her character’s journey.  Puck accepting responsibility and leadership from beyond Finn’s shadow is a classic Puckerman theme.  Burt’s monologue dealt with masculine affection, and lessons in tolerance.  Rachel’s showed her focus on her plans and her dreams, and the tragedy of losing a big part of them - and having to cope.  Carole’s centered on the strength of a woman dealing with so much loss in her family.

What I appreciated about this pattern was the idea that Finn, as a character, served largely as a mirror to others.  I do think this concept has been there in some incarnation from the beginning, in his role as catalyst for glee club coming together.  Over the years, it’s submerged and resurfaced at random, as the writers gave over his character to lesson-making and narrative privilege.  Like most characters in this show, Finn became a puppet at some point - a puppet designed to impart lessons and seem super likeable at the same time - but a puppet nonetheless.  Season 4 actually started unraveling Finn from this Football Hero Ethos, and set him adrift in a world without anyone to mirror or influence.  Finn was always something to somebody - the ideal father and perfect husband to Quinn, the unattainable dream guy for Rachel, the alpha male to Puck’s omega, the glee club leader for the new kids, Will Schuester’s younger self.

Finn Hudson was a lot of different things to a lot of different people - especially within the high school social structure.  And after graduating, Finn struggled with losing this identity.  He tried to be something for Rachel and attend acting school in New York.  He tried to be something for Burt and work in the tire shop. He tried to be something for his father and enlist in the army.  Even where he found his place is an echo of Will: in the classroom, with the glee club.  Finn’s barely-there, lost arc is the idea that he was someone trying to be his own person, and fundamentally clueless as to how to do it because he’d rather be important to others.  “The Quarterback” connected Finn’s original role as Catalyst with his developed role of Lost Soul, and came out with something textured, appropriate, and resonant.  It didn’t glorify the teenager, or shine a light so bright it cast away shadows.  It focused on the best part of Finn Hudson, and acknowledged the devastation of losing a good soul too young.

My main quibble with the episode is how it handled Tina’s grief.  With Sue having directly stated that grief brings out the irrational in all of us, it seems like a given that each character would be allowed his or her grief, no matter how extreme or alienating.  And from Santana’s meltdown to Puck throwing insults at Kurt, that rang true.  But for whatever reason, Glee tried to milk a comedy moment by painting Tina as “callous” and self-centered in her grief.  Truthfully, calling back Tina’s original devotion to wearing black seemed like a smart way to underscore Tina’s grief.  It’s not unrealistic for someone to tunnel-vision back on their own meaningless problems during grief, as a form of denial or transference.  It makes complete sense that being “forced” back into black clothes would make Tina feel overwhelmed.  There’s tons that you can do with that to make her relatable and sympathetic.  And instead, Emma gave her a pamphlet called “Wait, Am I Callous?”  If that weren’t enough, it’s also terrible counseling, and goes directly against what Emma probably would have done considering her previously-established eagerness to help the kids with their grief - and Tina being the only one who showed.  Bad decision all around.

Dismissing Tina’s grief as self-centered also stands out when you consider that Will’s actions concerning Finn’s letterman jacket were completely self-serving, and yet narratively overlooked.  After the jacket goes missing from Santana, everyone assumes Puck took it, but it was actually Mr. Schue, who never copped to the “crime.”  And look, that’s the thing - it’s not a crime to want Finn’s letterman jacket.  If Will had asked Kurt or Santana if he could have it for a day or two, it’s almost inarguable that they would have said yes.  The fact that Will doesn’t even consider the idea, the fact that he hides his grief makes me incredibly sad for him, in a way I don’t know if the writers intended.  One of the more powerful lines of the hour was from Kurt: “Shame is a wasted emotion.”  Given the way the writers delineated his storyline, it felt like Will Schuester hasn’t learned that lesson yet.  I hope he came clean, and gave the jacket back.

Stray Appreciation:

  • Everyone’s musical performances were top-notch, but for some reason I felt particularly affected by Puck singing “No Surrender” to the empty chair. And it almost goes without saying that Rachel’s tearful rendition of “Make You Feel My Love” also had me reaching for a fourth and fifth tissue.
  • I appreciated as well the sound mixing for the group number. I don’t remember being able to pick out individual voices as much in previous multiple-voice songs, and yet in “Seasons of Love” you could hear the levels shift to highlight certain voices in certain moments. It was a nice touch.
  • Speaking of “Seasons of Love,” the reveal of Finn’s photo at the end was a gutwrenching visual. In one single moment, you understood with horrific clarity the entire context for the song. No dialogue, no set-up. Just music, emotion, and a single picture.
  • Kudos for pointedly avoiding a “lesson.” The minute Santana brings up the possibility of one, Sue tells her to cut the crap. “There is no lesson here. There is no happy ending. There’s just nothing. He’s just gone.” It’s a powerfully real sentiment, and helps to underscore the necessity of expression, empathy, and togetherness as a lifeline in difficult times. Those traits, without a lesson in the way, are when Glee’s at its best.

In the end, there’s little possibility to judge this episode as a fictional entity separate from reality.  But I think that’s okay.  The fiction that was presented was mostly done well, and showed emotional depth and tasteful humility.  It’s more than Glee has offered in awhile.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful that such an exemplary episode was created in Cory Monteith’s honor.  On the other - how painful, that it had to be created at all.  Were that we could just focus on fiction, and ignore reality completely.  But at the end of the day, there’s a gaping hole in this cast - this special show is missing one of its special people.  Watching that terrible truth acknowledged onscreen is nothing short of heartbreaking.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad that you recapped this one episode, even if you've decided not to do the entire season. I spent the entire episode sobbing. In fact, leading up to it, I went back and rewatched my favorite episodes from the first four seasons, and I cried during many of them as well. I actually reread your reviews of each episode instead of summary synopses to determine whether or not I should rewatch an episode.

    I feel like I'm mourning two people. I'm mourning Cory, and I'm mourning Finn. I've never felt this way about an actor or a character, but watching The Quarterback a second time helped.

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