Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the Duality of Glee (Sort of)

Brittany and friend
GLEE is a show that’s fun to watch, sometimes frustrating to follow, and hair-pullingly maddening to try and talk about on occasion. It’s a volatile show, often wildly inconsistent, and I don’t necessarily think that’s the worst thing. I admire that it’s a little out of control, that it’s big and brash and sometimes kind of smart and sometimes kind of dumb. It’s idealistic and joyful, but with enough dark comedy to keep it from sliding into HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL territory. (And yes, I know I gave that a good review. I am large, I contain multitudes.) It can be incredibly self-indulgent, as in the various theme episodes where plot takes a backseat to exploring the repertoire of a popular artist, but dammit, the indulgence can be fun. And while the show doesn’t really need defending, what with a massive explosion in popularity midway during the first season, I think it may be worth taking a look at what makes it such a rollercoaster ride.

Now, there’s a popular theory that the show’s apparent lurches from restrained comedy to glitzy craziness stems mainly from a split between the show’s three creators/head writers: Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk. There’s some truth to this, at least if the episodes they’re credited with are representative- Murphy’s done all the “theme” episodes, for one, Falchuk has some of the more dramatic ones, Brennan is sort of in the middle, etc. Of course, though this is subject to individual opinion, each has some of the best and worst of the show to their credit: Falchuk has the superb “Dream On” and the less effective “Throwdown”, Brennan wrote the forgettable “Hairography” but the amazing “The Rhodes Not Taken”, and Murphy, of course, is responsible for highly criticized installments like “Wheels” and “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” but also the pretty amazing “Mattress” (and I have a certain fondness for “The Power of Madonna.”) I think the Three Writers approach explains some of the show’s shiftiness, but not all, especially since American TV writing is almost inherently collaborative and I’m sure everyone has worked on everyone else’s credited scripts.

Instead, I’ve constructed a little thesis of my own. GLEE is basically a game of duality- highs and lows, comedy and tragedy, sophisticated satire and big dumb spectacle. I think this is mostly by design. There’s a basic contrast from the start of the series, between the ideals of togetherness and joy through art that Will Shuster envisions his Glee club as representing, and the messier dark parts of reality, like the fact that he hooked its lead male singer by threatening to frame him for pot possession. I think it’s this tension which serves as the show’s key dramatic engine; while the external conflict may be Sue trying to destroy the club or a new competitor or random personal drama for the students, it usually comes down to whether the ideal or the cynical reality carries the day, and sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, and just as often a mix of both.

Let’s take one of my favorite episodes, “The Rhodes Not Taken”, as an example. This was the first episode I saw and the one that got me hooked; a lot of that had to do with the utterly astounding duet between guest star Kristin Chenoweth as April and Lea Michele as Rachel, both singing “Maybe This Time” from CABARET. The latter did good, the former pretty much blew the roof off. Anyway, the plot revolves around Rachel ditching the club to play the lead in the school’s production of the aforementioned musical, leaving New Directions without someone to handle the big diva numbers. Will Shuster (Matthew Morrison) gets in touch with April Rhodes, who was a major glee club diva back when he was in high school- and upon finding out that she leads the life of an alcholic squatter, offers her a position at the school and on the club. It’s a heartfelt gesture and a second chance, but April soon starts getting her fellow clubbers drunk (and teaching them how to shoplift), and it’s obvious that this just isn’t going to work out. She’s broken and Will can’t fix her, as much as he wants to. Rachel, in turn, finds that her dream of leaping straight to stage stardom isn’t going to work, mainly because the director is a creepy, ego-destroying douchebag. There’s reconciliation at the end- Rachel rejoins the gang, and April accepts that she can’t go on like this and decides to strike towards Branson. A couple of dreams get dashed, but hope springs eternal.

This constant give and take extends to the characters as well, which gets us to the heart of much of the criticism the show has had, namely that ostensibly identifiable and sympathetic characters like Will, Rachel, and Kurt (Chris Colfer) often do very unsympathetic things, often enough that we start to wonder whether we should root for them at all. I don’t doubt that the shades of gray we’re given with each character are deliberate; it works both ways, as the ultra-villainous Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) has shown her soft side on occasion, and even Will’s much hated ex-wife, who faked a pregnancy to try and keep him with her, has been allowed a moment of grace or two. In general, the characters each have a light and dark side. Rachel and Kurt are very vulnerable in the overall school hierarchy, one being a dowdy do-gooder, the other the only openly gay student thusfar, but they can both be manipulative and cruel when grasping for their respective desires.

Will is a more complex little pirate; in trying to court the lovely and neurotic Emma (Jayma Mays) or teach his kids, he just doesn’t seem to know where the line is, and while this has had him move into some very ugly territory as of late, I can’t drop my sympathies completely because I realize how messed up he is. He went right from school to marriage; this is the first time he’s been on his own in years, and I think his short sighted and self-serving behavior stems from not being experienced in really dealing with other people. He wants to be kind and generous and often is, but he doesn’t understand when his actions can cause harm.

As far as I’m concerned this is interesting characterization, if not always perfectly modulated; the show seems mostly story-driven, and to serve the needs of a given week’s plot the characters sometimes have to swing from one extreme to another quickly. This is something that the show does have to work on, to make the shifts less jarring and maybe make their bad moments easier to understand, and therefore forgive.

Now, if there’s a part of the show I will class as an outright guilty pleasure, it’s the gimmick episodes. When the show first started, music rights were hard to secure, but as it became popular, artists and publishers have been very forthcoming with their catalogues, which has resulted in the show itself growing more music heavy. The gimmick episodes- “The Power of Madonna”, the Gaga-themed “Theatricality”, “Britney/Brittany”, and “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”- have almost all had fairly thin and often self-contained storylines, and while I’m not sure most of them are objectively good television, I more or less enjoyed them all. It comes down to the music- the cast are, by and large, quite good performers, and while neither the songs nor arrangements are original, there’s an enthusiasm and reckless goofiness that I just can’t reject. There’s an extent to which a musical is carried by its songs, and while the show shouldn’t indulge itself too often, it’s an indulgence I like to share in.

I may be wandering off point, but I think on the whole, what makes the show so maddeningly inconsistent is also what makes it so damn compelling. If it’s not entirely in control of itself, it may be because it’s doing something no other show right now is really trying. It’s trying to mix cheery music and dark comedy, flawed characters with big ideals, and really obvious thematic statements with the occasional moment of nuance. It may yet mature into something a bit more stable, but I have to say I’m enjoying the volatility. Its worst episodes still usually have some moments of cuteness, humor, or just plain awesome music to recommend them, and at its best, it reaches heights of joy and depths of despair that I’m just not seeing anywhere else.

I’d recommend it, but the show doesn’t really need my thumbs-up now, does it? Still, I think fans and non-fans can all agree on one thing: Heather Morris is some kind of a ninja.

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