Monday, 14 March 2011

Glee's Creative Angina.


Back in May at the conclusion of the show’s first season I talked about the many problems of Glee. At that point the show had near universal acclaim, but I was not convinced. It seems that I was ahead of the curve, because the show has now widened the gap between its best and its worst. Consequently, Glee is not the ratings juggernaut that it was this time last year. My comparisons with The OC now seem particular prophetic.

The problems I highlighted seem to have only increased three quarters of the way through Glee’s second season. Glee has creative angina: it looks tired, old and bloated. It has added unnecessary second and third tier characters. The plotting between (and sometimes during) episodes is bipolar in nature, which disregards continuity almost completely. The biggest problem of all is that the show's three writers Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk seem happy to rest on their laurels, wasting the talents of a potentially great show and reducing it to mediocrity.

Television critics in particular have discussed at length this wasted potential. In fact the debate about Glee is actually more entertaining than the show itself, and is probably the only reason I’m still watching the show. In particular this commentary by Salon’s TV Critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums up my feelings completely:

Problem No. 1 is that there's too much sizzle this season, not enough steak. You can say that about almost any Season 2 episode, but it's especially true of the so-called tribute episodes, which feel less like continuations of the show's ongoing story than glorified interruptions.

The show's much-vaunted inventiveness is starting to seem detrimental, too, because it's concentrated in the margins. I'm in favor of the series embracing its latent surrealist streak -- an inclination that links Glee with The Singing Detective and Twin Peaks -- but only if it has the chops to pull it off. Unfortunately, except for Grilled Cheesus -- an episode built around an earnest, Afterschool Special-style contemplation of faith that improbably turned out to be one of the series' boldest, silliest, maybe finest hours -- I have yet to see evidence that Glee can sustain that level of deranged genius for more than a few minutes at a time.

I suppose Glee has its teenie bopper audience to consider primarily, hence it does not stray too far from its mainstream formula. This is rather maddening for television viewers like myself who treat the medium both as a form on entertainment and as a way to be intellectually stimulated. There are more holes in the plotting of Glee than a slice of Swiss cheese. Viewers tend to overlook these if the show is fun and captures the viewers enough so they can get swept up in the story. As Todd VanDerWerff points out:

Whether or not you can like an episode of Glee increasingly seems to have plenty to do with just how much you’re willing to forgive the show completely rewriting itself in order to pull off whatever it wants to do in that week’s episode.

My frustration with Glee is not what the show is, but what it could be. It is the perfect vehicle for mainstream audiences to get swept up in theatricality of musicals. Musicals aren’t always sunny and vibrant; in fact the best ones have dark and desperate undertones. In the show’s pilot, Glee looked as if it might head in this direction with at least part of its story, but it lost the opportunity:
There are a couple of other shows lurking inside of Glee, ghosts of the shows that could have been. One is the deeply sentimental after-school special sans snark, the show that more often makes viewers cringe than say, “Hey, that was OK,” no matter the show’s intended audience of teenagers and young’uns. The other is the often very sad show about failed dreams and the people who cling to them desperately, usually best exemplified by Will Schuester and his realization of just how little his life has amounted to, outside of the fact that he seems to enjoy teaching and his students seem to appreciate him. That could be more than enough if it wasn’t for the fact that he wanted to be great at one time, but got sidelined by life and ended up as someone the teenage version of himself would barely recognize. That’s the guy we first met in the pilot, trapped in a flailing marriage and trying to right himself via returning to his show choir roots.

The thing that attracted audiences to Glee in the first place was that it took risks. It bended genres, stereotypes and creative norms. Now the show has become overexposed and excessively popular Glee seems to be straight jacketed by its success. It is time for Glee to think outside the box.
Narrative and character can be conveyed solely through acting, music, choreography and feeling. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg proved this. So did Once and Hairspray, Tommy and Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar and Pink Floyd's The Wall. And so, in its overstuffed, Attention Deficit Disordered way, did Moulin Rouge, a fragmented mess that works in spite of itself because the emotions are simple and epic—and the filmmakers and the performers take them seriously, even when they're making awful puns and mincing around like brain-damaged vaudeville wannabes.

You could make episodes of Glee in the spirit of any of the aforementioned musicals, Mr. Murphy. Or you could do an entire episode that was mostly one big dream sequence—the Glee equivalent of the Test Dream episode of The Sopranos. Or you could do a whole episode that had no music, only expressive (and charmingly awkward) dancing, and perhaps no words at all. You could do a whole episode with no songs, just rapid-fire dialogue that achieved its own sideways sort of musicality. You could do five little short films, one about a different character, and link them by a common event, a la Jim Jarmusch's great anthology film Mystery Train. You could have a character die slowly and send them off over a full hour with your own salute to All That Jazz (although hopefully you will have learned your lesson from Rocky Horror and used Fosse's masterwork as rough inspiration rather than as something to piggyback on).
And if you carried yourself with the swanky, imperious confidence of Dr. Frank N. Furter, the audience would follow. Yes, they would.
What, you think they're suddenly going to stop watching Glee because you started throwing curveball after curveball? Hell, no. They'd be on the edges of their seats every single week. They'd approach each new episode with a sense of nervous delight, wondering, "What the hell is Glee going to try to get away with this week?"
That's how the truly great shows do it, Mr. Murphy. They don't half-ass it like Glee, trying to please (or coddle) everybody, and often ending up pleasing no one.
Glee could be Dennis Potter plus Twin Peaks plus American Idol plus Hairspray plus about 10 other things that haven't been invented yet. Right now what you've got is a compulsively watchable show that's stunning about twenty percent of the time and disappointing otherwise, not because the remainder is completely worthless—far from it—but because that 20 percent set the bar so high.
So be crazy. Show us what you've got—everything you've got. Don't hold back. Don't play it safe. You've got the clout. You've got the riches. You've got the following.
But based on what I've seen over the last two seasons, you don't have the nerve.

To be sure Glee still has moments of genius when it rarely applies musical theatre to its creative processes. Some songs still make me cry like a baby, while others take the best pop songs to another level, and there are others no one could possibly fuck up. However, these moments are getting fewer and farther between. Great as these moments are, they are not enough to hide its flaws anymore.

Nowhere is the gulf between Glee’s best and worst more evident than its portrayal of physically disabled character Artie. In a genius move, the writers paired him up with the show’s best character Brittney, but in doing so have created infuriating characterizations of crippledom. In Glee’s Christmas episode Brittney, still believing in Santa asks Saint Nic to cure Artie’s disability and make him walk. This is dreadful and suggests that Brittney does not accept her boyfriend for who he is, nor does understand that his disability might be crucial part of his identity, and part of the reason she might have fallen in love with him in the first place. In another episode they use Artie’s wheelchair as a dance prop while Brittney shouts afterwards ’That’s my man whose legs don’t work'. Really Glee? You sure know how to piss this cripple off!

For a show so naturally attractive to me Glee is certainly torture to watch. The best musicals are meant to take the viewer inside a character’s soul so the audience can gain a greater understanding of the story. It is through song that a character can express their inner most pain, joy and desperation. The desperation I confront as a once loyal viewer of Glee is to wonder how long I can continue watching the show and hoping for the best?

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