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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (9/27/10) 11:28pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Glee [1x14-1x17], Burn Notice [3x09-3x12] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Glee [1x14-1x17]
The latest DVD of Glee contains the episodes "Hell-O", "The Power of Madonna", "Home", and "Bad Reputation".

Seventeen episodes in, and I still don't feel like I've seen Glee.  I know I've watched hours and hours of what has to be Glee fanfic.  Mind you, it's filmed quite professionally.  But the stories just don't hang together.  The emotions, however heartfelt, are arbitrary and sudden, as the characters get clumsily marionetted through the plot.  Act breaks happen seemingly at random, in plots that just fundamentally make no sense.  Couplings start whenever a writers think, "Hey, what if <x> and <y> got it on?", and stop whenever the writers gets subsequently distracted by shiny objects.

So this has got to be written by a fourteen-year-old with ADD, right?

"Hell-O" is the first episode back from the break, so they quickly -- and clumsily -- reset the state of the world right back to where they started.  The Glee Club kids are still uncool.  Sue is reinstated, and still trying to sabotage the Glee Club.  Will and Emma are still will-they-or-won't-they-ing.  So, for anybody who thought the events of the first sixteen episodes actually *mattered* in this fictional universe... ha!  Suck-ah![1]

It barrels along, as clumsy as ever.  In "The Power of Madonna", suddenly we see that Artie and Tina *are* a couple now (okay, fine), and that Artie has been mistreating Tina (huh?), making all sorts of demands on her appearance (um... what?) -- which is not impossible, I guess, but it's pulled out of thin air to justify some girl-empowering Madonna numbers.  And that's how Glee works generally -- they have some scene they want to get to, so they invent facts so they can get to it.  It doesn't matter if their little inventions weren't hinted at in previous episodes, or hell, even if it goes against continuity.  They just arbitrarily drop in what they need and run with it.

It's kind of like you're watching a chess game.  White moves a knight.  Black moves a pawn.  And then, white pulls out a rubber chicken and slaps it on the gameboard.  Now you're in the territory where anything can happen -- and if anything can happen, well, then anything can happen, and you stop caring about the story.

Also in the 'making me not care' column is the repetition of storylines.  I had a similar reaction to Kurt's efforts to get under the same roof as Finn.  Didn't we already have the Kurt-hits-on-Finn story?  Didn't we already see that resolve with Kurt giving up?  Didn't that resolution mean anything?  But no, we're in reset-button, Perfect Strangers territory, so we see the same story play out a second time.  Again, if you ever thought any events on Glee ever *mattered* or had consequences, you're a damn fool.

That said, there are individual moments that are good.

It's kind of instructive to look at the Glee-ified opening of the Emmy awards:  it's a wildly-entertaining version of "Born to Run", and it's one of my favorite youtube videos I've seen in a while.  And notice that it works perfectly well even though there's no plot around it -- it's just a damn entertaining music video.  I suspect that a lot of Glee just functions on that level:  these individual musical numbers work really well, and who really cares if the scenes around it could be rearranged in a random order and come across pretty much the same?

You can think of it as 'karaoke porn'.  Nobody's really watching for the plot.

So you enjoy those individual scenes as best you can, and accept that the show, while incredibly shiny, just isn't very bright.

Burn Notice [3x09-3x12] [spoilers]
Burn Notice keeps lumbering along with the episodes "Long Way Back", "A Dark Road", "Friendly Fire", and "Noble Causes".

In many ways, Burn Notice has run out of gas.  This is especially obvious in the season arc.  The storyline with Strickler never really held much interest: we never believe that Michael will really do the horribly criminal things that Strickler might ask of him; the conflict between Fi and Michael over whether to keep working for Strickler is static and uninteresting; and frankly, the whole storyline feels like a retread of Michael's attempt to double-cross Management through season two.

Perhaps Mr. Nix felt the same way, since ten episodes in, he has Michael kill off Strickler.  And with that, the Strickler mini-arc goes away, without ever really having amounted to anything.[2]  And then we start up the next mini-arc, where Michael is being hunted -- or employed? or flirted with? -- by a very good, very psychopathic mercenary.  And then that storyline wanders around for a while.

There's never any sense that these major arcs are *building* to anything.  Season 1 had this steady progression -- or at least the *appearance* of steady progression -- as Michael got closer and closer to solving the mystery of who burned him and why.  Season two quickly established that those people were planning something very, very bad, and so that ticking clock and that sense of dread kept the plot ticking forward throughout.

Now?  Now it just feels like stuff is happening, and I don't need to be terribly concerned about how it turns out.  I don't see anything huge at stake here.  I don't see any of it fundamentally changing anything about Michael.  It'll just rumble along, and maybe interesting car chases will happen along the way.[3] 

Yet for all this boredom, there are still some things that the show is doing quite well.

For example, guest stars.  Gilroy, the aforementioned psychopath, is delightful by providing contrast -- he comes across as the James-Bond-like archetype that the show's more tactical characters wind up undercutting.  But at the same time, that character's delight in being a spy is recontextualized as something really, really scary:  realistically, James Bond would be the sort who could grin, sip his shaken martini, and plug you in the head while still grinning.

The guest spot for Tyne Daly (AKA Sharon Gless's Cagney & Lacey co-star) was also a nice turn, but for a different reason:  it gave Ms. Gless something to do besides bother Michael.  Frankly, the scene where she blackmails Ms. Daly's character was pretty damn riveting, and made me realize that most other actors don't bring as much to the table in similarly emotional scenes.

This also gave Maddy something to do besides give Michael grief for doing his job.  Honestly, this is part of a larger pattern in television that gets on my nerves:  the "shrill harpy" stereotype. 

What exactly do I mean by this?

Well, in a typical show -- especially a genre show, but many sitcoms use this formula too -- the protagonist is a guy, and he goes off and has entertaining adventures.  The main female character serves only one function:  to be a shrill harpy.  Her role, as written, is to whine and whine at the protagonist to STOP DOING the entertaining thing that is the raison d'être of the show.  Michael, stop going off and having spy adventures.  Homer, don't do this stupid get-rich-quick scheme.  Will, don't enter the Glee Club in sectionals.

Note that her job is not to actually *stop* the action, as that would kill the show.  No, her job is to just whine ineffectually, annoy the hero, and generally be a buzzkill.

Burn Notice has gotten itself to a point where both its female characters -- Maddy and Fi -- are taking on the shrill-harpy role.  They're both trying to get Michael to stop doing this crazy spy stuff.  Maddy, as usual, doesn't approve of the A-story jobs; Fi, as not-usual, objects to the mini-arc with Gilroy.

I don't understand why this is so common.  Maybe it reflects real life?  Is the world is full of men who want to go off and have adventures, but are held back by women who want their lives to be safe and boring?  Maybe it reflects real life for showrunners, who are largely straight men, and who perhaps have spouses who don't quite approve of their go-off-and-make-up-stories careers?  Or is it just an easy way to add a moral compass to the show -- you let a character raise the ethical concerns about the episode's plot so that the hero can counter them.  Or it could be a way to raise the stakes -- "Oh snap, he's doing this even though his woman doesn't approve!"  Or in comedies, I guess it provides ready-made sitcom situations, as the hero tries desperately to hide his latest wife-disapproved adventure.

In any case, it was nice to get some respite from the Maddy-says-stop-that status quo.  But it made me wish we had more female characters on TV who were more "yes, and!" and less "no, stop!"

Technical aspects of the show remain the same.  John Dickson still makes me hate life a little bit more with his cheap- and bland-sounding music.  They still desperately try to look cool with various stylized "Avid fart" fade-outs and fade-ins.  Some of them -- like quickly ramping up the brightness and contrast so that the screen 'bleaches' to white, or temporarily employing a split-screen between scene 1 and scene 2 -- work pretty well.  Others -- like those that employ the overused flim-speed-ramping "300 effect" -- are less successful.

One last note:  it's been interesting watching season 3 of Burn Notice at the same time as season 2 of Chuck, because it's gotten me thinking about a problem that's unique to genre fiction.

When you watch genre fiction, it's easy to dismiss the stories that you're watching.  "Oh, this is just a bunch of people in spaceships.  It has nothing to do with my life."  "Oh, fun, they're fighting vampires.  Yeah, this is a nice, silly way to killl a couple of hours."  Or, in this case, "Oh, neat, spy stuff.  It has no bearing on real life, but it's entertaining enough."  The problem with genre fiction is that the audience is disconnected from it -- and if you're not careful, the audience can just dismiss it as a pleasant little exercise in escapism, instead of engaging with the stories emotionally.

Different shows have different ways of handling this -- of making the genre stories feel relevant.  In Buffy, for example, the monster-of-the-week A-stories are very clear metaphors for high-school (and later, college/young-adult) situations -- to the point that the characters actually comment on how, say, the girl who became invisible reflects how often we ourselves feel/felt invisible as teenagers.  It's never "just a story about vampires" because it's really a story about your own life.

Chuck takes a different tack.  In Chuck, the spy story definitely reflects real life to an extent.  For instance, "Chuck Versus the Suburbs" is ostensibly about infiltrating a spy ring in a gated community -- but really, it's about deciding whether you want to take the big step of moving in with your girlfriend.  But in Chuck, the metaphors are less obvious than Buffy, so Chuck uses the B-story -- the Buy More storyline -- to "nail down" exactly what the A-story means.  So in "Chuck Versus the Suburbs", we find Morgan and Anna facing a very similar situation -- should we move in together? -- in a much more domestic sphere.  So that episode is not "just a silly story about spies", because you clearly see, it's about real life.  You can't dismiss it just because you'll never have to take down a cabal of enemy agents.

Burn Notice never seems to nail down why its A-stories *matter*.  It never answers that question that Joss Whedon would always ask:  "Why are we telling *this* story?"  Each episode is a great little spy caper, and each one is just fiendishly constructed, but in the end, I'm just sitting back and watching something entertaining happen, instead of *feeling* it.

The A-stories are not metaphors, à la Buffy.  The B-stories are not connecting the A-story to real life, à la Chuck.  The A-stories just sort of... float.

Maybe this is intentional -- after all, Burn Notice is supposed to be light and escapist.  The A-stories are just pleasant adventures.  Yet I can't help looking at these other genre shows, the ones that make even the most whimsical genre stories pack an emotional punch, and see a missed opportunity.

For next time, I'll finally post something about the last few Christopher Eccleston episodes of Doctor Who and put up some thoughts about the Joe Sacco graphic-novel reportage Footnotes in Gaza.  I'll also watch some more episodes of Glee and Burn Notice, in spite of my being underwhelmed by both shows.

[1] What really hurts here is that Glee takes place at "McKinley High" -- which is the same name as the Michigan high school from Freaks and Geeks.

[2] Perhaps it establishes that Michael values Fi's life over getting his old job back -- but really, did anybody ever doubt that?

[3] Compare this to (say) season 2 of Chuck, where the major arcs are incredibly important to the main characters, and are basically just coded 'spy' versions of crises that we face in real life.  (More on that in a bit.)

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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (9/28/10) 6:56am
Your description of Glee is dead on, and a really good summation of why the show makes me want to scream, but why I keep coming back each week. The karaoke porn. :) And "shiny, but not very bright"...brilliant. And, again, dead on.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (9/28/10) 7:43am


*tips hat*
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Date:Tuesday (9/28/10) 9:45pm
I didn't like Glee for the first season, but when I saw the reset button pushed for season two (or...episode 17, I guess?), I was downright insulted. I'm still kind of relieved that you aren't into it either.
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