Thursday, December 10, 2009

Authority Rules: The Merit of "Glee"

"Glee" brings to television something that I thought we'd lost a long time ago--something seemingly gone with the days of "Freaks and Geeks" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek" and "Gilmore Girls." "Glee" is about a merry band of misfits, teenagers who don't rule the school or ride around in limousines or subscribe to the pitiful, contemporary stereotypes engrained in our psyches by blond (wealthy) idiots like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. "Glee"is a show about acceptance, about friendship and leadership and staying true to oneself. It's about having conviction. That said, "Glee" might seem to embrace cultural stereotypes of teenagers (ie: pregnant cheerleader, Tracy Flick type, dumb jock, fashion-conscious gay kid), but it, in fact, does not. It does the opposite.

I've learned a lot here at UCI, and one of the things I've learned is that everything's been done. Everything in the whole wide world has been written already--every kind of teenager and every kind of person in the whole entire world. That said, stereotypes are not real. They do not exist in the real world. They exist only as a way for us to mentally categorize information. For example: Even the most stereotypical Orange County housewife (in the real world) will wear a funny hat every once in a while, read Charlotte Bronte, and smoke cigarettes on the porch while humming old Sex Pistols tracks. These things go against stereotype. She's still considered a stereotype, however, because she's tan with expensive highlights and breast implants, and she drives a Range Rover and wears a big, diamond watch and neglects her poor, stereotypical Orange County children who do stereotypical drugs like cocaine while she flirts shamelessly with the stereotypical pool boy. You see, stereotypes don't exist in the real world, and they only really exist in fiction, movies, or television when a writer (or writers) choose to write idea at the expense of characterization. This is usually a consequence of laziness, inexperience, or a simple lack of talent. We see this on a lot of shows, namely (and since we're talking teenagers), "Gossip Girl."

See, I stopped watching "Gossip Girl," because every time its writers come close to true characterization, like with Chuck Bass, they slack off and rely on our generic understandings of youth and money, sex and revenge, rather than excavate an understanding of these things that is unique to Chuck. Of course Chuck Bass acts out the way he does. He's a rich heir from the Upper Eastside of Manhattan, and he's got daddy issues. We can understand that, because we've read Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise" and because we've seen "Dead Poets Society." That's not characterization. That's laziness. It's not intelligent TV, so I don't waste my time with it anymore. "Glee," on the other hand, makes quite a bit of commentary on stereotypes, because it reinvents its stereotypes and develops its characters by giving each of them a unique perception of the world. Quinn is a pregnant cheerleader...whose parents kick her out of the house, who lies about the identity of the father of her child, who allows herself to be manipulated by a desperate woman, who, despite her sweet looks and social status, still feels like a misfit every single day. Puck is a big, dumb jock (AND a pool boy)...who eats dinner at home in front of the television with his mother, who is Jewish, who plays the guitar, who must struggle with the fact that the girl carrying his child doesn't want him around, who steals money from the bake sale to pay for sonograms, who quits football to join, well, Glee. 

Anybody who watches "Glee" knows that it is not simply some throw-off teen romp full of bubble gum and stereotypes (as it may seem, I think, to some people). Quite to the contrary--"Glee" is, at times, deeply serious, deeply heartbreaking in its examination of teenage life. In this way, it is like "Freaks and Geeks," but it is better than "Freaks and Geeks." I think of that scene in Wheels, that gloriously orchestrated scene that juxtaposes Kurt practicing scales on the piano and his father receiving a hateful phone call pertaining to his son's sexuality. This scene sort of chewed me up, spit me out weak. It is almost unreal. It's a product of perfect editing, perfect pacing, writers with knowledge of not only juxtaposition of visual and aural queues, but also of cultural tensions, familial tensions, and tension in general. This scene is pretty much a how-to on writing suspense, and it's an example of suspense that works and feels very real while existing outside the moronic realm of an action flick. It's scenes like this one that, the moment "Glee" gets too silly or goes to town with our suspense of disbelief, pretty much throw our heads through a window, place our feet firmly on the ground and remind us that silly and music are not all this show has to offer. It becomes a very adult show in these moments, a show that discusses homosexuality, teen pregnancy, people with disabilities, financial stress, marital tension, issues of self-worth, and more. Wheels, I think, is this season's best episode, with Mattress at a close second for its emotional excavation of Will in moments of unspeakable revelation. I have to say that I didn't know Matt Morrison could act like that. He had me at hello with those curls and that voice, but that's not all. Dude's got chops, and I'm looking forward to much more of Will Schuester.

One last thing on "Glee"--I'm really digging the new Naturalistic camera work. By that, I mean, the shaky cam, that sort of documentary-style camera work that "Friday Night Lights" has been working for four years. I think some critics get on "Glee"'s case for its supposed inconsistent tone, but I think they're missing the greater significance here. The story is this: "Glee" can get away with pretty much anything it wants. It can use Naturalistic camera work in one shot, and take a more traditional approach in the next, and it can use Surrealism in its musical numbers, and it can use voiceover whenever it damn well pleases. "Glee" is so well-paced, and it has such fabulous authority that it can get away with anything. Seriously, when have you ever watched "Glee" and thought, Wow, these writers really don't know what they're doing, do they? No! They always know exactly what's going on. It's not "Lost." We're never caught wondering, watching as the writers so obviously try to shake loose from their own shit-tastic, labyrinthine handy work (note: I love "Lost"). It's not "Mad Men." It never feels sort of slow or cyclical. It never makes me want to gouge my eyes out with frustration (note: I love "Mad Men.") It's "Glee." This is the merit of "Glee." The Magical Realism and all that suspense of disbelief that we feel: It's all earned. The writers, the performers, the directors, the producers--they own each and every episode they put out. They make it their own, and it's this authority, this commitment to pacing, to plot, and to character that allows them to get away with pretty much anything they want. Like I said, "Glee" is about conviction, and this show's got plenty of it. Plus, and I don't think anyone can disagree with me here, it's entertaining as hell. So where's the love? I love "Glee." It's quickly becoming one of my favorite shows and, I think, one of the best shows on television.

(Watch "Glee" at

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