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Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009
What's wrong with Glee? Inability to find a tone that works, confusing ridiculously stupid plotlines for compelling drama, and Auto-Tune. Wretched, wretched Auto-Tune.

I’ve sort of been watching Glee for the last few months. I say “sort of” because I watched the first four or five episodes relatively quickly back in September, but the rest of the season’s episodes had been languishing on my DVR for the past month or so. But it’s Thanksgiving Break this week, and it’s given me the opportunity to start to get caught up on the show.


I enjoyed the first couple of episodes. The pilot was highly entertaining, aside from a few niggling issues which I sincerely hoped the producers would iron out once the show began in earnest. Unfortunately, the show’s problems have only become more prominent as the season has gone on. The idea of a show about the misfits and outcasts of a high school glee club appealed to me. The fact that the show was relatively successful was also a nice change of pace from the days when Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared were put on the air with a death sentence practically already hanging over them.


But I just watched episode six (“Vitamin D”, the one where Terri becomes the school nurse), and I give up. I can’t take it anymore. The show is just not entertaining enough to overcome its faults. Creator Ryan Murphy seems to want the show to be an over-the-top satire of high school life, which I get. The high school student aspect is actually the most enjoyable part of the show. The popular kids feel entitled, the outcasts feel like crap, and everybody is trying to outdo everybody else and move up (or at least over) on the social ladder. The problem is that Murphy isn’t satisfied with the show being a winking satire, he also wants the audience to take the dramatic plotlines seriously. But how can we, when it’s all so cartoonish? How can I care about whether Glee Club director Will Schuester stays with his wife, Terri, or ends up with Emma, the cute school counselor, when his wife has literally no redeeming qualities. She’s mean, spiteful, lazy, and jealous, and we don’t understand why he’s married to her in the first place. To top it off, the show began a storyline with her where she is lying to Will about being pregnant, and he can’t figure it out. Of course we want Will to end up with Emma, because everything about Terri is awful, awful, awful. That’s not a love triangle, it’s viewer torture.


Meanwhile, Emma is dating the aggravating, desperate football coach simply because he’s persistent. She has zero interest in him, but since she can’t have Will, she is settling. Despite the fact that she’s obsessive-compulsive and unwilling to touch anything with her bare hands and finds the football coach physically repulsive. These interpersonal storylines with the adults don’t work as satire, or straight comedy, or drama, and they drag the show down every time they show up.


The actors don’t seem to know how to play this material, either, which doesn’t help. Matthew Morrison plays Will as a naive sad-sack who is also a wildly enthusiastic teacher who nonetheless gets very easily discouraged. Will gets pushed around by everybody, from his wife to the principal to the cheerleading coach (more on her in a minute). It doesn’t make him an underdog you want to root for, it just makes him pathetic. Jessalyn Gilsig has done solid work in the past, but as Terri she vacillates between shrewish and crazy, and none of it is the slightest bit believable, even in the over-the-top universe of the show. The only actor on the show who does seem to get what Ryan Murphy is going for is Jane Lynch as hard-ass cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. Lynch is hilarious every time she’s on screen, playing Sue as an intensely driven, highly opinionated character who nonetheless manages to seem like a real person.


The Glee universe is one where good singers at a rival school are held back until they’re age 24 so they can keep performing. It’s one where spotlights appear out of nowhere so characters can break into song. And it’s one where rehearsals always feature fully-formed versions of the songs the students are supposedly practicing. All of that is acceptable within the heightened setting of the show. But we’ve also seen the Glee Club get into major trouble with school officials and parents over performing Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” at a pep rally. And then a couple of episodes later, Schuester’s all-male singing group gets invited to perform at a PTA meeting, and nobody bats an eye when the group (which includes students) sings Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up”. The inconsistency is aggravating, and shows incredible laziness on the part of the producers when it comes to even the most basic details.


And then there’s the Auto-Tune. I know that pop music has been inundated with Auto-Tune over the past five years or so, but the kids of the glee club are supposed to all be good singers! The actors were hired because they could all sing as well as act. And the producers think we won’t notice—or worse, won’t care—when we hear those touches of robot voice every time Finn, the lead male vocalist, sings something? And it’s not just Finn, it shows up at least a little bit with all of the kids in the show. Clearly, the runaway success of the songs on iTunes shows that a lot of people really don’t care about this. But as a music geek, it absolutely takes me out of the show every time I hear the Auto-Tune.


Maybe the show has picked up as it went through October and resumed here in November, but I don’t care enough anymore to find out. The basic story about the underdog glee kids trying to beat out the rival school powerhouse is fine. The storylines about the high school kids are generally solid. And Jane Lynch is awesome. But those good points are not enough to overcome the frustration I feel over the rest of the show. Good riddance, Glee. I leave you to the gleeks out there.


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Monday, Nov 30, 2009
The Hills finale airs Tuesday, December 1 at 10PM on MTV. The question, at this point, is whether anyone will be watching it. This intrepid blogger braved the inanity of the most recent season to let you know what has been happening.

Previously on The Hills: Heidi and Spencer got married; at the last minute, Lauren decided to attend the wedding, before leaving the show to pursue life in the real world; Kristin returned to town to shake things up, causing a completely unrealistic wave of whispering and gossip among the other weddings guests; and we all stopped caring and forgot that this show existed.


Yes, the sudden reappearance of Kristin Cavallari, whose presence can only be considered a return for those of us who started watching all of these awful people on Laguna Beach, was the jump-the-shark moment for many viewers. Ratings for the show have plummeted this season, down more than 33 percent from the previous season. As Lauren Conrad went off to try to define herself apart from the show (how is that working out for her?), the obvious engineering of Kristin’s return veered the show even closer to WWF-levels of unreality. In addition, the scenes of Heidi and Spencer had become so obviously scripted, and they failed so utterly to sound like actual humans, that viewers were unable to suspend disbelief any longer. 


I too vowed that the show had crossed that line for me, and so I am proud to say that I survived the past two months without watching a single second of the new season. Then, a funny thing happened. My wife was in the shower, I was flipping through the channel listings, and I saw MTV’s afternoon lineup of “The Hills / The Hills / The Hills / The Hills….”  Like many people (right?), I have never been able to resist a Hills marathon. Even when I watched the show religiously, I regularly spent Saturday and Sunday afternoons lazing on the couch re-watching the same characters engaging in the same conversations about the same things. Had I seen this episode already? Did it really matter? The irony, of course, is that every episode of The Hills is basically the same. Characters hook up, text each other about it, go to a party/opening/concert/fashion show where they fight about it, and then engage in the most sublimely incoherent conversations about everything that has gone on. Each episode ends as we fade out on an appropriately sad/angry/happy song by Kelly Clarkson/Britney Spears/some-crappy-band-the-show-is-obviously-promoting.


So, when I saw those hours of unseen Hills episodes staring me in the face, I could not help but feeling overcome with curiosity for what I had been missing.  And what has been going on, you might ask?


Exactly what you might expect. Kristin is desperately trying to graft herself onto the scene by screaming at every female on the show and hooking up with every male on the show, Speidi continue their rapid descent into obscurity (shown here renting a house, bickering about marriage, and contemplating – seriously – bringing a child into the world), and the ancillary characters continue to orbit the cameras and the leads, keeping the plastic surgeons of Los Angeles afloat as they try to make themselves good looking enough to have their own storylines. Stephanie Pratt is, at this point, approaching Michael Jackson territory. 


I will not lie and pretend that I did not fully enjoy watching this marathon. There were plenty of shouting matches, scenes of obvious acting, and WTF moments to keep me thoroughly entertained. And, as always, there were several sublime moments where I could not help but giving thanks for living in America in 2009. For example, after standing Kristin up for the second time, Justin-Bobby texted the phrase “Sorry boo, strike two.” That actually happened (or, well, you know, it kind of actually happened).


Overall, there is a lot to watch for in The Hills finale on Tuesday night. Will Kristin choose Brody or Justin-Bobby? Will Heidi succeed in her secret plan to get pregnant? Will anyone show up to the “live after-party” that MTV kept promoting during the marathon?


Who knows. I guess the rest is still unwritten.


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Friday, Nov 27, 2009
The teenagers of television are a limited breed at the best of times, usually pigeonholed to fit into the storylines of their parents or significant others. Where are the complex representations that the majority of writers can achieve with their adult characters?

All teenagers on TV at this current moment seem to fall into one of two very distinct categories. They are either the rebellious troublemakers who wreak havoc on their parents (see the Scavo twins in Desperate Housewives or Michael Hewes in Damages), or they are the intellectual, well-behaved children who act as foils to their immature and irresponsible parents (see Julie Mayer in Desperate Housewives or Becca in Californication).


Even shows that could once be relied upon to provide us with relatively normal young characters, such as Law and Order: SVU (see Detective Stabler’s recurring spawn), have fallen into this trap. Recently we were given “Swing”, an episode that detailed the life of Stabler’s daughter, Kathleen, and her fall into delinquency because of bipolar disorder. Even the once well-behaved children have been shown to have their moment of rebellion; consider Julie Stark’s (of the legal drama Shark) improbable pingponging between “sweet, smart heart of the show” and “criminal source of personal drama.” They just can’t make up their minds.


Julie Stark (Danielle Panabaker) and Sebastian Stark (James Woods) share a father/daughter moment.

Julie Stark (Danielle Panabaker) and Sebastian Stark
(James Woods) share a father/daughter moment.


My question is: why? Is it impossible to depict complex teenage characters? Writers seem to be almost seduced by the ‘easy drama’ that wayward teens provide, but spend precious little time developing them as people or exploring their motives for such actions. It is not the actions themselves that I resent, but the apparent laziness of the writers while creating such characters. We can have complicated hard drinkers and adulterers like the titular Grace of Saving Grace as the leads when they are adults, but when such qualities are present in the younger generation, they are reduced to mere cardboard cut outs, excuses for more drama in the lives of their frazzled parents.


Take the aforementioned Michael Hewes of Damages. Despite having everything he could possibly wish for given to him by his rich and successful mother and stepfather, he is—apparently—unhappy. He is portrayed as a budding sociopath in the first season of the legal drama, shown sending a bomb to his mother’s workplace and pretending to the school psychiatrist that his mother’s unsettling dreams are his own. Why? It is inferred that Michael longs to see his icy mother lose her cool, to “rock her world”, as Andrew van de Kamp did to long-suffering mother Bree through the second season of Desperate Housewives, yet nothing is confirmed or truly developed. Little of a maternal bond is shown between Patty and Michael, but nothing is shown to suggest that there would be anything else.


I am not saying that I wished for one of those spectacular, Lifetime-esque scenes in which Patty and Michael screamed and sobbed at one another, exorcising demons and unearthing skeletons, but I would have liked to see… something. This subplot was introduced and then rapidly dropped, as commonly happens with subplots that concern a show’s teenage characters. These teens are, mostly commonly, plot devices, but they are very rarely developed people. Why not? Just because adults are a show’s main focus, it doesn’t mean that their teenagers cannot be developed and well rounded.


Veronica Mars is an example of this. It may be aimed at teens, and primarily about teens, but each of these characters are superbly written, flawed, and detailed. Nobody is all good or all bad. For example, even ultimate villain and abusive father Aaron Echolls presents a genuine desire to reconnect with estranged son Logan and love for daughter Trina. Our heroine has her own faults, including a particular bull-headedness and tendency to judge far too quickly. The good guys have their quirks and complexities, while the bad guys are not nearly as two-dimensionally psychotic as they might once appear. I am not holding the Veronica Mars writers in a place above gods; they are not perfect, either, but this is one angle in which they excel. What is stopping their fellow powers that be from following their example?


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Wednesday, Nov 25, 2009
It would be nice if networks gave every show a chance to end properly, allowing them an opportunity to craft a satisfying finale.

Some of TV’s most unforgettable moments have come in the form of cliffhangers. Think of Buffy’s heroic death followed by the words on her tombstone, “She saved the world, a lot”; or the slow reveal of the body of Jeremy Bentham at the end of Season Three of Lost; or Veronica Mars opening her door at the end of Season One and saying to someone off camera, “I was hoping it was you”; or Sydney Bristow learning at the end of Season Two of Alias that she had lost two years of her life. Cliffhangers at their best have been celebrated from the moment we began to speculate about who shot JR Ewing to the shock and wonder at seeing the untoppled twin towers of the WTC in last year’s Fringe. There is, however, a flipside.


Cliffhangers have also led to some of the most irritating moments in the history of TV. The fourth and final season of Farscape ended with American astronaut John Crichton proposing marriage to his alien lover and former space Nazi Aeryn Sun, only to have a spaceship zap them with a ray gun, reducing them to a pile of glasslike pellets while they kiss and embrace. One of the finest finales of the 2008-2009 season was that of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a brilliant episode that changed everything we thought we knew about the show’s characters and created some intriguing situations for the following season. That would be a season that would never materialize thanks to its cancellation by FOX. The terrible taste that was left in our mouths by the end of Farscape was partially eliminated by the miniseries that wrapped up the series, but a similar fate seems unlikely for TSCC, meaning that the game-changing images of the last few minutes will be forever unresolved.


A natural knee-jerk reaction—it is certainly mine—is to blame the studios for these dangling cliffhangers. After all, if the Sci Fi Channel had renewed Farscape, the shocking end of Season Four would have led to an exciting Season Five premiere. Likewise, had FOX renewed TSCC all of the brilliant plot twists in the Season Two finale could have led to something truly exciting in Season Three. I certainly share the frustration that others feel with the inability of the networks to find a formula that enables them to keep first-rate but low-rated shows on the air. My growing belief, however, is that much of the blame has been misdirected, that the real culprits are not the networks—or at least not primarily the networks—but the writers, producers, and studios that produce these shows.


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Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009
Project Runway's lackluster season ends. Can the show get back to making it work?

Project Runway’s widely derided Season 6 is finally over and—as expected—it ended with a whimper instead of a bang. “Mean-a” Irina Shabayeva and her be-hatted, dominatrix inspired collection won the day to a resounding meh. Michael Kors was unusually restrained during judging. Nina Garcia looked downright pissed off for being forced to sit through the runway show. Even Tim Gunn’s highly promoted epic freak out turned out to be little more than a few moments of intense brow-furrowing over the backstage chaos.


All along I’d been rooting for cute Carol Hannah Whitfield, whose lovely, wearable dresses and buoyant personality provided a bright spot in an undeniably draggy season. But, c’est la vie. The real question now is how much of the show’s creative plunge can be blamed on Lifetime Network tinkering, and can PR get its mojo back for Season 7?


At the beginning of the season, long suffering fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Project Runway we knew and loved seemed to have survived both a location shift from New York to Los Angeles, and the move from hip Bravo TV to mom-favored Lifetime, relatively intact. There was Heidi Klum, impossibly chic and perennially pregnant. There was dapper Tim Gunn, dispensing advice and proclamations (Don’t Bore Nina!) with typical aplomb. The new crop of aspiring designers settled into the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Downtown L.A. and even continued to buy their fabric at a West Coast outpost of Mood.


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