Posts Tagged ‘Glee’

The “New Directions” of the underdogs

December 21, 2009

“Don’t you get it man, we’re all losers. Everyone in this school, no everyone in this town. Out of all the kids who graduate maybe half will go to college and two will leave the state to do it. I’m not afraid of being called a loser because I can accept that that’s what I am. But I am afraid of turning my back on something that actually made me happy in my life.” –Finn from the pilot episode of Glee

While it may be a cliché statement, no one ever said high school was easy. It is the most awkward time in an adolescent’s life and they have to go through so much. If you don’t believe me, ask any teen or watch an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation. It is incredibly hard to fit in, and as a teen that seems to be the most important thing — at least that is what popular TV shows tell us. It seems that every pre-teen wants to have the glamorous life of either Blair or Serena when in reality they can probably identify with a character like Angela Chase: young, angsty, and in the suburbs. However, as we all know, after one season My So Called Life, a show about the life of the everyday teen, was cancelled. The show Freaks and Geeks had the same fate and lighter premise, so I was shocked when a new show Glee hit the airwaves with the tagline “a biting comedy for the underdog in all of us” and was not only a critical success but a commercial one as well.

For those who haven’t seen Glee it is a show about a high school glee club trying to do what they love and survive high school while doing it. If you are doing glee, it means you are a loser and will get a slushie in your face or be dumped in the trash. Not even after the head cheerleader and captain of the football team join does the glee club ever become cool. It is also important to note that every person in the glee club is some kind of stereotype whether it is the gay kid or the kid in the wheelchair. So while at times the show can look like a Benetton ad, it tries to show that it is a show for everyone, and that everyone’s story is being told, unlike Gossip Girl where it is solely Manhattan’s elite.

So why do glee? It seems that the reason so far is because all the kids love to sing dance and be part of something. There is also a sense of camaraderie and that they have to stick together. As we see in this clip, the group sings “Lean on Me” to two of the members who are about to have a baby. The entire school just found out and they are the subject of ridicule ( http://www.hulu.com/watch/112694/glee-lean-on-me ) . Here we see the group telling these two members, the ex head cheerleader and captain of the football team who is now made fun of for joining glee, that no matter what, they are there for them, they are part of something. The show uses group numbers to show this a lot, as seen in this clip right here: ( http://www.hulu.com/watch/112697/glee-keep-holding-on )

While at times this notion of “being a part of something” may come off as cheesy, Glee’s ultra campy format actually makes it work. In recent episodes there have been a few moments that seem a little to after school special, like the character Kurt coming out to his father or the episode where everyone has to “feel Artie’s pain” by spending the day in a wheelchair and doing a wheel chair number ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKuikT2xbAo ), but surprisingly enough these stories come out rather genuine even if they are camped up.

This makes me think about My So-Called Life because it tried so hard to mimic what it was to be a teen at that time, and did it almost too well. However, even with its great job of depicting what it is to be a teen and how relatable its protagonist Angela is, at times it came off a bit more as a public service announcement and less of a teen drama. In shows like the OC or Gossip Girl a character may have a drug or drinking problem, but it is usually solved and forgotten about in the next few episodes, or there is a funny storyline to balance it out. In My So-Called Life the character Rayanne deals with being on and off the wagon throughout its entire series, here is a clip set to music that chronicles it ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-IMtjiMqv4 ). Come to think about there is not one happy ending in any episode My So-Called Life. While it is more true to life, it seems that the audience wants something they can smile about in the end, so when even a character like Kurt from Glee developed a drinking problem in the episode “The Rhodes not Taken”, it was dealt with and over within minutes. The same happens in the episode “Vitamin D” where the entire club starts taking what they think is a vitamin but is really Pseudoephedrine, a performance-enhancing drug. Of course by end of the episode they are all back to normal like nothing had happened.

While it is a show about the underdog, it makes the viewer feel like they are actually the rock stars. It does show them being picked on and ridiculed, but there is never really a super cringe worthy moment. Even when the diva of the series Rachel Berry is getting a slushie in the face, it isn’t as bad as some moments on shows like Freaks and Geeks. In this clip we see the character Bill getting peanuts put in his sandwich by a bully to see if he is really allergic to peanuts ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VE65VbUBGbI Only watch the first 3 minutes). As we see, this moment is painful for all involved including the viewer. While the show is considered a comedy, the entire series banks on these moments that make us go “NO NO NO! AWWW! REALLY?! AWWWW!” Even the worst moments of the show, that usually happens to Rachel, never make us want to close our eyes and, well, cringe. It may be because there just aren’t any of those moments, or because we know that Rachel is the most talented person in the glee club and when she says she is destined to be a star, we believe her and know that these are just bumps in the road.

While I can’t exactly pinpoint why Glee is as successful as it is and shows about other underdog groups weren’t, I do have a few ideas. For one, the show tends to be like its title, gleeful and upbeat, and in a time where we are in a recession and feeling down isn’t that what we need? I mean who can resist a happy go lucky show about the underdogs rising up with musical numbers? My second idea is that even though these kids are supposed to be the biggest losers in school, I totally want to be friends with all of them as well as be in New Directions (that’s the glee clubs name). Plus, Glee sort of says that it is okay to be loser and that you should celebrate unlike My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks.

Even when it seems like they hate each other, they always have each other’s back, like in this opening scene from the episode Preggers where two of the girls in the club help Kurt convince his dad that his outfit is for football (http://www.vureel.com/video/5920/Glee-1×04 Watch the first 2 minutes), or in the clip above with the wheelchairs when Finn screams out happily “This one is for you Artie!”. Another example is in the season finale Rachel is willing to give up her solo twice to her rival diva Mercedes. In the end Mercedes says that even though she doesn’t like Rachel very much, Rachel deserves to have the spotlight. Again, corny I know, but after the episode you are just so happy you don’t even really notice. If there is one important thing to take away from Glee, which I also think is one of the reasons why it is doing so well, it is to let your freak flag fly. I don’t know how long it will last, but I can say this: Glee isn’t just waving a freak flag, it’s waving a freak banner and I totally love it!

The Glee of Community

December 21, 2009

Hey all, I ended up changing my topic to the birth of character and problems with stereotypes in Glee and Community. Enjoy!

To describe them, Glee and Community really aren’t that different: charming, straight white male leads with kind of funny hair, leading a diverse group of misfits that along the way becomes their own community. When you look a little closer, however, they quickly diverge: on the one hand, you have an earnest and kind teacher who would do anything to see his students succeed, and a group of young people just trying to find their place in this world – or at least, high school. Also, they are a choir and they sing songs. On the other hand, you have a self-absorbed and snarky ex-lawyer who just wants to get a degree so he can get back to “exploiting the legal system for profit” and a group of people who have made some dubious decisions in their lives, and are now trying to figure out where the hell to go from here.

The cast of Community

These are my two favorite new shows, and both well on their way to becoming some of my favorite shows, period (and I loved Roseanne, so watch out). I love both of these shows. However, I am surprised by the disparity in their receptions. Glee, the musical show about the scrappy show choir that could, has been getting rave reviews, and has cultivated a rather rabid fan base already, on the strength of only thirteen episodes (and, it must be admitted, two studio albums) (how many songs do they sing at sectionals, anyway?) while Community, the sitcom about the lovable community college losers has been almost uniformly panned, at least by people I know (by which I mean, almost everyone in both my Looking at and Writing for TV classes). I am also struck by how they both engage in media tropes to address pertinent social issues of identity and representation, in very different ways and to fairly different outcomes. I feel that the two are supremely related.

I’m going to be real here. I find Glee wildly problematic, not only in regard to structure but in regards to social commentary. I feel that its engagement with issues reinforces a cultural imperialism, where the actions of people outside the dominant culture are ruled by those who are white or straight or able bodied, or they are fit into constrictive stereotypes determined by the dominant culture.  In my mind, Community is far superior. It is more intelligent, better written and more consistent than Glee, and it is so socially on point. However, for the sake of continued realness, I love Glee. I love Community too, but I really love Glee. I have all the music. I cry probably at least once an episode. What is it that is so engaging and lovable about this show? And why don’t people find Community to be equally as engaging?

The cast of Glee

I think it comes down to each show’s treatment of representation in regards to social expectations. Both shows utilize stereotype and trope. A trope refers to any recognizable cultural convention or device in fiction, used to communicate quickly and efficiently with an audience. I use stereotype to mean a standardized belief or expectation held about a certain social group. However, each show does so in a very different way that ultimately sums up each of their underlying messages and projected social outcomes.

Glee has often been criticized for its stereotypical characters. Its characters are representations we recognize, and the writers of Glee expertly fulfill our expectations of the stereotypes. They are fleshed out and made human, made accessible and real. They add depth to the stereotypes to make them fuller, and give them all a heart of gold: Rachel is still an obnoxious diva, but she has a heart of gold; Finn is still a dumb jock, but he has a heart of gold; Mercedes is still a sassy black girl, but she has a heart of gold.  However, they each still fulfill the recognizable constructions we have been taught. It is their very familiarity that makes them so attractive. This is a problematic approach because is it ultimately socially static; it doesn’t look outside of what its characters are to what they could be, and so continues to barricade them in this strict and limiting roles. We like them because we understand who or what they are, but it is that which we recognize that is problematic.

The characters on Community are kind of like what is going to happen to the Glee kids after high school. Annie is motivated, neurotic and accomplished, much like Rachel, if Rachel’s motivation were to get her addicted to pills, then take her to rehab, where she loses her scholarship and ends up in community college. Troy is the star football player, like Finn, if Finn were to go on to dislocate both his shoulders during a keg flip, lose a football scholarship, and end up in community college. Pierce is like Puck, the lady’s man, at sixty, still trying to use the same moves on women now forty years younger than himself. Community takes the expected social construction of these characters and expertly subverts them, in the same way that Glee expertly fulfills them. It is affirmative in a way I rarely see on television. While Glee recognizes the stereotype and then writes the character to fulfill that stereotype, Community allows for its characters to be something other than they appear to be. They are not bound by expected tropes of their characters. Annie, the honor student, is also an ex-pill junkie. Troy, the dumb jock, is also an aspiring comedian. Abed, the person of color, is also a filmmaker. By subverting and going beyond the audience expectations of these stereotyped characters, Community has created both a space for comedy and a space for honest affection, where Glee breeds mere affectionate familiarity.

It is these methods of characterization and cultural representation that ultimately determine the messages sent by both Community and Glee. Glee suggests that we are all essentially separate; in the world of high school, social cliques are rigid and identity is fixed for you. The bounds of what one can be are limited. What Glee seems to suggest, however, is that regardless of our fundamental differences, we can all come together in peace and harmony. Community has a different, and to my mind, more refreshing message: in the end, we are all just people. It is funny, exciting and apparently off-putting because it subverts the stereotype, allowing each character to be more than their box. It recognizes the capacity of humans for multiple identities, and represents people navigating those identities. How healthy would it be to live in a world where we all were allowed to represent all sides of ourselves equally, and not have to pick a stereotype to fulfill? To be judged on the basis of our character, rather than on any of our identities. Glee presents a familiar future, one we feel comfortable imagining. It’s something we have been hearing our whole lives. Community presents a world more alien, less known, more progressive. It might not be as warm and fuzzy, but it is the future I want to see, and with any luck, someday will.

The reception of these two shows suggests that people are not yet comfortable with the idea of post-identity, that it is easier and perhaps preferable to them to have these tags to help them identify or recognize people? It makes it feel as though there is so much more to learn about a person, but how many can we really learn from equating a person to a stereotype? If identities are constructed for us, and no one can fully fulfill a stereotype, can they actually tell us anything about who a person really is? Perhaps on television there simply is not enough time to get to know people in such a comprehensive way; that is, after all, the purpose of the trope. They provide useful starting points for characters. Community is allowing their characters to move beyond the stereotypes into more fully developed people, while Glee is allowing their characters to enrich the stereotype they embody. Ultimately, however, a stereotype is limited, and without allowing a character to move beyond the bounds of what is permitted for their stereotype, the character will stop growing and stagnate.