25 May 2011

‘Glee’-nalysis: Wonderful Town

Broadway Baby: Lea Michele as Rachel

When I was growing up in the American Heartland, I dreamed of New York City, smart and sexy and sophisticated. Its daily rhythms were the beat of Gene Kelly’s feet, set to the scores of Gershwin and Bernstein, and the city’s voice was that of Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Beverly Sills.

Also Joey Ramone. What can I tell you? I was a weird kid.

What do kids today dream of when they dream of New York? I can’t be sure. The city has changed so much since I first arrived. But Broadway has changed even more than the rest of New York. Nowadays, when kids in the Heartland are pouring out their hearts in the school musical, they’re not dreaming of being anonymous, interchangeable parts in one of the soulless amusement-park attractions that are a modern-day Broadway show. They’re dreaming of shows that allow them to be themselves as they really are — which is to say superstars.

Those kids are, I suspect, dreaming of Glee.

So it was interesting to watch Glee’s first foray into New York last night, and significant, I think, that the show recalled so many notions of what New York represented to earlier generations of American dreamers. The steady flow of Gershwin songs underscoring the action recalled not only George and Ira but also Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The New Directions kids mashed-up Madonna and Bernstein, but they danced just like Gene Kelly and the gang in Bernstein’s On the Town. And Rachel and Kurt ate breakfast at Tiffany’s.

New York, New York: The Central Park sequence

How do we reconcile the disparity between those sounds and images, and the present-day town, which looks more and more like an overcrowded upscale suburban shopping mall? Will today’s Broadway ever conjure up the sweetest dreams of ambitious children?

Luckily for us, the Glee kids didn’t try to tackle such questions. But returning to the city after so many years away, I was heartened to see New York through their eyes. Yeah, a lot of it is lost or forgotten, and some of it never really existed. But it’s still here. New York is real. And if I had it to do all over — this is where I’d come.

Special appearance by Miss Patti LuPone
How is it that the writers of a Hollywood TV show understand her mystique better than the creators of a recent Broadway musical did?

The episode was full of incidental pleasures, almost none of which had anything to do with the ostensible season climax, the show-choir competition. That sequence featured forgettable numbers that the kids had ostensibly written themselves (and — implausibly, need I say — written only after they got to New York), as well as a kinda-sorta step forward in Rachel’s love life. Beyond that, one marvels that this tepid segment was what the show has been building toward for months.

The judges’ decision made sense, at least: New Directions is composed of professionals (in real life) and they’re substantially more accomplished than what one assumes is the typical level of typical mid-American high-school show choirs. You’ve got to find a reason for them not to wipe up the stage with everybody else, and the writers did that. So okay, next season we’ll be more invested in whether New Directions wins first place — before most of the cast “graduates.” We won’t say, “Ho-hum. They win again.”

Look at the skies! They got stars in their eyes!
Also, Puck plays accordion. Why not?

What worked in this episode was seeing the various relationships as they played out against a new backdrop, and how they changed (or didn’t) when the kids went home again. The evolution of Brittany (Heather Morris) and Santana (Naya Rivera) from extras to central characters has been one of the most satisfying developments in the course of Glee, and both ladies got excellent opportunities to sing, dance, and emote this week. I was a bit puzzled when Quinn (Dianna Agron) seemed fully aware of a relationship that Santana has only barely admitted to herself — but in the world of Glee, that’s a minor lapse. (Typically for the show, it was also a set-up for an easy laugh.)

Glee sometimes gets so caught up in its own fabulousness that it forgets its original concept: that New Directions are the losers, and it’s downright weird that the popular kids, jocks (Finn, Puck, Sam) and cheerleaders (Quinn, Brittany, Santana) would join. This week we were reminded of that central theme as popular Finn strove to woo misfit Rachel, but we’re so accustomed to seeing her as the McKinley High School Dynamo that the moments didn’t quite work: the writers left this plot alone for too long.

Not so cheery Cheerios

And they don’t seem to have any idea what to do with Quinn anymore. Her promised moment of High Camp Villainy was resolved with a simple haircut. Really? Okay, she’s only a high-school cheerleader, she’s not Wilhelmina Slater or Alexis Colby Carrington Trump. Yes, every few episodes she gets a killer dramatic speech and occasionally a song. But who is Quinn Fabray? Does anybody know?

Far more effective were the scenes between Rachel and Kurt (Chris Colfer), characters who have evolved from antagonism to respect to affection. Part of this was necessary, since Kurt had become America’s sweetheart and Rachel was becoming wildly unpopular among viewers. Good writers often reveal character through other characters, and because Rachel cared about Kurt, viewers may have started to cut her a little more slack.

The proto-Rachel: Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick

Rachel is very much a musical Tracy Flick, the iconic character from Alexander Payne’s film and Tom Perrotta’s source novel Election; for Glee, she’s fused with the young Barbra Streisand. That character, by her DNA, is not likable — but to sustain a weekly series, the leading character must be likable. (At least that’s the case on American television.) So the writers of Glee keep reminding us that this girl who would have annoyed the hell out of us in real-life school, is actually lovable.

Kurt would need no reminding, especially on those occasions when Rachel isn’t stealing his solo numbers. They speak the same language, sing the same songs, crush on the same boys, and it was especially lovely to see these characters sharing their New York dreams. Even when they weren’t together, they were thinking about each other: “I have to do it, for Kurt!” Rachel exclaimed, while summoning up the courage to speak to Patti LuPone at Sardi’s.

Dreams of Broadway
One of these days, I really have to see Wicked.

Seeing Rachel and Kurt evoke Holly Golightly, I realized that at last somebody could cast a remake of Breakfast at Tiffany’s correctly, and maybe even revive the Broadway musical version (a notorious flop that starred Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain).

The rest of the New York scenes were mostly exuberant, as out-of-town field trips are, and they thoroughly disregarded geography, as movie musicals do. The “Bella Notte” number lacked only a callback to Brittany and Santana: we really needed a shot through the window of an Italian restaurant, where Brittany rolled a meatball with her nose. Dancing in the park to “New York, New York”? Yeah, that’s how the city feels when you’re young. I’ve done it myself.

Darren Criss: Awwwwww.
Some day, we must talk about how this man and this show are warping the romantic expectations of approximately 99.44 percent of gay teenagers in the United States alone. There are no Blaines in real life, people.

Ultimately, the trip mattered more than the competition itself, and the episode’s final act, in which the characters reflected on their adventures, rang true. In another indication of the show’s flexibility and the writer–producers’ attention to the blogosphere, we see that Mercedes (Amber Riley) and Sam (Chord Overstreet) are dating: bloggers had complained that Mercedes had no boyfriend because the show featured no other black actor in a leading role, and therefore (it was alleged) the producers didn’t have the imagination to give her a boyfriend who wasn’t black. After hints at this romantic pairing last week, this week we got the glimmer of a payoff.

Sam, meanwhile, has been underused for anything but gay-bait (both for the show’s gay characters and for the show’s gay viewers) since he arrived, so maybe he and Mercedes will be allowed to develop as satisfyingly as Brittany and Santana have done. Any excuse to give Amber Riley more solos. Seriously.

A typical Sam moment.
Believe me, he isn’t doing this to advance the plot.

In one sense, Mercedes was right when she declared that New York City was built on the site of Old York City: one dreamland springs out of another, especially in this town. Puck was right, too: New York is the city of love. And Rachel and Kurt were right, too: we’re always going to find room for kids with big ambitions and bigger talent. No matter how much it has changed, New York remains what it was: what you make of it.

It made sense to bring the Glee kids here, as of course it made sense to take them home again. As Dorothy returned to Kansas, so they return to Ohio. Will New York change them? Will it give focus to their dreams? Or will it be just one more damned thing the writers forget about until it’s convenient to remember it? We’ll see. But the past few episodes have been strong enough to make me hope that this show is — finally — hitting its stride.

So long as it lasts.

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