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Glee s1e19: Joss Whedon directs "Dream On"

REVIEWS - TV

Joss Whedon makes his long-anticipated directorial contribution to Glee...and passes with honors.

Glee!

Just randomly mentioning Joss Whedon’s name in connection with a geeky property is enough to send most nerds’ genitals a-quiver. He is, after all, the font from which Buffy, Angel, the your-mileage-may-vary Firefly and the hit-or-miss Dollhouse all sprung. However, being tapped to direct a single episode of an ongoing series doesn’t mean the same thing as directing a movie.

For the uninitiated: in TV-land, it’s producers who wield all the control. Since the producer is usually the person who created the show and the characters and will generally end up the head writer, it is this person who has the most control over a show, including many decisions that normally fall to a director in film (overseeing casting, editing, sound, music). On TV, a director is a hired gun whose purpose is to organize the production and work with the DP and lighting crew on where and how to point which camera in a way that is homogenous with how the show generally looks.

So why get Whedon to direct an episode of Glee? If he’s not picking the songs, writing any dialogue or having any Whedonly effect on the episode, then why’s he here? Well, aside from the network getting to market the episode as directed by him (resulting in a half-million more viewers than last week), he brought an established understanding of how to shoot musicals (Dr Horrible and “Once More With Feeling”) and, of course, his good buddy, amateur magician Neil Patrick Harris. So how’d it all turn out?

Excellent.

They introduce him within seconds of the “last time on Glee” segment (via flashback to 1991) as Bryan Ryan, Will’s former upperclassman. He’s here to provide glee club’s Threat of the Week, as one can’t seem to pass without the choir’s very existence on the line for some reason or another. This week (much like the others), it’s that perennial villain, money. Bryan is a member of the school board in charge of determining funding for extracurricular programs – exactly the position he’d need, plot-wise, to provide any manner of villainous intent towards a group of dorks that just wanna sing. However, his downward spiral following high school has led him to try and talk the team out of pursuing any dreams of stardom they might hold, or any dreams at all.

He has them write their dreams on a sheet of paper, then crumples and tosses Artie’s without even reading it, explaining the high percentage of them that will never even move out of the county they currently inhabit. Later, Tina goes back and reads it: dancer. She suggests they work out a dance routine together since Will has neglected to give them a Thematically Appropriate Assignment of the Week.

Jesse returns and gets his plot moving: he did transfer to McKinley to monkey wrench Nude Erections, but his side-quest is to force Rachel into looking up her mother, Shelby Corcoran, the coach of Vocal Adrenaline, to shake her up, furthering the sabotage. He’s come to actually care about her, though, and doesn’t want to see her get hurt. Good luck with that, guy; nothing says love like destroying a teenage girl’s dreams by posing as her boyfriend, forcing her to confront her birth mother, then transferring back to your original school to help them win.


"Sometimes it’s hard to remember these are a bunch of fifteen- to seventeen-year-old kids when we almost never see them in class, or doing anything relatively teenage or high-schoolery..."


In what promises and later proves to be a spectacularly bad idea, Artie has Tina help him get out of his chair on arm-brace crutches. He stands and manages to take a couple “steps” with her assistance, and when he falls, he yells at her to go away. Sometimes it’s hard to remember these are a bunch of fifteen- to seventeen-year-old kids when we almost never see them in class, or doing anything relatively teenage or high-schoolery, so Artie’s reaction could cause problems in some of the audience.

It helps to recall that this is his first relationship and it’s in its starting phase; he’s mortified in front of his girlfriend and hasn’t had the time or opportunity to develop mature responses to the realities of his situation, so of course he’s not going to want her to see him like that. What’s great about Tina is that she’s really into him and takes him as he is, something he’s had trouble doing for her, but he’s got a lot more baggage than her to lug around and that she’s willing to help him carry it at that age is fantastic – for both of them.

While Will and Bryan have a beer, attempting to hash out their differences, Bryan breaks down and admits how horrible he feels not performing. Will puts “Piano Man” on the jukebox and the two sing along with Billy Joel’s original vocals. I’m actually kind of surprised they didn’t fade the original out, it seems like the sort of thing the show would do, given its idiosyncrasies of sound (namely, how 99% of the vocals sound like they’ve been mixed professionally and nothing like people singing without a microphone in an enclosed area with drums and powered instruments in a choir room). Will manages to convince Bryan they ought to audition for a local production of Les Miserables, despite neither of them really having to time to commit to such a thing.


"I don’t know if it’s just me or if I’m imagining things, but this episode seems to be shot differently than the others. I’m recognizing shots and lighting tricks and configurations from Whedon’s other shows and I love it"


It’s at this point I’d like to make a comment on this episode’s camera work. I don’t know if it’s just me or if I’m imagining things, but this episode seems to be shot differently than the others. I’m recognizing shots and lighting tricks and configurations from Whedon’s other shows and I love it. It seems like even though the dialogue and acting styles are all on the same page as the rest of the show, that this episode was shot differently than the rest. Some of the aspects are still there: the whip-pans and cinematographic accoutrements of a network comedy; but on a whole, this episode is shot more like the serious drama that lies under the surface of the series’ forced comedic stylings. In short, it looks kinda like if the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were shot today instead of the mid-nineties.

Case in point is the scene where Artie and Tina are walking by the school busses. From the angle the camera is at, there’s a thin line of sky visible on the other side of the busses and the sun peeks out, shining directly into the lens. It’s a lovely shot, the likes of which don’t show up on this series often, if ever. Similarly, the camerawork of “The Safety Dance” and “Dream On” were much better tailored to the types of song and performance they exhibited.

Moving on, Jesse sneaks a tape from Shelby into one of the numerous archival boxes on Rachel her dads have assembled. He pushes her hard to listen to the tape, to the point that she’s so uncomfortable, she asks him to leave. Meanwhile, Bryan and Will show up to the audition, both for the lead part. The harried director tells them to sing their contested piece as a duet, leading to a decent performance of Aerosmith’s first hit, the obscenely apropos “Dream On.”

Artie and Tina go to the mall to buy some tap shoes for him, “An investment in your future.” Tina’s youthful exuberance and yet-to-be-crushed-by-college sense of optimism have led Artie to consider some of the new treatment options for paraplegics, even to the point of getting ahead of himself, as many of them won’t go into human trials for a decade, if ever. However, this fantasy leads to one of the best, if not the best dance sequence of the show so far.


"The sheer exuberance of song 'Safety Dance' and the combined cinematographic style of an early Michael Jackson video and phone-camera footage make a (literally) fantastic sequence that elevates the episode on a whole and pays off the plot-ascension of Artie/Tina in spades."


“The Safety Dance” is one of the dumbest songs ever recorded, but its inclusion here is inspired. After Artie rises from his chair, he sparks off a medium scale flash mob in one of the open spaces in the mall. Joined by Tina, Brittany, Mercedes, Mikeandmatt and about thirty extras, we see one of Kevin McHale’s hitherto unrevealed talents: the man can definitely dance. The sheer exuberance of the ridiculous song and the combined cinematographic style of an early Michael Jackson video and phone-camera footage make a (literally) fantastic sequence that elevates the episode on a whole and pays off the plot-ascension of Artie/Tina in spades. Of course, it’s just a sweet daydream.

Will ends up with the lead he and Bryan auditioned for, so the latter decides to cut glee’s funding. This only lasts about a minute or so until Will pulls out of the show and gives Bryan the part in exchange for continuing the club’s income. Not really how it works, but for the sake of expediency, we’ll just let that slide. What I can’t just let slide is Will’s anvilicious, message-tastic, you-fail-science-forever mixed metaphor about what happens when stars die. Bad writers! Bad!

Jesse shows up at Rachel’s house and forces the tape on her, leading to an imaginary duet of “I Dreamed a Dream” between Shelby and her daughter. Golly, wouldn’t it be just awful, just evil, if it turns out that Shelby’s simply playing everybody, including Jesse, just to get another national title for herself. I don’t know if the show has that in mind or if it even has the balls to do something that cruel, albeit to a character designed from the ground up to be only slightly sympathetic and that most of the team can’t stand.

The show is a straight subversion of the “nakama,” the stereotypical unbreakable team of most ensemble shows. Sure, most of those shows have little cracks in the unity of the group, but come hell or high water, they will band together around a wounded team member, even at their own peril (and assuming it’s a season, or even mid-season, finale), and succeed for the good of the whole. But Glee’s collection of whackos have several deep-seated emotional rifts between its members that assures us if the show ever tries that “banding together” routine, it would only succeed if it directly benefited almost every character in their own specific ways.

Artie tells Tina he knows he’ll never dance again after a depressing, awakening meeting with Emma. She clearly wants to dance with her boyfriend, but performs the routine with Mike, the Other Asian. Don’t be surprised if his first subplot comes as a result of someone thinking those two are dating just because they’re both Asian. Quinn gets a character moment when Artie’s voice hitches during “Dream a Little Dream” as he watches Tina dancing with Mike. A moment of reaching out to touch his shoulder furthers the “Humanizing of Quinn” subplot, to the point that she’s been nicer longer than she was a bitch, at least during the time period the show covers. If they’re not going to revert to her former characterization, then a flash back to pre-pregnancy would help remind us how far she’s come.


"The episode was more openly serious than usual and shot in a manner that emphasized this by a director whose best-looking episodes of his own shows were the ones he directed"


This was a very solid episode, light on the inanity most hours spew at us, usually entertainingly. It hit several concordant notes between the generations of characters – miserable adults whose dreams have already died and despondent teenagers who wonder if they’ll even get the chance to try. The episode was more openly serious than usual and shot in a manner that emphasized this by a director whose best-looking episodes of his own shows were the ones he directed. Bonus points for memorable dancing and significantly moving Artie/Tina forward even if it meant short-dicking every character that wasn’t Rachel or Will.

Grade: A-

Songs

“Daydream Believer” – The Monkees

“Piano Man” – Billy Joel

“Dream On” – Aerosmith

“The Safety Dance” – Men Without Hats

“I Dreamed a Dream” – from Les Miserables

“Dream a Little Dream of Me” – The Mamas & the Papas

Random Observations

High school turnover – Many (most?) of the glee kids are sophomores, so that gives us a cast through at least three seasons. When I first had this thought at the beginning of the series, I wondered, “What happens when they graduate?” Now I’m more concerned with, “What happens next school year or the next? Will more kids try and join glee as the members start graduating? Can the show survive adding new characters while others leave?” Hmmmmm…

Mike - Still no dialogue, but lots of dancing this time around. His back-up work in “The Safety Dance” and lead with Tina in “Dream a Little Dream” were totally solid... now it’s time to show us if his vocal cords can function.

Sue’s speech on the importance of school athletics - Though they set her up as the arch villain and much of what comes out of her mouth is hateful rhetoric and gibberish, her points about athletic programs cannot be denied. In a perfect world, school districts wouldn’t have to choose between arts and sports, but that’s not the way it is: even though education is the most important thing in the first twenty or so years of a person’s life, few things get fucked over with greater speed and regularity than public schools.

Dialogue spread - Seriously, the only glee clubbers with more than one line were Rachel, Jesse, Artie and Tina. I think Finn and Puck had one line each and the rest didn’t say a word. Surprised, though, that Brittany didn’t get her customary one-liner - it’s getting to be pretty regular. She needs her own day-in-the-spotlight episode at some point.

Great Lines

Artie – I sound like someone put tap shoes on a horse and then shot it.

Bryan – I have a box of Playbills hidden away in my basement... like porn!

Bryan - I grow weary of your insults, Will - they sting... and make me want to punch your face.

Glee at Shadowlocked

 

Comments 

 
#1 Guest 2010-05-19 21:01
Rachel asked Jesse how his spring break was, so we also have a solid frame of reference for what point in the school year the show is set in. That jumped out at me becuase the show hasn't been very forthcoming with the time clues.
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