Smart Girls Who Do Stupid Things

Sometimes…

(Internet) Television: The Glee Surrounding Glee

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I wish I knew how I felt about Glee. I haven’t missed an episode since the series’ inception on Hulu, yet I wouldn’t consider myself a “fan.” I find plenty to cringe at week to week—like Mr. Schue kissing Coach Bieste for no particularly good reason—yet I couldn’t stop grinning during the mash-up of “Umbrella” and “Singing in the Rain.” That little earworm was so cheerful it actually worked to lift my mood. I listened to it at least once a day for a week after the episode aired.

I’m not the only one who feels conflicted about the show. On an episode of this season’s The Office, one of the characters threw a Glee-watching party at his apartment. While sharing her opinions about the show, Kelly (Mindy Kaling) raised issue with the rampant plot holes and inconsistent characters, citing specific examples and quoting episode titles, and finally calling Glee “irresponsible.” It’s funny because she couldn’t have possibly had leveraged these specific, detailed critiques without having watched the show obsessively. She’s a very particular kind of “Gleek” who happens to hate everything about Glee. I’m very much the same way.

The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWeff reviews Glee for their TV Club, and has pointed out several times that the show has three principal writers, who trade off episodes to scribe. This has led him to the “Three Glees Theory,” which is that these three writers have three different opinions of what the show should be, which results in a confused and overall schizophrenic tone. VanDerWeff’s theory is catching heat in the critical world, and it has definitely influenced how I experience Glee. Really, I’m judging Glee by a different metric than I would normally use for TV shows: it’s all about the writing. I’m more acutely aware of the tone of an episode of Glee than I am for The Office because Glee’s is so much more likely to change unexpectedly. It isn’t the “good” or “exciting” kind of unexpected, either—it’s just downright confusing. Mr. Schue’s character has alternated from “inspiring educator” to “senseless dick” so many times that it not only affects the tone of an episode, but the entire purpose of the show. Is Glee about the kids or is it about Mr. Schue? Is it carefree entertainment where the plot is less important than the peppy songs, or is it an after-school special meant to teach us about tolerance? These abrupt shifts grate on my nerves and I wonder why I continue to watch.

Yet, it can be argued that Glee is easily a much better show than a lot of the other programs on television today. It stacks up snappier production values and acting than any daytime soap, and manages to choreograph and rehearse at least three songs per episode to boot, which is not an insignificant task to accomplish. Yet, none of this matters to me because I’ll still feel betrayed by a preachy episode for no sudden reason.

Why are the standards are so high? How can I feel “betrayed” by a TV show that has no clue who I am? I would say that the medium in which the program is delivered has a great effect on this. Because I only watch television streamed over the internet on my computer, I’m automatically weeding out things I would not watch (Hulu’s insipid commercials being the one exception). This shallows the pool of comparison against any other TV show because I’m only watching shows I want to watch. So when I watch Glee, I’m not comparing it to Two and a Half Men or Dancing with the Stars. I’m comparing it to Arrested Development, to 30 Rock, to Community, to The Venture Brothers, and to all my favorite shows. I’m sure I wouldn’t watch Glee at all if it didn’t have moments that stack up against these titans. I’ve also found that the more time that’s passed since I’ve seen a show tends to lionize it in my opinion: I only recently rewatched all of Arrested Development, and I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as flawless as I had thought. I had forgotten about the jokes that didn’t land so well, and had only remembered the funniest bits. How can any program measure up to that kind of pressure week after week?

At the end of the day, Glee doesn’t owe me anything. Clearly the show has proven to be enormously successful and popular as is, as the cast’s grubby little hands clutch Golden Globe after Golden Globe.  Yet I can’t help wishing that the show will rise to the challenge of being quality television in addition to being good entertainment. While I see the great in the show that everybody loves, it’s still not perfect, and I want it to succeed at being perfect so bad. I still want those grin-worthy, glamorously overproduced moments because they’re so unlike anything else when it comes to TV. Rachel Berry’s teeth are so sparkly when she belts “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” they’re like diamonds. But when I am given these diamonds encased in a cheap pewter ring of broad clichés and endless, unrealistic fake-pregnancy plotlines, it feels like being socked in the gut.

The Helen Mirren Hypothesis

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In Helen Mirren’s brilliant, moving, inspiring acceptance speech at a recent Women in Hollywood event, she delivered a forceful rebuke of Hollywood’s obsession with “the 18 to 25-year-old male…and his penis (quite small, I always think).” Mirren lamented the “fact that virtually every drama made for film, stage or television has 20 male characters to the one, two, maybe three if you’re lucky, female characters.”

I decided to test Mirren’s supposition against the recently released Golden Globe nominations. This is obviously not a cross-section of all that TV or film has to offer, but The Golden Globes represent an industry standard of perceived quality. Consequently, Mirren would be more likely to find roles of substance in these nominees, than in, for example, The Bachelorette90210 or The Back-Up Plan.

A word on methodology: The statistics below are based on the official cast lists presented on each show’s network website. Rather than using my own judgement (or the judgment of IMDB, Wikipedia, etc) to decide which characters merit inclusion, I wanted to see how each network officially depicted its cast. For example, AMC’s Mad Men site names 27 characters, 12 of whom are female, netting a “score” of 44%.

Best Television Series (Drama):

Boardwalk Empire (27% of listed characters are female)
Dexter (29%)
Walking Dead (33%)
Mad Men (44%)
The Good Wife (50%)
Best Television Series (Drama) AVERAGE: 37%

Best Television Series (Comedy):

The Big Bang Theory (20%)
30 Rock (33%)
Modern Family (40%)
The Big C (43%)
Nurse Jackie (44%)
Glee (64%)
Best Television Series (Comedy) AVERAGE: 41%

Yikes. One drama achieves gender parity in its casting, The Good Wife, a project from husband-wife team Robert and Michelle King. Michelle King is the only female “creator” of the five drama nominees. Even shows created by women (30 Rock, The Big C, Nurse Jackie) favor roles for male actors. Although the comedy category average is not quite as dire as the dramas, this average is hugely helped by Glee, the only nominated show with more female characters than male (without Glee, the category averages 36%).

On to the big screen:

Best Motion Picture (Drama):

Black Swan (80%)
The Fighter (40%)
Inception (22%)
The King’s Speech (22%)
The Social Network (29%)
Best Motion Picture (Drama) AVERAGE: 39%

Best Motion Picture (Comedy):

Alice in Wonderland (75%)
Burlesque (44%)
The Kids Are All Right (60%)
Red (33%)
The Tourist (14%)
Best Motion Picture (Comedy) AVERAGE: 45%

The differences in category averages between big and small screens are only a few percentage points, but the distribution within categories don’t line up. Film, it would seem, allows for one or two female-driven pictures. Black Swan, set in a dance studio, starring 4 women and 1 man, would be this year’s entry.

The point is not for all productions to reserve exactly half of their roles for women (or minorities, the elderly, or any other oft-neglected demographic). Some shows are aimed at women (SATC) and others at men (Entourage) and their casting reflects this fact. The problem is that what we identify as quality, via awards shows like the Golden Globes, distinctly favors male actors. This creates a cycle in which male-dominated productions are considered the “norm,” and gender-neutral casts or female-heavy casts are relegated to niche markets or less popular networks.

One could argue that Hollywood reflects reality…most police departments are male-dominated, as are boxing rings, and tech-start ups. That is both true and problematic. Yet, the question remains; why are the male-dominated arenas the ones in which people prefer to play creatively? Because women (self very much included!) will watch a show or movie set in a “male world,” but men will not reciprocate? Projects set in traditionally female worlds (say a preschool or an ice skating team) either don’t get made, don’t get made well, or get made well and don’t get recognized. Any way you cut it, Helen Mirren has a point.

Bitch Hunter

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Bitch Hunter w/ Will Ferrell from Will Ferrell

I love it when 30 Rock has great shows-within-shows. This might top “Milf Island.”

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