Monday, June 14, 2010

Glee: Sue Sylvester, best viewed in 1-D?

Glee turned out to be one of the most polarizing new series of the year. Either you loved it and couldn't wait to download the new tracks from iTunes each week, or you just don't get it and are sick from all the over-exposure. Count me as being closer to the first category than the second.

The show definitely has some problems. The "glee club is in peril of being canceled by the final commercial break" plot needs to be retired permanently; major character development (Quinn and Mercedes are suddenly best buds, Jesse is suddenly a vindictive asshole) seems to have been either consigned to the deleted scenes section of the DVD or never scripted, and Will Schuster often comes off as a total ass-hat.

But there is one indisputable virtue each week - Jane Lynch as the pathologically cruel Sue Sylvester. Virtually every word out of Sue's mouth is venomous and vile, often bordering on racist and homophobic even as she crushes the self-esteem of the cheerleaders in her charge. All season she has vowed to crush Glee club and has stooped to no low to gain an advantage. She sent spies to infiltrate the club, leaked the Glee club's setlist to their enemies, drugged and blackmailed the school's principal in order to get leverage over him at her whim (which naturally she deployed against the club in a myriad of ways). And those are just the highlights.

Sue is gloriously one-dimensional. A villain who exists only to get under the heroes' skins and make their lives miserable. She's the inner asshole that exists in everyone... except she's ALL asshole.

Well... almost all. As TV writers are wont to do, they have made efforts to flesh Sue out. However, Sue is that rare breed of character that works best when she isn't given a great deal of depth. Since she's almost cartoonish in her evil, nearly any attempt to explore her as a living, breathing character is pretty much doomed to not only ring false, but to defang the character as it smooths down her rough edges.

There was a moment about a third of the way through the season where we saw Sue visit her mentally disabled sister. Suddenly the cruel coach who threatened to waterboard them and actively encouraged eating disorders showed a bright demeanor and read to her sister with the love of a good sibling. The point of the scene was obviously to make the audience go, "Awww... Sue has a soft spot!"

No, no, no.... Once you explore evil, you soften it. And Sue needs to be evil. You can't show a chink in her armor that big and then continue to write her as a mustache-twirling villain. And yet, next week she was back to her usual self. The sister thing came out of left field, save for some set-up in that episode, and it's development that has only been acknowledged once or twice since.

Some characters can survive this sort of growth. Look at Dr. Cox on Scrubs. In the beginning he was the mean mentor who took almost sadistic joy in finding fault with his charges and humiliating them for their many failures in front of everyone. It was as if he existed only to be cruel to the doctors who were learning under him. However, as time went on he exposed a few spots and it was outright stated that a lot of his issues stemmed from growing up in an abusive home.

How did this keep from declawing Cox? Easy. Deep down, one of his most consistent traits was that he cared about his patents. There was nothing he wouldn't do to ensure they got the best treatment, whether that meant picking an ill-advised fight with the chief of staff, insulting the surgeons on call... or cracking the whip on his interns and residents so their sloppy errors and inexperience wouldn't kill the very patients they have to save.

Pretty much every mean thing -called for or uncalled for - Cox ever said to J.D. stemmed from this. He saw new doctors as assassins sent to kill his patients and made it a mission to either make them improve, or make them wash out. Thus, he cares. He might be cruel, but he cares and it makes sense when examined in this context.

Sue doesn't have that kind of depth. Thus far there's been no greater motivation revealed that could account for the bullying and hatred she radiates like a sun. And there certainly seems to be no connection between her relationship with her sister and the way she consistently insults misfits in the glee club. If anything, one would expect that such history would make her more empathetic, not less.

Instead, treating Sue like a real character in isolated instances like this only forces the audience to examine all of her actions in that context. It changes the way we can enjoy her. To put it another way - everyone loves the incredibly stupid cheerleader Brittany. She's what Ralph Wiggam would be if he was a girl and could dance. She gets all manner of one-liners like "I think my cat is reading my diary" and it works because we don't take Brittany seriously.

Now imagine one episode revealed that Brittany is the way she is because she was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, or she sniffed paint in elementary school, or she has a learning disability.

She's not so funny anymore, is she? That's the risk you take when try to explore deeper sides to characters who aren't meant to be anything below the surface.

This year's finale found the right way to give Sue depth. She (implausibly) is brought in as a judge at Regionals and boasts to anyone who will listen about how she'll sink the Glee club. When the time comes, she finds that the other judges are even more elitist than her and favor the other, more wealthy schools over the public school batch of misfits found in New Directions, the club Sue has spent all year trying to crush. Even worse for Sue, the other judges (including a delightfully evil Olivia Newton John and Josh Grobin, playing himself as if he was John Mayer) lump her in with the bunch of misfits, calling her every bit the wannabe loser that they are. It cuts her to the core because it shows that she's only a big fish because she's in a very small pond

Or to put it in SAT-speak:

Olivia Newton-John :: Sue Sylvester as Sue Sylvester :: Glee Club.

As the audience - but not anyone in the club - learns, Sue is actually the only one to vote New Directions for first place. Not only that, but she makes a final deal with the principal to get him to not cancel the Glee club for next year.

Writers, THIS is the way to develop Sue Sylvester. She's tasted what it likes to be stung by someone like her and it's awakened her empathy. Just a small bit, but its there. It doesn't negate anything she's done this season, and if mined right, could propel some growth for her next year. Sue's not going to change over night, but at least we've seen a plausible first step in a journey that the writers can draw out for several years if need be.

And writers, please, please, please never try to give us a serious reason why Brittany's so stupid. Keep her in the background and deploy her as needed. Ralph Wiggam's lasted more than 20 years, so I know you can do it.


  1. I agree with the Brittnay note, I never want to know why she's so dumb, Finn mentioned in one ep that she had down syndrome and I thought as you said, that's not funny, and I chose to ignore it.

    I think that the writers see that Sue being evil all the time for no reason would get old after awhile, so preemptively they're trying to flesh her out by showing the voting and how she was treated. By showing her with her sister and all of that.

    At some point, I don't know when, Glee club is going to help her. But right now Sue is angry and lonely she need someone to rag on all the time, and in her backwards mind, by her constantly trying to get the club shut down she's forcing them to be better.

    And deep down inside she knew that New Directions should have won.

    That bothered you too? How Jesse just turned jerk overnight?

  2. Can you be closer to being in the second category than the first, but still be bizarrely obssessed with Glee? Well, yes you can, because I am.

    My original passion was music theatre. And I recently finished a one-hour pilot, Internationl Latin, that's about amateur ballroom dancers struggling in the devastated economy of Detroit. So the current the proliferation of musical-oriented TV shows is obviously of interest to me.

    But I've always had a problem with the tone of Glee. Is it hyperbolic satire with broadly drawn caricatures or mushy sitcom - with broadly drawn caricatures?

    None of the characters/ the setting has ever felt "real" to me. Even an out-and-out satire like Better Off Ted somehow felt more grounded in reality. So as much as I like that Glee is bringing great old music to a new audience, and as much as I enjoy Sue Sylvester's snarky evilness, there's just a lack of connection for me.

  3. Lauren - I get the motivation to flesh Sue out. I just think the voting worked in a way that the sister didn't. Depth has to come from somewhere and there really wasn't anything to make that sister reveal snap into place like a missing puzzle piece.

    And I don't know a single person who watches the show who DIDN'T get whiplash from the Jesse plot. If they hadn't explicitly had him state he was falling for her outside of his "assignment" just two episodes earlier they might have gotten away with it. Even stranger than his attitude in the "Another One Bites the Dust" scene was that weird mix of conflict and hatred in the egging scene. Something major clearly was cut and what was left makes zero sense on its own.

    amyp3 - I see where you're coming from. Kurt is a good example. One week he's the stereotypical "evil schemeing queen" and the next week we're all supposed to empathize with his finding himself as a gay teen. He's either villain or victim. If you take each episode on its own the writers usually manage to match the tone to the "Kurt" they're using that week.

    But then, they screwed that up too in the episode when he was clearly the one in the wrong when Finn was being forced to room with him, and the writers had Finn use "the f word" in order to shift Kurt from manipulative schemer to wounded victim AND tar Finn at the same time. That felt like cheap manipulation to me.

    For some reason I'm able to go with the "live action cartoon" aspect of the show. It probably has something to do with the fact that everyone in front of the camera and behind the scenes is clearly having a ball.

  4. Lauren - Just a nitpick: Finn never said Brittany had Down Syndrome - he and Burt were talking about Becky.

    And the Jesse plot - I choose to blame it on episode re-arrangement and many, many deleted scenes.

  5. I enjoyed the show less and less because of the inconsistency of the character development.

    Puck starts out as a bully, then he's cougar bait, then he's Jewish, then he's unpopular and needs to date Mercedes to stay relevant. Wha?

    I feel bad for the actors. There seems to be no pre-thought as to how these characters develop over time. They just make huge leaps seemingly randomly.

    Sue's episode with her sister was a complete left-fielder and really did not work with her character. How could she have such heart for her sister and absolutely zero for a bunch of insecure teens?

  6. TrG's comment reminds me of something else: I wonder what sort of bible or other long-term story planning this show had before it was thrown into the grind of weekly production.

    Also, only a couple of the main producers have much else in the way of imdb credits, e.g. Ryan Murphy created Nip/Tuck. But I don't watch that show - is it more successful at consistent story arcs & character development?

    Perhaps some of the aspects we're criticizing might've been improved if another, even more veteran showrunner co-produced?

  7. amyp3 - I didn't watch Nip/Tick, so I can't speak to its success at developing characters. I am aware that Ryan has a reputation for getting more and more outlandish in his writing as a series progresses, though.

    In some ways, I think you have to make allowances for a first season of a show to experiment. Even if there was a vivid character bible written beforehand, writers can never fully predict how some characters will come off on screen or which characters will pop in unexpected ways. In my interview a while back with Rob Levine, he talked a bit about how a show evolves over its first season, as the writers figure out what works and what doesn't.

    It's not necessary for every last episode to be worked out in detail seasons in advance, but it helps if a writer at least is aware of their destination. Yet even with all that planning, it's just as important for a writer to be adaptable and make changes to that all important "master plan" when the situation warrents it.

    I'd point to the increased roles for Brittany and Santana as evidence that they can recognize unexpected strengths and intergrate them into the show. I don't find Puck's character path terribly inconsistent, though. Having read a lot of online reaction to the pilot, I can attest that he was cougarbait from moment one as far as the female viewing audience was concerned. Him being a bully and a Jew don't clash with that or each other at all.

    I'll grant that him needing Mercedes to boost his rep was a little odd. I think if they had given more time to showing us how being a Cheerio made Mercedes popular, and then invested another episode or two building up Puck's own unpopularity, it might have worked. Here I can at least see what they were going for and what their justification was.