Glee: The Good, The Bad and The Funky

June 3, 2010
By | 11 Comments

“Funk” opens with Jesse St. James telling the slack jawed members of New Directions that he has transferred back to his old school and rejoined Vocal Adrenaline (ouch!). Before launching into an intimidating rendition of “Another One Bites the Dust,” he tells his former allies, “The blogs and chat rooms say that we’re finished and that you guys are ripe to topple us. We just wanted to show you a little something we came up with a few days ago to see if you agree with that assessment.” While it may be hard to believe that high school show choirs are fervently discussed in chat rooms, Glee itself is often the subject of debate on blogs, chatrooms, and in the pages of magazines. In fact, last week’s episode, “Theatricality,” generated a lively discussion on this blog regarding the show’s ability or inability to accurately showcase the lives of ethnic, racial, social, and sexual minorities. At the risk of grossly simplifying these intelligent arguments, I’d like to select two representative comments from last week’s discussion. First, The Good from Kelly Kessler: “I think there are ideologically problematic issues with the show, but there are ideologically problematic issues across shows and in life. I prefer not to force the show into something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy (and bored) at all times.” And now The Bad from Jonathan Gray: “I feel as though the show is becoming like a person who tells you, no insists, that they’re not racist or sexist, and becomes their workplace’s Diversity Captain…to prove the fact, yet who regularly makes lightweight racist and sexist comments.” Those two comments pretty much sum up the debates that rage in own my head whenever I watch an episode of Glee and this week’s episode was no exception.

Let’s begin with The Good: I loved Finn and Puck’s rendition of Beck’s “Loser,” sung in the aisles of Sheets n’ Things because it cameclose to my definition of a true integrated musical number, that is, a song and dance number that arises seamlessly out of the diegesis, expressing character emotions and furthering the plot. Indeed, the tone of Beck’s slacker anthem perfectly expressed the ennui, the funk, if you will, of a dead end job. And the workers’ robotic movements—sweeping, stacking, and folding in time to the beat—were a classic example of non-choreography. “Loser” moved effortlessly from reality to fantasy and back again—something that most numbers on Glee fail to achieve. And while I don’t think Quinn had the vocal chops to tackle James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (very few singers do), I was nevertheless moved by her passion. If anything can illustrate how we are all still living in a “man’s world,” it is a line of sorrowful, pregnant, teenage girl’s. Funky? No. Poignant? Yes.

The Bad: “Funk” was peppered with moments that were intended to be “edgy” but just came off as offensive. When, for example, Terry catches Puck playing air guitar in the middle of Sheets n’ Things, she snipes, “I thought Jews were supposed to be smart.” This joke might have worked if Puck’s Jewish identity had been highlighted earlier in the episode or if he had actually been doing something stupid at the time. But without these elements in place, the comment is out of place, offensive, and worst of all, not very funny.

The Funky: Early in the episode Mercedes scoffs at the idea of white people being “funky” and Finn seemed determined to prove her right; I noticed that the camera kept cutting away from his dance moves during “Good Vibrations,” as if it were embarrassed to watch for too long. However, Will’s sultry performance of “Tell Me Something Good” (and the close-ups on his tight rear end) was reminiscent of George Michael (and I mean that in a good way). Also bringing the funk was Brittany, whose dancing is so much better than her castmates’ that it can become distracting in group numbers. During “We Got the Funk” I found that I kept searching for her in the crowd, waiting for her next solo. But we should expect this from the dancer who toured with Beyoncé.

Ultimately, “Funk” exemplified everything I’ve come to expect from Glee: a confusing mix of rousing musical performances and out of place racist/sexist/heterosexist jokes — a perfect mix of the good, the bad and, thanks to Will and Brittany, the funky.


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11 Responses to “ Glee: The Good, The Bad and The Funky ”

  1. Kelli Marshall on June 3, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    “I was nevertheless moved by her passion. If anything can illustrate how we are all still living in a “man’s world,” it is a line of sorrowful, pregnant, teenage girl’s. Funky? No. Poignant? Yes.”

    So interesting… Along with several others who were live-tweeting #Glee Tuesday night, I was troubled by Quinn’s number. The “rhythmic panting,” belly-rubbing choreography, and song choice were so bizarre. Just curious: what specifically did you find poignant about it? PS. Enjoyed the post!

    • Amanda Ann Klein on June 3, 2010 at 4:51 PM

      I wish I had been reading those tweets! Because yes, I do think the song was a poor choice for Dianna Agron, whose voice is not big enough to tackle James Brown. But, the song itself works so well for Quinn and her dilemma–she has become a social outcast, lost her spot on the Cheerios (not to mention her teenage figure), and will have to go through the pain of childbirth–while Puck endures none of this. It’s a man’s world. And I actually liked the panting pregnant teens-bizarre as they were. They’re practicing their Lamaze breathing alone, rather than with a partner, which is often the plight of the pregnant teen. Plus, Quinn had such anguish in her face while she sang (even if her voice couldn’t quite convey the true “funk” of the number).

  2. Amanda Lotz on June 3, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    Thanks for so specifically anchoring your critique of the racist, heterosexist jokes–I think you are right on about the politics of this one not at all working and why. A few Glee posts back, Kelly Kessler noted Puck’s reference to Mercedes as “Weezie,” and I was less certain of what to make of it. These lines, as on 30 Rock, often fly right by and the narrative and dialogue move so fast as to not really allow engagement with the politics. It seems a question of “do I get the reference”; “I do, I’m so clever” instead of probing what is supposed to be funny, is it funny, why, and with what politics. (Plus you have characters like Sue Sylvester, who like many of the male characters on Ally McBeal, are set up to be outrageous or farcical and all the more difficult to gauge). Are there cases when this humor also is posing an effective critique of structures of power? How do we make sense of the politics of a show when you have critical uses mixed in with clumsy or failed? I know a number of you think a lot about this type of humor I’ve been thinking about as “post-PC”. Any ideas?

    • Amanda Ann Klein on June 3, 2010 at 4:58 PM

      These are all such good questions because I find it really difficult to be critical of humor. I do think it is possible for humor to be politically incorrect and also critical at the same time–Chappelle’s Show was a great example of that–the black white supremacist, the racial draft, etc. Although Chappelle himself later questioned whether the laughter his jokes were receiving were the “right” kind of laughter and abandoned his show and lucrative contract. My feeling–and I know many people will disagree with me on this–is that you can get away with a lot if your material is funny. As a Jew I was not offended by the “Jew joke” in this most recent episode of Glee–I was more annoyed that it was such an unfunny joke. If you’re going to offend people, at least make them laugh.

      • Amanda Ann Klein on June 3, 2010 at 5:00 PM

        I should also add that I think the funniest jokes about race, sex, religion, etc. are those that do offer a critique of structures of power.

      • Will on June 7, 2010 at 8:27 AM

        Amanda, I wonder what you make of these jokes as part of a camp aesthetic? So much of the eclectic song choices throughout this and other episodes — the only song I expected *Glee* to bring back that it hasn’t yet is Charlene’s “Never Been to Me” — and so much of the Sylvester humor is really camp-saturated, it seems to me, yet so often, the camp elements fall flat, which suggests some interesting conflicts among writers, directors, and producers. I thought the “Jew joke” fell flat because it was supposed to. Sue’s the only racist who gets to be clever (and camp); the rest show how ridiculous such “jokes” are. Enjoyed your review …

  3. Kelly Kessler on June 5, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    Nice post. Sorry to join in so late. I think some excellent points are being raised re: the type of humor commonly used in the show (perhaps post-PC, as Amanda said). I’m not sure I have anything incredibly insightful or new to say about that, but today’s brand of television comedy (or dramedy) does either ask us to (or beg us not to) further consider this issue. Does it matter what the show is? Can you get away with something on South Park or 30 Rock (which are both SO tongue in cheek from the get go)? Is it harder for the audience to accept something similar on a show that is at times seemingly so genuine (e.g. Glee)? When do our twinges of discomfort rise in these moments? As this form of humor becomes more prevalent on TV, are writers testing the waters to figure out when they can get away with it and when it’s just icky? Are we in the middle of a creepy process of trial and error? After all, it’s much weirder to have such comedy next to a serious as a heart attack subplot about a paralyzed teen than it is in South Park.

    • Amanda Ann Klein on June 7, 2010 at 7:17 PM

      I think you make a great point here–part of Glee’s problem is that it tries to be so earnest one moment and then completely offensive the next. The tonal shifts just aren’t handled well.

  4. Andrew on June 7, 2010 at 1:52 AM

    I think the creators started out with something that was intended to be reverent, tongue-in-cheek, and (most of all) satirical. For added charm it was bathed in a well fermented bath or nostalgia and irony. They are simply not armed to tackle thought provoking discussion. They need to stick to the parameters of a soap opera.

  5. Will on June 7, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    I thought the scene that earnestly and unironically suggested a pregnant woman knew what it was like to be African American for nine months was at least as embarrassing to watch as the scene which suggested losing your voice was similar to being permanently paralysed.

    • Amanda Ann Klein on June 7, 2010 at 7:15 PM

      Ugh, yes. That exchange between Mercedes and Quinn was uncomfortable to say the least.