Sunday, November 15, 2009

A not-so-Glee-ful experience

I refuse to stop watching FOX's Glee, and I feel kind of bad about it. Kind of. I've been a fan of Ryan Murphy's offbeat, quasi-stereotypical style since the days of Popular, second on my list of Most Underrated TV Shows Ever (Freaks and Geeks tops that list, in case you were wondering). I think Popular did a great job of relying on stereotypes just enough to let the audience know that it was actually decrying those stereotypes. Glee tries to do the same thing, and so far, fails miserably at it. I really really wanted this show to be awesome. It's a musical, for one thing. In my world, there can never be enough of those. For another, it stars Lea Michele, who blew my mind with her awesomeness in Spring Awakening and is poised to be Broadway's Next Big Thing. While the pilot episode was filled with heart and promise and that transcendent cover of "Don't Stop Believing," the following episodes just keep going more and more into tokenism territory. There's not a woman on the show who's not a self-centered shrew, except for maybe Mercedes, the young black woman who refers to herself as "chocolate" and repeatedly spouts phrases like "Oh no you di'n't!" and "You betta watch yo'self, white girl!", and Tina, the quiet Asian with a secret. But the most complex and compelling characters (and the ones that have me thinking seriously about not watching the show anymore) are Kurt, a gay student who's just come out to his hypermasculine father (played brilliantly by that forgotten treasure of the 90s, Mike O'Malley), and Artie, who is in a wheelchair and was the protagonist of last week's episode, oh-so-originally titled "Wheels."

Kurt is flamboyant, dresses in way too much lame', and idolizes Broadway songstresses. Sure. okay. I expected that from television. It's not the greatest, but whatever. I think the great thing about Kurt's portrayal is his relationship with his father. The give and take of his dealing with Kurt's sexuality is heartwarming and honest, and though he doesn't agree with it, he loves his son enough to go to bat for him when he is discriminated against. They also have real conversations. Kurt frequently reminds me of what Rickie Vasquez might look like if My So-Called Life were a comedy and on the air today. Anyone who has seen that amazing show knows that that is a significant comparison. Here's hoping Kurt's character arcs continue to be complex.

And now to Artie, the reason for this post. There's been a great deal of discussion online regarding last week's episode. Some has been negative, some positive. I agree with a bit of both. I second Bitch Magazine's assertion that the episode contains a fair bit of "crip drag," especially in its closing number, wherein the entire cast performs a wheelchair dance version of "Proud Mary." Get it? "Rollin', Rollin'..." Yeah. They went there. I also agree with this blogger, who says the following about living with a disability:

[Artie's] portrayal as a kid who is frustrated and hampered by his disability yet is doing his best to live with it is such a much more realistic portrayal of what its like to live with a disability than other portrayals where the disabled person is a rude, bitter, sarcastic bastard who uses his disability as an excuse to avoid the real world (I'm looking at you, House), or a plucky, peppy go-getter who barely seems aware of her disability because gosh-darn it, its just a little ole minor inconvenience that doesn't really impact her life. When you have a disability, you are always, always acutely aware of it, and you live in a perpetual state of frustration over it - or so has been my experience. You can't let it stop you, and you just have to work with it as best as you can, but it's something that colors everything you do and every interaction you have with any other person and it is a source of constant frustration.

As someone who has spent every day of her life in a back-and-forth negotiation with physical ability, it really made me happy to see Artie expressing those struggles as well. Even as I lamented the fact that the young man playing him is able-bodied (disabled actors are notoriously unemployed, unless they're Marlee Matlin, and even then the majority of her roles boil down to either "She's so brave!" or "Oh, look, she's actually normal!"), I couldn't help but appreciate the obvious work he'd done to get inside his character's head. I guess I'll stick around to see what happens.

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