Long Lost Uncle Aesop - Macleans.ca

Long Lost Uncle Aesop

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“Immoral” seems like a rather harsh word to use for Glee‘s use of a fairly old convention of television storytelling. The convention is the one that’s known as the “Very Special Episode,” and it goes like this: a show may want to deal with a very serious topic without being forced to compromise its basically light or comedic style. The solution is either to give the serious story to a character we don’t see very often (or in the case of that dead friend on Family Ties, someone we never saw or heard of before) or to give the story to the main characters, with the understanding that it won’t have a long-term impact on them.

The viewer accepts this convention, as they accept many conventions, because it’s really not that far removed from real life, where permanent change is quite hard to come by and where we only get occasional glimpses into the lives of many of the people we know. But we also accept it because it’s a convention, and we accept conventions that are necessary for the show to go on the way it is. In the case of the “Very Special Episode,” the thing we accept most of all is that the show is basically light one, it will remain basically light entertainment, and that means that a very serious issue is for that week only.

In a sense, that is exploitative and manipulative; that’s one of the reasons the “Very Special Episode” has been so mocked over the years: it expects us to invest emotionally in something that has had no buildup and will have no long-term effects. That’s why people get so annoyed about that Family Ties episode where Alex recovers from the death of a friend we’ve never seen before. It’s not implausible that he would have a friend we haven’t seen before (actually, given how much of a TV character’s life we don’t see, it’s implausible that they wouldn’t have other friends or relationships we don’t see all the time). But people were upset that the show was trying to draw our tears over a relationship that was created solely for that episode. And with Glee, people are annoyed that it introduces an issue for a few minutes of one episode with multiple storylines, tries to congratulate itself for dealing with it, and then moves on.

While I understand the annoyance, I’m uncomfortable with where this kind of logic leads: it could lead to the idea that a comedy show can never deal with serious issues unless it’s willing to turn itself into a drama, or that if an issue is brought up it must be pursued for a multi-episode arc. Glee has been a mess for the last while – but like most of Murphy’s shows, a fun mess, and rarely a dull mess – but I think it’s okay in the abstract that it can pick up an issue, say what it has to say, and then move on; it’s half The Facts of Life and half (to bring up that comparison again) South Park, another scattershot show that deals with whatever happens to be on the creator’s mind that week. That’s not immoral, that’s just episodic storytelling.

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