Category Archives: Television

“Glee for Glee” by Kavita Ramdya (TV review of Fox show “Glee”)

Glee I can’t help it: I’m a self-confessed “Glee” fanatic. It’s the best show on TV… in my humble opinion. “Glee” is ironic, smart and totally entertaining. While watching “Glee”, I’m always listening for how the dialogue is going to create an opening for a musical number. I love how the cast breaks into song and dance to express teenage angst. Who knows, maybe my appreciation for “Glee” stems from my childhood watching Bollywood movies with my parents…

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of the FOX show “Glee“.

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“Glee for Glee” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” Nov. 27, 2009

Imagine my surprise when I learned that “Glee”, the funniest and smartest show on television, is a Fox production. The show’s writers take repetitive high school stereotypes much abused in prime-time television and portrays these archetypes in so heavy-handed and hyperbolic a manner that the TV viewer is forced to laugh at the ridiculousness of how teenagers are portrayed in mainstream media. Irony abounds in “Glee”, differentiating it from its peers (e.g. “The Hills”) and predecessors (e.g. “The OC”, “Beverly Hills 90210”).

“Glee” contains the requisite characters necessary for a popular high school comedy including the dumb but well-mannered jock, bitchy cheerleader, goody-two-shoes, punk, flamboyant homosexual, and bossy loud mouth just to name a few. What unites these disparate characters is their membership in and commitment to their show choir, the Glee Club.  These teenagers are unique: they sing and dance like it’s nobody’s business.

Teenagers get a bad rap in mainstream media news, and Fox is no exception. On both sides of the Atlantic, adolescents are in the news for gang and drug-related crime, binge drinking, less-than-average math skills, and teenage pregnancies as a result of pre-marital sex.

“Glee”, on the other hand, celebrates the fact that teenagers “are people too”, not solely bumbling bags of hormones jostling around in human form. Instead, adolescents are what cute babies grow into and are at the awkward larval stage of the beautiful butterfly’s development: one day they will blossom into productive citizens. As revealed by President Barak Obama in his first autobiography “Dreams From my Father”, he, too, was once a teenager. He seems to have turned out okay.

The show’s writers adapt familiar high-school sitcom story lines like the dumb jock torn between dating the catty cheerleader versus the sincere nerdette and the gay teenager on the verge of coming out. However, the scenes are interspersed with short, pithy singing and dancing routines that highlight the confused, exaggerated, and totally nonsensical existence that characterizes one’s high-school years.

Whether you’re the dumb jock, catty cheerleader, sincere nerdette or flaming homosexual, the American high school experience more closely resembles fumbling and tripping through a funhouse for four years rather than smooth sailing from Freshman year homeroom to Graduation Day. The path to adulthood is not a clear one and requires navigation, presumably with the help of adults: parents and teachers. Herein lies the show’s commentary on the American family unit and the role educators play (or fail to play) for their students.

Parents are practically invisible in “Glee”. Finn, the star quarterback, briefly mentions that his mother has advised him to quit doing his homework so he can relax more (time which Finn uses to play video games). Kurt, the flamboyant soprano, comes out to his father who gets less than ten minutes of air time on one episode in the current first season. Beyond these two instances, not much more surfaces in the way of parents guiding and offering ethical, moral, educational and professional direction for their teenage sons and daughters.

Teachers and coaches, on the other hand, play a far more active role for Glee Club members. Mr. Schuester, McKinley High School’s Spanish teacher and director of Glee Club, and Ms. Sylvester, the cheerleading squad’s coach, are the two adults who play the most prominent roles in the teenagers’ lives. Considering how much time high school students spend in class and after-school activities coupled with their double-income parents’ long commutes and high-stress careers which often take them away from spending time with their family, “Glee” reasonably portrays how much more an active role teachers and coaches play in the day-to-day lives of teenagers.

Which is all the more reason why it is essential that parents, administrators and instructors alike recognise and embrace the fact that teachers and coaches inadvertently take on an unofficial responsibility of acting as mentors and role models for teenagers.

However, Mr. Schuester and Ms. Sylvester fail to live up to any standards of adult decorum. The two insult one another in front of their students, shout at each other in front of the principal, volleyball insults back and forth, and pit students against one another. Ms. Sylverster insidiously implants seeds of dissent in Glee Club members by suggesting that Mr. Schuester is racist. “Glee” not only admits but also confronts the fact that racial prejudices abound in American high schools, a phenomenon other high school shows are loath to admit. Additionally, “Glee” illuminates how adults are complicit in creating a toxic atmosphere for students who are ethnic, religious, handicapped, or gay.

“Glee” is not the first example of modern popular culture to expose the challenges in navigating one’s way through adolescence, the emotionally and psychologically damaging role adults can inadvertently play in adolescents’ lives and the unofficial responsibility educators and school administrators have in guiding students morally and ethically in addition to providing the mandatory science, math, and history lessons.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see the Tony-award winning Broadway and West End rock musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s late nineteenth-century play “Spring Awakening”. While a student at New York University, I read the original play in my German Literature class (in its English translation!) and was blown away by the honest and critical approach Wedekind takes in his morality play about school kids whose well being are only second thoughts for parents and teachers in their attempt to preserve customs, traditions and, selfishly, their own reputations.

Who knew Fox would manifest itself as the contemporary Wedekind, critiquing the widespread mis-education of high school students as a result of President George W. Bush’s support of abstinence programs? The prominent story line in “Glee” is how the President of McKinley High School’s celibacy club and head cheerleader Quinn, in a drunken stupor, has sex with her quarterback boyfriend’s best friend, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. Quinn desperately lies to Finn, her cuckold of a boyfriend, and tells him that their make-out session in a hot tub is what baked the bread in her oven. In an attempt to highlight Finn’s gullibility as well as widespread ignorance due to a lack of sex education as a result of eight years of emphasis on abstinence as a viable solution against the spread of STDs, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy, Finn is duped by his girlfriend and accepts her explanation when she tells him that the warm water in the hot tub somehow facilitated his semen entering and impregnating her.

Strong writing, social critique and sexual politics aside, “Glee” is also an exceptional show purely for its entertainment value. The dialogue is hilarious, characters are caricatures, and the intertwining plots momentous. However, let’s not forget the final ingredient which differentiates the show from its equally-exceptional peers such as AMC’s “Mad Men” and ABC’s “Cougar Town”. The TV viewer waits with anticipation for when the Glee Club, without any rhyme or reason, breaks into song and dance sequences much like the stars in a Bollywood movie. And, as in Bollywood films where the leading man and lady are suddenly transported to the green mountains of Switzerland, characters in “Glee” may suddenly find themselves transported from their lockers to the football field. The talent put into “Glee” is not limited to its writers and actress Jane Lych’s comedic relief but also includes the singing and dancing talents of the innocently corrupt members of McKinley High School’s Glee Club.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Beautiful Betty as budding artist” by Kavita Ramdya

I enjoyed writing about Betty Draper, actress January Jones’s character in the AMC show “Mad Men”. My husband and I love watching “Mad Men”: the writing is impeccable, interspersed with meaningful silences rather than inane dialogue, and the plot lines reveal much about the historical moment. And let’s not forget the elelgant fashion sense. Betty Draper is a beautiful woman who would spur resentment among women viewers if it were not for her endearing innocence coupled with her potential to blosom into a force her philandering husband will have to reckon with. I root for Betty in every episode. Reading “Beautiful Betty as budding artist” will tell you why.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s article “Beautiful Betty as budding artist“, a profile of January Jones’s character on the AMC hit show “Mad Men”.

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“News India Times” November 6, 2009

“Beautiful Betty as budding artist” by Kavita Ramdya

Ironically, the most nuanced female character on television today is Betty Draper, played by January Jones on the AMC hit show “Mad Men”. Betty is a blonde, stay-at-home mother and wife whose “girl-next-door” sex appeal and soft-spoken voice reflect an era, the 1960s, when women were generally considered to have less depth than a cookie tray. Mrs. Draper is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College where she studied Anthropology before falling in love with Donald Draper, her elusive husband, on a photo shoot during her short stint as a model in Manhattan. Soon after marrying her mysterious beau, Betty has two children in quick succession with a man whose name and pedigree are based on lies he’s perpetrated in order to escape his origin as a poor, motherless son of a dead whore and frequent target of emotional and physical abuse from his drunken father and his wife in the Depression-era Midwest. The viewer watches Betty raise her newly-arrived infant with as much attentiveness as an adolescent teenager pays his homework on a Friday night. Coincidentally, the baby’s conception coincides with Betty’s only extra-marital dalliance.

Donald Draper, Betty’s cheating husband, is an elusive character. He is a man of few words, but his silence is his most effective tool both in the workplace and at home.  However, whereas Don is written as a character who slips in and out of his colleagues, children, lovers and wife’s lives, Betty is even more a spectre than her husband. She says little, but TV viewers can almost feel the vibrations of an impending earthquake behind her lifeless voice and shining, empty eyes.

I’ve met my fair share number of Betty Drapers. They are women who seem to have it all: a good head on their shoulders, a flattering physique, clear skin, a loving family, an education, boyfriend or husband and often times a job if not a career. However, women like Betty Draper stew in their own self-made boredom. Ironically, it’s the safety, security and stability in Betty’s life that threatens to unhinge her and Donald Draper’s sphere of domesticity: their family, home and marriage.

The antidote to these women’s boredom, rather than join motorcycle club “Hell’s Angels”, party in Ibiza, or hike up the Himalayas, is artistry. Betty Draper is almost inconveniently good looking, but what makes her so compelling a character is her deafeningly stoic, tight-lipped persona, a result of the self- and society-imposed inability to express herself. Betty is a woman male viewers appreciate because she is easy on the eyes and female fans love because we’re rooting for her to break of out of the emotional and intellectual boundaries she’s complicit in drawing.

The challenge that faces Betty and her contemporary, real-life peers is that they struggle to express themselves artistically and intellectually. Betty’s one shot at artistic self expression is modelling which is cut short when she marries Donald, and although she bravely attempts to revive her short-lived career, she does not persevere when Donald’s business partner pulls the plug on her starring role in a Coca-Cola commercial.

Donald studies Betty while she lies to him, claiming that she quit modelling because it takes her away from her children. He knows that she is lying to him and yet he also fully comprehends her potential. However, as a woman struggling to honestly express herself, Betty is of little use to him apart from baring him children. Her inability and unwillingness to conduct herself as an equal to Donald is why he is as heartless to her as he is passionate with his lovers. Until Betty blossoms into a mature adult with an adult psyche, Donald Draper effortlessly and guiltlessly cures his passion for confident, expressive and challenging women by conducting extra-marital affairs. It is no coincidence that his girlfriends include a successful and independent photographer, a business-savvy retail titan and a teacher who loves her job.

What paralyzes Betty from self expression is that she keeps safely ensconced in her suburban home and abhors risk. The men in her life—her father, brother and husband—treat her as if the extent of her God-given gifts are her beauty and feminine wiles. Because Betty has both these qualities in abundance, neither she nor her family expect more from her. She is both blessed and cursed by her beauty, a fleeting gift.

Betty’s options are many: finding the aging process a way to relieve her from the restrictions of her self-conscious beauty, re-enact Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s ground-breaking play “A Doll’s House” and abandon her family, or discover self expression through artistry.

Perhaps the least-destructive as well as highly-constructive solution for Betty and similarly beauty-shackled women is the third option: artistry. Betty suffers from boredom in her suburban home, burdened by uninteresting children and intermittently abandoned by her passion-seeking husband. Her one option for continuing to manage her “householder” duties (as the Hindus would say of her function as a mother and wife) while also living a life committed to deep introspection and self expression is finding her method for artistry, whether through painting, drawing, writing, acting, modelling, etc.

For individuals such as Betty Draper whose gender and beauty imprison them and whose comfortable, secure lives leave them unmotivated, the arts provide a way to challenge themselves intellectually and emotionally by providing a method with which to articulate and express their observations and questions about the world in which they live.

Betty’s life is a blessed one – she is beautiful and coddled, healthy and safe. But her character demonstrates that women in the 1960s, like women now, don’t benefit intellectually or emotionally if unchallenged. Floating through life as if on auto-pilot softens the edges from which creative thought and innovation springs. Betty Draper, beautiful and young, is a television character with the potential to flourish despite her philandering husband and suburban lifestyle. I look forward to seeing, as details from her husband’s past surface, how Betty navigates the social mores of 1960s America while keeping her own individuality and self respect intact.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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