As I made these realizations, and it's amazing how many more realizations you can have about television shows once you begin writing about them, it occurred to me that my anger at "Glee" was something more than a reaction to mediocre TV. It, too, was a mourning experience. The series' pilot was an amazing combination of satire, slapstick, heart and music. It was close to perfect. And from that one episode I constructed an expectation of what the show was going to be. When the second episode aired a few months later, it didn't match my vision, and that was a disappointment. The tone of the show was uneven enough in those early episodes that I still held out hope that it would land in the neighborhood of the show I hoped for, but that never happened. However, in the first 15 to 20 minutes of every episode (aka the funny part), it *was* the show I wanted, so I kept watching. And kept watching. And kept watching. Until I stopped.
Having undergone the "Across the Sea" experience, I decided to give "Glee" a second chance, and this time I had to accept the show on its own terms. It wasn't the pure comedy I wanted it to be, but a drama with a lot of angst decorated with intermittent comic moments. Episodes wrapped up with a lesson, with tears, with heart-to-heart conversations between characters. I've liked shows like that in the past (probably?), so why not this one?
And so Tuesday night I began a two-part marathon of the five episodes I'd missed, starting with "Bad Reputation" from May 4th. Here's the episode by episode breakdown:
Someone posts a list of the glee club members ranked according to sexual promiscuity. Principal Figgins demands to know who posted it, but no one will cop to it. Inspired by the situation, Mr. Schuester asks the kids to come up with songs that have unfair bad reputations that need to be rehabilitated. Along the way Finn posts a stolen video to YouTube of Sue Sylvester dancing to Olivia Newton-John's "Physical." This makes her a laughing stock -- until the singer herself is so impressed that she recruits Sue to co-star with her in a new video for the song.
A majority of this episode was an all-out laugh riot, particularly Kurt's failed attempts to give himself a bad reputation, best of all a table-dancing performance of "U Can't Touch This" in the school library. Alas, the elderly librarian thinks it was "cute" and tells Kurt she's going to ask her pastor to let them perform the song in church on Sunday. The storyline worked because it never became serious. Every scene in this subplot for the entire hour was played for laughs, and every one killed.
Less successful but still fun was Rachel's music video for "Run Joey Run" for which she recruited Jessie, Finn and Puck to play her love interests so that she'd look like a slut, thereby raising her from last place on the "glist." Again, even with an angry walkout by the boys upon seeing the finished product, the story was played lightly and for laughs, with no tearful resolution filled with sentimentality.
Ditto for Sue Sylvester. In response to her "Physical" humiliation, she offers to become Emma's therapist, revealing to the guidance counselor in the process that Will had slept with April Rhodes and made out with Shelby Corcoran. In a dramatic scene that hit every note perfectly, Emma tells off Will in the teacher's lounge. Too often the show relies on Will Schuester as a perfect specimen of humanity, above the fray. In the rare moments when it allows another character to call him on his mistakes without irony, the show offers something more than its usual surface level, black-and-white pop psychology.
And then there was a tearful resolution to the list mystery that was done so quickly and painlessly as to not bog down the rest of the episode. The list was really unimportant anyway, as it only served as a setup for the show's real plot threads, so a quick reveal-and-resolve was appropriate. (It was Quinn, by the way. The reasons are unimportant.)
Apart from "U Can't Touch This," the episode's musical numbers were problematic. Any song in which Matthew Morrison raps will be bottom of the barrel bad, and "Ice Ice Baby" was no exception. Mr. Schuester's rendition was a far bigger musical crime than Vanilla Ice's and did nothing to rehabilitate the song. The show's final performance, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," was a good one, but I take issue with it being a song in need of "musical parole." It's a great song and is, I believe, widely regarded as such. No bad reputation to be found.
This episode is a prime example of the show's problem with tone. There are three plots. First, Rachel gets loses her singing voice and fears it will be permanent, sending her into a depression. We know this because she starts wearing pajamas to school and stops brushing her hair. Finn helps her by taking her to visit a friend of his who is paralyzed from a football injury. He helps Rachel realize that even if her voice never returns that doesn't mean she loses everything. She then offers to give him singing lessons, and they duet on U2's "One."
This story begins as a comedy, but from the moment Finn and Rachel walk into Sean's house, the tone jumps from screwball to serious drama. The shift is sudden and jarring, with no bridge between the laughter and the very real lessons to be learned from Sean's experience. And while I have no problem with the introduction of the disabled character, even with no setup at all in the script, I'm not 100% comfortable with the way "Glee" uses its disabled cast. While I applaud the inclusiveness of having them on the show, it cheats every one of them to an extent by making their entire characters be about their disabilities. Any time Artie has a plot of his own in an episode, it will be largely if not entirely defined by his condition. When the hearing impaired students from the school for the deaf's glee club performed "Imagine," it was entirely about their disability, with the McKinley kids joining in on the song, stealing the spotlight and drowning out the team that's supposed to be performing. In that setting, the hearing impaired team were little more than an instrument to demonstrate how caring the McKinley kids are. Here, Sean isn't a cheap emotional ploy to make us like Finn or Rachel more, but he also never becomes anything more than his paralysis. Sure, the script tells us that he's good at math and he sings a duet with Rachel at the end, but the gravity of that moment comes mostly from the fact that he's lying in a bed and can't actually feel Rachel hold his hand (though he remembers what it feels like). Moving? Yes. Developing Sean as a character with any depth? No. If I believed the show was going to bring Sean back as a recurring character, I might accept this as a proper introduction to someone we'll get to know more about later. But it seems pretty clear that is as deep as "Glee" wants to go with him. And that's a shame.
In the episode's second storyline, Puck has to shave his mohawk for a medical exam, and finds himself no longer feared by the student body. The geeks actually toss him in a dumpster. While lying in the dumpster he hatches a plan to raise his status by dating Mercedes (or as Puck calls her, "black girl in glee club whose name I don't remember right now"), who is apparently one of the school's most popular girls now thanks to her Cheerios membership. Mercedes and Santana fight over Puck, to the tune of "The Girl Is Mine," a song choice that suggests more about the girls' lack of self-esteem than Puck's irresistibility. When Puck's status allows him to revert to being a bully, Mercedes dumps Puck -- and the Cheerios. The setup for this plot is done comically with the excellent opening dumpster scene (is there such a thing as a bad Puck voiceover?), but it never goes anywhere from there, comically or dramatically. And as best as I can tell, the only reason Mercedes quit the Cheerios is because the show was done with that arc.
The show's final storyline features the best and worst of the episode. As Kurt sees his dad spending more time with Finn, he tries to get his attention by wearing trucker hats and overalls, singing John Mellencamp and, in one of the show's best sequences ever, hooking up with Brittany. Between Kurt's rendition of "Pink Houses" and his dad walking in on him and Brittany having "sexual relations" (they're actually just kissing), I don't think I've ever laughed this hard during the entire series. A top notch comedic performance by Chris Colfer, who mines the ridiculousness of Kurt-as-redneck for every bit of its gold. But after Kurt's dad catches him singing a showtune (also well done), the plot devolves into a tearful confrontation between father and son in which Kurt accuses (again) his father of being ashamed of him while Kurt's father assures him (again) that he loves him and is proud of him exactly as he is. It's not that this kind of tearful moment can't work. It absolutely can, and has on numerous other shows. But when the storyline is set up as a farcical one, a sentimental resolution doesn't work without a gradual transition between the two extremes. Here it's impossible to reconcile the trucker-wannabe Kurt making out with Brittany with the crying one desperate for his father's love. Why? Because the show's writers don't want to put in the work necessary to join them together within a single human being.
This is the long-awaited episode directed by Joss Whedon, co-starring his "Dr. Horrible" leading man Neil Patrick Harris. School board member Bryan Ryan (Harris) visits the school to decide what programs will be cut. Bryan, it turns out, is a former glee club member at McKinley and was Mr. Schuester's biggest rival. Bryan's musical dreams never came true, so now he sees it as his duty to make sure the glee club kids know their dreams won't come true either. And to shut down the glee club. Recognizing one another as kindred spirits, it's not long before he and Sue Sylvester get hot and heavy. ("Should I lock the door?" "No, I've got a secret room upstairs. Like Letterman.")
Great setup, right? Well it falls apart only 15 minutes in when Bryan reveals that he wants nothing more than to sing again. So Will suggests that they both try out for the local theater company's production of "Les Miserables" so Bryan can do what he loves again. Just like that a great nemesis for Will becomes yet another Will-worshipper. A lesser rivalry between the two men develops once they realize they're trying out for the same part, but by then the fun has already deflated. Harris does wonders with what little material he's given, but for the most part he's wasted in the episode. In the two songs he gets to sing, he's forced to share both with Will as duets. This is NPH, yo. Show him a little respect, "Glee."
Separate from the Will-Schuester-is-awesome show, Tina learns that Artie's dream is to be a dancer. Confined to a wheelchair, he knows this to be an impossible dream, but Tina gets his hopes up by bringing him printouts from the internet about all the potential treatments for spinal injuries being developed. This leads to what just might be the show's best musical production number so far. Artie imagines himself stepping out of his wheelchair, walking in a shopping mall. He then sings "The Safety Dance," in a scene choreographed as a flash mob. one by one, shoppers step out of the crowd to join the dance routine. Several shots of the scene are shown from the point of view of cell phones and mini video cameras throughout the mall, adding to the flash mob atmosphere. At song's end, Artie collapses into his wheelchair. The camera cuts to a wide shot of him sitting in the chair surrounded by shoppers going about their business, oblivious to the imaginings of the boy beside them. Powerful stuff.
In a setup to a later episode, Rachel reveals to Jessie that her dream is to find her birth mother. She and Jessie look through her fathers' file cabinets for clue's to her mother's identity, with Jessie mysteriously planting an audio cassette from Rachel's mother into one of the boxes. We soon learn that Vocal Adrenaline coach Shelby Corcoran is Rachel's birth mother, and the whole reason she had Jessie start dating Rachel was so he could push her to find Shelby. Jessie eventually convinces Rachel to listen to the tape, which is a recording of an anonymous Shelby singing "I Dreamed a Dream" for her daughter.
The adoption/surrogate issues depicted here are exceedingly well done. The scripting and performances of both Rachel and Shelby are heartbreaking in their authenticity, with both showing equal amounts of eagerness and hesitation. Adoption issues rarely get a truthful depiction in Hollywood, but this storyline is one of the few that gets it right, for the most part. (Too bad it would be reduced to trite, condescending inaccuracies when followed up in "Theatricality." See below.)
A quick note here about viewing order. The next episode to air was actually "Theatricality," not "Funk," but in production order "Funk" came first. For whatever reason, Fox decided to air the episodes out of order. Based on the Twittersphere chatter on Tuesday night while "Funk" aired, it was clear the switcheroo had caused a lot of continuity issues (not that "Glee" is all that concerned with continuity to begin with) that confused viewers. Based on Myles McNutt's suggestion, I opted to watch them in production, not broadcast, order.
For a show purporting to be about funk, this episode lacked, well, funk. Three of the songs performed in the episode were not from the funk genre despite the fact that at the performers of at least two of them (James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and Marky Mark's "Good Vibrations") explicitly claimed they were. At the very least, Mr. Schuester did tell the boys after "Good Vibrations" that the song wasn't actually funk, but why waste one of the episode's few songs on one that doesn't fit the theme. (Neither does Beck's "Loser," since we're counting.) It's practically a stereotypical depiction of white people not understanding African-American music, yet there's no clue from the show itself that it's intended as anything but straight-forward. In fact, Quinn's flat performance of the James Brown song was supposed to prove to Mercedes that white people can do funk. (Yes, I realize that James Brown invented the funk genre, but "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" isn't a funk song.)
The plot here, what little there is, is basically that Jessie St. James is suddenly a dick. Vocal Adrenaline shows up at McKinley to psych out their completion with a surprise performance. Jessie informs the McKinley kids that he's transferred back to Carmel and rejoined Vocal Adrenaline because he never felt accepted at McKinley. Apparently we're just supposed to take his word for this even though it flies in the face of everything we saw onscreen during his time at McKinley. In the "Glee" world, "because I said so" constitutes valid character motivation. In reality, it's just lazy writing.
The Vocal Adrenaline performance leaves the McKinley glee clubbers in a funk, leading to the assignment that results in the songs mentioned above.
In addition to the sudden transfer back to Carmel, Jessie starts mistreating Rachel directly. Thinking they've broken up, Rachel is elated to receive a phone call from him in which he invites her to meet him in the parking lot. As she runs to him, the rest of Vocal Adrenaline appears and assault her with eggs. As a final insult, Jessie himself smashes the last egg on her head. Like I said, he's a dick.
Meanwhile, Mr. Schuester decides to humiliate Sue Sylvester by seducing her(!) and then standing her up on their first date. The fact that Sue falls to Will's seduction is yet another crumbling in the effectiveness of her character. In the season's first half, what worked so well about her was that she hated Will, pure and simple. There was no way around it, so she remained an unmovable roadblock in his path. Sure, her character became nuanced through other revelations, but sometimes a person hates another person without equivocation, and that's what made Sue a great villain.
Since the show's spring return, however, the writers have decided that Sue, too, will get in line to worship the glee club coach, just like everyone else on the show, especially Will Schuester himself. In "The Power of Madonna" we learned that Sue actually adores Will's curly hair, despite the fact that she'd made fun of it with withering and hilarious insults in nearly every previous episode. Now we learn that Sue can be brought to her knees by Will simply by having him sing a song and shake his ass. At best it's an insult to a strong character. At worst it renders her powerless in the eyes of the audience. Sue (and the show itself) is a lot more interesting when her hatred of Will is uncompromising. It makes the show funnier and more creative because it has to work around her constant hatred. A series like "Glee" needs multiple points of view in play, and having at least one voice that's critical of Will is crucial to maintaining a proper balance. Sue's hatred doesn't just make her a more interesting character. It makes Will a more interesting one, too.
Once Will stands her up on their date, she confines herself to her bed (clutching a trophy -- admittedly, a nice touch) and neglects the Cheerios. Seeing all the cheerleaders lose direction without Sue to lead them, Will goes to her house and convinces Sue to go back to work for the sake of the kids. As a result, the Cheerios win their sixth consecutive national championship.
Across the board, "Funk" does a disservice to its characters. Over 20 episodes of backstory mean nothing, with both Sue and Jessie suddenly, with no explanation or motivation, behaving against type in order to change the direction of the plot. When some people called the "Lost" finale a betrayal of it fans, I chafed at the characterization. It's one thing to call a show bad, but "betrayal" seemed to be overstepping. In a phone conversation with a friend on Wednesday about this very topic, I said, "It's not a betrayal. It's a TV show, for Christ sakes. They didn't kill your mother." Yet, I'm at a loss for any way to describe the Jessie St. James and Sue Sylvester offered to viewers in "Funk" other than as a betrayal.
Okay, I'll settle for "lazy."
This episode was hyped as a mini-Lady Gaga tribute, which is a bit of an insult to KISS, since that band had just as many songs in the episode as Gaga and just as many characters dressed in their costumes.
I'll mention the music first because that was the only part of "Theatricality" that worked for me. I am a closet Lady Gaga fan. I don't own any of her music, but I think she's an immensely talented artist whose commercial releases only scrape the surface of what she can do musically. For all the comparisons to Madonna, Gaga's actual musical talents dwarf anything possessed by the Material Girl, even if both use sexually-charged stunts to get our attention. Here, both "Bad Romance" and "Poker Face" were given faithful interpretations that made the best of the material.
As for KISS, they were my first musical love as a child, mainly because they terrified me. Now, the guys talk to the press and appear out of costume on a regular basis, but in the late 1970s they were a menacing presence, never appearing publicly as anything other than their demonic stage personas. I feared them, and thus loved them. In "Theatricality" the McKinley boys opt to perform as KISS as a response to the girls' Gaga selection. They nailed both "Shout It Out Loud" and "Beth," two very different songs. The attachment of the latter song to the naming of Quinn and Puck's baby gave it even greater weight.
Despite its musical success, much of the rest of "Theatricality" was botched by everyone involved, but particularly by writer Ryan Murphy. Rachel's search for her birth mother, handled so well in "Dream On," is given a trite, offensive treatment here. I'm hardly an expert on adoption issues, but I've dealt with many of them secondhand in recent years and have read books on the subject to help my understanding. Murphy, however, treats a serious subject as a plot thread that can be opened and closed neatly in a single hour, which is an insult to those for whom the topic is a personal one.
While spying on a Vocal Adrenaline rehearsal, Rachel hears Shelby Corcoran sing and immediately recognizes the voice as her mother's. She introduces herself to Shelby as her daughter, and the two have a tentative but moving conversation. Alas, a story Rachel tells about her fathers bringing her a glass of water when she's scared spooks Shelby, who cuts the conversation short and leaves. A few days later, however, Rachel returns, asking Shelby to sew her a Gaga costume. Shelby does it.
To this point, the situation is still handled well. The tentative exchanges are authentic and exactly what one would expect from two people dealing with a lot of nerves and unresolved issues. But then Will Schuester enters the picture.
Every time Rachel mentions her mother in the presence of Mr. Schuester, he makes a disapproving face, communicating to the viewers at home that he doesn't think this mother-daughter reunion is a good idea. Eventually, he goes to Shelby and without saying it explicitly, encourages Shelby to back off and put some distance between herself and Rachel because Shelby isn't ready or willing to be a mother. So that's exactly what Shelby does, telling Rachel that they have to end their relationship. The two sing a song together and part ways.
First of all, the interference of Mr. Schuester is without question inappropriate. It's none of his business. The presumption necessary for him to insert himself into the middle of a reunion between a daughter and her birth mother is astounding. Second, he couches the situation as if Shelby has only two choices: a) become Rachel's full blown mother or b) cut Rachel off. Frankly, both of those options are terrible ones. Rachel already has parents: her two fathers. They raised her and are still raising her, and that wouldn't stop simply because Rachel found her birth mother. Thus, the assumption that a birth mother must become parental figure immediately is unnecessary and absurd. Shelby hasn't been a mother to Rachel all of these years. Why would any birth mother be expected to jump into full-time parenting duties the minute a reunion occurs? The initial relationship will be tentative and nervous by necessity. Neither person knows what to expect from the other or whether the other is going to do something to hurt them. Everything depicted between Shelby and Rachel prior to Will's interference is consistent with this.
More realistic than an expectation of motherhood is the gradual development of a unique sort of relationship between the two that isn't exactly either mother-daughter or friends. It would take time to become a comfortable one as the two figure out their roles and develop trust, and what Rachel and Shelby shared up to this point was a solid beginning, but just that: a beginning. Will and Shelby both ignore this middle ground, opting instead to mine the black and white depiction of issues that "Glee" relies upon every week.
By taking Will's second option, however, Shelby inflicts a lot of psychological damage on Rachel. In essence, it marks a second rejection of the daughter by the birth mother, and whatever insecurities Rachel had before the reunion will only be amplified from here on out. This may manifest in an emotional shutdown or through unhealthy romantic relationships, but its impact will probably be significant.
Now, I'm not saying that the show absolutely shouldn't have had Shelby end the relationship with Rachel. This is something that can and does happen after these kind of reunions, but if Ryan Murphy wants to go there, he needs to commit to it for the long haul, because the issues don't end just because the hour fades to black and the credits roll. "Glee's" lack of interest in developing its ongoing storylines does not bode well for a healthy handling of the subject matter. Instead, it will only come up, if ever, in episodes where the theme calls for it.
So what of the rest of the episode? Finn uses a homosexual slur when complaining about Kurt's redecorating, which is overheard by Kurt's father who defends his son and kicks Finn out. Finn makes it up to Kurt at episode's end by protecting him from a beatdown by a couple of homophobic football players. No depth. No interest in depth. But it does give Mike O'Malley yet another great scene as a blue collar father who loves his gay son unconditionally. He has become one of the series unexpected joys. (And who would've ever thought we'd ever describe Mike O'Malley's contributions to a TV show like that? A very impressive career transformation for O'Malley.)
So there you have it. Five weeks of "Glee" in two days, and clearly the break didn't help my opinion of the series. Though if two-thirds of the episodes were on par with "Bad Reputation," with a third dipping into "Dream On" territory, it would be a very good, very watchable show. But with dreck like "Laryngitis," "Funk," and the emotionally obtuse "Theatricality" mucking things up, the series remains a mess. Honestly, though, when this show does comedy, I love it, and that's what keeps me coming back to punish myself.
Next week is the season finale, so I'll stick around for that, just to see what happens. If the upbeat ending of the winter finale is any indication, it might end up being a good episode. And in the long term, if Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk would remember that the show is called "Glee" and not "Despair," they could turn it into something great.
Perhaps our definitions of "glee" are different.