December 2nd, 2009
Over the weekend, I was chatting with a friend about Glee, and inevitably the conversation came to Terri Schuester. I find it’s usually a topic that every Glee viewer has in common: whatever they think about any individual episode, no one seems to actually like this character. And while I feel bad for Jessalyn Gilsig, who got stuck playing someone who nearly everyone hates, I think that from its very conception the character was a failure. In an interview with the L.A. Times (where she charmingly notes how a review of an episode which made an elated mention of her absence in said episode on the same site made her want to crawl back into bed), she notes that the character was conceived as a justification for Will’s flirtations with Emma; Will needed a reason to be straying from his marriage, so Terri needed to be someone who audiences didn’t like.
However, what I think Ryan Murphy and the rest of the show’s writers didn’t quite understand was how the show was going to be sold and what kinds of stories would dominate the early going. The show was never going to feel natural being about Will Schuester, to the point that those episodes that did focus heavily on his character (see: “Acafellas”) flopped primarily because the show’s core audience (and most of its mainstream buzz) were there for the less dramatic elements of the series (the music, the one-liners, etc.) or for the younger characters who were connected to the music/jokes but still capable of being expanded dramatically. The show had so many identities that a storyline which might have worked if this was an intense character drama like Mad Men had no chance of ever connecting with audiences, to the point where the character and the storyline were dragging down the rest of the show around it.
What makes “Mattress” work as an hour of television is that the show surrounding that storyline has matured to the point where Ryan Murphy has a handle of who these characters are and how they are able to wake up every morning with a smile on their face. For someone like Rachel, it’s knowing that she’s doing everything in her power to be a star, and for someone like Terri it’s knowing that she is doing everything she can to keep her husband from leaving her. By separating the means from the end, the show is able to take Terri and turn her into a character that is still inherently unlikeable without being so inherently unlikeable that she serves as a blight on its sense of momentum.
It’s not the best hour the show has ever done, but like “Wheels” before it the episode represents a clear sense that Ryan Murphy is back in control of this series just in time for it to head on hiatus.
On shows that could ostensibly be called teen dramas, the older generation is always a problem. The O.C. was at its best when Sandy and Kirsten Cohen were there to support their kids and when their drama was inherently wrapped up in the world the series was depicting. Similarly, Gossip Girl was able to make more use of its adult characters once it crafted a back story that had them know each other and share a bond that reflected on their children. However, as soon as both of these shows took those characters and turned them into teenagers, giving them alcohol problems or creating intense marital tension, they became a burden: while both Gossip Girl and The O.C. lost my interest for other reasons (the latter gained it back), the way the adults went from asset to hassle was foundational to their failure. And on Glee, of course, this happened right away: from the pilot on, Terri Schuester was a hassle, and the big question on everyone’s minds has been how they were going to end this story that pretty much everyone agrees was a failure.
“The Scene,” as it shall now be referred to, was something that I knew was coming, and to be honest it played out more like a scene from Mad Men (I got some serious flashbacks to the Season Three finale of that show, in fact) than a scene from a musical comedy series. The scene was everything that the show almost never is, delivering legitimate dramatic tension and refusing to break that tension with any sort of joke or cutaway. What we saw was an emotionally raw sequence of Will Schuester waking up from an 11 episode daydream, a scene where Matthew Morrison showed a side of Will’s character that we may never see again and where Jessalyn Gilsig proved that she has always been capable of playing Terri’s vulnerability. The scene spoke to what the storyline was really about: Will was drifting away (which is a fact), and Terri was desperate to keep him (also a fact), and the result only drove them further apart by keeping them together despite their growing differences. You’ll note that none of these emotions are dependent on a hysterical pregnancy, which is where the story went wrong in the first place. The problem was not the character so much as it was how the writers chose to have the character act out their feelings.
And on Glee, people tend to act out their feelings more often than is perhaps necessary, but more and more the show seems to be dialing things back. In early episodes, the plot seemed to be running a mile a minute as if the characters were going through the five stages of grieving in the span of a single episodes, which meant that it seemed like Terri was reacting suddenly to the growing threat of Will finding out the truth. It made her seem more shrill than desperate, more psychotic than vulnerable, which to be honest is something that afflicted every character. However, right now, the show’s pacing has settled down enormously, the yearbook story providing a common foundation for each element of the episode to develop on. And because the show actually seemed to stop and consider something as opposed to marching relentlessly forward, Will stopped long enough to find that fake pregnancy belly, and respond with an outburst that really was more akin to Don Draper.
And if we view the scene in and of itself, it makes the storyline seem really dramatic and interesting because the scene isn’t about the pregnancy at all. Murphy clears the air about the entire scenario, spilling the beans about Quinn Fabray being roped into the scheme and eliminating all of the secrets from their relationship, and to some degree it is as if it never happened. No, we can’t forget the impact that it had on earlier episodes, but Murphy let it go on long enough that he found a place where revealing the truth allowed the story to spin into a reflection on their marriage and their commitment to one another rather than Terri’s commitment to a psychiatric ward. Yes, I mostly bought the scene because I’ve been desperate for it since before the show even aired (and when I knew the storyline existed), but I think Gilsig, Morrison and Murphy deserve a lot of credit for making me see beyond the fake pregnancy to some sense of an emotional core to their relationship and its place within the show – it might not be my favourite element of the series, but it is now an element of the series consistent with the types of stories that have made it so successful.
“Mattress” as a whole hinged on that scene, but it also worked because it focused the rest of its time primarily on Rachel Berry. I was just complaining earlier today that talk of Lea Michele getting a Golden Globe nomination feels wrong to me. Yes, the show is the only television musical, which makes it uniquely situated to score in an awards show that loves awarding musicals, but Rachel has been given absolutely no material since the pilot. While there was something fun about Michele’s performance in “Ballad,” there was not an episode that seemed like it tapped into the core of who this character really is. While Finn has Quinn’s pregnancy to give him further development, and Kurt and Artie both got showcase episodes of their own, Rachel has been left to play stuckup antagonist in those stories while remaining such a strong singer that she’s heavily featured in each episode. It got to the point where I almost resented her considering how much the show uses her and yet the character (not Michele herself, who is clearly a star) hasn’t really earned it in my eyes.
I think this episode went a long way to proving that, as we got to see what happens when Rachel is the one person in Glee club who wants to actively promote her involvement. She is the true believer, the one who actively and firmly believes that Glee is a stepping stone to greater things. The idea of Yearbook defamation is terrifying to everyone else, but it is like a drug for her: the idea that she will have a copy of this yearbook which proves that she was was in every club imaginable (including the Black Students Club, one of many sight gags early in the episode) is enough for her to risk that element of her reputation. And rather than pitching Rachel’s involvement as selfish (which they tried to do early in the season by pitting her against Glee club in “The Rhodes Not Taken”), the episode makes it clear that she wants what is best for everyone, so she books the commercial and tries to inspire people to embrace this aspect of their lives.
I was just watching an old episode of Scrubs with Sean Hayes, where you discover that the hotshot doctor who acts like he has control of everything around him suddenly bottoms out when he realizes that his young patient is going to die. And while Rachel is fine being on her own cheerleading Glee on the surface, when she sits down for that photo by herself she is anything but happy. Yearbook photos are meant to capture who you are as a person, and for Rachel that’s largely an act designed to promote herself further in her chosen field: as such, she needs to take that moment to teach herself how to smile, to convince herself that this is something she is legitimately proud of. And while I think the internal monologue is becoming an increasingly problematic device for the show, as I’d prefer the “show” of a fantasy musical sequence over the “tell” inherent in talking out your feelings to the audience, the scene in front of the mirror was some really good stuff to help explain who Rachel is as a character.
As for the rest of the episode, I thought things sort of ground to a halt when it came to Quinn’s storyline. I like Dianna Agron, but her sudden desire to be back on the Cheerios and her decision to stand up to Sue in support of the Glee Club just felt rushed. Whereas Rachel’s storyline finally felt like it was given some time, here we got a series of internal dialogues from Quinn as a look into the yearbook makes her self-conscious and has her scheming completely behind the scenes. We never see anything that would drive her to do this, and there’s something almost unsettling about her becoming so easily converted to Glee club. If she had even mentioned specifically in her speech how moments like the club singing “Lean on Me” or “Keep Holding On” might have helped to make her feel welcome in a way Sue never did, perhaps I could believe it. However, it was a D-story stuck in an episode that barely had time for the stories it was dealing with, and it showed in a way that made it kind of worthless.
I like what they did to build momentum into next week’s “Sectionals,” however. I don’t particularly care for the pussy footing going on with Emma and Ken’s wedding, but separating Will from the Glee club (after he takes a bullet for them on the disqualification) makes their odds longer for the big event and thus can help separate them from Will’s drama (which, let’s face it, has dragged them down before). And while the episode’s big musical number was a bit over the top (both because it was the lovable silly “Jump” and because of the obnoxious trampoline mattresses), I thought that the Charlie Chaplin “Smile” over the final montage was a really nice touch (and Lily Allen’s “Smile” is just downright infectious).
There’s no question that “Wheels” and “Preggers” are both stronger episodes of the show than “Mattress,” largely because they offer a more substantial personal story for Artie and Kurt that Rachel doesn’t get here and that is ultimately undercut by a scene like Will and Terri’s here. However, that final sequence is very telling for the show’s direction, and does feel like a suitable end to everything the episode represented: the Glee Club is not about avoiding ridicule, it’s about ignoring ridicule. It’s about taking the picture whether people are going to deface it or not, and accepting the Hitler moustaches and the “LOSER” writing as necessary consequences to having fun and feeling included. And heading into the show’s winter finale, it seems like those priorities are finally in order: this is a show about a Glee Club, not about ‘glee,’ and it feels like Murphy and Company finally have a grasp on what that means for the future.
- Not sure what to do with Sue here: while it’s easy to paint her as an obstacle in Glee club’s way, fighting against them in ways that appear logical on the surface, it’s getting to the point where her beef really doesn’t make that much sense. There’s a moment where Terri blames the Glee Club for breaking up her marriage, and that I actually sort of buy. I don’t know what in particular it does to Sue, and the episode just didn’t leave a great impression of her character for me (the over the top “hideous people” Sue’s Corner was also problematic). Lynch is as funny as ever, but I need a balance of what we saw in “Wheels” and what we got here.
- That said, the hair products runner was gold.
- As for Emma and Ken’s wedding, there’s no way they’re going to go through with it, but I also don’t think we’ve seen the last of Jessalyn Gilsig. How the show is going to manage that going forward I’m not entirely sure, but I thought having Emma convince Will to separate Terri’s actions from her emotions was a nice way of demonstrating that although she immediately wished for a divorce so she could give up her charade of loving Ken Tanaka she isn’t so willing to let Will give up so easily.
- Final montage of yearbook photos totally gave me Freaks and Geeks flashbacks.
- Supporting characters all got shafted here, but I thought Artie’s “it oddly did make me feel more patriotic” was a lot of fun.