May 25th, 2010
Glee is a show that needs to know the limitations of its own premise, something that I don’t know if Ryan Murphy is all that interested in. I think he’s concerned that if he limits the show in terms of the stereotypes it can fight or the type of music it can do, he will be “giving in” to the same types of negative forces that the show’s messaging speaks against.
In some cases, especially musically, I want this show to push certain boundaries and break down misconceptions about genres of music or the role that music can play in our lives. In others, however, I wonder if the show’s format is actually capable of providing a grounded take on those issues without exaggerating them into something completely different. The show has only gotten away with its choice to confront issues of difference through some strong performances, and in “Theatricality” the eponymous quality results in a ludicrously overplayed storyline about the battle between jocks and the Glee club which has absolutely zero nuance. Other storylines, meanwhile, suffer because they do have nuance and yet often step too far into the emotional for that nuance to emerge in a satisfying fashion.
It results in a combination of stories that are fine until you actually think about them (something the show unfortunately rarely bothers to do once it’s reached its powerful statement on morality or the strength of individuality) and some which never come close to being emotionally effective because there’s not an ounce of realistic human behaviour.
And no amount of “Theatricality” can keep me from feeling like the show is ignoring some pretty glaring concerns within its so-called morality.
Let’s get it out of the way: “Bad Romance” was a lot of fun, the arrangement on “Poker Face” worked really well for Michele and Menzel’s voices, “Shout it Out Loud” was enjoyable, and the little “Beth” runner for Puck and Quinn doesn’t really make any sense but was so contained within this episode that its only real fault was linearity plus I appreciate more from Mark Salling. From a musical perspective, this was a good episode of Glee, and you might argue that this makes everything else worth it.
And in some cases, I’m right there with you: I think it’s ridiculous that Tina would be singled out for being goth (especially the whole vampire runner, which was just insulting to my intelligence), but I’m used to the show dropping some anvils into the works to get to its central premise so I’m over it so long as the setup ends up with something enjoyable. Episodes of Glee are never really going to make much sense, and so long as the idiotic behaviour remains contained to the school’s bureaucracy I’m willing to turn a blind eye.
What I am not able to deal with is the degree to which the show is glossing over some pretty complicated situations in its quest for those after-school special moments. In some cases, this just makes the show look dumb: the jocks were one-dimensional to the point of embarrassment, responding to the Gaga costumes and Kurt’s homosexuality only because the story asked them to do so. I understand that high school has bullies who treat people differently, and that people wearing Lady Gaga costumes all day at school would result in ridicule, but rather than having the bullies rightfully point out they looked ridiculous and in the process using offensive language, the show just ratcheted the bully knob up to 11 and called it a day. It’s pitifully lazy, and the show at its very worst.
Meanwhile, in some cases it just makes the show a bit confusing. In the case of Rachel’s reunion with her mother, the story suffers because of what they’re not talking about, mainly that Rachel was duped into meeting her mother by Jesse’s infiltration of New Directions. Now, apparently this was filmed as the penultimate episode of the season so there may be something in next week’s episode that explains why Rachel seems fine having been manipulated like that, but if there is I have to seriously question their decision to switch the episode’s around in order to get the Lady Gaga episode into the post-Idol slot in the final days of May Sweeps (I also presume we’ll learn more about Quinn’s plans for the adoption, as that returned out of nowhere too). The decision completely twisted around the story, and it seemed like the show was ignoring rather than moving past that particular story point. I thought both Michele and Menzel did some nice work in the story, but I was distracted by the simplicity of Rachel’s quest for a mother considering the situation at hand.
However, with Kurt and Finn’s storyline, I was legitimately angered by the way the show handled things on the whole. The show’s decision to follow through on Kurt’s crush on Finn is the very definition of a dead-end narrative: we know how this is going to end, so the story lacks any of the dynamism that Glee’s infectious musical spirit often feeds off of. Now, as everyone is noting, Mike O’Malley absolutely brought it in the scene where Finn starts describing Kurt’s decor as faggy, and of the episode’s after-school special moments it was by far the most effective.
As a television monologue, the scene is powerful stuff, but I feel as if that situation was far more complicated than Kurt’s father made it out to be. I don’t want to sound like a horrible person, but I would very much argue that Kurt brought this on himself. While Finn went too far in his use of that word, he has every right to be angry that Kurt is refusing to respect his wishes for privacy in his self-destructive quest to make Finn fall in love with him. I feel like the show occasionally conflates Kurt’s self-confidence with self-awareness, but how is it that Kurt becomes the innocent victim when he was the one who organized this all to happen? There was a lot of nuance at the start of that scene, with Finn losing it over the moist towelette and making Kurt feel bad for even trying to help, but once Finn used “the word” it became about how Finn was homophobic. I kept expecting Kurt to speak up, to stop his father from berating Finn and take some sort of responsibility for pushing his gambit with Finn too far, but it was never there: for the sake of simplifying the message, the show zapped the story of any nuance, placing all responsibility on Finn and forcing him to put on a rubber dress while Kurt never has to admit that he did anything wrong.
I get that the show is going to have anvil-like scenes that establish key themes or messages, but the point at which they seem to overwrite actual character development or keep the show from investigating something more interesting is a problem for me. Those scenes can be as powerful as they want to be, but if it feels like they’re cutting off rather than extending the nuance of the series then I’m going to keep responding negatively. I can love a musical number like “Bad Romance” despite its origins because that’s the spirit of musical numbers in the series: however, speeches like the one from Kurt’s father are there to make us think, but once I start thinking about the storyline I wonder how it is that I’m not supposed to be confused about the progression of that storyline.
It also doesn’t help to have it sort of shoved in my face: admittedly, I had read on Twitter before watching the episode about the fact that there was a big speech from Mike O’Malley’s character, so I knew the story was happening in that context. Similarly, the conceit of the costumes made the “message” of the episode more visible than usual, and the conclusion (with all of the characters staring off the villains) literally had Will emerging to tell them that this was the real lesson they learned this week. When you take all of that into account, it doesn’t leave me in anything close to a happy place: instead, it leads me to write a review like this one, filled with concerns that the show is willing to ignore for reasons that are still outside of my understanding.
- I was thinking that the staging in the scene with Rachel and her mother in the stands was bizarre, so I chuckled when Rachel’s dialogue made it out to be a theatricality bit. Clever.
- Have you ever noticed how “Marvelous” can sound like “Motherless?” I definitely did during “Poker Face.”
- Cringed at the praise of Lady Gaga – it’s one thing with Madonna, who has something close to a legacy, but something as recent as Lady Gaga is to be highlighted or celebrated more than idolized and turned into some sort of cultural touchstone. I’m not bashing Gaga here (I enjoy her for what she is, and appreciate her theatricality), but the House of Gaga stuff was embarrassing.
- As Eric Almendral noted on Twitter, and as I had subconsciously noticed watching the episode, Puck’s Paul Stanley-style makeup had a Star of David rather than a usual five-pointed star, which is darn inspired.
- Couple of fun Brittany lines (“Cross-Country Skiier” was funnier than “Happy Meal No Onions”), but Santana really stole the show here: she got the best part of “Bad Romance” (the bridge – Quinn got the second-best pre-chorus), and her Gaga outfit was the most fashionable.
- All signs point to the episode being aired out of order, so let me just say this: FOX, you are not doing this show’s frakked up narrative any favours with such tomfoolery. Quit it.