September 21st, 2010
I want you to imagine that “Audition” was, in fact, an audition for Glee as a television series: if this were the show’s pilot, what show would you imagine it to be?
The series’ actual pilot, if you remember, tries to capture an emotion: it is about the positivity of Glee club, and the potential for music to unite these social outcasts (and a football player) to achieve something beyond simple anonymity. It was predicated on the idea that one song could pull everything together: Journey was powerful enough to bolster Will’s spirit and calm Finn’s anxieties, and suddenly New Directions was full of hope.
And yet, the Glee club never truly moved up the social ladder, and this sort of romantic ideal of glee club was deconstructed just as quickly as it was constructed. Glee’s first season was spent trying to find new ways to challenge the Glee club, and to be honest they kept returning to the same premise: by placing the club’s finances in peril, the group would need to band together against external threats and thus recreate the final scene of that pilot. Everyone would get together and sing to help Quinn through her pregnancy, or help Will understand what he means to them, or some other holistic function that music could in some fashion solve. Glee was a show about people getting knocked down and immediately getting back up to sing things back to where they were before, a cycle that became dramatically problematic by the time the first part of the season came to an end.
By comparison, “Audition” is not that type of show: the emotion it captures is the discord within the Glee Club family, and it starts with the hopefulness of the ideal before quickly and quite viciously deconstructing any notion that happy days are here again. It is an episode about the impossibility of unity, about how our selfishness keeps the ideal from ever coming to fruition, and is thus an episode that taps into the sadness inherent in Glee’s concept rather than its triumphant musical enlightenment.
In other words, it’s my kind of Glee, which makes it a pretty substantial risk for a second season “Audition.”
I doubt there was a single viewer who didn’t understand the metaphorical meaning of the opening: all of Jacob’s criticisms were the criticisms that viewers (myself included) levied at the show. However, beyond the cute mentions of auto-tune and Will’s rapping, the situation actually isn’t that analogous: New Directions finished a disappointing third at Regionals, which means that they should have no delusions that they will somehow be popular now, while Glee was the year’s top new show and unquestionably in a position to face such criticism. Rather than drawing a straight comparison, though, the opening sets up the reality of New Directions’ situation quite nicely. The problem is that they were just popular enough to open themselves up to criticism, but not popular enough to rise above it: getting to Regionals placed them in the public eye, but their loss (not even placing) simply made them larger targets than ever before. Now they’re not only back where they belong, but their failed effort to rise has made them even more of a laughing stock.
The show and New Directions are different in another key way: while New Directions seems pretty defensive, organizing under the banner of family, the series is quite honest in those opening scenes. They may not be apologizing, but they are still owning up to some of their flaws, which is precisely what the members of New Directions are unable to do. The episode is about all of the characters accepting the fact that things have changed, that there will be no “Don’t Stop Believing” moment to bring them to where they imagined they would be in their second year. Will, Rachel and Finn all learn some pretty harsh lessons about their current station, and the episode never once attempts to suggest that the power of song can fix it.
You could say that the premiere is in some ways repetitive: after all, the Glee club is once again hit with financial trouble, Rachel and Finn are once again in a relationship, and there is once again a feud emerging between New Directions and Vocal Adrenaline. I’ll give you the last example (although Cheyenne Jackson will be worth it), but the first two are given nuance here that we’ve never seen before. Instead of someone being actively out to attack Glee club at the administrative level, which grew increasingly ridiculous as the first season continued, Glee club and the Cheerios are both a victim of new priorities. Murphy’s speech at the Emmy spoke to his argument that Glee makes an argument for supporting the Arts, and the first season tried to achieve this by presenting the Arts as a target as opposed to a victim; here, Glee is part of a larger move towards athletics rather than an active attempt at marginalizing the arts, which is a more nuanced take on this particular issue.
It also helps that Dot Jones is pretty fantastic as Shannon Beiste, bringing a human element to the administrative shenanigans. While the character is very over the top, Jones does some really great work grounding the character in her insecurity, and the episode does a good job of demonstrating the consequences of the kind of behaviour that Sue Sylvester engages in. It’s a more subversive story than it appears on the surface, as it lulls us into a false sense of security: we start enjoying that Sue and Will are banding together to take on the new football coach (who in her first scene is comically out of touch, mean), enjoying seeing Sue’s antics deployed on someone we consider to be a villain. And yet, once we actually get to know Beiste and better understand her character, we start to judge Will for going along with Sue’s plan, and Sue becomes more villainous than usual (to the point that the feces cookies come off as desperate, pathetic). It forces us to examine why we laughed in the beginning, and to see the consequences of those actions: Finn’s effort to get Artie onto the football team is dim-witter in the way Finn’s plans usually are, but Bieste is so beleaguered by Sue and Will’s efforts to humiliate her that she reads it as an offense. If that had happened earlier in the episode, it would have positioned Bieste as a villain: instead, she is positions as a human being, first and foremost, something that has honestly been in short supply on the show throughout its run. By bringing in the character’s softer side immediately – and by even using the character to investigate questions of gender – the episode creates a sort of moral lesson for the audience that ends up being pretty affecting as a result of Jones’ performance and Lynch’s ability to make us root for Sue and then moments later despise her with every fiber of our being.
As for Rachel and Finn, meanwhile, the characters are connected for reasons beyond their relationship here: the story is never about their summer relationship, and instead focuses on the characters as individuals. It also helps that the two new guest stars are clearly defined in relation to the ostensible leads of the show (at least within their generation), with Charice’s Sunshine threatening Rachel’s position as the Glee Club’s lead vocalist and Chord Overstreet’s Sam stealing Finn’s life out from under him. What makes the story work is that the show allows Rachel to be horrible to Sunshine, sending her to an (inactive) crackhouse, and they allow Finn to legitimately lose everything he feels defines him (to the point where he embarrasses himself trying out for the Cheerios). I thought both Finn and Rachel sort of got lost as characters in last season’s narratives, their conflict almost always defined by situations outside of themselves (or contrived situations involving themselves, like Rachel’s laryngitis), but “Audition” gives us complicated images of who they are. Their final scene may use their relationship as something to bring them together, something that still works for them in the absence of Glee club security, but Finn still calls Rachel out on being selfish, and she still heads off on her own instead of uniting the family together. They may be in a relationship, but it was neither the cause nor the solution to their drama within the episode.
Yes, I think the show could have done more with the introduction of those two characters: Charice has clearly been hired almost entirely for her musical talent, resulting in two songs and little in the way of dialogue, while Overstreet is more accomplished as an actor but is still sort of objectified by the narrative (defined by his hair, his athleticism). However, by defining them in relation to Rachel and Finn, the show sort of gets a shortcut of what type of character they’re going to be. By having Charice and Rachel share a bathroom duet, and having Chord get his very own shower room solo (with camera shots pulled directly from the pilot), the characters slot comfortably into the current structure: the narrative itself acknowledges that the characters could be seen as redundant, and actually builds that into the story. It doesn’t feel like an expansion so much as an insurrection, which keeps the show’s central structure intact.
And, despite some pretty substantial stories for Rachel, Finn, and Will, the episode still manages to give us an update on all of the supporting characters. Taking the traditional “Return in September and See What Changed” storyline, the show uses the supporting characters to fully break down the New Directions family: Tina’s relationship with Mike returns Artie to the position of outcast, Quinn’s return to the Cheerios puts her at odds with Santana, and Rachel’s continued arrogance continues to bother Mercedes and Kurt (who join Brittany as characters without a storyline, although that clearly changes for Brittany next week). There’s nothing overly complex here, but note that nothing is resolved: too often last season a single overarching storyline took over the entire series, with glee club assignments or theme weeks dominating every character’s experience, but “Audition” clearly identifies that these are individuals who are struggling in ways which go beyond New Directions.
These are all qualities of a strong dramatic television program, just so we’re clear: this was a compelling hour of television which never once felt handicapped by the series’ overwhelming popularity and the expectations therein. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but its flaws (mostly in the broad nature of Rachel’s characterization) felt like purposeful excess rather than misguided indulgence. The difference between a good episode and a bad episode of Glee is not so much about content as it is about the overall message of each episode: if this episode had ended cleanly, I think I would have written a very different review, and this would have been a very different premiere. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with the idea of doing a musical about a high school glee club, it’s that this structure can feel trite, forced when used towards certain goals. Here, Brennan and Falchuk very effectively channeled the darker side of the series while still presenting an episode that was recognizably Glee, something I’ve been asking of the show since they first demonstrated this potential in “Preggers” and “Wheels.”
I have no delusions that it will always be this way: next week’s Britney Spears episode threatens to return to a prescriptive mode, wrapping things up within larger themes and celebrating the power of Britney’s musical oeuvre. However, I want to be clear that I’m perfectly fine with this: while this may be the version of Glee that I find most interesting, the show’s willingness to embrace varied dramatic and comic structures to tell its stories is one of the things that draws me to the series. I refuse to believe that there is a single Glee viewer who loves every episode of the series: I imagine that a lot of fans who watch Glee for the “fun” parts of the series might have found tonight’s episode a disappointment, while chances are that critical types like myself will prefer it to some of the more frivolous hours. The show is build for that sort of disagreement, which is why I’m devoting my time to considering the series more carefully: from disagreement comes discussion, and from discussion comes a greater critical understanding of the phenomenon – and, occasionally, the nuanced television drama – known as Glee.
- As with last year, there’s unlikely going to be a substantial critical community surrounding the show, but as always Todd VanDerWerff is doing some great writing about the show for The A.V. Club, and I’m very happy that Ryan McGee will be covering the show for HitFix full time this year. Looking forward to the ensuing discussions!
- The show has dealt extensively with homosexuality in the past, with some measure of success, so it’s interesting to see them gesture towards the show being too “gay” within the opening segment (titled “Glee’s Big Gay Summer”). While the meta-fictional element takes over, it starts with some questions about the show’s sexuality, and I’ll be curious where the show goes with that as the season progresses (especially since Kurt is apparently going to be allowed to have a real relationship this season.
- While the show still aggressively used Autotune, sang show tunes, and committed most of the sins which Jacob brought up early in the episode, the show did avoid the most important of the issues: Will did not rap (or perform in any capacity, which wasn’t necessarily part of the concern, just so we’re clear).
- One storyline I’m legitimately disappointed in: Quinn needing to be defined by her cheerleading. I understand the story, as it ties in with Finn’s loss of identity when he loses football, but we never see why Quinn makes that decision, and it makes it seem like the show didn’t know what to do with her if she wasn’t a Cheerio.
- The show sort of glosses over Puck getting a vasectomy in the opening, which seems bizarre to me – the show isn’t heading towards a reverse vasectomy storyline, is it?
- Proving the show is going to be moving at an accelerated pace this season, the show explicitly brought up that Nationals is in New York, so rest assured that they are going to Nationals. I also expect that they will film the finale in New York with copious Broadway cameos; it writes itself, really.
- Honestly, if Chord Overstreet ever signed up for a choir, the person running the auditions would presume it is a fake name. I refuse to believe it is real.
- As far as musical highlights go, I thought “Telephone” was probably the most interesting of the musical numbers, although I thought the music was pretty even across the board: nothing too great, nothing too terrible, allowing the show to focus on the dramatic side of things instead.
- Similarly, the comedy was pretty muted here (even Brittany’s lines were a bit uninspired, really), but that actually fit the tone of the episode quite nicely. That said, Brittany’s “Living in the Sewers” story cracked me up in the opening.
- Some interesting observations during the commercial breaks: the Sue Sylvester PSA was a nice bit of comedy, but there was also a Glee-tailored commercial for “You Again” (where the actors discuss having been in Glee Club) as well as a way early commercial for Burlesque (Cher, Christina Aguilera musical releasing in November). Curious to know what the ad rates were tonight, really.