“Never Been Kissed”
November 9th, 2010
Hype is Glee’s currency of choice, for reasons that make a lot of sense: they want to sell downloads, they want to trend on Twitter, and so I understand why they released the full performances of both “Teenage Dream” and “Start Me Up/Livin’ on a Prayer” ahead of this week’s episode.
And yet, there is something very weird about the hype for “Never Been Kissed,” in that the musical numbers promote joyous musical explosion while the commercials for the episode promote the start of what Chris Colfer refers to as Glee’s “bullying saga” (which each writer will put their stamp on during a three-episode arc). While I talk a lot – probably too much – about the idea of the 3 Glees as it relates to the three writers, there are also ways in which the promotion and hype surrounding the series becomes highly contradictory. It is not that an episode can’t be both of these things, per se, but rather that the promotion works to the much-hyped extremes and fails to properly merge the two modes.
The result is that this episode inspires extreme trepidation: the word saga gives me great pause, and the musical numbers revealed concerns that had me pre-writing my criticism in my head late last week. And while there are parts of “Never Been Kissed” which had the potential to be something of value, the tonal mash-up is so extreme that all we’re left with is…well, nothing of value.
Kurt Hummel is not bullied simply because he is homosexual; in fact, he was bullied long before he came out, even in the time we’ve spent with the character. He is bullied because he is different, which is the same reason that many other members of the club have been bullied in the past (Rachel most prominently). And yet, in an admirable effort to shed light on the ongoing concerns over teen bullying most prominent among gay teens, Kurt’s story has been spun into a long-form tale of homophobic oppression.
If this had happened within the story, or if we saw a clear elevation, I think I would be able to accept it. But this storyline has been formed based on pedantic commentary defining Kurt in new terms, terms that would not have been used a week earlier. It becomes a question of homophobia when Will defines it as one, and it becomes an after-school special when Kurt’s espionage at the prep school somehow transitions into a frank discussion of bullying and its effect on teens. Ideally, the “message” should remain subtextual within the actual narrative, but these scenes cross that line: the prep school is idyllic in its welcoming message, with the popular gay student flanked by visible minorities, and any sense of realism (which was actually potent in the moments of bullying Kurt endured and in many of Chris Colfer’s speeches) is thrown out the window.
And so, when the show gets to the point in the story where Kurt uses Blaine’s words of wisdom to stand up to his bully, the episode reaches its greatest test: would it feel as if there had been a narrative, that Kurt had experienced actual change? When the scene begins, it has potential: regardless of my opinion of the rest of the episode, Colfer was incredibly strong throughout, and this scene was no exception. And yet, as soon as Hamhawk (or whatever his name was – his lack of a clear name is concerning, actually) plants one on Kurt’s lips, any sense of meaning is lost. It is possible that some homophobia is simply closeted homosexuality, and this technically adds depth to the character, but it adds the most cliched form of depth you could imagine. It defines this character entirely based on their involvement with this storyline: this is his motivation because it seems the most poetic option, but at a certain point characters like this generic bully would likely stand independent of such carefully manipulated storylines.
It’s the same problem I have with the fact that Shannon Bieste is caught up in the same thematic content. It’s a problem with any show dealing with multiple generations, in that theme episodes struggle to speak to two different demographics. And frankly, “Never Been Kissed” struggles more than any episode in the show’s past, as the entire Bieste storyline was spawned directly in step with Kurt’s struggles. Right after Kurt gets bullied, the previously silly Bieste storyline is twisted into its own form of bullying; just as Will tries to talk to Kurt but fails, so too does Kurt awkwardly treat Bieste like one of his students. And, in the coup d’resistance, Kurt admits to Blaine that he’s never truly been kissed outside of the bully’s transgression, after which Bieste admits to Will that she too has never touched lips with another man. The resulting kiss, as Will takes pity on the woman, is painful not because Bieste is unattractive but because of how ludicrously contrived it is. It’s poetry at the expense of logic, both plot and character, which ends up being the precise opposite of poetry.
When it started, the Bieste story actually sort of won me over: while Sue’s sheer villainy is tiresome, the silliness of the boys’ strategy of imagining Bieste to get through sexual frustration became actually kind of charming. Initially, I bristled at Finn’s claim that they’ve found the only two girls in high school who don’t put out; it suggests a hyper-sexualized world that I’ve found strange this season (Artie and Brittany having sex, for example), and the storyline seemed in poor taste. However, the way in which it became a sort of virus (spreading even to Tina) made for a silly comic setpiece. And yet, as soon as it turned into a story of bullying, the tonal whiplash was impossible to reconcile: by the time we reach the end of the episode, with Bieste being serenaded for reasons I still don’t understand (considering that the songs did nothing to speak to the situation), it’s a storyline that undermines its own potential (comedy) for a dramatic storyline with almost no resonance thanks to its contrived nature.
And despite this, the worst element of the broad “Bullying is Wrong” storyline is probably the character who has the most potential. Darren Criss’ Blaine is what we can consider Kurt’s first “real” love interest, finally an actual gay character who can get Kurt away from his futile pining for Finn. And yet, he arrived as a sort of guardian angel: the single most ridiculous scene in the episode is the fact that Blaine takes Kurt’s hand and leads him down a hallway in slow motion set to quiet piano music. If you didn’t already know that Blaine was a love interest, and that his role was to deliver Kurt from the world of bullying, then this scene cinched it. From that point on, nothing Blaine does seems real: he sings “Teenage Dream” while staring intently at Kurt, he sends him encouraging text messages which bolster his strength, and he even shows up at the school at lunchtime in order to help Kurt confront his bully. If Kurt suddenly turned around and he was gone, simply a figment of his imagination, I would have believed it; I’d actually go so far as to call Blaine a helper figure, and even if he won’t be sticking around for the rest of the series that he seems so clearly connected to this conflict gives me little faith for actual character development.
Still, this wasn’t enough: not only did the episode feature these two overworked storylines, but they also worked in a substantial subplot for the returning Puck and Brittany-obsessed Artie. Forget that the show has never successfully explained Puck’s previous behavior, or that Artie’s obsession with Brittany seems like a regressive step for the character, but the most subtle storyline in the episode was overwhelmed by everything around it. I think, if I had to guess, that the point here was understanding how Puck tries to switch from bullying to helping Artie out, and the ways in which his fearful persona assists him (like their “charity” busking, for example). In truth, this is actually sort of interesting, and Puck technically gets the most satisfying conclusion in the episode as he runs away from the prospect of being sent back to juvy and explains to Artie his actual fear. However, the storyline never gets enough time to develop into a counterpoint (or even a counterpart) to the larger storylines, and so what precisely Artie can do for Puck, and why it is that Artie was legitimately concerned that Puck would bully him when the episode began, remain unexplored. There was some general silliness in their courtship of Brittany and Santana, but the conclusion ends up feeling as contrived as just about everything else in the episode if only by association.
We could talk about the mash-ups (competent and meaningless), or that the episode featured references to both Who’s the Boss and Jersey Shore (surely a first), but let’s break it down: what message were we supposed to take from “Never Been Kissed?”
I think the message was supposed to be that we should take a zero tolerance policy towards bullying, which is something that I would tend to agree with. However, the episode seems to argue that the bullying Kurt receive is similar to the “bullying” of Bieste, but that comparison has numerous problems which I raised above. Perhaps, then, its real message is that there needs to be a zero tolerance policy against the culture of bullying, whether in relation to minority students or authority figures.
But when you really break that down, think of the “bullies” we see in the episode. You have teenage boys who get turned off by their football coach and use her (clandestinely, and for the most part outside of school) as a visual image to avoid becoming overstimulated; you have Puck, whose bullying (or at least his illegal activities) emerge out of fear more than out of hatred; and then you have Kurt’s bully, who is really just a closeted teenager lashing out as a form of identity crisis. Forget those bullies who are simply terrible people, or who won’t back off when you try to teach them a lesson; forget also bullying which is passive, and which doesn’t present in such obvious (and carefully outlined) forms.
I admire that the show suggests that the bullied stand up to their oppressors, but outside of a few particularly vicious shoves into lockers we didn’t see bullying here. Instead, we saw various high school behaviors conflated into a supposedly prototypical depiction of bullying that manages to cross generations without any sort of consistency. Whatever “Never Been Kissed” was going for, it failed to achieve it because it seemed to believe that one storyline wasn’t enough: Bieste needs to reflect Bieste, and Puck needs to refer to Bieste, and Blaine needs to exist solely to serve his function in this never-ending infestation. There is a story to be told about bullying at McKinley high school, and considering Colfer’s skill I can only imagine what that hour could have been like.
By trying to move every storyline into the same thematic space, and by trying to mix silliness with seriousness, and by failing to merge music successfully with any of this contrivance, “Never Been Kissed” never had a chance.
- I generally find scheming Sue to be fairly intolerable, but her growing disgust at the image of Bieste with Sam was really well-played by Lynch. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a Who’s the Boss reference and didn’t even know it. I also enjoyed her delivery on “Wounds,” simple but effective.
- While I thought the “Boys vs. Girls” musical numbers were utterly pointless outside of Rachel’s “SPIES!” as Puck and Artie invaded their practicing, I thought both were fun production numbers; I’m over mash-ups, but they were well done. I am worried, though, about the precedent of repeating past storylines, although it makes sense that Schuester would rehash lesson plans. Lazy bugger.
- “One Love” was fine, but the whole steel drum thing sort of broke the realism (which was actually quite nice, in that the students were holding books! And wearing coats!). Still, that set still feels right out of High School Musical for me.
- Looks like it’ll be Blaine’s prep school and senior citizens at Sectionals – how wonderfully gimmicky.
- Some people on Twitter had the same thought as I did – Kurt’s bully was almost identical to Larry Blaisdell on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both in build and in storyline (except that in 2010 you can actually have them kiss).
- I’m looking forward to the various pop culture amalgams for Blaine’s omniscience: I’m going with the angel from “Twice in a Lifetime” to represent my Canadian roots.