Glee – “Never Been Kissed”

“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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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17 Comments

Filed under Glee

17 responses to “Glee – “Never Been Kissed”

  1. For me, Glee is so ridiculous at this point that any more ridiculousness that it gives me, like the Blaine hand-holding/”Teenage Dream” sequence, is just like pouring more gasoline onto an already blazing fire. If you just kind of give in and accept that this show is a fiery inferno of unreality, this episode was super fun. That was the single gayest thing I’ve ever seen on television, and I’ve seen Queer as Folk. It was a fantasy. This whole episode was like a fantasy for me.

    And maybe you and VanDerWerff have a point about the Bully/Closeted Gay thing being pandering, but for me, the sheer fun of the rest of the episode kind of pushed that out of the way. I also think another reason that I enjoyed it so much is that for me, this episode wasn’t so much about gay bullying (although that’s very much what it was about on the surface) as it was about the feeling of not being wanted, not being desired. As silly and pandering as the Blaine and Bieste/Will scenes were, they hit the right emotional note for me.

    Then again, though I may be exactly the target audience this episode was shooting for, I am certainly not the average audience, and I did love it for very personal reasons that almost no one watching can relate to . . . so. Yeah, I can buy it as problematic, but if I’m being honest, this is probably my favorite episode the show has put out.

  2. I basically agree with the above – well stated. I felt unsatisfied by the conclusion of the Puck/Juvy plot line. Maybe I expected the officer to react to Puck’s outburst, which itself remained unmentioned.
    Yet another bullying storyline: Puck hints that he was tormented in Juvy and reacts by fabricating stories of his own dominance. Bullying overkill.

    I expect that any future follow-up with Kurt’s bully will seem forced.

    Also, that was the longest falling confetti I’ve seen in a while.

    • Additionally, I really hate the direction Chord – Sam – has been taken. I fear that any return to the empathetic, “Audition” Sam would now be inexplicable at best. I feel bad for Ian Brennan.

  3. rosengje

    The homophobic bully who is secretly gay subplot may have reminded people of Buffy’s treatment of Larry, but only in the sense that the writers clearly stripped the story of all of its potential for nuance and humor. Larry was an actual character before and after he came out, and what we already knew about him made the scene in which he came out to Xander so unexpectedly hilarious. Like many minor characters on Buffy in the high school years, he existed outside of the expected archetype, and always recurred in interesting ways (i.e. “The Wish”). I actually felt something when he died in “Graduation Day: Part 2,” because he seemed like a fully developed, fleshed-out character. This nameless bully on Glee, however, could not possibly be more of a transparent plot device.

    • Liam

      I think it’s awesome how Buffy fans are always ready to point out how great Buffy was! :)

      • Amy

        OH!
        Tell you what, I actually confused the two shows for a second there. I invented a scene in which unnamed-homophobic came out (secretly) to Finn in the locker room, then the above comment reminded me that was actually Xander and Larry in the locker room in Buffy… Huh. Was getting a little confused there for a while :P

  4. Eric

    This episode fell in a very weird place for emotionally. For the most part I agree with Ashley’s review, as I didn’t totally hate it. As someone who has been kissed by their bully in high school in a somewhat similar setting (though I was at my senior prom), that scene wasn’t terribly far-fetched for me, though I’m obviously aware of how it’s a pretty rare occurrence. I do feel though, that for the most part, it was still a wasted opportunity that didn’t go where it should have. It could have been so uplifting for kids in real danger, and while it probably did help some of them, I don’t really think it gave any particularly good advice on how to deal with their situation. Blaine, so far anyway, suffers from other things that I’ve seen on Glee, where an idea is just vaguely wrapped up into the trappings of a character in order to get the plot going where the writers want. I really hope they develop him sufficiently, and get rid of that practically visible halo over his head to make him a bit more real and sympathetic. I’m sure people like him probably do exist, but at my high school, there were probably 10~15 out gay kids, and none of them were even a bit like him at that time.

    I’m also glad to know I’m not the only one who made that Larry from BtVS connection. I kept calling him Larry to a friend whom I watched the episode with both because of the extreme similarity in appearance and actions, and because of simply not knowing what his actual name was. I always hated him (as well as the african american guy who is usually with him) when they would come around to slushie or push the kids, so in a way I’m glad they did something with him, but I’d just as soon they be gone. And they can take Jacob with them.

  5. Katiegrrl1016

    I have to go with Ashley and Eric here on this one; I didn’t find this episode terrible. In fact, I was quite excited by it. While you’re definitely right about the obvious plot contrivances and sloppy Frankenstein-ing of the 3 story lines, I couldn’t help enjoying this episode, and feeling some emotional connection to it. Maybe it was because I was bullied in middle school, or because I’ve adored Darren Criss since he was in/wrote A Very Potter Musical, or because I feel very strongly about homophobia; I just don’t know. But I feel like tweens and teens won’t really notice the critical or structural flaws, and only find a story/theme to which they can relate.

    Blaine is an exaggerated and somewhat unrealistic mentor figure, but I think that many people, including myself, have had a version of Blaine in our lives to pick us up off the ground. (On a slightly inappropriate side note, seriously, can I be Blaine’s fag hag? I fell in gay-boyfriend love a little) He’s actually proportional to the outrageousness and cartoonish-ness of the series anyway.

    One thing that did greatly tarnish the episode for me was Schue kissing Bieste. When I was watching that whole scene, I was just thinking “Will, don’t do it. Don’t kiss her, just d- Aww, ewwww…” Cringe-worthy not only in contrivance, but also in the reasons behind it.

  6. Brad

    I’m going to add to the Ashley, Eric, and Katiegrrl1016 chorus here. Although I think your analysis, Miles, is on point, none of your problems with this episode (except Will kissing Bieste, which was just wrong on so many levels but was completely in character given his overblown ego) prevented me from enjoying it immensely. You wrote that if Blaine had disappeared and turned out to be a figment of Kurt’s imagination, you would have believed it. But for a young man of Kurt’s age, or for anyone really, “love at first sight” transports a person into slow motion. So I saw the entire over-the-top introduction of Blaine as Kurt did–through rose-colored glasses. He was like an angel because Kurt saw him as an angel. He may or may not have been singing “Teenage Dream” to Kurt, but that’s what Kurt saw. It was a representation of Kurt’s inner experience, the rush of first awe-inspiring, knock-your-socks-off, my-life-will-never-be-the-same love. We are seeing Blaine through Kurt’s eyes. Beautiful, perfect, everything. The entire sequence gave me chills.

  7. Steve

    I know that Glee is not supposed to be great drama, but here is what I miss from season 1.

    1. A story arc that ties the season together and gives you a reason to root for the characters.

    2. Characters worth rooting for, who may grow and regress and grow again, but who don’t suddenly act jarringly “out of character” because of the needs of this week’s lame plot.

    3. Music that emotionally connects numbers 1 and 2 above.

    It seems like the creators never expected to get past a first season and now have no idea where to go.

  8. KG

    I agree with everything you said, but I also agree with Ashley that there is really no reality in this show and you just have to go along for the ride. I think the thing I did NOT like in this episode was that the music had absolutely no meaning to the plot (or at least it seemed that way to me). It was good, but forgettable. Normally I have Glee songs stuck in my head for days afterwards, but there was nothing at all that stuck with me. It was all cotton ear candy. Nice while it’s happening, but no substance.

  9. Jeff Carroll

    I was sad and disappointed with last night’s show, but I will admit a bias. This storyline concerned me, because one of my daughter’s friends in high school was gay, and he killed himself because his father called him a “cocksucker.”

    Her friends came to our house after the funeral, so I was able to hear them try to rationalize what had happened, to find a way to understand. Of course, one of the explanations was that his father was a closet-gay.

    Perhaps the father was, but the likelier explanation was that he was straight and scared and ignorant. He was more embarrassed than proud of his son, but he placed the fault for that on his son, instead of within himself.

    If we claim that bullies who attack gay people are just latent gays themselves, then we are subversively making it a gay-only issue, and one that straight people don’t have to worry about. That’s what I disliked about last night’s episode. I hoped for something more.

    I imagine an episode where the Glee club attempt to bond around Kurt–they’ve all been bullied after all–but Kurt rejects them. He can’t just become “cool” in high school by changing clothes like Rachel, by joining the football team like Artie (or getting back on the team like Finn), by rejoining the cheerleader squad like Quinn, or by losing his stutter like Tina. He would have to change what people think of him, and that even includes what some people in the Glee club think. It is different for him, and it won’t end when high school ends. That’s the episode that I hope to see. Maybe it will be one of the episodes in this saga.

  10. Muniel Manuel

    why even try to make something unpredictabel?
    “the unexpected is the new cliche!”

  11. Dan

    Myles-

    I’ve never commented before, but I respect your writing and love reading this blog. I’d be interested to know what you think of this: http://tomandlorenzo2.blogspot.com/2010/11/glee-s2e6-never-been-kissed.html

    I have trouble with this episode on a number of levels, many of which you talk about, but as a twenty-six year-old gay man, I keep coming back to that “Teenage Dream” sequence (watching it more times than is probably healthy) and thinking how wonderful it is, how important it is in the context of a hugely popular, 8 PM show on a major network. There are numerous problems with Glee and this episode in particular, but in light of that scene, it all seems to melt away.

  12. Bea

    Here are my thoughts.
    I think what everyone here has just accepted is that the bully is suddenly just gay. Which, I hope, they’re going to fight the urge to do in writing the next few episodes. From what I see, we can probably expect some much more escalated bullying. This can’t be all we’re going to see of the bullying. So Kurt gets pushed a few times, so he gets called a few names. This might just be the beginning.
    However I agree with how disproportionate the characters have become from real people. For example, I was really hoping the Artie ditching Brittany thing would turn into something better. At the end of that, the first time around, she looked hurt. She finally had depth! And in this episode, they took that right away from us.
    All in all, I’m kind of hoping with this storyline they’ll manage to turn it around a bit more. Because all season 2 has done for me so far is make me lose a bit of faith in it all.

    P.S. Let’s not forget how this episode had almost nothing to do with Finn and Rachel. For that fact alone it is easily THE best episode of the season. I’m so sick of them having the spotlight for no reason.

    • Bea

      Also, I think if anything they do need to tone down Blaine’s influence. Which they’ve kind of managed to do when they both confront ‘the bully’. Mostly because it showed beyond all that Blaine set in motion, he couldn’t influence it directly.
      But Colfer and the bully have serious dynamic together, as actors. They’re really good at being baffled by each other and themselves.

  13. Caro

    Glee is definitely saved by its fine actors – especially Colfer. He adds consistency even when the writing is uneven. In general, Glee handles writing for the guys better than writing for the girls. They are far more stereotyped then the fellows.

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