Glee – “The Substitute”

“The Substitute”

November 16th, 2010

“Are you on anything? Because this is trippy.”

“The Substitute” is terrible, except that it’s sort of great.

Every moment stands on the precipice of being terrible, predicated on tenuous connections to our reality. And yet, with a willingness to indulge in fantasy the episode achieves something approaching self-actualization, finding the honest moments in storylines that could very easily have been devoid of such honesty. Some moments are worse than the show’s baseline of ridiculousness, while other moments spin that ridiculousness into the kind of character moments that the show often struggles with.

Ian Brennan, returning to the material of “The Rhodes Not Taken,” tells a story about loneliness, albeit in an episode so jam-packed with storylines that the actual feeling of loneliness is largely theoretical. While not quite the series’ best episode, “The Substitute” makes so much with so little that we can’t help but find it admirable.

If, also, a little awful.

This isn’t exactly new for Brennan. “The Rhodes Not Taken” ended up in a fairly emotional place, with April Rhodes realizing her dreams were not to be found at McKinley High, but it also had moments that are sort of ridiculous. Take, for example, the idea that April slept with Puck and another football player in the locker room: tonally, it doesn’t seem to fit in with the episode’s main theme, but that sort of zaniness gets subsumed by the conclusion. “Duets” had similar moments: that Brittany and Artie slept together seems out of character for Artie, but the emotional ramifications play out so well for both characters that you end up forgetting that moment of atonality.

“The Substitute” is filled with those moments, and for the most part the majority are resolved by the time we reach the episode’s conclusion. The episode never pretends to be serious, or grounded in our reality: we open with the dramatic music soundtracking the spread of the monkey flu, and then transition directly into Will seeing the Glee club as toddlers. Both scenes are legitimately funny, but they set a tone that is sort of hard to come back from. The next two scenes demonstrate this concern: seeing Terri inspires flop sweat considering how she killed the show’s narrative dead back in the first season, and then the return of selfish Rachel and the bizarre chaos it creates brings up some of the show’s most regressive tendencies. Throw in the risk of overexposure in Sue’s run as principal, and the arrival of a recognizable, Academy Award winning actress doing the show to promote her new movie in which she plays a country singer, and you have one of the show’s most ominous openings in its history.

And yet, although Brennan put the butter on the floor (so to speak), the episode slides right over it. Not only was Rachel falling one of the single funniest things that Lea Michele has done on this show, but what follows does not back away from the ridiculousness. Will’s illness inspires a fantasy musical number (“Make ‘Em Laugh”), while Holly Holliday (Paltrow) is herself a bit of a fantasy as far as substitute teachers go. She asks the students what they want to do, allowing them to indulge in things that are otherwise “out of order” for Will (Cee-Lo’s “Forget You”). Similarly, Sue’s run as principal is about what happens when she has power, when she is no longer fighting against a larger authority. Everything feels inspired by those early elements of fantasy, to the point where even numbers that are actually happening but seem overly extravagant (like Rachel and Holly’s take on “Nowadays” from Chicago) feel almost natural thanks to the episode’s setup.

All of these moments have their problems, do not get me wrong, but there’s a real sense of purpose here. Will’s illness brings Terri into his life, and asks what would happen if Terri was no longer crazy – these people were together for sixteen years, and as much as Terri killed a lot of momentum early on her absence has damaged Will considerably. She knows him in ways that no one else seems to, and there is no question that Will is somewhat lonely. And so he lets Terri in during his illness, indulging until the point where she is revealed as clingy beyond her insanity. It’s a good realization for the character, and “Make ‘Em Laugh” was a fun indulgence that offered something the show doesn’t do every day.

It also tied nicely with Holly’s arrival, in that Paltrow is given the time to develop her into an actual character, or at the very least the time to delve into the type of character she is. While Holly doesn’t have the history of April Rhodes, the type is quite interesting: she is the substitute teacher who tries too hard to make friends with their students, resisting the kind of discipline that they might expect from their normal students. As someone who had a substitute teacher for half a year in eighth grade, I’ve seen this: initially, my teacher was extremely casual with the class, but as the weeks wore on she had to start digging in. She didn’t quite give elaborate performances of “Conjunction Junction,” but there was that same sense of concern over transitioning into a different role. That concern has paralyzed Holly, leaving her an extremely fun teacher without the sense of purpose that the show argues Will has.

I have some issues with the way they resolved Will’s storyline, in that I agree more with the students’ complaints and the imagined Journey obsession than I do the final confessionals about how he’s touched them, but I thought Holly is right. She is never going to have that “To Sir, with Love” moment, and she’s afraid of what it would take to have it. It isn’t perfect, but giving purpose to Will’s role in the Glee club was a nice bit of transition. Much like April Rhodes, Will is forced to reflect on his own position as a result of her involvement, and here it pushes him to put together a closing number that allows Holly to have a final moment in the spotlight.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Paltrow sort of killed this. I have issues with what the radio edit (and gender swap) do to Cee-Lo’s “F**k You,” but Paltrow’s performance (and the character within) win me over. Plus, she speaks her mind from a position other than craziness: she calls Rachel on her suckiness, she’s unafraid to call Terri when she first meets her, and in a quieter moment she opens up to Will about her loneliness. Throw in the fact that her closing Mary Todd Lincoln lecture made me laugh a great deal, and that the musical/dance elements felt in tune with this character, and Paltrow acquitted herself quite nicely throughout.

Now, when we start filtering down we find some problems. Specifically, Mercedes’ sudden obsession with Tater Tots seems odd (especially when it was used to introduce tater tots into the narrative), and the way in which it blends in with Kurt’s relationship with Blaine never quite works. It seems like a lot of the story depends on psycho-analysis rather than actual character moments: the idea that Mercedes is using Kurt as a substitute for a boyfriend is a strange (and limiting) reading of her loneliness, and the idea that she is subtituting food for Kurt – that she only protests the ban on tater tots because she really wants to protest that Kurt is no longer free to hang out with her every moment of the day – seems even worse to me. I thought the scene at Breadsticks worked somewhat nicely: seeing Kurt and Blaine bonding outside of Tolerance Narnia (hat tip to TVW) was a lot of fun, and Mercedes hearing everything they said as “gay gay gay gay gay” seemed to say something about her being left out of the loop (and tied into the sort of fantasy world that Will’s baby vision introduced). Otherwise, though, it was just characters talking about growing apart instead of actually growing apart in any real way – there are threads of the loneliness theme that sort of runs through the episode, but it doesn’t connect like it could or should.

And, while Sue as Principal didn’t become as terrible as it could have, I still thought that it didn’t really do anything. The show presumes it is funny for Sue to be on a power trip, but the choice to ban Tater Tots or to fire Will never really shifted into something more. The one moment that did, the moment of humiliation that pushes Sue to exert her power in other ways, was her failed attempt at holding power over Bieste. Her failure to think through the logic of her actions, that getting rid of football would make her cheerleaders irrelevant, nicely connects to the occasional blindness of her actions, but she ended up twirling her moustache to create pivot points in the other storylines.

But in the end, this episode works because the fantasy serves a purpose. Some have pointed out that Tolerance Narnia, and the magical hand-holding and singing that it brought with it, were meant to seem like fantasy. It was supposed to be a safe haven for Kurt, a turning point that would bring some sort of enlightenment. I buy this, but I have trouble reconciling it with the more serious elements of the episodes: that wasn’t the episode, in other words, for a guardian angel, and the blending of those two spaces simply didn’t work. In “The Substitute,” there are so many different storylines and realities ongoing that it all sort of works. The most problematic moments are either overwritten by the storyline’s conclusion, or part of a storyline that is not prominent enough to drag the entire episode down.

The problem with Terri, in other words, was not that she was crazy: it was that, in the first season, that crazy didn’t add up to anything. It was just craziness, full-stop, until that moment where Will ripped off her fake stomach, and thus it dragged down much of the show around it. Here, Terri’s craziness is dialed down, but her return is also handled in a way that contributes to something. She is here because she helps create meaning, which is also what allows Paltrow to seem like more than a product-placed guest star. None of it seems natural in its introduction, and the blend between reality and fantasy still moves away from what I perhaps desire the show to be, but the conclusions are logical and grounded enough that “The Substitute” works in spite of, or perhaps because of, the same moments that could sink an episode dead.

Cultural Observations

  • Based on my own experience (shout out to Miss Murphy!), Holly would have a tough time making a living substituting for such periods. Miss Murphy actually came to class with a concussion one day, because her pay went up with each consecutive teaching day and if she missed a single day it reverted back to the lowest pay grade.
  • As far as the musical numbers go, “Umbrella/Singin’ in the Rain” was fine, “Make ‘em Laugh” a fine indulgence, and “Nowadays” a somewhat less fine indulgence. Really, as much as the radio edit bugs me, “Forget You” was perhaps the simple pleasure which won the evening.
  • “That Teapot’s Spreading Lies About Me” made me laugh more than I’d like to admit. It would also make a great Sepinwallian transition.
  • The Mini Glee club was such a fun little gimmick: it was of very little substance, but it was played for just the right amount of time to avoid outstaying its welcome.
  • A little overly clever, naming the aggressive student in Holly’s flashback Cameo, no?
  • So is Sam the female Brittany now? He couldn’t tie his shoes? Or were they all – except Brittany, since M and N are confusing – exaggerating to try to get Will back?
  • The night’s biggest failure/victory? That they didn’t do The Who’s “Substitute.” Failure in that it is awesome, victory in that they avoided the most obvious choice.
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18 Comments

Filed under Glee

18 responses to “Glee – “The Substitute”

  1. Confession: I actually enjoy the radio edit of “Fuck You”/”Forget You” better than the real version, and purely from a musical standpoint. I think the two syllables of “forget” work better with the song, with the first syllable kind of grace-noted onto it. I realize that I am in the minority here.

    (I don’t enjoy the “F You” version at all.)

    On an actual episode-related note, I found the “Umbrella”/”Singin’ in the Rain” mash-up to be almost overwhelmingly pleasant. It just looked like so much fun.

  2. Mel

    I really really REALLY hated “Umbrella/Singin’ in the Rain” but I agree that “Forget You” was “the simple pleasure which won the evening”–when I heard about it I thought it was the dumbest idea in the world but I really enjoyed that scene.

  3. Steve

    I appreciate the depth of your analysis, but this just seemed like a mess to me. Remember when the show was about the Glee club kids’ quest to make it to sectionals, then regionals? Remember when the musical numbers were part of an assignment that Will gave each week that connected with the characters and what they were feeling AND moved thet story along ? ? Remember when there WAS a story arc? I want that show back.

  4. MaryTodd

    Why do the producers and casting directors of the hit show ‘Glee’ insist on ALWAYS presenting Black women and girls as FAT, LOUD, OBNOXIOUS, UNATTRACTIVE, IGNORANT, GHETTO, etc.?

    On tonight’s episode (‘The Substitute’), for instance, they presented “beautiful, petite, blonde” Gwyneth Paltrow getting beaten-up (in an unprovoked attack) by a FAT, UGLY, LOUD Black girl (who, of course, “had an attitude” about nothing).

    There was NO REASON for them to present this crude image of Black teen-girls (other than to reinforce the stereotype of the ugly, violent, loud Black).

    The producers, writers and casting directors of this episode should be ashamed of themselves and the Black actress who took on this moronic role should hold her head down in shame.

    This was both offensive and pathetic.

    [NOTE:
    This criticism does NOT include plus-sized actress, Amber Riley (a regular cast-member of the show) -- who has managed to present herself as both an attractive and a dignified character on the episodes I have seen ... unlike all of those other Black actresses who have appeared on the show in 'guest' roles.]

    • I think the flashback brought out particular references to Dangerous Minds, which perhaps explains the violent element of things, but I would certainly agree that the “characterization” was problematic and non-existent.

      I just tend to look at it as an exaggeration of her memory, much as Will likely didn’t actually make the Journey-related comments in Puck and Rachel’s memories. Doesn’t make it NOT problematic, but it does separate it further from any sort of reality.

  5. Gabrielle

    Sam is evolving or may I say degenerating into a weird amalgam of Finn and Puck. This week he had Finn’s lines come out of his mouth. The writers have to decide what to do with him. They’re killing the character.

  6. Jackie

    I can appreciate what you’re saying on some levels but this episode was not god for me. I actually didn’t enjoy Gwenyth Paltrow’s performance at all, as I saw overacting and overemoting in every scene.

    When I thought back about the show, I couldn’t think of one SL that moved the story/characters along. Now, I acknowledge that character development and SL development don’t have to have progression EVERY episode but for me this episode was poo. For someone who doesn’t enjoy Diva Rachel very much and is seeing more and more of Lea Michele instead of Rachel Berry, finds B**** Santana irritating, doesn’t understand what they’re doing with Sam (he’s an unnecessary character), found Kurofsky creepy and disgusting, didn’t appreciate the stereotypical angry, black girl scene and is finding it increasingly hard to sympathize with Kurt, this episode was painful.

  7. Elizabeth

    I also found the representation of black women on this episode to be extremely troubling, to the extent that I’m not sure that I can continue to watch the show. First, while I do love the character of Mercedes, the show’s writers have never developed her as a full-blown character. While every woman in the Glee Club dates and is seen as an attractive woman, Mercedes is always on the sidelines (this could also be a function of her being overweight, which is equally problematic). While they did make some attemtpt at the end of tonight’s episode to give her a real romantic possibility, I am doubtful that we’ll see her relationship with the (black, of course) football player fully develop. Hopefully I’m wrong. I think Mercedes serves as a modern-day Mammy archetype – round, jolly, asexual, always there to support her white friends with her voice or a kind word.
    Second, the depiction of Cameo was completely unnecessary and racist. Maybe they were somehow trying to be ironic, but I don’t think so. On a show where there are so few images of African Americans, to have this blatant stereotype presented in a pivotal moment of the show turned my stomach.

  8. Candigirl617

    I feel like there needs to be an “audience proxy” in the writing room for Glee. There are too many times when an episode is scattered, messy and/or incoherent. Too many storylines here, resolved in a slapdash fashion. I’m starting to get a “Heroes” vibe here. Something needs to be done.

    Ignoring the seeming stereotypes they are falling into with Mercedes, I’m willing to buy a “Mercedes and Kurt are drifting apart:” If they wanted to do a “food as diversion” story with Mercedes, some better setup would have helped. Perhaps having Quinn (her seeming new bestie) be busy with Sam and also having Mercedes being one of the kids who doesn’t give a fig about the tots in the beginning, just something not to make that story less random.

    • Steve

      What a great idea to have an “audience proxy” in the writing room, or maybe a “continuity person” to ask questions like, ” After everything she went through last year, why is Quinn right back to acting like a “mean girl” cheerleader? Is making out with Sam a good idea? Where were they making out at, anyway? At Mercede’s house where Quinn was living last we knew, or at her mom’s? Did she reconcile with her mom, who was featured in last season’s finale?” Stuff like that.

  9. Brad

    This was my least favorite episode of the season, primarily because I find Will to be mostly obnoxious and I have developed an angry reaction whenever he puts himself front and center of the glee club. I would have loved the Umbrella/Singin’ In The Rain mashup had Will not been in it. As it was, I could not get past yet another one of his pathetic attempts to recapture his “glory” days. I almost barfed. But even beyond this problem, I found the episode really terrible and missed any redeeming moments you point out in your review. Honestly, I came to your blog today certain you were going to trash this episode to filth. Maybe you were in a really good mood when you watched it.

    Someone pointed out that this show is developing a “Heroes” vibe, with the writing on a downward incline. I agree, but I think you can look at Murphy’s other shows and see a pattern. Popular fell apart in the second season and Nip/Tuck in the third. I’ve learned not to expect much from Ryan Murphy when it comes to the long haul.

  10. Andrew Jara

    You didn’t mention much about the gay bullying this week. Was wondering what you though of Karofski’s threat and how it all fits into the gay bullying story lines. It seemed rather dark to me and came out of the blue.

    • It’s pretty generic bully fare, and the episode’s tonality was so skewed towards broad fantasy that it did seem a bit dark by comparison.

      But it’s clearly a stopping point, so we’ll see where things go in the weeks ahead.

  11. Layla

    I’m so glad to see that I am not alone in despising the stereotype they shoved at us in the form of Cameo. Maybe we were supposed to understand that in Holly’s memory, everything about Cameo became exaggerated, but I don’t think that’s good enough of an explanation because we can understand Holly’s changed attitude towards subbing without this gratuitous and jarring moment. Are their people like Cameo in this world? Yeah there definitely are, but the show’s history of being lazy in dealing with race made this latest note super irritating to me.

    I don’t look for meaningful explorations of race, or anything really, on Glee, but neither no I want casual, insensitive notes of racism on a show that is smart enough to do better. The show tells us Tina left Artie to be with Mike, because they’re Asian and that’s enough for them to have so much in common – yet in actuality Tina tells us the Asian-ness is more of a divider – she doesn’t want to go to Dim Sum all the time just because they’re Chinese, nor has she ever been portrayed as someone for whom her ethnicity is an important note to her identity. Santana got a throwaway anti-Semitic line in S1 telling Rachel that she should go back to Israel. Was that funny, did it inform the story or develop her character? We already know she’s catty. None of these things on their own are too awful, but added up it’s a shame.

    • Andrew Jara

      When did the show EVER say Tina was with Mike because they were both Asian?

      And I don’t think the Cameo flashback had anything to do with her being black.

      • @ andrewjara this seems like a snark way to get back and some oen and it really just shows your lack of reality. If you where a..not all!…a black female(or male) movie gower/tv watcher you would no this looks a little to imitation of life/gone with the wind/enchanted fat evil black lady stereotype. Its the fact that glee has only had fat “sassy” black women on the show. I also dont like they way they handle the QLGBT community really. Its preachy about issues important to the writers…unfort it lets you see what gender or race the writers might be…very interesting…

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