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.
- 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.