Glee – “A Very Glee Christmas”

“A Very Glee Christmas”

December 7th, 2010

Generally speaking, the most difficult question for Glee to answer is “Why?” So many of its stories seem to have no connection with ongoing events that if you keep asking why precisely it’s happening, and so you sort of have to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

But “A Very Glee Christmas” offers an answer to this question at every turn: every time I imagine someone questioning the various hurried and forced story developments in the episode, the show screams back “BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS.”

It’s a pretty good excuse, honestly: while sometimes the show risks losing its heart amidst the broadness of Sue’s cartoon villainy, and it sometimes struggles with how theme episodes deal with ongoing storylines, Christmas gives them something cheerful and magical to bring it all together. We expect Christmas to overwhelm all other emotions, as holidays are all about coming together regardless of our differences and celebrating peace on Earth.

And for a show that is always most comfortable, in my eyes, when it merges its sense of celebration with a sense of sadness, “A Very Glee Christmas” at times hits the sweet spot: it uses the broad comedy to fuel the sadness, but follows through on the consequences with an investigation of the limitations of Christmas rather than simply a celebration of the holiday. The result is an episode which seemed charmingly celebratory and yet still felt like it could indulge in “Sue the Grinch” when it so desired.

And it’s pretty emotionally honest until it ends up with nowhere to go but sap, positing Christmas as collective rather than connective and losing its momentum and its charm in the process.

Bah humbug.

There’s a reason that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was so perfect to be separated from the rest of the episode and released early by FOX. The piece has no logical purpose: Blaine happens to be performing in some sort of local revue, he just happens to come across Kurt in the study room, and they launch into a rendition of the song largely because it will be fun. The number is an easy highlight: the song’s a classic, the staging is playful without being elaborate, and the lingering romantic tension is far more dynamic than the dream-like “Teenage Dream.” Most Twitter responses (and responses to the video when it was released) boiled down to why the two of them wouldn’t just kiss already, which shows the most basic effect of Christmas: there is something about this music, and the emotions it can create, which can amplify existing chemistry into something almost uncontrollable.

The rest of the episode isn’t nearly as simple, trying to do something slightly more difficult. It’s easy to use Christmas to make something which already exists more effective – Glee could have done a big emotional ballad to conclude the episode, and the added value of Christmas music would have made it that much more endearing (likely to the point of becoming overwhelmingly saccharine). Instead, for much of its running time, “A Very Glee Christmas” becomes about the ways in which the Christmas spirit has limitations: how adults struggle to stay connected to those emotions of their childhood Christmas, and how the madness of high school can distract from the magic of the holiday. For a while, it becomes about the impossibility of Christmas in its purest form: Christmas becomes Rachel singing to an empty auditorium, or the Glee club caroling in a hostile environment, a gift of hope and love that no one is willing to receive.

And while it may be particularly simple, I think pairing this with Brittany believing in Santa has its charms early in the episode. What makes it work is that Brittany has reasons to believe, and that her belief is very much aimed at something positive rather than something random. The episode never quite comes out and says it, but her belief seems like a defence mechanism. If she stops believing in Santa, she stops believing in magic, and the wonderful world she seems to live in would be dead. It makes perfect sense for Brittany to believe in Santa, although the episode veers off track a bit in the way everyone treats her: the idea of tricking her, and creating these elaborate plots to convince her that Santa exists, ends up seeming more meddling than sweet at points. It ends up seeming like plot for the sake of plot, and bringing Bieste into it just makes it overcomplicated and making it about everyone but the character it’s supposed to be about. It then seems like the show is taking advantage of, rather than building, Brittany’s character, and lost me a bit.

Before, of course, it lost me entirely: Bieste deciding to purchase Artie fake legs was the antithesis of what the episode actually needed, the kind of storyline which goes for grand gestures over any sense of emotional honesty. Actually giving Artie the power to walk is manipulative and meaningless, the sort of gesture which confirms the broad miracles of Christmas without actually saying anything in particular. I can see Bieste being inspired by Brittany’s speech (once we get over that she’s willing to do what she did in the first place), and the connections between the teachers (who are all facing or have faced a sense of loneliness and disbelief in the holiday) and the students (struggling in similar ways) was actually a space with a great deal of potential. The legs just felt entirely off, the sort of misstep (ugh, sorry) which kills the episode’s nuanced meanings dead in favor of “Artie can walk, everyone believes!” It’s the same principle which guides the entire Glee club coming together with Sue to give Will a real Christmas – whatever those moments were meant to accomplish, something about them (in the latter case, that we don’t really care about Will’s happiness) just doesn’t ring true.

Not everyone on Glee needs to ring true: Sue as the Grinch was as silly as the show has ever been, right down to Brittany as Cindy Lou Who, but the K.D. Lang version of “You’re a Mean One…” mixed with the absurdity of it all worked outside of Becky’s role as sidekick gaining a canine element. And while Rachel singing her way through the romance around her after Finn chooses not to listen to “Merry Christmas Darling” is fine because this is Christmas, and sometimes those musical moments are acceptable (more on Rachel and Finn in a bit). But the plot, rather than these tangents, are what lets “A Very Glee Christmas” down: whatever story this episode was telling, it added up to something that wrote over any potential for subtlety, and without the elegance of the strongest Christmas specials. You could have brought this all together within the spirit of Christmas without letting Artie walk, and Christmas could have been about believing in possibility rather than realizing that possibility. But Brennan chose not to tell that story, and I think it hurt the episode quite a bit.

That being said, I thought the Finn/Rachel stuff worked, even if they’re not our favorite characters. There were better scenes in the other stories (the Bieste/Brittany scene, as much as I disliked where it ended up, was really great from Jones and Morris), but I liked the message that Christmas didn’t fix their problems. Even when put in the context of a Christmas present, or a Christmas wish, Finn is just ready to move on, and Rachel having to live with that sadness really rings true to me. It goes back to what I liked about the conclusion of “Special Education,” and how the joy of Sectionals did nothing to gloss over the concerns within their relationship. I think their relationship sort of got lost in the broad “Welcome Christmas” conclusion and the notion of breaking the heart of the entire Glee club, I did think it was one plot point which worked out well in the end.

In the beginning, I noted that Glee has an excuse this week: because it’s Christmas, there are various elements of “A Very Glee Christmas” that I’m guessing the show would defend based purely on the holiday in question. And as someone who loved Christmas, and Christmas-related television specials, I just don’t know if that excuse holds up at the end of the day. It’s not that the episode doesn’t embody the Christmas spirit, as some of the numbers felt warm and nostalgic in the way we desire at this time of year; rather, the episode defined the Christmas spirit as something collective rather than connective, something which can make a paralyzed person walk instead of simply bringing Sue and Will together on the same page.

What makes something like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas work so well is that it was really bringing together two things: the Grinch and the Whos down in Whoville. Here, the holiday brings together so many unique and independent characters that its power seems overwhelming rather than empowering – while a Christmas standard bringing Kurt and Blaine that much closer together feels natural while maintaining the sense of holiday charm, there are limits to the power of Christmas in any given situation.

While there are moments where Brennan gets to the heart of those limitations in “A Very Glee Christmas,” there are too many moments in its conclusion which make me glad that Christmas comes but once a year – and that’s the precise opposite of how a Christmas episode is supposed to make me feel.

Cultural Observations

  • There were a lot of Christmas tracks that they recorded for the CD which didn’t make it into the episode, so I am curious to know whether some were cut from a longer version of the script or whether they were simply standards recorded to pad out the CD and because Amber Riley, Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison could sing any of this stuff.
  • “Last Christmas” is one of my favorite Christmas songs too, Rachel, but that version still isn’t cutting it even after a year (it released as a single last Christmas…which I just typed without realizing the irony).
  • Alfonso Gomez-Rejon returns for his third directorial stint, and he finishes off the Three Glees trifecta: started with Murphy’s “Laryngitis,” moved onto Falchuk’s “Grilled Cheesus,” and now has Brennan’s “A Very Glee Christmas.” He’s the first director other than Murphy to direct something credited to each writer, although if patterns hold he’ll be directing Murphy’s writing in the post-Super Bowl ep in February (which is when the show returns).
  • Jessalyn Gilsig must be SO BORED being contractually tied to this show.
  • As far as zeitgeist-chasing goes, Channing Tatum to Shake Weight is quite the spectrum.
  • First Christmas episode to reference the My Lai Massacre? I think so.
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22 Comments

Filed under Glee

22 responses to “Glee – “A Very Glee Christmas”

  1. Hey Myles, once again great article. I always look forward to reading these every week.

    I wanted to comment on the Artie storyline, especially at the end. I’ve been a harsh critic of his character since season 1, because it’s the character I relate to the most (physically disabled).

    I can see where you’re coming from when you say that the “magic legs” were manipulative. You may have a point, but I didn’t have a problem with that scene. Here’s why:

    Artie knew that the wish to walk was an unreachable goal. He was aware of his situation, and was a realist here. So with HE didn’t make the wish to walk, Brittany did. With Artie getting the legs, he quickly says “I can’t wear them all the time”. I have a feeling he was just doing this for Brittany. He knew by wearing those legs, it would help Brittany. So I thought it worked well.

    I would have had a BIG problem if Artie was the one who wished to Santa to walk. Then at the end, he gets his wish. That would have been a huge mistake, and would have pissed off alot of people (much like “Dream On”).

    But I think this worked. Artie’s actions were for himself, they were for Brittany.

    • I have less of an issue with the character motivations than the writing motivations – it’s one thing for Artie to end up in the legs, or to sacrifice for his girlfriend, but the way the music stops and the way everyone just stares in awe just rubbed me the wrong way.

      As always, though, love to hear your thoughts on these issues (and everything else, of course – let’s just essentialize your perspective! :))

      • Agreed that it may have milked the drama more than it should, to play with the audience’s emotions. In fact, I’m sure that was their mission, and by reading comments on Twitter, it succeeded.

        However, it could have been far far worse. So let’s give Glee some props when we can :p haha.

  2. Lotte

    So I’m not the only one who heard the My Lai joke then? I thought I must have misheard because no-one else seems to have picked up on it and I don’t think I can bear the thought that people got the joke and just don’t care because, seriously? An American show makes a joke about a massacre in which American soldiers raped, tortured and slaughtered hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians – most of whom were women, children and the elderly – and were never punished for it, and…that’s okay? Implying a main character PARTICIPATED?!

    I genuinely don’t understand, unless I DID mishear what Sue said, how we’re even discussing anything else that happened in the episode. I cannot believe that the writers and viewers think it’s okay to joke about a war crime their own soldiers committed and pretty much got away with. The degree of insensitivity and ignorance is just astounding.

    • Eldritch

      From what I know of My Lai, there were no rapes. The soldiers were enraged that so many of their fellow soldiers had died at the hands of the enemy guerrillas, and they believed the village protected the enemy. So they attacked the village and killed everyone. It was a crime of anger, not greed or lust. unlike Nanking in WWII. That doesn’t make it any less a war crime or a travesty.

      You’re correct that the writers may have trivialized the incident. However, you shouldn’t assume American viewers weren’t offended. They didn’t get to vote whether to air the line or not.

      • Lotte

        http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/64344.stm

        There definitely were rapes. And mutilations. In fact I have never read a single source claiming otherwise. And comparing it to other atrocities is kind of offensive and completely pointless, especially when you state that it WAS a war crime.

        My assumption was based on reading comments at a variety of forums and websites and not finding a single mention of the gag. Of course I don’t presume that covers everyone, but I was still pretty surprised. I will be keeping an eye on the wider media over the next few days to see if it warrants a mention there.

      • Mel

        Rape is a crime of anger too.

    • Eric

      I doubt many caught or understood the My Lai reference. Clearly Sue did not participate, since she was less than 10 years old when it happened, so I guess it was meant to show that Sue was in “horrible caricature” mode, rather than complex, troubled human-being mode. Definitely in poor taste, but probably intentionally so.

      • Ryan W. Mead

        Sue Sylvester has a very twisted, politically incorrect view of the world and frequently distorts history to make herself a major player in a manner that is hard to figure out if it is real or not given her tendency to lie about everything, including her age. Her dismissing of My Lai as a mere “misunderstanding” combined with her dubious claim of actually being involved is certainly tasteless and politically incorrect- but, then again, so is Sue Sylvester herself.

    • Erin Kelly

      Lotte,
      You weren’t the only one who caught that joke. It was in very poor taste. I quit watching the episode after that. Glee used to be such a great show; I get the feeling that its success is screwing with the writers’ heads. My Lai is not something to joke about, I don’t care how many ways you cut it.

      • lane

        I am a little late here, but I was searching for hours on their website and elsewhere how to send them an email to let them know how disgusted I was that they would joke around with something as horrible as My Lai. If I were Jane Lynch, I would actually apologize for it. She cannot be ignorant as to what was coming out of her mouth. If she is, that in itself is irresponsible, if she isn’t; well, that is simply disturbing. Very disturbing. The fact that I saw nothing on the web referring to it afterwards made me wonder how many Americans are really aware of what took place there, and how so many of the soldiers present are today dreadfully ashamed of what they did there, to the point of suicide. No, My Lai has no place in a joke, especially on an American comedy. Lotte and Erin, I caught it too and have since stopped watching the show as well.

  3. Scott

    Something irks me every time Sue does something that completely contradicts the fact that she helps take care of her older sister. Stealing presents back that were going to go to needy, homeless children–it just goes against everything we thought we knew about Sue’s character. The writers go back and forth way too much with her. One episode we see a soft side to Sue, but in the next she is back to being a “grinch”, and in many cases completely contradicting her previous actions. The writer’s are getting lazy.

    • I think the episode did a fine job of locating Sue’s Christmas issues within her own upbringing, and that Christmas sends her back to her relationship with her mother and her experience in that condition, but you’re right that there are various other things in Sue’s life which she should be capable of thinking of herself instead of having her heart grow three sizes when she hears “Welcome Christmas.”

  4. Reggie

    How did Bieste afford the $20,000 ReWalk device? Oh yeah, this show is set in a parallel dimension.

  5. Mark

    The scene with Artie at the end didn’t bother me. Honestly, I was sitting there watching TV with just as much awe as the characters in the show, except I was weeping at it, lol. I agree with Adam–that it wasn’t Artie’s wish made it that much better, and less corny for me.

    I kind of felt weird about the lengths at which everyone went to to keep Santa ‘real’ for Brittany. I understand why they did it, but by that age, it seems…I don’t know, it doesn’t seem right to me.

    The part that did slightly rub me the right way was to have Becky in the reindog outfit. I know it was just a Grinch reference, but it felt really mean.

    The part at the end in Will’s house, while I felt it was slightly unnecessary and much less ‘heartwarming’ than Artie’s scene right before it, was still a nice scene for me. While “no one should be alone on christmas” is a debatable statement, Will really is having a hard time dealing with Emma’s marriage, and I think the gesture the kids made was really sweet.

    • Mark, I agree that the last scene with Will felt unnecessary. They should have ended the episode with Artie’s scene I think.

      By the way, this is Christmas time right? Shouldn’t these kids be with their families, instead of trying to cheer up their teacher? That rubbed me the wrong way. Will is a big boy, I’m sure he could have called some “Holiday Company”, if you know what I mean.

  6. Abe

    Hey Myles-
    Insightful review as always. I’m posting my own on Friday and planning to quote (and link back to) yours if that’s alright with you.

  7. Mel

    1. I hate hate HATE “Last Christmas.” I was still working retail last Christmas (har) and they played it ALL THE TIME OMG DIE. I actually fast forwarded through both of Rachel’s songs, despite loving to listen to Lea Michelle.

    2. RE: Sue, it seems like the writers mostly assume everyone loves big, cartoony, ridiculously villainous Sue, and I like her best when she ISN’T. however, I kinda loved her as the Grinch.

    3. I am a huge HUGE Christmas fan (5 years of retail notwithstanding) but I was mostly “meh” on this ep. I loved the duet between Kurt and Blaine (although the guy who plays Blaine is such a HAM! But I think it worked this time) and I liked the Brittany/Artie story (although I agree with you on the flaws therein) and I loved the Grinch scene, but I don’t know that I love them all together.

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