“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.
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.
- 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.