February 15th, 2011
There is nothing wrong with Justin Bieber.
Maybe it’s just my Canadian pride, but the kid is inoffensive to the point of being sort of charming. Especially recently, given his playful send-ups of his celebrity on The Daily Show and a bunch of other late night series, I’ve generally liked him, and while I wouldn’t say his music is exactly my taste I will say that it has a certain charm. He’s not a particularly wonderful singer, but that’s not really the point, and so the cultural vitriol surrounding him confounds me at points.
There are, however, plenty of things wrong with the Justin Bieber phenomenon. The problem isn’t Bieber himself, but what he has come to represent, and his cultural ubiquity relative to his actual talent (which is not “insignificant,” but is not exactly befitting his success). And it seems almost impossible to separate the latter from the former, to see the decent kid behind the phenomenon: while Never Say Never as a film might actually do a lot to humanize Bieber, the very idea of a teenager receiving a 3D Concert documentary only fuels the impression that his fame has gotten out of control.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Glee is a lot like Justin Bieber. At some level, there is a basic competence, a potential to be something entertaining: at a more macro-level, however, the Glee phenomenon has become an epic distraction, infringing on our enjoyment of the series on a regular basis.
On some level, “Comeback” should be seen as a return to basics: like episodes like “Duets” or even last week’s “Silly Love Songs,” the Glee club receives a simple theme and is asked to perform numbers relating to them. However, while those episodes felt united in their loose themes, there was no such unity to be found here. The result is a scattershot and problematically ephemeral hour which succeeded only in laying out some basic exposition for where the show will be headed in the weeks ahead.
And that’s not exactly looking like a “Comeback.”
The Bieber side of “Comeback” was actually kind of fun. Sure, it’s completely ridiculous, but I liked the tongue-in-cheek approach the show took to the use of Bieber’s music. While acknowledging that it has certain value by turning “Somebody to Love” into a legitimately fun number for Kevin McHale’s Artie and the rest of the Justin Bieber Experience, Ryan Murphy’s script had a bit of fun with the phenomenon element discussed above. While Finn eventually broke down, his initial objection captured the illogical nature of the storyline, but I thought the over-the-top response to the JBE was more believable than the hyper-sexualization of the entire student body in “Britney/Brittany.” Sure, Murphy can sue himself for plagiarism considering how similar the two storylines play out, but the smaller scale and the willingness to poke some fun at Bieber’s persona meant that it felt as if it was all in good fun. As I noted in a piece earlier this year, there is technically a compelling story of a kid following his dreams in Bieber’s story that the show could have mined for content, but I liked the “derision turned to rabid fandom” choice as a comic setpiece.
I’d argue that Lauren’s performance of “I Know What Boys Like” fits into the same criteria: sure, the underwear gimmick was a bit broad, but it still focused on the idea of musical performance as being in some way transformative. It’s a thread that we can follow throughout the episode, whether it’s Rachel and Mercedes coming closer together instead of further apart in their Diva-Off on “Take Me or Leave Me” or Will taking Sue to sing for the Cancer kids. It was played broadly in the Bieber storyline, but it was still about Sam trying to change his image in order to keep Quinn as his girlfriend, and I’m willing to accept the show being less “realistic” if it does a decent job of showing the impact of the music on the characters.
This was not consistent across the board, though, which is where the episode’s inconsistency creeps into the picture. In some instances, the problem was the scene itself: manipulative Sue Sylvester scenes are becoming more problematic than over-the-top Sue Sylvester scenes on some level, and her singing “This Little Light of Mine” with Will, a ukulele and some young cancer patients just went too far towards the saccharine. As pleased as I was to get some actual live singing in this episode (seen also with Sam’s first performance of “Baby,” and at the start of “I Know What Boys Like”), the scene was manipulative at first glance and completely worthless in hindsight given the choice to once again turn Sue into a complete villain by shipping her out to be the coach of Oral Intensity. It’s cheap to the point of being insulting, the kind of regressive plot development which actually seems to suggest that the writers are living out a Memento-like scenario where the only tattoo they bothered to get is “Sue is Evil Incarnate and Wants to Destroy the Glee Club.”
As for Lauren’s breakout moment, I think the problem lies less in the moment itself and the way we got there. I like the work that Ashley Fink is doing with this character, but the setup for her relationship with Puck feels…off. There are just too many declarations of his feelings, as if the show is worried we’ll forget why he wants to date her: some of these are actually kind of charming, like the moment where he notes that she seems like one of the most confident people he knows (which is very true), and in others he wants to touch her knockers. The mashup of uncontrollable sexual attraction and legitimate feelings has never been the show’s strong suit, and even if we accept the “Teenage love is messy theory,” I just think that the one distracts from the other. Let it remain without the honkers, and I think I would have fully bought Lauren’s transformational performance: as it was, I felt like Lauren’s anxiety was lost within the courtship, leaving the character underdeveloped and the relationship still more awkward than not. The scene worked, but it didn’t feel as if it accomplished the goal it set out for itself.
It’s always problematic when Glee has conclusions it wants to reach, as it does here: it wants to empower Rachel to write her own song for Regionals (thus fulfilling the long-announced plan to phase in some original music), and it wants to get Sam to the point where his brain grows two sizes and he realizes that Quinn’s ridiculous excuse for catching mono from Finn is as ridiculous as the medical miracle which allowed them to catch it so easily in the first place. And yet did Murphy actually do anything to get to this point? The Bieber storyline was just a distraction, an excuse for Santana to drill the facts of the matter into Sam’s head so he could suddenly wake up to reality, while Rachel’s desire to be a trendsetter was so blatantly written into Finn’s final line that it felt even more inorganic than it did when the storyline was happening.
There were some complaints in comment sections around the internet about the “Lesson Plan” episodes, where Will introduces a theme (here an “Anthems” theme for the upcoming Regionals competition), as of late. Considering that “Duets” is such an episode, I disagree with the idea that the basic structure doesn’t work, but the problem is that they need to be carefully streamlined. If you allow things to flow naturally around the performances, it can feel like a regular school week: teenagers being teenagers, emotions flowing as they would be wont to do.
However, in “Comeback,” everything is forced. Sue is inserted into the Glee club through some hare-brained scheme built around actual suicide attempts; Sue manipulates Rachel and Mercedes into a diva-off, despite the fact that the two had no beef just last week as they had a girl’s night with Kurt; Sue is dragged to visit the cancer patients by Will. The common denominator is obviously Sue Sylvester, who is present in one of these kinds of episodes for the first time in a while…and it’s a problem. The character is just incapable of feeling natural, her presence so exaggerated that everything is thrown off. She, more than any song or any over-the-top performance, is the most direct example of the Glee phenomenon bleeding into the text itself, her “success” as a comic figure having blinded the writers to her impact on the show’s storytelling. “Comeback” is damaged by her presence, and the sooner the show realizes this fact the sooner it can get back to doing what it does best.
There were bits and pieces of that tonight, to be honest: while it may not be my favorite model for Glee to follow, the Bieber stuff was borderline clever at points, and I think the idea of the original song gives Rachel a purpose and Regionals a certain degree of meaning. However, can we really give the show credit for kinda-sorta delving into parody and awkwardly setting up a storyline with potential that it will probably squander, especially given the fact that the show also introduced a terrible, overdone Sue storyline to go with it?
We want to give the show credit for showing potential, for occasionally looking like a young teenager trying to prove itself, but the next moment they’re acting like the rules don’t apply to them, buying the hype in a way that will prove more dangerous with each passing week. They want us to see My Chemical Romance’s “Sing” as a rousing performance of a contemporary anthem, but on some level all we saw was everyone inexplicably wearing red flannel and dancing around with a sense of unity hardly earned by the episode itself.
And while that’s not the worst sin committed in “Comeback,” it’s the kind of manufactured moment which captures the episode’s ephemeral quality: if you remember this episode in a week, you might as well be Marilu Henner.
- This definitely had a Season One vibe, both in the throwback within Sue’s storyline and in the return of Emma’s pamphlets – admittedly, “I am Too Depressing to Even Open This Pamphlet” was fun, but I thought it was a return to some of Season One’s weaker elements with a coat of off-tint Season Two paint.
- It’s become clear to me that, at one point in my notes about every episode in which the Cheerios are no longer in their uniforms, I will remark on how much more the show is highlighting the attractiveness of Agron/Morris/Rivera.
- “I’m committing Sue-icide” was just sad.
- There was a lot of discussion on Twitter about Chord Overstreet’s dancing, which was considered even worse than Cory Monteith’s. I think the problem is that Chord looks like he should be able to dance, while Cory does not – as a result, despite both lacking what I would consider natural rhythm (I didn’t watch all of those episodes of So You Think You Can Dance? for nothing), Chord’s problems become more apparent.
- The Sartorialist plug at episode’s end felt over the top – I’m all for the show stepping out of reality, but to step out of its small town Ohio reality into our actual internet reality is a different issue altogether.