Glee – “Funeral”

“Funeral”

May 17th, 2011

“I’m Lima good. Not New York City good.”

Last season, we didn’t get a “real” penultimate episode: “Funk” was moved into the penultimate spot arbitrarily when FOX wanted to move the Lady Gaga-enhanced “Theatricality,” which created a whole issue in regards to plot continuity.

This time around, “Funeral” was meant as the penultimate episode all along, and I’ve got to be honest: this just doesn’t work. I actually understand the logic here, as Ryan Murphy takes us back to the pilot by staging a new set of auditions and returning us to the hopes and dreams of Will Schuester. I actually really like parts of this, and the idea of Nationals unearthing some of the initial divisions of talent within the Glee club is actually sort of logical – the line above really gets to the heart of the hopelessness that drives the show’s small town aesthetic, and I really like when the show revisits that idea.

But the way Murphy goes about it only highlights how heading in this old direction undercuts all of the other directions that have been built into this season. As a standalone piece, “Funeral” is a fine showcase for Jane Lynch’s ability to depict the emotional turmoil that makes the character the way she is, and a fine musical showcase for a variety of members of the show’s cast. But as an actual penultimate episode as part of the show’s second season, it takes too long to find the story threads it needed to find to feel connected to that which came before, even if it connects nicely into what comes after (which remains an inherent possibility).

The setup for next week’s finale is pretty simple here: Jesse St. James’ feverish strategy of pitting the Glee Club against one another shakes up the rank and file to introduce some tension, Will’s rejection of that scheme allows the show to reiterate it’s “All for One, One for All” motto (and let’s Will take the higher ground, as per usual), and Will’s plans to remain in New York to be on Broadway in April Rhodes’ show will be revealed and potentially distract New Directions to the point where they are unable to perform in the competition. It’s a pretty solid setup for the finale, thematically and even in terms of narrative: so solid, in fact, that Friday Night Lights basically did the exact same thing in its first season.

But even if it’s reductive, it’s practical, which is something that I would argue goes against everything else we’ve seen this season. This season has been complicated and messy among the Glee club, dealing with issues of sexuality, bullying, and relationships that have been more multi-dimensional than what we’ve seen in the past. I’m not going to say that the show has been consistent in portraying these things, but it has clearly been investing more time on character development this season, with relationships like those between Brittany and Santana, Kurt and Blaine, and even Puck and Lauren having more clearly defined arc structures which have been strung between multiple episodes.

I guess Murphy is arguing that “Prom” effectively dealt with all of those issues, though, given that the show is dramatically flattened in “Funeral” despite what was technically a fairly messy conclusion. Sure, “Dancing Queen” seemed to get everybody up and moving around, and the photos in the closing montage obviously indicated that they were enjoying themselves, but the recurring storylines and character relationships that have been most interesting for me are almost entirely absent here. All of a sudden, it’s like this enormous plot just gets dropped down onto the character, with little attempt to bridge the space between the upcoming trip to Nationals and the personal relationships that have been driving the season in the absence of that plot.

I understand what Murphy was trying to accomplish here: “Funeral” is a palate cleanser, using the death of Sue’s sister to force some things into perspective and using Jesse St. James’ douchiness to reinforce what really matters to New Directions. The problem is that Murphy’s idea of a palate cleanser is ignoring pretty much everything that has happened to this point and focusing on something else instead, which does a disservice to a number of the storylines he ignores. To quote Jesse St. James, “Funeral” is just sort of lazy: while Murphy crafts an effectively emotional storyline for Sue Sylvester, and is not entirely off-base in gesturing back to the pilot, none of it feels like it earns a connection to previous events. It’s possible that there will be a stronger connection back to these storylines in the finale, but that doesn’t mean that this didn’t end up feeling like a cheat from the word go.

For the record, I’m willing to give Murphy the benefit of the doubt and believe that he actually intends on transitioning Sue Sylvester into a member of the house of representatives so that the show can start making direct political commentary. Do I actually believe this? Not really. But at this point, they have gone the furthest they have ever gone with the softening of Sue Sylvester, and have done so right before the show heads off to New York and she’s likely not coming along with it. At the very least, I’m fine reading this storyline as if Murphy wasn’t just playing with our expectations, and on that level it seemed effective. Some early anger is logically driven by her sister’s death (with the cruelty of firing Becky being a bit of a tipoff, at least for me personally, that something was up with Jean), and then we see her fighting against her usual attitude and some pretty realistic depictions of grief in a situation like that one.

Sue is one of the most uneven characters in all of Glee, but her sister has been consistently depicting as a softening point, so to see her at her softest (once the anger subsides) because of Jean’s death makes perfect sense. Is it a bit of a cheap way to get her there quickly, using a single big event as a catalyst to what seems like a complete personality change? Absolutely. But I thought the funeral was well-designed, and Lynch is a fantastic actress who can sell this kind of material effectively. That doesn’t mean that this makes up for how uneven the character is, and it doesn’t keep them from undoing it all next season, but it was an effective storyline that could impart real change on the character, and that this potential remains when the episode ends is remarkable in and of itself.

I can totally see why Jean’s death would be an event that could stop the season’s storylines in their tracks, but I’m not so convinced about Jesse St. James. Basically, when Jonathan Groff isn’t singing, Jesse St. James is an absolutely abhorrent character, and here gets turned into an awful combination of Will and Sue’s worst qualities. The smugness and cruelty were fine in small doses, like the little gag about his UCLA class on Reality TV judging, but it became an extended performance which felt like an unwanted insurrection. We never saw why New Directions felt they would need his help, outside of an excuse for Groff to return and stand in the way of Rachel and Finn being together; sure, the show is artificial all the time, but the complete lack of fun or even interest to be found in his presence has been momentum-killing since “Prom.”

Late in the episode, after Jean’s funeral leads Finn to dump Quinn when he realizes that there’s a difference between a leash and a tether, it just becomes the same love triangle we saw at the end of last season. In a season where we’ve seen more interesting relationships, for the show to suddenly re-align itself around the same old characters completely undercut Will’s decision at episode end to focus on the entire club. With Will headed off to Broadway behind their backs (and I like how that was revealed in a matter of fact fashion, surprising even the audience), and with Rachel caught in relationship drama, this is just the same pattern the show has already gone through a few times over.

While we got some strong solo performances from Mercedes, Santana and Kurt in tonight’s episode, the actual “plot” of it all was all about Rachel and Will. While Will paid some lip service to how far Mercedes has come, and the fact that Kurt and Santana returned to Gypsy and Rose’s Turn explicitly gestures to their own evolution, it’s done without any sense of emotion. This wasn’t an overarching return to the pilot where everyone looks at how far they’ve come: this was a token return to the pilot to justify ignoring a season of story development and redefining continuity as “Rachel/Finn/Jesse!” and “Will is Pulling an Eric Taylor.”

And that’s the worst thing a penultimate episode can do. While there is always a value in sort of stopping and catching one’s breath before a finale, reiterating what storylines might be most important, this was so narrow that the big picture just kept shrinking with each completely meaningless musical number. While Jean’s death was well-drawn, and returning to the pilot is in theory a decent strategy to really focus on how far the show has come, neither become effectively weaved into the seasonal arcs that the show actually bothered to have this year, and only served to build storylines that repeat similar patterns to where the show has been before.

It’s possible that it could still result in a show-stopping finale, but stopping half of the show’s storylines a week early sort of makes that a bigger challenge.

Cultural Observations

  • After she was so delightful last week, the absence of Heather Morris here (outside of that moment filming Jesse and Will for no discernible reason) was criminal.
  • The whole rerouting the plane to Libya situation/Terri magically got the tickets situation was silly, but I sort of like the idea of Terri having one moment of nostalgic for their relationship. I presume that Gilsig is gone after this, barring a return trip from Miami, so I like the bittersweet sendoff with Will seeming like he finally closed a chapter and Terri still feeling like she blew it.
  • Speaking of the tickets: I wonder how much American Airlines paid to be known as a company who supports the arts.
  • If they stop equating songwriting to reading a rhyming dictionary, I’m going to…what rhymes with dictionary?
  • It’s been a while since I’ve seen Willy Wonka, and I honestly hadn’t remembered that song. My main question is how many of Glee’s younger viewers were confused because they don’t remember it from the Johnny Depp version.
  • Some fine acting from both Cory Monteith and Dianna Agron in their post-funeral breakup – nothing fancy, but solid stuff, and some of the most “raw” material the show has done in a while.
  • Apparently, Quinn’s big plans for New York involve a haircut? Scandalous!
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13 Comments

Filed under Glee

13 responses to “Glee – “Funeral”

  1. Michael

    Interesting. I thought that this week’s episode was the best of the season because it tied up a lot of loose ends and revived a lot of character dynamics which I hadn’t cared about in a long time.

    We finally saw Finn acknowledging what a stupid decision it was to get back together with Quinn, we saw them carry out a plot point they had been teasing for weeks (Will going to broadway), the impending Nationals appearance was a huge part of this episode (whereas reigonals was ignored in Funk/Theatricality)… I dunno, I felt like this was the best episode of the season BECAUSE it took a break from some of the more complicated triangles that had been forced down our throats lately. It was very much a “back-to-basics episode” for me.

    Jean’s death felt a little clunky and forced at first, but I cried during “Pure Imagination.” And even with it replicating the end of “Journey,” Sue apologizing to Will and finally appreciating Glee club was just as moving this time. It says a lot about Jane Lynch that she made a rehash feel fresh and new.

    I just felt like, for the first time all season (aside from Kurt’s bullying arc), the writers took some plots and stretched them out over a couple episodes as opposed to rushing them and trying to finish them in one episode, like most of the back nine and season two is guilty of.

    Hell, I even cared about Will and Emma… just barely but there was a glimmer of hope. As Todd would say, “This was the Will Schuester of the pilot.” After all the ways the writers have harmed his character this year, it was nice to not be embarrassed or resentful of him with every line he said.

    Great review, nonetheless.

  2. Tausif Khan

    As soon as Mercedes left the prep room to go out to sing for Will Schuster and Jesse St. James I said to myself “I am sure the meanness will come in the form of racist comments.” Lo and Behold immediately after Mercedes finishes singing he calls her lazy. Granted at the time the expanded explanation made it seem like a valid criticism but he did not reference anything in her performance to say why he thinks that she is lazy. Mercedes does not even get a fair chance to rebuke these accusations. When Brittany is recording Jesse and he calls her LAZYbones it made him seem even more racist as he reduced his comment to a simple racial epithet.

    • Andrew

      I wouldn’t jump to racism just yet.
      But Jesse asking her if she practiced or rehearsed is a legitimate question, one that I always ask. As someone who regularly works with performers and public speakers, rehearsal is crucial, and Mercedes’ answer to Jesse was the wrong one. Especially going into Nationals.
      Not once did I feel his criticism of her performance was racist.

      • Chrystal

        Completely agree with Andrew that I didn’t see a bit of racism in Jesse’s comments. I actually found Jesse’s observation to be quite insightful into the difference between Mercedes’ and Rachel’s characters. Mercedes does have an amazing voice- which he noted- but a lot of people have amazing voices. What sets some apart from the rest is not just their attitude (which Mercedes and Rachel both have), but also their willingness to work night and day at rehearsing, planning, etc- doing whatever they have to do to get to where they want to be. Is it fair to call her “lazy” for not having that? Well, no, of course not.. it’s a flippant and rude way to put it, but it certainly fits with Jesse’s character to say it that way. I didn’t sense the faintest racist undertone in using that word. Lots of people throw around words like lazy and stupid (although it’s a really lazy and stupid thing to do ;) ). I actually found it strange at first that I was agreeing with him at all, but then just because he’s wrong and harsh about a lot of things, doesn’t mean he can’t also be right sometimes.

        I find Santana’s character is similarly “lazy” but the other criticisms he had for her were more relevant. He basically got to the heart of the things that are not quite there about each of their performances, though whether they really matter that much or not is up for debate (he seems to think they’re deal-breakers but that’s really subjective).

        Also, odds are he would’ve pointed out the flaws in Rachel’s performance as well if he weren’t trying to score with her (nobody’s perfect!). But then again (as I’ve said before) her character is really written in this show to be the big star- she has the talent, attitude and determination that no other character has like she does. So although she has plenty of flaws, her stardom is basically considered a given.

    • Tim

      Please tell me I misunderstood you. Are you saying that because he said Mercedes was lazy he was saying all black people are lazy? Or are you saying that all white people think black people are lazy? I don’t have that perception. This show has never shown that perception. “Lazy” is not a racial epithet just because it is said to someone of a different race. We can argue all day about whether the character who said it was wrong in his assessment – quite frankly, that was the point of the whole scene, wasn’t it? – but calling it a racist statement just looks like your knee jerking.
      What if a black man had said that to Mercedes? Would you have still called the statement racist, or would you just have said he was wrong? How is it any less racist to call someone a racist for no other perceptible reason except that he is from a different race?
      An entire race will be waiting for your explanation.

      • A Gleek (Kinda)

        While I might not really agree that the comment was racist on the part of Murphy or whoever wrote this episode, I can understand where Tausif is coming from. “Black people are lazy” is a known stereotype, albeit a lame one. What racial stereotypes aren’t lame, though? We know how reliable Wikipedia can be but take a look anyway, this article looks reasonably well-done– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotypes_of_African_Americans#Overview_of_black_stereotypes

        In any case, in light of Mercedes’ (and others) weak character development …calling the only black character lazy? It looks bad. Now, I don’t hold tv shows tooooo morally responsible, at least not as much as others forms of media or entertainment, perhaps because I just don’t watch that much TV and am not as invested. But as a growing fan of Glee, I do wish the show would handle race better? What the hell was Mercedes “no weave” shirt in the Born this Way episode? I died laughing when I saw it…what was it supposed to mean exactly? This blog post handles that show pretty well (http://www.whattamisaid.com/2011/04/when-will-glee-stop-ignoring-race.html). I don’t think Glee is ignoring race per se but it’s definitely doing some of it characters justice by using tired racial themes. They’re using Santana in an interesting way though and I’m looking forward to see how that turns out.

        All that to say, no– just because Jesse St. James said Mercedes was lazy he was not saying all black people are lazy. And no I don’t think Tausif was saying that all white people think black people are lazy….that’s ridiculous. But that statement did make me cringe in light of the way characters of color have been dealt with on the show.

  3. Mike

    Well, if you thought most of the second season tangents were whimsical bugs and not a feature, then it was actually nice to have an episode focus on singing and drama instead of bread and circuses,regardless of whether or not it advanced a lot of silly plot arcs.

    No it wasn’t perfect but it was a damn sight better than 75% of this season.

  4. S

    Even though I strongly prefer simple, more focused and serious plotlines, this episode was far too cheap and schmaltzy for me. (And yes, I know that 99% of GLEE is pure schmaltz, except for a few brief touches during Duets.) Not even Jane Lynch’s acting can hide the fact that they used a completely tangential character (and her disability) as a plot device to make Sue and Will and ND look better. There’s no emotional resonance here at all because Jean is so far removed from the main themes and characters that I don’t get why any of Glee’s characters save Sue (and more importantly, why WE) should care for her. It just looks like a massively cheap ploy to get some emo bucks out of the audience and desperately save characters who have gone off-track this season in Sue and Will. I was cringing throughout this episode because it was so cheap and transparent.

    If this had been built up over the season, if we actually knew anything about the character and her struggles and how she affected the other characters, this could have worked. But we were never emotionally invested in her. It just comes out of nowhere, a criticism I’ve made repeatedly of Glee’s ‘serious’ character-developing moments like Sam’s impoverished background and Santana’s sudden discovery of her feelings for Brittany. Those are storylines I actually like, but they feel jarring because they’re just dropped on us. Glee really struggles when it tries to tell ‘real’ stories because it can’t decide between comedy and emotional schmaltz – it just doesn’t have the patience and subtlety and the use of *silence* that drama needs. I agree with its premise that the hyper-real can say something about real life in a way that the latter can’t do for itself, but Glee can’t actually accomplish this.

    The only thing that did work for me in this episode was Finn and Quinn’s breakup, because they have so much baggage over two seasons. Quinn is clearly seeing Finn symbolically – the break-up to her means more than the loss of the bland white guy since he reflects her own goals and insecurities – and that’s why Finn feels so ‘distant’ from her.

    The annoying thing is I still like the show’s premise and I enjoy quite a few of the one-liners. I think it can be entertaining when you don’t get invested, the problem is it could have been so much more. It’s so frustrating if you give the tiniest piece of crap about it. On a basic structural level, I think it would work much better if they cut out the focus on the adults, cut down the size of the glee club so we could stop pretending that the minor characters ever do anything, draw out one or two themes over the season rather than switch themes every week, and stop focusing so much on relationships rather than personal growth and identity. Let us into their lives more and get a sense of what glee means to them. There’s a bittersweet story at heart here, the escape to song and dance when life is so stale and the best of your dreams are made (found, dissolved) in high school, but GLEE doesn’t plug into this enough. It’s too fond of random themes and random humor and random plot devices, not to mention random destruction of character for comedy (yes, even Kurt – I’m looking at you, Ian). It’s too fond of Making a Point when the actual beauty’s in the search through the pointlessness. It’s gone so far out of orbit that when it tries to pretend it’s back to Earth, back to dealing with human issues, I just don’t buy it.

    • Steve

      Well said. I completely agree with your view that emotional, character developing moments just come out of nowhere. Not to mention that those experiences seem to be completely forgotten in subsequent episodes. I don’t expect “Glee” to be great drama, but it could at least be grounded in an emotional place that follows an authentic character and story arc instead of careening wildly all over the place week in and week out.

    • Andrew

      Maybe you should send them, what I think is called, a “spec script.”

  5. Pingback: Glee, “Funeral” « TV Surveillance

  6. Tim

    Can we be honest and just say it? The thought of another episode with insipid original songs makes me retch. It was a terrible idea the first time, and the execution was even worse. I can only hope there will be a twist that blows it up.
    I agree with Mike that the songs, with perhaps the exception of Kurt’s Gypsy number (does Kurt have to be laden with every gay stereotype in the book?) were outstanding. And whether or not Mike just pulled the 75% number out of his hat, it’s almost exactly where I am on this episode vs. the rest of the season.
    I’ve commented here before that I thought Jean and Becky were a humanizing element for Sue, and my belief was reinforced in this episode. I agree that it’s likely – though not guaranteed – Sue will become a monster again, but the packaging of her growth was “messy” enough for me. I’m a little surprised by some of the comments that Jean was a minor character and that her death wouldn’t have changed so many things. I think you can’t just take this season into account when you assess her impact. And why does the cast save Sue? Because they’re better people than she is. Better people do things because they’re the right things to do, which is why Jesse didn’t want to do it, and why he’ll be gone by the end of the next episode.
    @S – unless you’re going to break continuity completely, you can’t cut the size of the show choir. Gotta have at least 12, and at 12 they’re the smallest group in any of the competitions we’ve seen up to now.

    • Andrew

      “Can we be honest and just say it? The thought of another episode with insipid original songs makes me retch. It was a terrible idea the first time, and the execution was even worse. I can only hope there will be a twist that blows it up.”

      I got to say, when I heard they were doing original songs AGAIN I rolled my eyes and uttered an “ugh.” The next thing out of my mouth, “I hope they lose.”

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