May 24th, 2011
“Make one…in your mind.”
As Rachel and Kurt stand on stage at the Gershwin Theater in New Your City, with the land of Oz behind them, Kurt suggests that they take this opportunity to belt out the closing song from Wicked, “For Good.” When Rachel remarks that there isn’t an orchestra, Kurt says the above line, and “New York” begins to fall into place.
Glee’s competition episodes have always felt like they’re sort of off in their own world, a world where show choirs earn standing ovations and where all of the season’s troubles can melt away through the sheer power of song. There was this giddy look on Naya Rivera’s face right before New Directions broke into “Light Up The World” that sells the kind of euphoria that being up on that stage can inspire, and these episodes have been among Glee’s strongest largely because of the emotional pull that the performances can inspire.
Nationals is the largest competition that the show has done so far, but its scale is not demonstrated in the number of songs or the seriousness of the competition. Instead, “New York” turns the euphoria up to 11, transforming the trip to the Big Apple into a glimpse of the dreams that seem so close yet so far away. Up until the moment where New Directions finally makes their way to that stage, this episode is like one long dream sequence, a world where original songs are written and rehearsed in a day, where musical idols are casually encountered, and where Gershwin Theater employees are willing to give two high school kids from Ohio some unsupervised time in a Broadway theater.
And “New York” would have damaged the show irrevocably if it hadn’t shattered that dream as it does. By returning back to the reality of Lima at episode’s end, Brad Falchuk makes it clear that the dreams present in this episode are unattainable, perhaps downright imaginary depending on how far you think the show is willing to stretch its own reality. However, in the spirit of the show and in a decision I don’t entirely hate, he also emphasizes that there’s room for dreams in Lima, Ohio.
At least until a year from now, when the dreams will contend with reality once more.
There’s something poetic about “New York.” I’m not suggesting that the episode is a narrative master class, or that it did a perfect job (or any job) of resolving a whole bunch of longstanding storylines: for example, the speed at which it shoved the “Will goes to Broadway” arc under the rug made the buildup last week downright manipulative (although I may just be bitter it killed my comparison with the first season of Friday Night Lights which I so cleverly pointed out last week), and an off-screen haircut was hardly a satisfactory resolution to Quinn’s frustration with her current standing. Once they landed in New York, those storylines quickly fell by the wayside in favor of Finn and Rachel’s relationship, a decision that I think damages the episode as a finale.
And yet I think it helps it as an episode in and of itself, as the storyline was nicely positioned as a point of conflict for Rachel. I understand that it may not make her the most sympathetic position in the world (although they were clearly worried about this, and had her randomly reconcile with Sunshine and help elevate Vocal Adrenaline into the Top 10), but I really think that Rachel’s complete and utter desire to go to Broadway is a key driving force for the show as a whole. It used to be Will’s dream, but “New York” (very sloppily) established that his true dream is to inspire young people to follow their own dreams. For Rachel, this is her immediate future, and something the show has been building towards since the pilot. Has this arc been consistent throughout the season? Absolutely not, which is why the sudden shift to Rachel’s dreams and their incompatibility with a relationship with Finn is so damaging to this episode in terms of how it concludes the season.
However, if we simply view “New York” as a new chapter in a recurring storyline surrounding Rachel’s hopes and dreams, I think it’s a smart glimpse into a potential future which may not include Finn Hudson and the rest of New Directions. Her “work date” with Finn has almost no connection to reality, complete with the male members of New Directions serenading them with “Bella Notte,” but that’s sort of the point: it’s a dream-like romance, using the natural beauty of Central Park to make it all seem that much more glamorous. Rachel sits at Sardi’s imagining her face on that wall, and happens to run into Patti LuPone and get some cliched advice about never giving up on her dreams. Of course, when Finn leans in for a kiss, Rachel finds her two dreams (being with Finn, and being on Broadway) coming into conflict with one another.
There were some awkward moments in this storyline, especially Finn’s contention backstage that “All you ever wanted was to be with me,” but that kiss really does sell the entire point. It’s one dream ruining another, and the show actually lets it happen: if we trust the narrative we’re presented, it the kiss that damaged their score (being considered unprofessional), keeping them from being able to achieve their dream of competing for the National title (which one might consider the stand-in for her Broadway aspirations). That kiss is her making a decision to embrace the dream that feels most real, to allow herself to follow her heart instead of getting so caught up in plans for the future that she shuts it all off. I love the way Falchuk shoots that kiss, with the entire audience disappearing in the same way that Rachel made an entire (unseen) orchestra appear when she and Kurt broke into the Gershwin.
Now, I said above that the dream was “shattered,” but that seems like a gross overstatement given just how sappy this ending really was. However, what happens in Lima is on such a small scale that it does feel as though the euphoric dream of New York has been left behind. There’s no elaborate musical performance to close things out, and instead it’s New Directions shot from a distance hanging out and celebrating a 12th place trophy in an inconspicious final meeting. We do receive a moral that their Nationals dreams are less important when they’ve learned to be a family, or they’ve found their true love, or they’ve randomly started a romantic relationship I don’t entirely buy but seems to make them happy so I’m willing to go along with it for now, but that doesn’t feel too tidy. “New York” became an exercise in perspective, letting the entire show get swept up in the romance of New York City and then bringing back home to discover that at least some of that romance has stuck with them. Perhaps rather than being shattered, their dreams are delayed: Rachel gives herself a year with Finn before she runs off to New York, and Brittany plans ahead to Mike and Tina’s wedding and the day that Artie will walk again as something that will happen in the distant future.
The epilogue was sappy, absolutely, but I don’t think it was overstated. While it may have been stated a bit too plainly in Brittany’s speech in particular, I bought it all both because Heather Morris and Naya Rivera sold it and because I think it’s only natural. This show is supposed to be about teenagers who dream of something beyond their daily trials and tribulations, and who see glee club as an outlet to escape into those dreams even if just for a moment. “New York” was filled with those moments, with almost every scene set in New York having a distinct sense that this wasn’t really happening. Maybe it’s the novelty of having been where many of those scenes were shot, but the entire episode felt a bit surreal, a quality that doesn’t always work in Glee’s favor. However, for me it worked perfectly within the spirit of a competition episode, fully embracing the setting to allow their dreams to seem that much more attainable.
Yes, it ended up being perhaps too singularly driven by Rachel, with characters like Kurt becoming sidekicks (although, frankly, I sort of prefer Kurt in that role if I’m being honest) and other characters being barely featured. And yes, this does sort of make it an ineffective finale given that the more interesting storylines this season have been those happening outside of the central Finn/Rachel/Quinn triangle. However, I don’t think that this season was cohesive enough to really warrant a “traditional” finale driven by the season as a whole, and I would argue that Kurt’s storyline got its finale in “Prom” and that neither Kurt and Blaine nor Brittany and Santana’s storylines felt unresolved by the end of “New York” (especially given their respective positions in the epilogue). While I might like to go back and make the season more cohesive, I think that the way Falchuk handled “New York” showed an understanding of the show’s faults this season; sure, he still tries to end with a pretty bow, but that’s perfectly in line with the show’s general tone and is hardly something that I would expect them to change this late in the game.
While it is possible that I am reading more into “New York” than was intended, I really don’t think this is the case. I will readily admit that this is not my favorite version of Glee. In fact, in some ways it is the opposite of my favorite version of the show: whereas “New York” embraced the spectacle of the big city and threw itself into a fantasy world, episodes like “Duets” (which remains my favorite episode of the series) feel grounded in the day-to-day role that music plays in the lives of these kids. In that episode, only Kurt’s song was an elaborately staged production, and the sparing use of the spectacular made its thematic value for Kurt that much more apparent. Similarly, “Journey to Regionals” used a performance episode for the purpose of telling a more personal story, with the spectacle of Vocal Adrenaline’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” paired with the very real situation of Quinn giving birth. In those instances, the show is using spectacle in conjunction with reality, playing with style and storytelling while keeping two feet firmly on the ground (even if those feet are occasionally kicking into the air).
“New York” goes in the opposite direction, losing track of reality as it tosses aside certain storylines and contends that a bunch of teenagers with rhyming dictionaries can write half-decent pop songs in what appeared to be two days, but it comes back in the end. By traveling so far down the rabbit hole in regards to what Rachel might imagine her future to be, and by then returning to Lima and letting them get on with their lives, Falchuk makes a strong thematic statement for the series’ future. While it may have led to a failure of serialization, something that is hardly new for the series, it felt like a necessary restatement of the series’ core principles. While we can pretty clearly call the return to Lima an epilogue, perhaps we should think of the entire episode as an epilogue for the season. While it presents itself as the climax, the almost dream-like state of it all makes it more important to the show’s future than to its past. Its importance will be defined by how it lingers, and how the experience gained at Nationals helps them both as a show choir and as individuals.
Of course, we don’t entirely know where the show is going, although I think some seeds were clearly planted for Rachel to run off to Lima in her own spin-off at the end of next season. The most important thing that Falchuk does in that epilogue is put a clock on it: Rachel is off to New York after graduation, and one feels that the show would be unwilling to absolutely crush her dream. The ability for the show to follow the small town girl to the big city will likely prove too great a temptation, and the ability to more widely embrace the show’s Broadway connection on a weekly basis seems like it could fuel the series even if it becomes remarkably similar to NBC’s new show Smash. I don’t know if I’m entirely sold on the idea, but I actually thought Michele acquitted herself quite nicely in this episode, managing to sell a real enthusiasm for New York (perhaps because of her personal connection to her hometown) that could nicely carry into a series of its own with the right supporting cast.
What’s important, however, is that some people stay behind. As strong as the epilogue might have been, it sort of suggested that everyone can be happy, and I think that the show is going to need to be willing to crush Brittany’s dreams of Artie walking and Tina/Mike living happily ever after. Part of the whole point of the show is that some people never escape Ohio, and although “New York” argues that it’s okay for some people (Will, for example), others will get “stuck” there with everyone else. If the show is going to allow Rachel’s dreams to come true, it needs to let the dreams of others fail, leaving them behind not unlike how Tim Riggins ended up back in Dillon, Texas (if you’ll excuse my attempt to return to Friday Night Lights after the earlier comparison got cut off). The show can move on with a new generation of students but with some of those Lima Leftovers to kick around in various positions around the school, allowing dreams and reality to collide once more.
I am sure that some will argue that Falchuk is bluffing (just like they were bluffing with Sue’s transformation last week), and the show will find a way to keep everyone in and around Lima and put them all into a Community College or something. I certainly agree that this is possible, and given the show’s track record it may even be probable. However, in a season that always seemed to oscillate between high stakes and no stakes at all, something about that epilogue struck me as “real” despite the dream-like state of the episode as a whole. The stakes created by their impending graduation a year down the road may not be immediate, and they will hardly solve the show’s tonal problems that will undoubtedly return early next season, but the very presence of something at the end of the tunnel is heartening. It’s a promise that there will at some point be a moment where the tension between dreams and reality will reach its breaking point, and a point where two seasons of haphazard character development might reach a point of poignancy and meaning.
Is that enough to keep people watching? I think any critics who continue to watch Glee face questions about why we watch, and my answer is usually that it’s a fascinating show to analyze from a critical perspective. There’s just enough wrong with it to fuel an almost cathartic frustration, but just enough right to make following the show more enjoyable than not. “New York” had its moments of frustration, moments that were rightfully live-tweeted in a snarky fashion, but it also felt like it added up to something. Yes, it added up to a lot of potential that it rarely taps into as opposed to the sum of the season’s developments, but that potential is comfortably in line with what remains the driving force behind the entire narrative for me as a viewer.
Call me a hopeless optimist, and feel free to say “I told you so” in September, but there is promise here. It’s promise that might not be realized, perhaps only possible in a dream-like world in which this show is interested in things beyond iTunes downloads, but it’s a promise that made this a poetic if flawed precursor to what might actually be a new direction for, well, New Directions.
And that’s certainly enough to keep me on the hook for another season.
- Always enjoy the brief scenes where the show isn’t auto-tuned to death, which is why the brief “New York, New York” singalong on the TKTS stairs was charming and why “My Cup” was super charming but quite distracting at the same time.
- Pleased to see that Heather Morris is getting more singing roles to go along with her increased role outside of the glee club – sure, Santana’s right to wonder at what point Brittany became so smart, but dialing back her stupidity is right in line with dialing back Sue’s insanity in terms of not overdoing things, so I like the new Brittany.
- In terms of poetry, sort of live seeing Rachel and Kurt return to Wicked to cap off their “Defying Gravity” battle with “For Good.” Simple, and the whole situation that got them into the theatre was silly, but damn if it didn’t land emotionally.
- None of the Vocal Adrenaline stuff worked for me: Cheyenne Jackson’s character seemed poorly drawn in terms of motivation, and Charice’s sudden breakdown broke down based on the fact that Charice can’t actually act.
- The original songs were…fine. “Pretending” was treacly, and “As Long as You’re There” hardly sounded original at all, but “Light Up the World” has a nice rhythm to it and felt smartly built around the right voices for that type of song. Of course, the idea that either of the New Directions songs were written in a hotel room is ridiculous even if we accept New York City as the most inspirational place in the world, but that’s just the show at this point.
- Naya Rivera’s been great with the serious stuff as of late, but her entire “Lima Heights Adjacent” meltdown as told through flashbacks during the epilogue was tremendous.
- I cannot believe that Brad the Piano Player got replaced for Nationals. It’s outrageous and unacceptable!
- As always, I’ve updated the “Three Glees” page to reflect yet another Falchuk-scripted performance episode (he’s done all but “Original Song”). In truth, the page has never served some sort of deep function in explaining the show, but I still think it’s interesting to see where the strength of each writers lies. Plus, if the show actually gets a writing staff next season, it will be interesting to see how patterns might change.
- I want to thank everyone who’s been turning out in the comments for the show this season – I keep writing about it in part because I find it personally interesting, but some of the conversation has really been edifying, and I always appreciate those who expand on the conversation in ways that either reflect opinions different from my own or perspectives that I didn’t have time/space/the mind to consider. I actually have a night class on Tuesdays in the Fall, which means that these reviews will no longer be “timely,” but I do intend to continue writing about the show, so I’d love to have you folks back in the fall.