Glee – “I Am Unicorn”

“I Am Unicorn”

September 27th, 2011

When “I Am Unicorn” ended on what I guess we could nominally consider a cliffhanger, I was sort of stunned.

See, in order to have a cliffhanger you need to have a narrative, and that’s something that Glee has largely avoided since the conclusion of its first season. Now, to be fair, the show has had recurring storylines that have occasionally been made more prominent: Kurt’s bullying arc, for example, was a major force that changed the dynamics of the entire series by moving Kurt to the Warblers.

However, the narrative that emerges in “I Am Unicorn” (and which was foreshadowed last week) is holistic, encompassing a larger percentage of the show’s characters than ever before. It’s a collection of narratives that, while remaining tied to the show’s central themes and the musical conceit that the show has relied on, are not about the Glee club winning Sections/Regionals/Nationals and that on some level aren’t about “the Glee Club” as an entity.

Instead, they’re narratives about characters: they may be uneven, and they may not necessarily pay off in the end, but by the end of “I Am Unicorn” I was convinced that Glee is capable of being a subtle show when it wants to be.

And that was a very, very weird feeling.

There is, of course, a whole storyline about subtlety for us to consider, one which unsurprisingly places Kurt as representative of the show as a whole. This isn’t exactly a surprising development, given that Kurt has been at the heart of the show’s themes from the very beginning, but I think the questions he ends up facing as he auditions for the role of Tony are questions central to Glee as well. As he plays Romeo to Rachel’s Juliet, the audience is in the same position as the co-directors (Bieste, Emma and Artie): while Kurt is trying to prove something to the people who he overheard questioning his ability to play the romantic male lead, the show is throwing the question out to the audience. Was this a dramatic scene about Kurt’s struggles, or was this a comic scene about Kurt’s not-so-quiet desperation?

The thesis of “I Am Unicorn” seems to be that it can be both so long as the show owns it. Indeed, the whole unicorn theme is built around owning who and what you are, and selling your confidence in that fact rather than the fact itself. The problem when we map this onto a television show is that it doesn’t get the same leeway that an actual human being does: Glee has often talked about how inclusive it is, and how important it is, but it has only sporadically demonstrated this with any success. Glee started acting like an important television show right around the point where it started being an awful one more often than not, which was unfortunate timing that has contributed to some considerable audience backlash (at least among those who were only hanging onto the show in hopes it would improve).

What makes “I Am Unicorn” work is that the theme is never applied to the show as a whole directly: the episode lacks any sort of large-scale group number, and in fact the “collective” is never really addressed outside of a New Directions meeting early in the episode. Kurt might have a storyline about unicorns surrounding his campaign for student body president and his attempt to audition for the lead role in the musical, and Brittany’s run against him might have been spawned by that storyline, but the episode didn’t gather everyone else to take part. Other characters intersect with that storyline, whether it’s Burt (who Kurt goes to for advice) or Rachel (who he solicits to help him with his second audition), but it doesn’t become their storyline at the same time. It may be the storyline that gives the episode its title, but the rest of the episode doesn’t bend over backwards to fit into that box by the end of the hour.

However, through a more subtle form of connection, the episode does offer a fair bit of synergy without actually putting all of the characters into the same room. Shelby’s return was something that was revealed in advance, given that Idina Menzel is kicking around for half the season, but it gives both Quinn and Puck an actual purpose, and allows them to join the show’s other graduating seniors (Kurt, Finn, Rachel) in terms of using self-reflection as character motivation. The speed at which Beth’s return sends those characters into chaos is maybe a bit forced, but it’s particularly helpful for Dianna Agron who suffered with non-storylines all of last season. Her scenes with Menzel are really well handled, and even her irrational belief that she and Puck could regain custody of their child is compelling in a trainwreck sort of way. If this season is really about the transition from childhood to adulthood, which seems to be the case, there are going to be mistakes along the way, and provided that real stakes come with mistakes – it’s right in the word – I’m all for it.

Now, I’m less enthusiastic about Sue’s congressional campaign, and I thought it was silly throughout tonight’s episode. However, the more the show builds storylines around it, I’m starting to see its function. While Sue’s campaign is ostensibly similar to her attacks on the glee club, it’s indirect: it’s a threat to the idea of the glee club, but Sue isn’t actually meddling in their day-to-day activities, which allows the characters to have their own storylines which don’t feel subservient to Sue’s antics. Although I am kind of horrified at the idea that Will might consider running against her, which seems to be where the story is heading, I do like the idea of parallel elections as a narrative device. The more structure the show builds, the more it has the ability to carry the weight of weaker storylines on its shoulders, which is why the elections, and the musical, and the upcoming graduation have given the show’s characters (and thus the show) a sense of purpose.

It also helps, of course, that the episode never tries to carry the weight of the entire show at any point in the episode. The cliffhanger isn’t about New Directions, or about Glee as a television show: it’s about Blaine, and Kurt, and the way that something so ultimately insignificant as the role of Tony can become this pivotal turning point. It’s about the small seeming large, and about whether Blaine should be able to audition for the role he wants or whether he has to give Kurt his chance to shine. What I found interesting was that, based on what Kurt’s conversation with his father, you sort of expected that he would be supportive of Blaine taking the role of Tony, but they played the scene as if this would be a betrayal. I expected Kurt to cry out from the balcony that Blaine would make a great Tony, and shift his focus to the student council election, but instead he’s still too selfish (or focused, if you prefer) to not feel conflicted about it.

However, I want the characters to be conflicted, complicated in all the right ways. While there are a number of scenes that are recognizable in the Glee context, like Shelby helping Rachel with her audition, they never feel final: their relationship might be better, but their estrangement (and the awkwardness of having Shelby back in Lima) has not been “solved” in any way. Similarly, rather than pitching Kurt as the victim of one of the series’ villains (like, for example, Sue), it’s the benevolent trio of Artie, Bieste and Emma who voice their concerns about his masculinity. They all express their love for Kurt, and think it’s a great audition, but they struggle to picture him in the lead role, a situation that has more to do with social conditioning than with any sort of malice.

“I Am Unicorn” has its moments of silliness, like Sugar getting set up with her own glee club (to justify Shelby’s return), but I want Glee to be silly. I loved Bieste’s A Funny thing Happened On the Way to the Forum joke, as ridiculous as it was, and I thought Sue’s PSA – as stupid was that storyline might be – had some wonderful moments with Becky and her boom mike. The show can earn that silliness so long as it retains the capacity to stop and find resonance, which this episode did on multiple occasions. Whether it’s Puck drawing a clown pig for his daughter, or Finn finally (more or less) finishing the “Booty Camp” choreography, little moments never felt as though they were swallowed by or dependent on a broader moral. Small pleasures were allowed to be small pleasures, and storylines were allowed to breathe (which was a sharp contrast with the season premiere).

Now, all of this might change next week, or at Sectionals, or when they actually stage their version of West Side Story. However, if the show continues on this path, “event” episodes can take on a new meaning, becoming a form of narrative convergence. It can be about storylines coming together instead of storylines coming to an end, and the show might finally be in a position to recreate the spirit of its most transcendent moment (in which Vocal Adrenaline’s performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” played soundtrack to Beth’s birth). While it may still stumble week-to-week depending on how prominent weaker storylines are, the basic foundation laid in “I Am Unicorn” (and picking up on elements of the decent premiere) have the potential to get Glee on the right track.

And that’s pretty impressive given where the show sat at the end of last season.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m curious where they’re going with Sugar. Is Shelby actually going to prove that not everyone is hopeless (especially given that the actress can actually sing)? It’s just a really pointless character on a number of levels, and unless the second glee club becomes a major component of the season I’m sure what they’re going for.
  • I thought it was weird that no one called Blaine out on claiming he needed to brush up on his dancing, but then it was clear that they just wanted an excuse to allow Blaine and Kurt to have that conversation during choreography. Shameless, sure, but it worked, and “Kurt, jazz hands!” got a nice chuckle.
  • I’m officially curious to see how the iTunes downloads are this season compared to last – I’m guessing they’re lower in general, just based on buyer’s fatigue, but the lack of any non-Broadway music definitely makes this hour an interesting test case for what role those downloads play in determining song selection.
  • The focus on auditions also created a real sense of “audience”: while they’re not clear singles, they were pleasurable to watch as an audience member given that there was context and they were pitched to an audience (the directors).
  • I somehow doubt Rachel’s musical debut would mean much if it’s directed by the football coach, the guidance counselor, and one of her classmates, so I’d expect Shelby to sub in at some point.
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10 Comments

Filed under Glee

10 responses to “Glee – “I Am Unicorn”

  1. Steve

    Well said. The experience of watching this episode was like waking from a bad dream. When Will gave the speech to Quinn about forgetting everything that the Glee Club had done to support her, I almost stood up and cheered, because it felt to me like that’s exactly what the writers had been guilty of in season two with regard to the show’s plot and character development. Although the episode was uneven in spots, I found myself caring about the characters once again and more than that, believing them too. That the musical numbers felt connected to plot and character as well was just icing on the cake.

  2. Carla

    Overall, I agree with your sentiments about this episode. The subtlety was appreciated and I think your thoughts about the unicorn theme not taking over the club as a whole was the correct way to move this episode along.

    The one thing I became increasingly bothered by throughout watching was the hypocrisy displayed in the Quinn storyline. Chastising Quinn for her new look and friends goes against the fundamental beliefs of the glee club as a place where everyone is welcome and subsequently the “lessons” the show itself prides itself on. I can appreciate that the new look and “skanks” as a way to represent the breakdown of Quinn, but the reactions of Puck, Shelby and others were pure rejection for anything not properly dressed and coiffed and that was what bothered me.

    A bit of this hypocrisy ran through the Kurt storyline as well. While Burt’s advice to him was somewhat realistic, I couldn’t help thinking that this sends the wrong message. Part of the job of an actor is to take on different roles. If someone is not suitable for a role because of their natural tendencies and personality, wouldn’t the real lesson be to become a better actor and work on their craft? I am all for being creative- writing and developing parts that suit you, but shouldn’t their also be a message somewhere in there about becoming a better actor on a whole?

    Both of these issues did not completely take away from my experience with this episode, but they did stand out to me because the way they were written felt almost unnecessary and inconsistent. I am interested to hear your thoughts (and your readers). Did you notice this, did it bother you?

    • Erigion

      For all the talk of subtlety, the Quinn and Kurt storylines completely lacked subtlety.

      The writers were probably trying to show that when Quinn joined the “skanks” she was giving up on all her hopes and dreams but used Shelby’s forced nonsense to force the story forward because, even if they didn’t talk about it in the episode, Sectionals/Regionals/Nationals are all coming and can’t be put off. This means they need their members in New Directions, which means Quinn needed to be back in the group ASAP. The little speeches by Sue and Will were in character which made them understandable but not much better. I never thought I’d say this, but this show really needs to find something for Sue because she’s just grating now and the less said about Will, the better.

      The Kurt storyline was realistic-ish. Some actors just won’t be cast to play certain roles and that’s just a fact. Nothing Kurt can do will change the fact that he’s a soprano or he doesn’t have the body type or face to play the male lead in a major romantic comedy. Granted, it’s a high school musical at a school where only the Glee club members seem to want to have anything to do with a musical so Kurt probably could have enhanced his chances by doing something other than Romeo but I don’t expect Burt to know about high school drama productions.

      And as far as cliffhangers go, that was a pretty minor one but baby steps I guess?

  3. The clumsiness and mixed message of the whole situation with Burt, Kurt, and his inability to play a heterosexual male lead all come from mischaracterization and inconsistency. I could literally say every episode where Kurt demonized others for not accepting his flamboyance from memory (“Ballad,” “Theatricality,” “Laryngitis,” “Duets,” “Home,” “Never Been Kissed,” even “Grilled Cheesus” and “Funereal” – to name a few). There is literally two years worth of material to completely contradict Kurt’s behaviors and motives. While I understand where the writers/show is coming from (it’s an attempt to give Kurt a reality check about his future) it wasn’t handled very well.
    I believe the more important fact is the story line’s ability to justify both Kurt’s and Blaine’s motives. Kurt wants the lead for his resume, Blaine wants it because he can be awesome at it. As I had originally assumed, Blaine joining the New Directions is going to create some really good conflict for their relationship.

    I agree with Myles – there is a sense of purpose, and in two episodes Glee has almost redeemed itself and made up for the COMPLETE lack of plot in it’s second season. For characters like Quinn, Rachel, and Will (I refuse to believe Puck had no story last season – it was there, watch it). Also, I hadn’t noticed until Myles point it out, but the drama from these two episodes has nothing to do with Sectionals/Regionals/Nationals. In addition, all the set up comes from each character wanting something (since competitions are more of an outside/external motivation).

    I have to say – this is a better Glee. And with this article from EOnline – http://www.eonline.com/news/watch_with_kristin/first_look_get_ready_best_episode_of/266484
    it sounds like the show is still going to head in a good direction next season.

  4. Melkee

    Okay, I’ll admit it. I had to watch the final scene twice (or was it three times?) just to make sure it was a cliffhanger of sorts.
    A cliffhanger on Glee? Wow!
    Then, there was this whole episode that can be described as subtle and nuanced. At first, it felt sluggish as I was still buzzed from last week’s manic energy. But I got into this whole other rythm and, must say, I was pleasantly surprised by “I am unicorn”.
    It was not only the change of pace, but the approach to not resolving everything in one quick episode and the way stories are unfolding.
    I’ve liked Glee season 3 so far. So I am willing to “give a chance” to the announced long arc for Sue’s campaign as I am beginning to see how it might function within the overall storytelling.
    To finish off: Great review, Myles!

  5. Lyvanna

    Heh, I totally thought the same thing about the end scene, I was waiting for Kurt to shout down that it was ok for Blaine to do the reading. The part of me that consumes Glee as a bit of candy floss entertainment was going ‘noooo’ at the conflict… but the part of me that likes TV was totally stunned that finally we were getting some character development/conflict after so long without it. I do hope that Blaine does read for Tony though, after last week’s ‘come to my school’/’ok I will for you’ and the earlier ‘don’t audition for my role’/’ok I won’t’ I was started to get frustrated at Blaine being so easy to walk over.

    I was also really glad that Puck got something to do in this episode and some character development of his own. His scenes with Idina and then later Quinn were good. When initially they came to see Idina I was worried the baby storyline was going to be All About Quinn. And then was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t.

    I must say, song-choice aside, I kinda thought Kurt’s dancing and presence on the stage in his audition was leading man worthy… maybe because I was distracted by all that climbing and Chris’ arm muscles.

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  9. Saturday Night Glee-ver
    Is glee not supposed to be about accepting everyone for who they are? So what about Christians, are they somehow not allowed to have this right? You made a huge mistake having them say that if you want to have sex just look at the bible writers as old fashioned! You just made it now a show that Christian children absolutely can not watch. Leave Christians as who they are true to God and his word and don’t have a double standard.
    On the other hand as not to be only on the down side singing in the rain was brilliant.

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