Returning to Glee: “Dynamic Duets” and the Improvements of S4

“Dynamic Duets” and Season Four So Far

November 22nd, 2012

I was at a Thanksgiving gathering today, and an open question was asked regarding the quality of Glee this season. An initial opinion suggested the show was terrible this year, and without any hesitation I disagreed: Glee, to my mind, has been measurably better than last season, and probably the season before.

I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion, but it was met with skepticism by the room, and perhaps rightfully so. Given the sheer number of words I spent laying out my frustrations with the show before quitting weekly reviews, I am all too familiar with Glee’s flaws. And to be clear, the show has continued to have these problems, and I’ve continued to sit on my couch and complain to Twitter about them like a crazy person. But around those problems has grown a season moving with purpose the vague “graduation” theme never offered, pulling fewer punches and forcing its characters to ask questions that occasionally threaten to mean something.

Put more simply, Glee is a better television show this season. Its flaws, while still numerous, feel like the byproduct of trying to do something instead of the byproduct of doing nothing, a constructive shift that helps the show overcome its occasional missteps to reach musical resolutions that feel earned.

The biggest issue I’ve had with this season of Glee is the way Marley’s eating disorder has developed. There’s a logic to the idea of body consciousness playing out in a character like Marley, who has been consistently defined as someone self-conscious about her image. The idea of walking around with Wal-Mart clothing with designer labels sewed on them is like wearing a costume: Marley might project one image, but she feels another, and it’s that feeling of being poor—or feeling overweight—that dominates her psychology. It’s actually quite comparable to Ryder’s dyslexia, which the character explains by inverting the superhero metaphor at the heart of “Dynamic Duets”: rather than feeling like your secret identity is heroic, you feel like your secret identity is something you need to hide from the world.

However, how do you start that conversation? With Ryder, the show used his ongoing conflict with Jake to bring his dyslexia to the surface, picking up on his academic issues in earlier episodes to force him into a counseling session. The entire situation was handled too quickly, but Blake Jenner sold Ryder’s big speech effectively, and the show made a thematic point and brought the two characters closer together in the process.

With Marley, however, the show is backed into a corner. Nothing can change the fact that Marley got her eating disorder because of Kitty’s sabotage, which was more illogical than I care to analyze. How would Marley not realize her non-costume clothes fit fine? And how would she not look at the costume to see that it had been sewed multiple times? The show’s argument seems to be that she is so dispositioned—given her mother’s troubles with her weight, for example—that she sees weight problems where she should be seeing something suspect, and therefore spirals into this difficult situation by default. But that’s not something that meshes well with the character we met up to that point, someone who is shy perhaps but not as delusional as this scenario suggests. Ryder’s dyslexia felt rushed, but Ryder’s teary-eyed speech explained why it hadn’t been caught to this point (because he wasn’t willing to admit to anyone that he was really trying his best the whole time); in Marley’s case, the logic gaps are considerably larger, and weaken the impact of the storyline and its value to her character or the show as a whole.

In the end, of course, that both characters have some semblance of an identity is a good sign for the show’s future. I still have questions about Jenner’s musical prowess—he’s boring—or Kitty’s ability to find nuance in what is basically a younger version of Sue Sylvester, but I respect the show’s willingness to jettison characters like Will, Emma, and Sue when they want to focus their attention elsewhere. While the season has positioned the new characters as basic analogues to the graduated students from last season (Jake to Puck, Kitty to Quinn, Marley to Rachel, Ryder to Finn), they’ve also given at least three of them personal traits of their own the show has done a decent job of spotlighting.

It’s made it more palatable when the show starts to return to the analogues, like they did at the beginning of the season with Rachael and Marley’s shared audition or last week’s Grease finale number (with its legitimately powerful flashback). The show’s willingness to move Rachel and Kurt aside for an episode has made it more meaningful when they return, and even after the show contrived a way for the characters to return to Lima it didn’t reach a contrived conclusion. The show is committed to the division, even when it isn’t entirely working: replacing Will with Finn makes very little logical sense, and I would have snorted an Oreo if I had been eating one when I saw Finn in a sweater vest, but you can at least see what the show is going for and respect it for thematic storytelling on a macro level. Rather than seem at odds with the new characters used for comparative purposes, these stories feel in line with the search for identity and purpose at the heart of the series.

Glee is a better show when it commits to this search, both within the series’ high school setting and within the writer’s room. In an episode where Ian Brennan was all too-willing to tear apart his previous output (with characters referencing “Funk” and “A Night of Neglect” as terrible lessons from the show’s past), he also confronts a simpler question: what is Blaine’s role at McKinley now that Kurt is gone? Darren Criss has been the show’s utility player since he was added to the cast full time when it comes to musical numbers, but that’s not the same kind of starring role Blaine had at Dalton, and the Glee club—and the show—went elsewhere for its “male leads” this season. There was never really any threat that Blaine would leave and join the Warblers, but the idea of him leaving raised a question (What is Blaine’s role at McKinley?), provided an answer (To be a part of a team), and resulted in what was probably Darren Criss’ best non-musical performance episode to date.

The superhero stuff was still all over the map, with the stylistic quirks a charming diversion and the logic of students actually going around the school in costumes during the school day pushing against the same “real world” dynamics that the mixed race storyline relies on to function properly. The storylines are still originating in problematic locations, and the non-graduated characters who were around when the show started remain completely superfluous. I also don’t entirely understand what happened to Wade, who I guess left New Directions entirely when his parents pulled him out of the musical?

But more often than not, Glee is hitting its intending targets this season, and there’s been no point in the season where everything has felt motionless or meaningless. The show’s back to basics approach means they’re repeating the same themes and storylines the show relied on early in its run, but it doesn’t feel repetitive so much as refined. The show is more willing to give up on certain story threads for a week, and more well-practiced at balancing them all when they get the opportunity. As silly as parts of “Dynamic Duets” might have been, it still reflects a version of Glee that is considerably more sophisticated, and more often closer to its full potential than in any other season. I don’t know if this makes the show “better” for everyone, and it continues to have similar problems to previous seasons (and without the benefit of newness to mitigate the criticisms), but this season it’s been much easier to smile through the pain.

Perhaps it’s that there’s the weight and the lightness at the same time. For the new generation, the musical was a love rhombus in its nascent stages, the only consequences being the complication of feelings they don’t entirely understand yet. For the older generation, the musical was a reminder of broken hearts that run deeper, breakups that have to be confronted as meaningful life events instead of day-to-day life in high school. Jake looks back on his unwillingness to commit to Marley sooner as a mistake, perhaps, but he doesn’t look back on it as Blaine looks back on his casual hookup with a Facebook friend. The former is told in the adolescent form of a phone call to an older brother, searching for advice; the latter is told as a heartbreaking flashback, blurry and painful and real. By acknowledging those realities while still having room to escape to the care-free world of high school, Glee’s fluid identity is finally tenable even if it isn’t even, and it’s resulted in a season of television I’ve enjoyed more than I expected.

Cultural Observations

  • This really is the season of CHORD OVERSTREET!, who has been the show’s strongest comic player. It’s not a huge shock, as the character has been capable of being funny, but pitching him as a funny voices sidekick has been a shot in the arm for the character’s likeability, and I totally bought him as the motivating force behind Blaine’s decision to stay at McKinley and laughed a bunch at his jock strap-assisted Bane impression.
  • Jenner’s ability as an actor was always his biggest selling feature on The Glee Project, so I wasn’t surprised to see tonight’s episode really hinge on that. He did well, I thought, even if I’d argue Jacob Artist is easily the stronger of the two performers.
  • In terms of moments I haven’t discussed that have been great this season, Darren Criss’ performance of “Teenage Dream” is going to be a series highlight, made all the more powerful by its sense of liveness. There’s a charm to the acknowledgment of the “unplanned highly-produced and choreographed musical number,” but perhaps the best thing about the show’s general falseness is it makes moments like Criss sitting at that piano more meaningful by comparison.
  • Obviously commenters may be more sparse since the blog has largely gone dark as priorities shift elsewhere, but I’m curious to know if people think me crazy on this or if the show might be winning them over as well. Looking forward to picking up the conversation on Twitter as the season continues.
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3 Comments

Filed under Glee

3 responses to “Returning to Glee: “Dynamic Duets” and the Improvements of S4

  1. You’re right, this season Glee has almost felt like a different show! MUCH better (albeit still with some problems). I find myself tuning to find out what will happen with the characters and not just to see the latest musical numbers.
    And you know Marley is too bland when even Sue Sylvester can’t find a decent nickname for her! :p

  2. I think it says a lot that you focused this post on the Lima aspects of the show, and wrote it after two almost Lima-centric episodes. This post (http://gettingmyswerveon.tumblr.com/post/36249579048/if-we-think-about-it-finchel-was-really-together) says a lot about what I see lacking in the NY storyline (none of which I care for, which is surprising given two of the main originals are the focus there) and I’d be interested to see if you feel the same way when we get back to some of that.

    This season has been even worse on the sexist front with Rachel finding validation in changing her entire wardrobe and makeup routine while flirting with a new boy a few months after being engaged, Marley’s sloppy eating disorder storyline, and every other female swaying in the background. Glee has never been the sharpest in its female characterizations, but this season feels even worse than before with formerly strong, independent, bullied Rachel Berry wilting under the pressures of New York.

    The Lima aspects of the show may be better, especially on the comedic parts (Glee is a comedy, right?) but I still don’t buy that this show is much better than the third or second season. It’s a roller coaster of a show, always has been, and we’re not even half way through this season with only a handful of good moments (for me).

  3. Jessica

    I’ve been really enjoying this season. I honestly think it had a stronger start than the last two seasons. I never thought Glee was anything but a highly flawed show, so I think after 3 seasons I’m willing to just overlook most of the flaws (flaws which I’m well aware of, have always been there, and will always be there), as long as the show is keeping me engaged. And I like pretty much all of the new characters (both the new students and the New York characters), even Kitty who at first seemed way too one-note but has been growing on me.

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