September 9th, 2009
As a critic, there are two ways one begins to have doubts about a show.
One is the immediate knee jerk response to a particular development: something happens onscreen which calls itself to your attention as if it were someone wearing a T-Shirt which said “Problem” written on it and waving a giant banner that said “Criticize me.”
The other is a more subtle feeling, a sense that something is wrong that’s below the surface of what you’re enjoying and undermining the show as a whole if not any particular moment.
What worries me about Glee is that for all my love of the show and its basic premise, it managed to illicit both of these responses in the span of its second episode, an hour which went from 0-60 and yet never seemed to go anywhere at the same time. What’s fascinating about it is that the things that make the show so charming one moment grinds it to a halt in the next: its fast pace works great in its dialogue, but when its stories start to move at the same pace it all seems like a blur; and while its quippy dialogue feels right in high school, when coming from someone who’s supposed to be a mature adult it sounds entirely wrong and takes a bad storyline and only makes it worse.
This is the kind of show that I don’t want to have to work to like – I enjoy musicals, I know a lot of popular music, and those elements of the show are obviously its hook. However, as long as the show around it feels more like labour than a labour of love, I’m not entirely convinced that I’m ready to commit to becoming a gleek just yet.
What’s unique about “Showmance” is that, for a second episode, it fails to accomplish what most post-pilot premieres tend to do. Perhaps due to the show’s staggered release pattern (airing first in May), this really doesn’t tread any new ground for the show. While it uses the Pilot’s development as shorthand in a few instances, what it does with them does nothing to advance them or add any new dimensions, and if anything the world seems a lot smaller in this episode instead of expanding into any sort of new direction. This isn’t to say that things don’t happen with those various storylines, but it’s all essentially the same thing that happened in the pilot.
We knew that Finn and Rachel were headed towards a romantic connection based on being male/female leads in a show aimed at a teen audience (to some degree) and in a hormone-dominated high school setting. And the show wastes no time, having them share a romantic music lesson and share a not so innocent kiss. This wasn’t some sort of quick peck, it was a full makeout session only interrupted by a premature response from Finn. I understand the impulse to get them “together” as soon as possible, but there was nothing elegant about the way it was handled. Finn was too simply portrayed as a hormone-crazy youth (only going to celibacy club to get into Quinn’s pants), and Rachel actually seemed flat as a character when not singing as she went from enigmatic and interesting to, well, pining after a boy and trying to throw up in the toilet. It technically rushed its way to a new stage in their relationship, but they’re back where they were: Rachel likes Finn, Finn is stuck with Quinn, and Quinn is paranoid about it all.
The same goes for Will and Emma, really. The show wastes no time contriving a reason for them to be together, having Will stay late at night and sharing an intimate chalk moment with the lovely guidance counsellor. Combine with the ever so subtle discussion of Rachel’s problem while Will takes an impossibly long time reading a bulletin board right outside Emma’s door (“Look at me! I’m a parallel storyline!”), and you have really the exact same situation you had before. Emma likes Will, Will is married and expecting a baby, awkward sexual tension ensues; the storyline didn’t get any further than that, and the sweetness of the romantic moment only feels like a tease that we know can’t immediately be acted on. I’m fine with the tension existing, but it felt as if Emma, in particular, couldn’t find a character moment to define herself independent of her own pining (in other words, she and Rachel really are the same, but in a way that makes them devoid of any real character).
The problem with these two storylines is that I like both of them. I think Jayma Mays is beyond charming, and her Emma is perhaps the most likeable part of the show. And I think Rachel has a sweetness to her that brings out a different side of Finn than we see in his internal dialogue, making for an interesting pairing that nicely complicates the Glee club dynamic. The problem is that I already knew I liked these two storylines in the pilot, and this episode actually made me enjoy them less by repeating the same basic tropes and not really taking them anywhere. These are not storylines that need to be present every single week, but rather let simmer over time: by rushing out of the gate to repeat the pilot’s basic events, it’s just making the show seem more thin than it needs to be.
Those were, for me, the subtle problems. The glaring one, of course, remains Will’s wife, perhaps the most infuriating character I’ve seen on an otherwise good show in a while. What fascinates me is that it’s not only the predictability of her storyline that bothers me: we all knew it was an hysterical pregnancy, and that this was all going to turn into a ploy, so again this episode did nothing to change my expectations. The funny thing, though, is that it tried to. At the end of the episode, we’re to believe that she decides to lie to Will not out of self-delusion, but for his best interest due to him using the child as his motivation to life live to the fullest. We see her backpedal in that moment, saying they don’t need a new house and that she can give up her craft room, as if she’s preparing for the eventual backlash when he discovers the truth.
I’m fascinated by how the show wants us to read this as a quasi-noble act, but yet writes this character as so absolutely annoying that it’s impossible to root for her. It’s clear we as an audience will root for Emma, but if they don’t want that to seem like such a foregone conclusion and make us wish for a quick and speedy divorce, they shouldn’t be having her be as delusional as possible and suggesting that a Grand Foyer and a Sun Nook is in any way a Sophie’s Choice situation. That joke works for Michael Scott on The Office because inappropriate references are his thing: for her, it feels false, like an attempt to marry the quirky high school dialogue into a character who shouldn’t be speaking it and who only comes out like a caricature when she does.
The thing is, the episode as it was will go down as perfectly adequate: Jane Lynch got a couple of great lines as Sue Sylvester, we got our newest complication to the Glee club membership (the need for more members), and we even got a better sense of how the Cheerios/Glee rivalry will unfold in the weeks ahead. My problem is that all of this felt secondary and shortchanged compared to fairly redundant work on the above three storylines. It’s not that any of it was bad, and there were some moments (like, you know, Finn running over someone during drivers’ training) that had me chuckling, but the struggle to market Glee Club and avoiding disco felt more uneventful than they should have. It was like the entire show had an enormous stone rock rolling after it, and it was running through the motions in an effort to get to the end as quickly as possible only to find that it was back at the beginning again.
Perhaps that’s taking the metaphor too far, but that’s the problem Glee faces. For all of its slick production numbers and social networking potential, the show wasn’t perfect from its pilot, and its second episode doesn’t feel like it really understood those problems. At this point, things are already in motion so there’s really no taking it back now. I just hope that, in the weeks ahead, the show is able to flesh out the rest of its universe more, giving us more time with the other members of Glee club and less time on storylines that shouldn’t be rushed and could remain under the radar and remain far more effective.
- There was some talk of this when the screeners went out to critics, but I’d tend to agree: while the production on the final number (Lea Michele’s take on Rihanna’s “Take a Bow”) fit its use as a montage piece of sorts, there are times when the slickness of it all takes you out of the moment in a way that wasn’t present in the pilot. This was especially true during “Gold Digger,” which was a lot of fun but which also didn’t feel spontaneous at all. There’s different ways the music can be implemented, and I think the production needs to differ depending on which is utilized.
- The “gag reflex” line is getting a lot of attention for its clear sexual connotation, something that was present throughout the episode: I actually found it a bit much, especially Finn’s American Pie-esque malfunction of sorts. It’s a side of the show that feels a bit too bawdy for my personal tastes, I guess.
- The show often feels trapped between realism and broad comedy: 30 Rock would have had a lot more fun with those pamphlets in the Guidance office, but Glee couldn’t NOT make a joke about them because it wants to walk that fine line.
- Jane Lynch did a mighty fine job of delivering it, but I thought the fakeout of Finn and Rachel ending up in the Principal’s office for using her copier as opposed to, well, copulating was a bit too clever for its own good. It’s one thing to mislead the audience, but the punchline has to be worthwhile, and I didn’t think it was outside of the genius of Lynch’s shock at the gall of it all. They need to be careful, as Lynch can’t carry all material…or, well, she probably can, but still!