“The Rhodes Not Taken”
September 30th, 2009
I want you to imagine an episode of television programming which features the following: a guest appearance from Kristin Chenoweth, a battle between Kristin Chenoweth and Lea Michele on a song from Cabaret, a duet arrangement of Heart’s “Alone” featuring Kristin Chenoweth, Kristin Chenoweth in full on rodeo mode during a Glee Club performance, and a full cast rendition of a really great Queen song.
And then I want you to imagine me, someone who enjoys every single one of these things, not enjoying the episode at hand. Crazy, no?
Well, unfortunately, that’s how I feel about “The Rhodes Not Taken,” an episode that suffers from a rapid-fire plot development and misplaced emotional emphasis. While I loved Chenoweth’s performance in the episode, and all of the musical elements, it suffered from the fact that every bit of realistic character development was saved for a character who isn’t actually in the show at all. By placing so much of the episode’s impact on the temporary replacement for Rachel as opposed to Rachel herself, her bizarre indecision is never framed as anything close to character development, left to feel like sheer plot contrivance.
It’s an episode that wants to be like “Preggers,” but in perhaps a cruel twist of fate the genius of Kristin Chenoweth only sets them back in the grand scheme of things.
April Rhodes is a really interesting character, one who the show spends a lot of time with. When we meet her, she’s a drunkard squatting in foreclosed homes, having had her dreams of a career in show business torn apart by huffing furniture polish and a set of interracial twins. When she comes to Glee, it’s her chance to reclaim her former glory. She delivers a stirring rendition of “Maybe This Time” to prove she’s still got it, and as she spends some time with the Glee kids she proves both a terrible influence and a great resource to have around for muscle magazines and shoplifting tips. As Will starts to notice she’s having trouble staying sober, we get to that triumphant performance of “Last Name” where she hears the crowd’s adulation and is taken back to her glory days…only to realize that this isn’t her glee club, but Finn’s, and Kurt’s, and Rachel’s. “Maybe This Time” is a really interesting thematic core to this episode, as April realizes that she wants to find a new dream and rekindle her love of the theatre.
If this episode was really a hidden back-door pilot for April Rhodes does Branson (which, if it was, please sign me up immediately), then I can understand how this all worked extremely well. However, as an actual storyline, it was actually largely irrelevant to this show, at this point in time. Much like “Acafellas,” where Will’s excursion into the world of A cappella groups disrupted Glee Club, this was an external storyline that seemed so dominant that the Glee Club got lost in the shuffle, and to me this is counterintuitive. The show seemed like it was finally gearing up to show a complete New Directions (with the football players and the cheerleaders rounding out the group), and move them towards nationals, but the show has a problem: it can’t sit still.
I’m half convinced that the show has ADD, although with April Rhodes they kept things really simple: she entered, her problem was presented, and then it was “solved” at the end. That’s actually how things felt with Kurt last week, and it really grounded that episode in the show’s great cast. However, this week, the person who needed to be grounded was Rachel. By my count she switched sides about seven times in this one, as the musical was a horrifying experience (which never quite made sense considering Sandy and Sue WANT her to stay there, unless it was reverse psychology proving unwieldy in Sandy’s hands) and Glee had somebody else there to replace her. However, the episode never really let us see how this was affecting Rachel, choosing to emphasize Finn’s attempts to win Rachel back to Glee club by falsely seducing her, which of course leads to the big blowup over her discovery that Quinn is pregnant.
It’s a situation where I wish this was a simpler show, one where they could have stripped away the pregnancy and Finn’s efforts to get a scholarship and let this turn into a simple rivalry between April and Rachel. In that instance, we could perhaps more clearly understand Rachel’s motivation to act as she does, and her reasons for coming back could be for reasons of her own self-discovery as opposed to Finn’s pleas. Rachel has been turned into a conceited singing monkey who wants to date Quinn, any other character traits having gone by the wayside in favour of those most convenient to the show’s odd thematic structure. I think Lea Michele is a great young actress, so I’m fascinated why the show won’t let her do anything but sing and obsess over a boy. There was a real chance to really understand Rachel’s desire for stardom, and for her to perhaps have moments with Will and April that could show her that she both friends and mentors if she doesn’t want to end up like April, and that Glee offers her that. Instead, Rachel came to that epiphany simply watching what was happening on stage, robbed of her emotional moment of discovery by a script that didn’t have room for it.
It just feels as if nothing happens naturally on this show. Why couldn’t Will have been lamenting his lack of a lead when he randomly runs into April, learns of her situation and takes pity on her, as opposed to him actively competing with Vocal Adrenaline by bringing in an aging ringer who never graduated? While happenstance is not the most natural of storylines, it at least keeps things feeling as if there is some sort of resting rate, a scenario wherein there are some people not scheming or getting pregnant or enjoying some other sort of scandal. If you were to take each storyline individually, I think they’re really fun: I loved how Emma’s counselling of Finn proved oddly prescient for the latter, for example, and I enjoyed seeing Finn try to win back Rachel and perhaps leading her on in the process. However, when you add that in with the rest of the episode, I’m not entirely sure what it gets you: other than complicating things, is there really any point to that being here?
What I don’t quite get is why the show can’t be simpler than it is. These characters are really engaging, and the organization of a glee club and the usual pressures of high school are great foils for those characters to interact in. While I don’t think the show needs to become a sitcom, driven entirely by character interaction as opposed to by serialized story development, I’d like to see that balance shift somewhere even close to the former every now and then. With April’s introduction, I got what I wanted to some degree: the montage of her interactions with the various members was clever, and I thought she brought out a fun side in Will as well (the “Alone” duet was, of course, strong). However, April is gone now, and because the episode centered so much on her it didn’t really add anything to the existing dynamic. The entire storyline of Rachel quitting Glee Club to join the musical is similarly muddled, now seeming as if it ever happened without any real chance to see how it changed Rachel.
I am aware that this episode had some really fun musical numbers, and featured a great guest appearance, so I’m probably in the minority here. However, I can’t help but imagine a show where Sandy tried to steal Rachel away in an episode focused entirely on that subject, and her return was handled in an episode of its own. Along the same lines, I imagine an episode where April’s arrival is the only story, where we can get not only an emotional moment for her character but one that matters for Rachel, or Finn, or someone else as well. And I also imagine an episode where the Glee Club Invitational isn’t an afterthought to fifteen other stories, but an episode in its own right where we get a real sense of the club’s progress without seeming as if it’s just one more drop in the bucket.
I’m imagining a show that is capable of slowing down, an expectation that based on the preview for next week isn’t going to be met. I don’t know if that’s a symptom of Ryan Murphy’s impatience, or the show’s initially short Season One order, but it’s currently keeping me from falling in love with the show even if I’m in love with some of its elements.
- Very little Sue Sylvester this week, and to some degree the episode was hurt because of it: Ryerson is an intriguing character and I enjoy Stephen Tobolowsky, but the Equus joke was too easy and Lynch is a more enjoyable presence for me.
- The show seemed to imply that April slept with Puck and another one of the football players, which for some reason I found really bizarre while fully accepting the fact she got Kurt drunk and taught Mercedes/Tina how to shoplift. Apparently, I’m a sex prude, but not a law prude.
- I wish the show would slow down so we could get more Jayma Mays: “he looks like an 11-year old milkmaid” was bloody fantastic, but even beyond the comedy I felt like she deserved an emotional moment with Will tearing him down for letting April into Glee and having her influence taken out on the students. He was highly reckless in doing so, and I think Emma would get on his case about it.
- In other news, the show is going with the “have it happen in the background” plan for Teri’s efforts to take Quinn’s baby, and continuing to have Will play the fool with the baby. I’m done caring about this storyline.
- Maybe it was only me, but I was expecting Sandy to try to steal April for the musical, creating an interesting scenario that forces Rachel back to Glee and which would increase tension. I think that would have been interesting, but I’ll stop rewriting the episode in my head for now.
- Seriously, FOX: April Rhodes does Branson. Make it happen.