October 21st, 2009
Commenting on last week’s episode, Chris Becker noted that Glee has its share of problems, and one of them is (on occasion) actually calling attention to its own problems. By signalling out the minorities within Glee club, the show drew attention to the fact that it has largely ignored issues of diversity, so Sue’s strategy turned out more disturbing than funny. When you have a show that can be hot or cold like Glee can, and that tends to go in as many directions as Glee does, this is almost inevitable, but I would argue there’s a way to avoid it.
Ian Brennan, one of the show’s three creators and who was credited with the Chenoweth-infused “The Rhodes Not Taken,” uses this episode to actually call to our attention some of the show’s problems and actually treats them as problems. Folding them all under the theme of the mash-up, used here not as a drug-infused sideshow but a meditation on the process of bringing two people together in a potentially artificial process, Brennan depicts consequences in a way that the show often avoids, and continues to probe questions of high school popularity while not shying away from the darker side of teenage existence.
It may not be as eventful as “Preggers,” and its musical elements risked over-using Matthew Morrison, but by bringing all of its elements under one key theme that spoke to issues that have been plaguing the series for a while “Mash-Up” is perhaps the most complete episode of the show yet, struggling to balance its various elements only when it had a point to make about the trouble of balancing those elements.
Todd VanDerWerff has written a fair bit about the apparent division of labour going on at Glee, with each of the show’s three writers tending to write particular perspectives on these stories. This episode is where that was actually the most clear for me, as it demonstrated an almost slavish attention to the “mash-up” theme that has been almost entirely absent in the rest of the episodes. It also eschewed the show’s more ridiculous plotlines entirely, referring to Quinn’s pregnancy only in passing (and never in a comic fashion) and ignoring Terri entirely (which is almost unfair, immediately elevating to the status of one of my favourite episodes of the show). Todd believes that Brennan is interested in the inherent sadness of this particular existence, and this episode showed the first real social impacts of Finn, Puck, and the other football guys/cheerio girls choosing to join Glee. This is the kind of story that I was expecting right off the bat, to be honest, but the show never stopped long enough to let it happen.
This is the kind of story that makes me interested in the show, primarily because it gives them a chance to treat each character as an individual as opposed to a cog in a larger machine. When this episode started giving Puck something approaching character development, meeting his family and eventually pairing him off with Rachel, I kept expecting for it to all be pulled back to create another source of false tension. And yet, as the episode continued, it kept developing: no, Puck didn’t change fundamentally, but we saw additional facets to his character that to this point have been entirely absent. Not only did he get his own solo, but he also got to have feelings (!) and perhaps most interestingly got to interact with characters on a one-to-one fashion in a non-antagonistic fashion. Considering that I didn’t even know his first name (Noah) before this episode, it’s a kind of miraculous transition, one which was performed with some nice subtlety by Mark Salling.
Really, the last two episodes have been a real step in the right direction in terms of humanizing elements of the show that have always felt particularly false. While I love Sue Sylvester, her storylines have always been about plotting and scheming, so to see her infected by the love bug after news anchor Ron sinks her battleship (hard) was a nice change of pace. And while eventually Sue reverts back to what one would consider to be her status quo of irrational anger and cruelty to those who look up to her, that glimpse of another side of her (one that is happy, dancing) is just enough for us to consider the power that a mash-up (whether for love or musical synergy) can have on an individual. While not as long-term as Puck’s change, and completely underwritten by episode’s end, it was a small thematic beat that offered another dimension to the episode’s theme.
At the heart of the episode, of course, was the ongoing saga of Will and Emma (or Urma, if you prefer), who the show will eventually need to put together and yet to this point have treated only as an “adorable” coupling that it refuses to allow due to plot contrivance. However, part of the point of the episode was that there are two approaches to the mash-up: taking two songs that don’t appear to go together and finding that they fit perfectly, or taking two songs that seem just right for each other and finding that things just don’t add up. Puck goes after Rachel because it came to him in a dream and it would please his mother by being a Jewish match, but of course their personalities (and their feelings for other people) prove a roadblock. Ron sells the fling with Sue by pointing out how he’s looking for someone strong, but it turns out he just wants a strong dance partner and isn’t willing to be exclusive (or let her wear the pants). And with Emma and Ken’s attempt to mash together The Thong Song with a My Fair Lady classic, it becomes clear that they’re just not going to mash together, and yet the match that does work (Will and Emma) can’t happen because of circumstances outside of the control of the remixers of life.
That all sounds kind of hokey when I type it out like that, but it was the first time (perhaps because Terri was absent) that I sort of bought the storyline. Ken’s frustration with Emma and Will’s flirtations nicely boiled over into the popularity storyline when it resulted in Ken taking a shot at Glee to get back at Will, and when they eventually confront each other on the subject I thought that it was the most logical Will has been about the whole thing. Yes, he nonetheless continues to flirt with Emma, but I think the show can’t quite ignore something that they’re all but set in stone on the long term. The big deal here was that everyone, for at least a moment, slowed down long enough to see what was happening around them and consider how they got here. Perhaps it was a symptom of the episode starting off the second half of the initial 13-episode order, but it really seems like it was taking stock of how we got to this point in a way that seems both necessary and really effective.
I thought this was especially true with Finn and Quinn’s storyline struggling with their newfound victimhood in the great Slushie war. The connection back to the pilot made for some really great point of view shots as slushies went down the hallway with everyone recoiling with fear, but it also seemed like both a funny and somewhat sad storyline idea. While Rachel’s various threats to quit Glee always felt sudden and selfish (which was part of the point, but one that kept getting missed in my eyes), Finn did this out of desperation. He and Quinn had fallen from the top of the ladder, and his role on the football team is an important part of his identity. Forget for a moment the storyline (dropped here) about Finn wanting to get a music scholarship, and just focus on what we saw here, and you have a teenager considered about being popular and taking a drastic measure (one which, as noted, stemmed from a connecting storyline and not through some random event) that has consequences to other characters. And for once, we got to see those consequences: sure, it was drawn out, but realizing that only Finn (who had been there from the beginning) would abandon Glee reflected not some random plot device but character moments that we actually got to see in the episode.
It all resulted in a final scene that is perhaps my single favourite the show has done this far. I like the musical numbers on this show, but there was something about seeing everyone reunited over Slushies that felt…complete. It was like the universe had been righted, Finn having come to terms with his belief that Glee and Football go together like bacon and chocholate, and Quinn in street clothes as everyone bands together as 12 friends who will brave the war of the slushies together. When they all got together and threw those slushies at Will, it was as if there was no crazy pregnant wife, and no teachers scheming to get Glee eliminated, and no hidden secrets ready to tear everything apart. While those all have their place on this show, I don’t think there will be a better representation of what I love about it than when they threw those slushies, and there was laughter, and after acknowledging the struggles of high school existence for an hour Brennan posited that Glee club could help them find a place in this crazy world.
Now, admittedly, musically speaking this was not a highlight for the show. The various musical numbers suffered from the same over-production problem that has plagued the entire season, in particular Finn’s number which would have made a lot of sense to do small and acoustic on the stage as opposed to recording (a decision likely influence by iTunes sales more than anything else). As per usual, the one scene with no such recording (Rachel singing Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants” with a hairbrush as Puck accompanies on guitar) reminded us of how nice it would be if other scenes took the same approach. And while this episode was proof positive of the fact that Matthew Morrison can both rap and dance far better than he has any right to, Bust-A-Move and Thong Song proved a bit too similar (although both were quite entertaining) and I don’t think having Will perform that often really did anything for the story of the episode. The idea of Will giving everyone dance lessons made for some really fun sequences (although I’d have liked to see him teaching Ken at some point), and worked better when it was spread to people beyond Emma, but I really think the musical elements work best when relating to the kids rather than the adults. This just wasn’t going to be a musical extravaganza, more interested in the theory of a particular musical phenomenon than it was in the music itself, but I thought “Sweet Caroline” managed to be quite a sweet note and that overall the musical numbers continued to infuse the show with something legitimately unique.
I’d say that “Mash-Up,” like “Preggers” before it, works because it has priorities. It sets out to accomplish a particular goal, and streamlines the show’s character within that particular theme. It feels focused in a way that no episode has really felt before, and accomplishes about five different things without ever feeling as if it was moving too quickly (even if Puck’s story had a whole bunch of shortcuts, they were self-aware shortcuts consistent with the character’s actions). Sure, the episode essentially started with a pubic hair joke (it’s the first thing in my notes: “5th Grade – pubes”), but it ended up being perhaps the most mature episode of the show yet, and definitely one of the highlights for me.
- I was part of My Fair Lady when I was in high school (playing anonymous side characters, nobody important), so to hear “I Should Have Danced All Night” was definitely fun. I have to wonder if that was actually Jayma Mays singing, as it seems weird for her to have only now started singing when the show has to this point only ever given her a tearful “All by Myself.” However, since this was Puck’s first solo too, perhaps we’ll see more in the future.
- On that note, Jayma Mays looked predictably stunning in both wedding dresses, the second especially.
- When the coach was making his “we didn’t win the game by dancing, we won because we were of singular purpose,” my note is “AMEN, KEN TANAKA.” I think I’ve been waiting for an episode this self-aware of the show’s problems for a while.
- Cory Monteith sells naive excitement over unexciting things very well, so his “Hey, the sunglasses are working!” readings were a highlight.
- “Bros before Hi-Hos, dude” is similarly great.
- Kurt didn’t get a whole lot to do in the musical numbers (I don’t think that Colfer can dance, as he was definitely very absent from “Bust-A-Move”), but his “Get me to a day spa, stat!” followed by a trip into the Girls’ room was great (as was Mercedes’ “My weave!” when the slushie came her way).
- And, my favourite part of the episode: “If it is one minute late, I will go to the animal shelter, buy you a kitten, you will fall in love, and then one night I will steal…into your house and punch you in the face.” I nearly died.