Glee – “Ballad”


November 18th, 2009

If you were to go back to the pilot, you would believe that Rachel Berry was the heart and soul of Glee. At that point, she was the person who most believed in Glee club, who saw it as the only place where she wasn’t the subject of ridicule and where she could express herself in the way she most desired.

But since that point, Rachel has become almost heartless. She turned her back on Glee club to join Sandy Ryerson’s musical, and she’s generally judgmental and frustrating before she’s caring or supportive. And yet, because Rachel is the strongest soloist (only Mercedes) on Glee, she’s remained at the centre of storylines and the club itself even while she seems convinced it’s actually holding her back from something better. It’s created a scenario where Rachel isn’t actually likeable, which is somewhat problematic if she’s supposed to be our heroine.

“Ballad” is a continuation of this theme, as a Glee Club exercise has everyone singing emotional ballads that bring out their deepest insecurities (in pretty uniformly effective ways) while Rachel is stuck in a “Hot for Teacher” scenario that never successfully bridges the comic and the dramatic (tears aside). I’m all for the show integrating more comedy than last week’s more emotional episode, and parts of this week’s entry nicely balance the two even with a lot of musical numbers involved, but Rachel’s storyline is effectively emotion-free, something that’s going to grow more and more problematic as we move forward.

There’s a moment at the end of Rachel’s storyline where Susie Pepper (played with verve by Sarah Drew) tells it like it is to Rachel, arguing that her crush on Will is all an attempt to boost her deflated self esteem. In that moment the episode tries to argue that Rachel’s craziness is, in fact, character development, and that all of her mean-spirited behaviour and insanity should be viewed as self doubt and insecurity. However, one of the problems that Glee has is that it sometimes goes too far with its comedy for me to buy such a tidy conclusion: while other characters in the episode get detailed sequences where they are able to confide in friends or confront their families about their problems, Rachel is left to be psycho-analyzed by a crazy girl caricature. Glee is fully capable of earning substantial character development with these teenagers, but tacking on rushed self-realization to an almost farcical story isn’t cutting it.

It’s not that dissimilar, in some ways, to what Brad Falchuk (who wrote and directed the episode) did with “The Rhodes Not Taken,” which introduced April Rhodes as a sort of “Look what Rachel could become in the future” story. Even there, though, Falchuk didn’t seem to know how to really connect the two characters through anything but song, and here the connection between Susie Pepper and Rachel never really goes beyond their shared insanity. Rachel has yet to have a legitimate personal connection with any character but Finn on this show, and it’s turning her into an island. I thought that Lea Michele did a great job with the comic elements of this week’s story, especially her “performance” during “Endless Love” as she descended into crazy eyes in a slow and hilarious fashion. And she also nailed the emotional moment she was given with Will at the end, so it’s not as if there was an issue of execution here. Instead, it was simply that the rest of the episode around her had emotional moments that felt infinitely more genuine, and which the show took infinitely more seriously, creating a gap that the vanity of both this week’s episode and the Rachel of previous weeks kept her from overcoming.

The real problem, of course, is how strong the material was for the other major storyline of the episode, as Quinn and Finn end up telling their respective parents that they’re having a baby in highly inappropriate ways. The show struggled a bit here, too, in terms of balancing comedy and drama, considering that Finn singing to a sonogram was enormously creepy and Finn announcing her pregnancy at the dinner table in front of her paranoid parents was the sort of inappropriate thing that even Finn, who has been labeled stupid by the show, should have realized was a terrible, terrible idea. And yet, the difference between this story and the Rachel story is that the emotional conclusion felt earned, delivered with both subtle acceptance (Finn’s mother) and outright rage (Quinn’s father).

The scene with Finn and Quinn sitting there as her father berates them was a powerhouse piece of acting from Dianna Agron, who has really come into her own once they got her out of the cheerleading uniform. Gregg Henry was bringing everything he had as her unaccepting father, the Indians game story all but ripping Quinn’s heart out, and Quinn giving it right back and attacking her Mother for not saying something even when she clearly knew something was up was effective and powerful. While some criticized the show for becoming too dramatic last week, and for falling too heavily into melodramatic storylines like “Fake Baby” and “Not Really Finn’s Baby,” these are the sorts of scenes that remind you that the show is fully capable of delivering on the dramatic storylines when it wants to. While the hyperactive nature of the universe meant that the scene was a bit shinier and glossier, the quality of the scene was closer to something like Friday Night Lights than it was to something schlockier, and that’s obviously a high compliment.

I also thought this storyline was solid because it never stopped being comic leading up to that moment. While the “Fake Baby” scenario has all but poisoned Terri as a character (the one mention we got of it here made me shiver), this storyline has brought out some great shades of Quinn and Finn both. When Finn goes into the bathroom to call Kurt to figure out what he should do, and he ends the call quickly because “they’ll think I’m pooping,” it’s a funny line that immediately moves into a more dramatic sequence. While Rachel’s character has lost its heart, a character like Finn has been able to remain charming through his naivete and relative stupidity, and there’s never a doubt that he is being earnest with his efforts to provide for Quinn and this child (even if he should be less earnest when singing to Sonograms – seriously, creeped me the hell out). And while Quinn may have started out as a cold-hearted cheerleader, moments like last week’s flirtation with Puck and this week’s scene with her Mother have made her arguably an even warmer character than Rachel, even with her angry side. These two are trapped in what could be a downright terrible storyline, but “Ballad” shows that the writers aren’t interested in delaying the inevitable (informing the parents sooner rather than later) and making the same mistakes they made with Terri’s fake baby.

In terms of the other storylines running throughout the episode, I thought that Puck telling Mercedes about being the father of the baby was an intriguing moment, if only because it throws another secret into the mix and it starts to involve characters who aren’t pregnant/virile into the whole mess. However, as much as I enjoy the general principle of adding new characters into the storyline to make it more relevant, I will admit that Kurt’s love affair with Finn is sort of fizzling out for me. Yes, Kurt had some great one-liners, and the idea of him flirting with Finn (and Finn not really knowing what to do with it) is funny, but to have him legitimately fall in love with him (which is only going to end in heartbreak) is pretty much the same as Rachel falling in love with Will, and yet the show treats one as crazy and the other as almost romantic.

I think Kurt deserves to find love, but the show placing Kurt in the On Deck circle waiting for Quinn to strike out creates the sort of scenario that feels like a waste of the character (kind of like Mercedes convincing herself that she was in love with Kurt, for that matter). The show needs to introduce another gay character into the mix so that Kurt can truly fall in love, as pining after a straight dude is funny when it’s played for comedy but less productive when played for drama. On the other hand, conversely, Puck’s little moment singing to Quinn at the end is the sort of relationship that’s great to have under the surface because the romantic tension is both dramatic (the love triangle) and legitimate (as seen in last week’s food fight). I don’t see why Finn and Kurt can’t just be friends, as it maintains great scenes like Kurt helping Finn pick a song or a suit but without the futile romantic undertones. The scene in Finn’s basement was about two people bonding over parents who left them, and it reminded us that Finn needs a father right now, and that Kurt can relate to the loss of a parent and what that means for them. To add the awkward touching to the scene isn’t serving any real purpose, and if anything strains their charming and enjoyable friendship in a way which complicates without improving.

And while that covers most of the character notes, I want to talk about the rather extensive use of music in the episode. “Lean on Me” fits into the usual pattern of an uplifting final song bringing all of the other characters together (See “Somebody to Love,” “Keep Me Holding On,” “Proud Mary,” etc.), but many others were played out within the context of the episode itself. Turning the music into a sort of Glee Club homework assignment didn’t work as well in “Vitamin D,” where it seemed to overcomplicate the episode, but here the episode used “Endless Love” to start the Rachel/Will storyline and then complicated it with the “Young Girl/Don’t Stand So Close To Me” mashup, while using “I’ll Stand By You” and “(You’re) Having My Baby” to give Finn a voice in the episode. Overall, the music was a nice thematic fit for the various sequences, although I have two nitpicks.

First, I’m tired of mashups: they’re not nearly as great as the show things they are, and while they’re almost always well put together I’d have much rather had Will just sing “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” for the sake of the show resisting the Mashup trend. Second, and more problematically, the overproduction of the numbers got in the way here. It’s one thing when it’s the entire Glee Club performing “Lean on Me,” or something taking place in an auditorium (or meant to be played up as dramatic like “Endless Love”). But Finn’s performance in front of Quinn’s parents would have been far more genuine if he had been singing it live, with imperfections and nervousness and actual character. The production effectively strips the character out of these numbers, and while Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele and extensive voiceover work made “Endless Love” more personal, Finn had none of the same and I thought the number was weak as a result. The show would be infinitely more effective if it started to differentiate between these elements, as it would make both types of performance stand out that much more.

Overall, though, a solid episode: it has the trademark unevenness in places, sure, but it was inoffensive in terms of the problematic storylines and had a number of strong dramatic storylines while not failing to bring the funny either (I’ll get to jokes in the bullets).

Cultural Observations

  • An entire episode without Sue Sylvester, which was good for the sake of the episode (she wasn’t needed), but always a bit of a disappointment.
  • However, Brittany has really developed into a great comic talent. There was nothing elegant about Brittany’s jokes in the opening sequence, but her belief that “ballad” was a word for a male duck (that’s a mallard, Brittany) was really just a bit of foreshadowing for her hushed “I bet the duck’s in the hat” when Will goes to draw names. Just a really fun little comic bit, and the kind of clever humour I like the see the show go for over broader comedy.
  • Charlotte Ross and Gregg Henry were great casting for Quinn’s parents, as was Sarah Drew for Susie Pepper – part of me feels as if Glee could pull a Freaks and Geeks/Friday Night Lights and pick up an Emmy for Best Casting, as it’s really been across the board great (plus the casting agents are always given credit for finding good young talent).
  • Both Terri and Emma had hints of their past storylines with Will in the episode (Terri’s bloody puss evasion, and Emma being just as sucked in by Will’s song and dance as Rachel was), but the episode wasn’t about them and so it didn’t bother going into them. This is a good development, as Jayma Mays was allowed to remain charming without being turned into a homewrecker and there were even a few moments where I remembered how potentially interesting Terri was (being crazy but in an ultimately sane way) before the hysterical pregnancy.
  • I saw a few people on Twitter mention this, but the cameraman during the dinner table sequence at Quinn’s house was having a seizure: the show’s had some bad shaky cam in the past, but this was perhaps the worst we’ve seen, and it made no sense in the context of the scene. I know I compared it to Friday Night Lights above, but this is not actually that show, and it doesn’t work for me.


Filed under Glee

6 responses to “Glee – “Ballad”

  1. Chris Becker

    Great analysis — I’m totally in sync with how you’re feeling about this show. I was especially frustrated by the Kurt/Finn storyline. I would love nothing more than to see Kurt get a romantic storyline, but it’s obviously not going to happen with Finn (though I guess you should never say never with this show), and more so, I’d like to see a genuine friendship between a gay and straight male on tv where it doesn’t have to be about the former being hot for the latter. Just as it’s refreshing when a male-female pairing among straight leads isn’t about love/sex, it’d be nice to see a genuine friendship mined between Finn and Kurt. The only one I can think of in the shows I watch is on a soap, Oliver and Christian on One Life To Live, though even there there’s also a female included in the friendship, as if she’s needed as a “buffer.” (That totally sounds dirty. Not intended. But I’ll leave it anyway.) But as ever with Glee, I guess we have to wait and see how it develops.

  2. That pooping line was the best think I’ve heard all month.

  3. I’m betting they don’t find a gay love interest for Kurt until we meet the other schools – no sooner than sectionals, and probably after that.

    • Tausif Khan

      I thought the gimmick of the unlikely pairings with the ballad assignment would help to establish the supporting cast and turn the show into more of an ensemble. Mercedes was reduced to being a mere cipher to voice want the plot thinks about Finn and Quinn. This episode could have gone further in pushing forward on the emotional ground established between Tina and Artie and established some of the same emotional depth with the other characters. Instead it chose to waste it on a screwball storyline that came out of no where in Rachel falling “in love” with Mr. Shue.

  4. julian

    even then it’s not a mallard it’s a drake… 😀

    lol Brittany i hope she gets funnier

  5. wow

    Is this a joke? Rachel’s crying over her embarrassment with Mr Shue was way more emotional than the horrible fake crying of Quinn being l kicked out. Rachel’s crush was the best thing about this episode. And how is Rachel heartless? She is the most forgiving person ever. She is by far the heart and soul of the show. She only left glee l club becasue of how Mr Shue acted and teased her to come to glee. She wasn’t going to quit until her tried to show her up again.

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