November 25th, 2009
Last week, I had an extensive Twitter conversation with Jace Lacob about Glee, and the argument boiled down to the question of whether or not the show’s characters were one-dimensional. And what was interesting is that Jace and I don’t disagree: the show’s characters are, on occasion, blindly one-dimensional. However, I argued that the show is still in its infancy, and that considering its identity crisis it’s actually doing a decent job of slowly sketching out its characters.
However, I do think that one of the show’s problems is its decision to have characters waver between substantial character development and broad archetypes week by week. While a show like Friday Night Lights, with a similar ensemble cast of characters that often move in and out of the show’s narrative, is dealing with fairly grounded and realistic characters, Glee is slowly humanizing caricatures. And as a result, you have a character like Artie fluctuating from a handicapped student struggling to relate to his classmates to a random background character in a wheelchair, which feels false. Rather than the character development compounding over time, changing the way the show’s dynamics operate, the exact opposite is happening: while individual episodes give Kurt or Quinn or Puck storylines that expand on their identity, outside of the main serialized storyline (Finn and Quinn’s baby) they revert back to their original modes.
It creates a sense that, for a show which is at its best when characters are being developed and explored in a concentrated fashion, the plots of the show itself don’t actually seem to be changing in kind, and the show reverts back to a farcical comedy more often than not. At the heart of “Hairography” is the fairly simple premise that beneath the distractions we create for ourselves is a sense of our true identity, as various characters test out potential distractions only to find that their heart takes them in a different direction.
However, Glee is a show that is all about distractions, and while this individual episode may have peeled everything back to show the supposed true colours of the various characters the show is never going to stop delivering show-stopping musical numbers or interjecting random musical sequences into largely unrelated scenes. The result is an episode that, rather than representing a legitimate step forward for the series, only draws attention to some of its long-term, cumulative limitations: it can tug at the heartstrings and build character when it wants to, but this is never going to start being a show about twelve kids singing on stools.
Especially not with a fake pregnancy storyline hanging over it.
Now, I am aware that this show (as Twitter user Genshikenn points out) is never overly subtle, so I shouldn’t be annoyed that “Hairography” throws the distractions narrative done our throats with numerous mentions of the term (Quinn wanting to distract Finn, Terri wanting to distract Will, Kurt self-identify as a distraction, Sue talking about being distracted from winning, and of course the eponymous hairography). But when your central theme is the idea that things should be simple and clear, stripped down of the big hair and the crazy dancing in order to fall into a natural pattern, and your episode works for every second of that emotional impact without an ounce of subtlety, that’s problematic for me. Ian Brennan’s script argues that no distraction will ever truly satisfy you, and that you’ll always return to what feels natural and right; however, while I thought the episode resulted in a number of compelling moments (especially the Sign Language collaboration on “Imagine,” which went for the emotional jugular), it never felt particularly natural in the least.
It’s an episode that also demonstrates that the idea of developing each character individually isn’t actually improving on their overall dynamic, as the Glee Club itself felt bizarrely splintered in this episode. When Kurt commented that this was the first time Quinn had ever spoken to him, it reverted back to the stereotypes (Kurt as the social outcast, Quinn as the stuckup and opportunistic cheerleader) that have largely been written out of the two characters through episodes like “Preggers” and last week’s “Ballad.” It’s one thing if every episode doesn’t feature a scene that clearly shows an evolution of a particular character, but Quinn and Kurt could have had this conversation five weeks ago and it would have been just as relevant. In fact, the entire episode could have taken place after “Preggers” and it wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch. And while I understand it’s still early in the season, a lot of substantial character development has happened since that point that should be reflected in how these characters act that just isn’t. Yes, we read Quinn’s efforts to distract Finn and get to know Puck as less problematic since we’ve both seen Quinn humbled (in “Ballad”) and Puck humanized (in “Mash-Up”), but the episode did nothing to reflect this (especially in terms of turning Puck into a complete and total cad).
There was a lot of criticism of “Mash-Up” (where Puck and Rachel got together, and where we saw the Emma/Will story front and center), which was also written by Brennan, but I liked the episode at the time because it showed different sides to characters and connected the three stories together with a central theme that made sense for each of them. However, now I realize that what really made me like the episode was that Terri Schuester was entirely absent from it. I like Jessalyn Gilsig, but this episode reminded us why we were all so glad they put the storyline on the back burner for a while. Not only is Terri’s sister unquestionably the worst character on the show (compared to her, Terri’s downright compelling), but the storyline is the ultimate sort of distraction from where the heart of the show really lies. And perhaps what made Brennan’s theme fall so far short here was that there is no way he is capable of convincing the argument that there is an honest, heartfelt reason why Terri continues to fake a pregnancy considering the potential long-term ramifications. The show has shown us too much of Will and Emma’s flirtations for us to actually root for this marriage to survive, and any chance of having pity for Terri was gone the moment the character was conceived as a shrill drain on Will’s spirit. There’s no redeeming this storyline, no matter the amount of times the theme is drilled into our heads, and it certainly coloured my opinion of the episode considering its prevalence.
There were, of course, elements of the episode I quite liked. I thought that meeting the two other Glee clubs was a solid extension of the show’s world view, and both Eve and Michael Hitchcock (who I recognized most as Ira Gilligan from Arrested Development) were strong as their respective leadership. The scene with Hitchcock’s Dalton Rumba (which is an amazing name, by the way) and Will going back and forth with the partially deaf Rumba misinterpreting what Will is saying is a very simple comedy scene, and with Hitchcock’s timing was really well done. I thought getting a preview of the other schools ahead of Sectionals is also smart in terms of making that event seem like an actual event, as “Sectionals” has seemed like an ambiguous goal up to this point. The episode also nicely used the schools to provide the episode’s broadest storyline, as the Jane Adams Academy girls provide the inspiration for hairography and the Academy for the Deaf provides the impulse to switch to something much simpler.
And if the episode had just been about that idea, perhaps it might have been a more consistent episode, but it just tried to do too many things. Sue suddenly back and gunning for Glee club came out of nowhere, and although it creates tension for Sectionals it never really fit into the episode other than some great delivery from Jane Lynch. And when you pile in Rachel and Kurt’s love for Finn, Quinn’s concern over Puck, Terri’s attempts to distract Will, and then try to throw them all together, you realize that nothing really got accomplished: Quinn’s back where she belongs, Will is still devoted to his child, and Finn and Quinn are still together with Kurt and Rachel still pining after him even while acknowledging they don’t have a shot.
Brennan’s approach to the script seemed to be that they had the central idea (dictated by the big musical numbers), so what they needed was ways to tie the characters into that idea in order to effectively fill time. There was no specific character development that needed to happen in the episode, and you could sense this as the stories were happening. Twitter user ageekinthepink notes that it seems like the show keeps raising the same issues as if they are new, and that nothing ever seems to conclude, and while I’m not sure the show is going to be able to “wrap up” storylines just yet (Terri will be the first real test) I do agree that it seems like an episode like this one invented or repeated conflict to fill time more than letting things follow through naturally. It went into characters’ heads to show them hatching crazy schemes in a way that kept things moving but that never felt natural even when everyone got together and sang a stirring version of “True Colours” in the end.
As a result, “Hairography” is unfortunately devoid of the quality that made me argue the show’s merits with Jace in the first place. Its sense of incremental character development requires an acknowledgement that some things have changed, and for episodes to give a clear sense that our changing perspectives on these characters are in some way reflected in their behaviour (as none of the character beats have taken place entirely isolated from the show’s other characters). Instead, we get an episode that in an effort to fill out an intelligent story decision (previewing and setting the stage for Sectionals in two weeks’ time) reverts the characters to their original archetypes and accomplishes nothing substantial in the process. It’s as if any time the show tries to move the show’s plot forward it has no idea how to move the show’s characters forward at the same time, a sort of stop/start mentality that will only hurt it in the long run.
- Brittany is really coming into her own: she looked smoking hot (yeah, I said it) with her hair down, and “it’s like cool epilepsy” was the night’s most wrong, and thus most right, one-liner.
- When I heard they were doing “Papa Don’t Preach,” I was all excited about seeing more of Quinn’s family situation and the show using the song as an emotional look into her emotional state as she considers keeping the child. Instead, she performed it for a set of pre-teen triplets in an effort to calm them into submission, which is officially the weirdest application of that song I could possibly imagine. It’s a great song, and a great version from Dianna Agron, but its placement in the episode is token to the point of being utterly worthless.
- I’m officially over mashups for this show: I get that it allows them to introduce two different songs or contextualize a song young viewers might not be familiar with (“Hair”) with one they are (“Crazy in Love”), but this one never really came together. The show already did embarrassing with “Push It” much better, and musically I was left wanting more of Mercedes’ Beyonce impression and more of the cast breaking into the counterculture classic.
- Take being said, Artie as Jay-Z? Inspired. I wanted more.
- The show occasionally makes Kurt out to be extremely intelligent, so how do they justify his claim that he and Rachel are equally unlikely to ever be in a relationship with Finn? I get that he’s a dreamer (he’s not the only one, after all), but it makes the character seem blind to the point of incompetence.
- So, question of the week: how do they get out of this Terri situation? My current bet is a double miscarriage, in that Terri chooses to fake a miscarriage to stop the ruse and tell Will the truth only to have Quinn have a miscarriage at the same time leaving everyone childless and sad, which would have Will falling into Terri’s arms if not for the fact that he learns about the fake pregnancy and the pressure she placed on Quinn and murders her for it. Like?