April 13th, 2010
I considering myself an appreciator of Glee, one of the few “deconstruction-focused” critics who has been writing about the show in a dedicated fashion (some weeks, it’s just Todd and I), but I don’t like that being a “fan” has become an all-or-nothing proposal. I can like the show while admitting that it has some pretty considerable flaws, but it seems like FOX’s promotional blitz has very clearly divided those who are chugging the kool-aid and those who are sipping it politely and discussing the sugar to water ratio, and as someone who falls in the latter category I can already sense that this is becoming one of those shows where any sort of indepth, negative review is going to be attacked for “missing the point of the show” and the like from some – but not, of course, all – viewers of the show.
This is unfortunate because I think how Glee tries to accomplish its goals is actually far more interesting than the goals themselves, as the balance between music and dialogue, or comedy and drama, or fantasy and reality all create some very intriguing problems that Ryan Murphy and Co. have to deal with on a weekly basis. That the show isn’t always successful shouldn’t be a surprise considering the volatile elements it chooses to take on each week, and the idea that its can-do spirit or its exuberance can account for its occasional missteps is the sort of romantic notion that only works in the show’s universe, not in ours.
“Hell-O” is a strong season premiere not because of the hype, or because of the musical numbers that the show chooses, but because those musical numbers are very well focused, the introduction of new characters is well-handled, and the thematic parallels are useful enough that the contrivances necessary to create them are forgivable. After a closure-heavy conclusion that wrapped things up too neatly, the show manages to complicate things quite effectively as it prepares for what appears to be a lengthy run – forgive me if I don’t let the show run around the hurdles every week.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but there’s a difference between next week’s Madonna episode and this week’s “Hello Songs” episodes in terms of how themes operate. This week, the “Hello” songs made a lot of sense: there were a lot of introductions this week, and a lot of focus on identity and the like which fit into the various songs – this means that the theme serves a purpose beyond grouping the songs together, which makes it feel like part of a broader strategy. By comparison, based on critics’ responses I’ve read on Twitter, next week’s Madonna episode is entirely self-aware that they’re doing an episode filled with Madonna episodes, and it becomes about “Glee doing a theme week” as opposed to a theme that forcibly, but logically enough, makes its way into the story through Will’s lesson plan. Songs play an important role at emphasizing theme within the show itself, and I’m sure Emma singing (I presume) “Like a Virgin” will mean something to her character, but the promotional focus on Madonna makes the songs designed more for their after-market value as opposed to their in-show effectiveness, and the show is much better dramatically when it focuses on the stories as opposed to the sales.
I thought “Hell-O” struck a great balance with that: some songs felt like they drove character action (Finn’s “Hello I Love You” motivating him out of his depressive state, Rachel and Jesse’s “Hello” bringing the two characters closer together), other songs felt like they emerged from character action (Rachel’s “Gives You Hell” as a response to Finn’s rejection), and other songs simply played the role of show-stopping production numbers (Vocal Adrenaline on “Highway to Hell” and New Directions on “Hello Goodbye”). The songs were used for diverse reasons, and they were also used for particular reasons: each song played a clear role in a particular story, and some were even paired with real conversations where characters talked about their feelings. This was unquestionably one of the strongest musical episodes for the show in its entire run, the songs feeling perfectly chosen for the scenes in question as opposed to feeling perfectly chosen to sell iTunes singles.
“Hell-O” also did a nice job of dealing with the necessary task of undoing all of the happy endings from “Sectionals.” In some cases, this required some shenanigans like Sue blackmailing the Principal to return as New Directions’ chief antagonist and move the “Glee Club Survival Test” to Regionals, but in other cases they actually had to justify why Rachel and Finn shouldn’t be together, or why Will and Emma shouldn’t ride off into the sunset happily in love. And overall, I think the show achieves the first goal pretty seamlessly: Jonathan Groff was very strong as Jesse St. James in terms of distracting Rachel from pursuing Finn, while there were enough great one-liners from Brittany and Santana that Finn’s temptation seemed logical (especially given the setup in “Hello I Love You”). It helps that in high school character are supposed to be impulsive, supposed to swing from fling to fling and have a different boy’s picture posted in their locker each day. I felt the story was, like every other story in the history of this show, tremendously rushed to get through the exposition of the status quo, Finn’s confidence boost, Rachel’s redemption song, Jesse’s arrival, the Glee Club’s anger, Finn’s realization, and then Rachel’s subterfuge, but I liked enough of what was happening (especially the fact that they let Lea Michele legitimately act dramatically for the first time in a while) that I’m willing to go along for the ride.
Things were a bit rougher in terms of Will and Emma, but that’s sort of inevitable. This is going to seem really strange, especially since none of you probably kept watching the 9th Season of Scrubs, but their tendency towards parallel storylines caught up to them once they introduced the new interns and moved Turk and Dr. Cox into mentorship roles. They would be creating storylines and sort of fold Turk’s story in with one of the interns’s stories, which resulted in an immature and fairly reductive depiction of Turk for the sake of making the connection between the two stories. Similarly, there were points in Will’s story tonight, in particular his random makeout session with Idina Menzel’s rival glee club director, where it seemed like Will was acting too out of character compared to what we’ve seen before just for the sake of creating the parallels with Finn. I think the show could have made the comparison, and set up Will’s tension with Shelby, without using that scene, and without actually having Shelby and Emma give Will the same speech that he gave Finn earlier in the episode. The show is cute, and I’m fine with that, but sometimes it can get too cute to try to wrap things up neatly, and it seemed like overkill when they turned Will into quite that much of a womanizer. By comparison, the more nuanced material with Will recreating his relationship with Terri were nicely handled, both in terms of the legitimate tension (and lack of crazy) in Terri and Emma’s scene together and as a way to get us to understand why Will and Emma can still be in love but still not quite be ready to get together.
As for the Sue Sylvester question, I think that’s one situation where the status quo is working out of context but not within the context of the show itself. If they want great gags for promos, then Sue Sylvester as an insult-machine completely and totally focused on taking down New Directions gives them plenty of material to work with. However, I think there’s a point where Sue needs to have a motivation that doesn’t involve moustache twirling, or at the very least needs to spend an episode where she isn’t focused on petty vengeance. I really like Jane Lynch, and I thought the scenes with Brittany and Santana were varied enough that the “fun” outweighed my concerns over her character, but it’s one area of the show that didn’t feel like it was trying to develop in any sort of new direction to head into the Back Nine, and I’m always concerned about signs of stagnancy in situations like this.
The episode also failed to do much in terms of bringing the supporting characters into the spotlight: while the “Gives You Hell” number did a great job of sort of giving each character their own little moment, even getting “Other Asian” into the mix for some lead dancing, but it seemed like the characters (as Jeremy Mongeau pointed out on Twitter) were sort of just quipping as opposed to actually conversing, or emerging as a collective barrier to Rachel’s relationship with Jesse as opposed to acting as individuals. The show can’t necessarily feature the supporting characters every week, don’t get me wrong, but it can’t get back into the habit of building characters in certain episodes but then dropping all of that development the next week. In some ways, Brittany has had more consistent character development than any of the “regulars,” and while I’m madly in love with the character’s non sequitors I still think the show needs to work on that particular balance.
Glee is always going to be a show that tries for balance but occasionally has good reason to indulge in one way or another. Some weeks the show will do a ridiculous number of musical numbers (next week included, apparently), some weeks the show will become extremely dramatic (“Wheels,” for example), and in some weeks musical numbers will break out of reality and a string quartet will come out of nowhere. In an episode all about greetings, we need to remember that Glee has been that sort of messy, wacky show from the word go, and while that doesn’t mean the show shouldn’t have to grow or adapt as the flaws in that initial impression become apparent, it does mean that an episode like “Hell-O” remained engaging, relevant, and purposeful in a way that some of the show’s early Season One episodes failed to accomplish.
And that’s a nice first impression to make for the start of the spring season.
- For those of you who don’t know, Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele starred opposite one another on Broadway, originating the roles of Melchior and Wendla in the Tony-Award winning Spring Awakening. I never got to see the musical live, but the music is pretty damn fantastic, so I’d suggest giving it a listen if you get the chance. This will sound mean, and I really do like Cory Monteith, but it is nice for Michele to finally have a duet partner who doesn’t need to be auto-tuned and that isn’t creepily also her teacher.
- It should be some sort of crime to feature Idina Menzel in an episode of your musical television series and not have her sing a single word – if she doesn’t sing during Kristin Chenoweth’s upcoming return, I will throw a shoe.
- Switching up Football for Basketball makes a lot of sense seasonally, but I do sort of wonder just what season these characters are in right now: the weird scheduling meant that there was no sense of any holidays by which we could really chart the calendar, so the show is operating in some sort of atemporal space where the months of the year are replaced with Glee competition scheduling.
- I’m sort of torn about the questions regarding the over-production of the numbers: I think I’m to the point where I’m getting used to it, at least when the show wants to jump between different locations or when they want to delve into fantasy. I also liked that they did have Matthew Morrison just sing a couple of bars of Neil Diamond to Emma without the need to produce it – perhaps if they worked in more small bursts of music, as opposed to full-length songs, the creative and musical environment of the show could feel more organic while not losing the iTunes sales that are clearly the endgame behind producing every number in studio (even if they’d likely list feasibility as a major reason).
- Some major burns on CBS, with both Jerry Bruckheimer and Ghost Whisperer getting some negative mentions – there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but CBS is sort of an easy target. When they take on scheduling competitor Lost, I’ll be more impressed.
- Brittany’s line of the night: dolphins as gay sharks was dumb, but forgetting her middle name was better timed.