May 11th, 2010
When Ryan Murphy said that the back nine episodes of Glee were going to use “Wheels” as a template, I didn’t know that the show was literally going to take plot elements of “Wheels” and just sort of spin them off into different variations on the same story. “Laryngitis” is the latest in a series of episodes which feels repetitive of what we’ve seen before, as we get a focus on the relationship between Kurt and his father, focus on the tensions created by Rachel’s substantial ego, and even the introduction of disability as a way of putting other concerns into perspective (with Tina’s stutter being replaced by Rachel’s tonsillitis).
The episode embodies many of the thing that I’ve found problematic in recent episodes, so it may seem strange when I say that it was ultimately quite successful. Yes, the show doesn’t entirely work as an out-and-out after school special as Ryan Murphy seems to want it to be, and I still think the show’s all-or-nothing attitude is reckless in ways that only the show’s best characters can really handle, but the stories the show rushed into this week featured characters who I like to spend time with, and reached conclusions which felt honest to those characters in ways that previous episodes did not. The reason is that the show doesn’t try to haphazardly connect them to broad ongoing storylines: for once the show sort of settled into a groove, capturing a sustained moment within the lives of the Glee Club rather than periods of intense conflict.
Those elements were still present, but they didn’t feel like they were being used as a shortcut to something more substantial, which helps me accept this episode as a singular statement of musical enjoyment when it may not have worked as part of a larger arc.
I don’t know if identity crisis really counts as a theme on Glee considering that it’s been a defining factor of the show since day one, but in this episode we have Puck, Kurt and Rachel all reacting to crises of various ridiculousness. Puck’s insecurities stem from a haircut, while Rachel’s stem from her concern over whether tonsillitis could damage her vocal ability (a real concern should she have her tonsils removed, although not to the degree the character indicated), so at first we take their anxiety lightly. By comparison, Kurt’s anxieties are the show’s longest ongoing storyline, as he struggles with his father becoming more involved with Finn’s life, which creates a bit of a gap between the various stories in the episode. Murphy’s challenge is to get them all to the same place, a sort of saccharine self-awareness which U2’s “One” is used to represent.
I think he’s to varying degrees successful, mainly because the material in between makes up for the rushed nature of it all. In the case of Puck, the idea that the loss of his mohawk would challenge his social standing is a smart one, and I was glad to see Mark Salling get some more material, but I don’t understand why he felt he had to date Mercedes. I think the story could have worked out just as well if he had gone to her for advice rather than sex, even if it means stretching the character a bit: the show has this tendency to have people move in the direction of sex more than companionship, and while that may be realistic of hormone-laced teenagers it’s getting both repetitive and reductive. However, the result of that story was the absolutely fantastic “Lady is a Tramp” number and the undeniable pleasures of Mercedes and Santana giving Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine” a spin, and the end result unwrites Mercedes’ bizarre decision to join the Cheerios and has the character back to her confident self, so I’ll accept the leap of logic early on. The show’s music can’t fix the show’s plot shortcuts on a broad level, but when they tell isolated one-episode stories like this I’m willing to look past some rough patches so long as the musical numbers and character conclusions work out, and this was a nice showcase for both Riley and Salling.
I found Rachel’s story a bit more problematic, but it did a few things that I thought finally brought some actual non-boy-related development to the character. First off, they let Lea Michele sing live, both in order to maintain the emotions of the final sequences and to properly demonstrate singing “poorly” early on in the episode – I’ve been complaining about this for a while (including in the comments of Ben Aslinger’s piece on “Home” at Antenna), so I like seeing more of that “authenticity” for the show. Second, while I’ll agree with some of the comments on Twitter indicating that the episode steps into dangerous territory to equate tonsillitis with being paralyzed, I actually think this works differently (and better) than Sue’s sister in “Wheels.” Rather, as noted above, it’s like Tina’s stutter: the point isn’t to manipulate the audience into feeling bad, but rather to humble Rachel as a character, just as Artie’s takedown of Tina’s so-called disability forced the character to approach her relationship with Artie differently. It has a clear cause/effect relationship on a character, rather than on the audience’s perception of that character, and I thought Michele did a fine job of capturing the awkwardness of that experience (which, admittedly, was more than a bit forced in an after-school special sort of way). It wasn’t a subtle story, but it gave Rachel some comic material throughout and ended on an emotional high, and didn’t feel so manipulative that I couldn’t enjoy it.
However, despite perhaps being the most frustrating in terms of sudden shifts of identity, Kurt’s story is clearly the highlight here based solely on Chris Colfer’s commitment to the character. Normally I’d complain that Kurt goes too far to make out with Brittany or put on some sort of bizarre impression of Mike O’Malley, but Colfer managed to make the latter pretty hysterical and dragged some wonderfully subtle moments (like stopping Brittany to ask what a guy’s lips taste like) out of the former. “Pink Houses” was a pure concept number, done entirely in that accent, but it brought his forced transformation to life through song, and with Colfer the show gives him emotional beats to play outside of the songs which he nails every time. The episode concludes with the one-two punch of Colfer ripping a Kurt-ized “Rose’s Turn” (from Gypsy) to shreds and then yet another tearful confrontation between Kurt and his father that should feel repetitive at this point but just keeps delivering. Colfer’s the kind of performer who makes Glee’s excesses feel like second nature, and I’d even go so far as to say that “Laryngitis” is a damn fine Emmy submission for the kid.
While these stories picked up on earlier events to some degree (Rachel’s “Run Joey Run” moment was discussed, Kurt’s anxiety picked up from earlier events, and Mercedes’ Cheerios run became a point of interest), it didn’t feel like it was forcing any of it. That sort of “ease” to the storyline made it so that Will’s assignment didn’t feel so blunt and obvious, while Sue’s presence offered a couple of fun one-liners rather than the character taking over the entire episode. I don’t know if it was just that Jesse St. James was absent this week, but this seemed like a welcome change of pace in this nine-episode arc, and that which hasn’t worked in weeks past just seemed to click here.
- I think some of the “Identity Performances” staged for the Glee Club took on an awkward tone which broke the show’s reality (like Mercedes and Santana getting into a fight, or Finn singing “Jessie’s Girl” so pointedly to Rachel), but the performances were generally strong enough that I’m willing to look past it.
- The scenes did offer a chance to focus on a more subtle side of Brittany, mainly her inability to discern the quality of a performance (as she claps and smiles through Rachel’s “The Climb” and the oddity of Kurt’s “Pink Houses.”)
- Interesting that the show introduces another “list” in this week’s episode, but lets it drop once the purpose is clear: the Glist went on too long into the episode, while Rachel’s list of people not singing in practice was a nice little play on the show’s lip synching and led to logical character beats (Finn insecure with Jesse around, Santana content to be pretty, Brittany terrible at remembering lyrics).
- I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but did Kurt’s giant lighted sign disappear once his Dad was clearly in the auditorium? I’m interested in the line between fantasy and reality in those kinds of performances, and I was too distracted by the emotions of it all to focus on the sign.
- The previews ruined it, but Sue’s “Liking show tunes doesn’t make you gay, it just makes you awful” is still comedy gold.