October 5th, 2010
If you ever needed proof of a higher power, take the fact that “Grilled Cheesus” more or less works.
While problematic in a number of areas, there is an emotional core to this spirituality-themed episode which manages to ground what seems like a really terrible idea in theory. While the show has handled some bigger issues quite effectively, like Kurt’s sexuality, it has also botched numerous issues, like (at times) Kurt’s sexuality. For every moment of emotional honesty, there are situations (like Burt’s big speech admonishing Finn) which seem to undermine those moments; while inconsistency is problematic in almost any series, here those inconsistencies often write over previous developments of character, theme, and universe.
“Grilled Cheesus” does nothing to solve the series’ problems of consistency as a whole, wildly different from everything else this season, but by grounding a difficult subject with the series’ most proven recurring storyline Brad Falchuk has created a stand-alone take on religion that only rarely offends my sensibilities.
And that, my friends, is some sort of miracle.
Sue Sylvester is effectively an antagonist in this hour, but that antagonism loses its comic context: in her attempt to stop the Glee club from discussing spirituality in that week’s assignment, she assures Will (and the audience) that “I’m not joking here.” This is expressly clear when she speaks with Emma about her decision to use Kurt to help get the assignment shut down, evoking her sister and her childhood struggles to understand why a higher power would allow that to happen (and for the world to judge her). It’s similar to Kurt’s comments about homosexuality earlier in the hour, and speaks to a legitimate and meaningful position regarding faith and spirituality. Sue’s final scene with her sister lacks any real substance beyond creating an emotional connection, positioning faith within an existing relationship which has proven resonant within the series.
It’s the founding principle of the entire episode: by surrounding the question of religion around the relationship between Kurt and his father, we have a built in appreciation for the characters which emphasizes the tragedy of the situation. In many ways, it couldn’t be more forced: Kurt and Burt happen to get into a fight about a weekly tradition (get it?), and they happen to discuss his unhealthy eating habits. However, because we like Burt a lot, and because this story has been so good in the past, we respond to the emotion of the situation even when the machinations necessary to get there are almost painfully lazy. However, to the episode’s credit, once they get there the show isn’t lazy in the least: the casting on young Kurt made the flashback sequence scarily real, Kurt’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was pretty fantastic, and Chris Colfer could be heading towards another (almost entirely dramatic) Emmy nomination with a performance like this one.
This was enough to gloss over many of the episode’s smaller issues. For example, the idea of Rachel singing “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” to a comatose Burt is completely ridiculous, considering that we’ve never seen the characters interact in the past, and the fact that the Glee club is usually so divided that the notion that Quinn, Mercedes and Rachel would all stop by to pray for him seems particularly bizarre. However, because we have such an affection for Kurt and his father, that goodwill sort of transposes itself onto the other characters: we would be there to support Kurt, and so we understand why they would band together. Instead of the “power of religion” being the guiding force of the characters’ behaviours in the episode, they seem to be guided by a general sense of empathy and caring which we can relate to in this particular circumstance.
And even when we do consider how religion was dealt with by the various characters, it felt pretty consistent with what we know about them. In some cases, sure, this becomes a sort of a stereotype (Mercedes’ church fitting so comfortably into our expectations), but at no point did it feel that a character expressed an opinion related to religion which felt contrived for the purposes of this episode (no, not even Finn, although we’ll get to him in a minute). It makes sense that Rachel would be connected with her Jewish heritage, that Puck would resist blanket religion, and that Brittany would fall asleep while praying. Similarly, Kurt and Sue’s atheism speaks to their personal histories, and even though the show has rarely openly discussed religion in the past the episode neither contradicted previous evidence (Rachel and Puck’s brief fling, for example) nor contradicted the series’ own logic. Even with an overarching theme as large as religion, this still managed to seem like a character story, which is quite the feat.
As for Finn, meanwhile, his storyline is likely going to face the most criticism, and with good reason: it is the only one to operate in extremes, presenting the character as a horny kid praying to God to fulfill his wish of getting to second base with his girlfriend before having him realize that religion is far more complicated (and, at times, enigmatic). If anything, the problem with the storyline is less that Finn is acting out of character and more that his most basic quality (his stupidity) is over-emphasized in an episode which is otherwise quite somber. The plot simply floats around without any real emotional connection to the storyline for too long, making its eventual connection (as Finn starts to realize that his “wishes” have negative consequences, and that he should be praying for less selfish things to begin with) seem much more blatant than it might otherwise have been. The rest of the episode ended up feeling like the show’s characters confronting questions of religion, but Finn’s storyline felt like the show confronting religion, which is more problematic.
It’s the problem with any sort of theme on Glee: while it might resonate with the characters, we can’t help but notice that the soundtrack involves a lot of obvious selections relating to religion, reminding us that there is someone surfing around on YouTube trying to think of all of the songs involving religion. I thought the songs were overall well done, outside of something I will complain about in the bullet points below, but they were the one part of the episode which risked dragging it down to where I expected it to be. There were just too many of them, and they just seemed too fully-formed in the context of the hour. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, as there is no other way to watch this show without ripping one’s hair out, but when “belief” was such an important part of the hour it became an issue: specifically, a number of songs were used as a replacement for true words of comfort for Kurt, and yet their over-produced/rehearsed nature seemed to contradict that more than in previous weeks. Ultimately, Lea Michele channeled Streisand quite effectively, and Amber Riley can sing, so it’s not as if it kills the episode dead; however, only in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” did it feel as if the music and the story really came together in an emotional and truly powerful fashion.
However, there were enough moments of true power in that story to keep the episode’s thematic elements in solid territory: Jane Lynch’s delivery on her speech about Sue’s sister, for example, successfully transitions the character from antagonist to human being in the way that an episode like this one should. That Falchuk successfully transcends the Glee club’s existing hierarchy in an effective fashion owes mostly to the use of Kurt and Burt as the episode’s core, but I do think that there are also some interesting things said about religion in the episode. By giving the atheist perspective to one of the series’ most beloved heroes (Kurt) and its most beloved villain (Sue), the episode avoids defining religion based on pre-existing conflicts; similarly, Will’s lack of involvement in the religious elements of the story allows the students to largely confront religion on their own terms, offering insight into how religion resonates within a younger generation. While the one-hour musical is not the form to truly tackle the complex issues of religion, and the series stuck to Christianity and Judaism beyond the split-second appearance of the Sikh acupuncturist, that you could technically take something away from the episode relating to religion does separate “Grilled Cheesus” from the majority of Glee’s episodes.
In theory, this should have been a disaster, so perhaps I saw fewer problems with Finn’s storyline or the song choices than I would have otherwise. I want to be clear that my skepticism was not just based on Glee’s status as a “comedy”: shows like Scrubs or M*A*S*H managed to successfully tackle serious subjects in the context of sitcom in the past, so Glee should be able to do the same. The real issue is that the show is inconsistent in its second season the way Scrubs became in its fifth, already to the point where a log line becomes a ticking time bomb. “Grilled Cheesus,” in the hands of the series’ most consistent writer in Falchuk, earns its emotional moments and successfully tackles a difficult issue, so I have to give credit where credit is due; that being said, however, I also think I’ll be just as skeptical the next time a similarly volatile log line pops up online.
And I’m not sure if that’s going to change any time soon.
- I won’t hold it against this episode, since it was Ryan Murphy’s fault, but Artie playing football? Just as ridiculous as it sounded in theory.
- Okay, let’s get it out of the way: “Losing My Religion” has nothing to do with religion.
- Also, “One of Us” is a much more confused and complicated song than the final performance seemed to indicate, especially in the context of “Group Performance” which usually suggests that everyone is on the same page (which seems odd, even in the context of Burt waking up).
- Sadly, they cut the second half of the bridge from Mark Salling’s TV performance of “Only the Good Die Young,” as it’s my favourite part of the song, but it was still a fun (if fairly tangential) performance of a song I quite enjoy.
- I’m irrationally excited about next week’s episode: I don’t particularly care that Sam is joining New Directions, but by golly I love my some Elton John and Kiki Dee.