October 12th, 2010
I’ve talked a lot about the “Three Glees” theory in the past (TM Todd VanDerWerff), where each of the three co-creators have a different perspective on the series. However, in most instances we focus on the whiplash between the various different episodes, a sort of multiple personality disorder, but what I don’t think we’ve theorized on as much is the way in which these Glees comment on one another. I think this was because, before “Duets,” I don’t think there had ever been an episode of the show which so clearly commented on the work of one of the other writers.
Since the show is basically serialized, there is always an element of connection between the episodes, but “Duets” offers direct commentary on both long-term characterizations and specific events from “Theatricality,” an episode which I had some serious problems with earlier in the year. Ian Brennan, scripting his first episode since the premiere, has created an episode which adds unseen depth to previous storylines, makes pretty substantial strides with characters both old and new, and in the process convinces me that in a scenario where one writer is to take over the series, Brennan is without question the show’s white knight.
“Duets” is not the most daring episode of the series, but it is unquestionably the most consistent, and that alone makes this one of the series’ finest hours.
Now, perhaps “Duets” is cheating: with Puck randomly in juvenile detention – a story which seemed the only problematic character development in the hour, to be honest – the show has one less character to deal with, allowing them to work Chord Overstreet’s Sam Evans into the story without too much concern. However, then your realize that they still managed to give every single character their own moment: the duet structure gave almost every character a song, and those who didn’t get musical numbers (Brittany and Artie) got a storyline which offered insight into both characters.
Also, the pairings created offered both insight into existing relationships and interesting new relationships. Rachel and Finn still don’t have a great deal of romantic chemistry, but not unlike Jeff and Britta on Community (who have no romantic chemistry, but really clicked when they turned into co-conspirators) they have quite a bit of chemistry when masterminding a scheme to allow Sam to win the duet competition. It may seem a bit sudden for Rachel to suddenly realize that she’s a horrible person, but I sort of love the fact that her eventual solution (to help Sam win so he will stay in the club and help them win Nationals) is kind and yet still a bit selfish. Brennan found the proper outlet for Rachel’s behaviour, as she turns her attention from “beating” everyone to manipulating the team so that they will eventually help her career. Rachel has, in the past, occasionally become borderline horrible as a character, but here she was just her normal, screwball self – instead of struggling with losing, she struggles with how to lose on purpose, and while the punchline (the missionary-themed performance of “With You I’m Born Again”) wasn’t hysterical the episode was one of Rachel’s best in a long time.
Finn, meanwhile, gets to become part of the episode’s most exciting element for me: the retroactive retelling of “Theatricality,” where Finn used the “f-word” in Kurt’s presence and was summarily chewed out by Mike O’Malley. The scene bugged me because Kurt was more or less stalking Finn, and his behaviour was far consistently worse than Finn’s one inappropriate outburst, so to have Finn completely change his point of view in response to that lecture without standing his ground felt incredibly false. However, perhaps Ian Brennan had the same issue with Ryan Murphy’s work on the episode, because here Finn revisits the issue with Kurt, and then Burt Hummel brings up the fact that Finn’s mother told him the other side of the story. Suddenly, the show goes from creating a moralistic tale of the dangers of homophobia to an actual conversation about how Kurt manages his sexuality. While the show still sympathizes with Kurt, which I understand, it allowed for the idea that he may not be acting responsibly in terms of how he projects his sexuality (here onto Sam, who we learn at episode’s end is decidedly not the Kurt love interest that early rumors pegged him to be).
Admittedly, the episode had me in the its pocket as soon as it made this decision: it’s one thing for the show to present an episode free from fundamental problems relating to character development and morality, but it’s quite another to present a consistent episode and simultaneously rewrite a previous scene which was extremely problematic. It’s good will that the show hasn’t had for quite some time, and the episode resisted squandering it. I’d argue the closest it got was choosing to have Brittany and Artie start a relationship and have sex, but even that was surrounded with some really insightful commentary from Artie (in both his inability to get over Tina and his response to Brittany’s lack of interest beyond having sex with every football player) and even some actual character development, more than in her own episode even, from Brittany (her final moment using her nose to push a meatball to the empty booth across from her was beautiful). Even when there was something which seemed like it went too far, like Rachel and Finn’s costumes during their performance, it worked because there was a logical reason for it to happen, or the way it resolved itself spoke to something more than the broadest quality of the storyline.
The duets themselves were less about meaning (in that the songs rarely spoke to each character’s situation, with one major exception) and more about chemistry, which has been a problem with the show in the past. While the episode argued that Mike and Tina are not in a perfect relationship, struggling over their dim sum dates, “Sing!” – the exception – was an absolute delight thanks to the showmanship of Harry Shum Jr. and his performance chemistry with Jenna Ushkowitz. Similarly, while Mercedes and Santana are still frenemies and not much else, their performance of “River Deep Mountain High” had an energy about it which spoke to their musical (if not personal) chemistry. Both numbers were there not because there were big storylines for both pairs, but because these are characters we enjoy, actors who can perform with great skill, and because Brennan wanted to show off the ensemble (a noble goal, I’d say).
However, the real star here was the legitimate chemistry between Sam and Quinn, and between Chord Overstreet and Dianna Agron. The story works because it makes sense that Quinn would understand what it’s like to join Glee club and be concerned about your image, and because this is legitimate character development for Quinn and a strong introduction for Sam. While I thought Overstreet acquitted himself quite well, and I liked how their relationship developed over the course of the episode, this is really all about Quinn for me. That scene where she stops herself from kissing him, where she verbalizes her concern over heading down the same path all over again, is the most meaningful moment the character has had so far this season, and even retroactively ties in with her quick return to the Cheerios that wasn’t given much context back in the premiere (than’s Brennan revising Brennan, though). When they get to their final scene, Sam is a fully-realized character and Quinn is entirely connected with the character’s journey throughout the series, and their relationship requires no simplification, no secrets, and no high drama. The story is subtle without seeming slight, and I’m rooting for this couple more than any other couple on the series based solely on their interactions in this hour.
However, in talking about what works in the episode (more or less everything, really), it must be said that it is successful both based on what is present and what is not. It can’t be understated that the absence of Sue Sylvester and the backgrounding of Will Schuester are integral to the episode’s success. With no Emma/Will/John Stamos love triangle, and none of Sue Sylvester’s dastardly schemes, the teenagers were left to their own devices. The episode’s structure was almost non-existent once it was introduced, and yet it created a compelling performance framework and stoked tensions both new and old in a way which spoke to the entire ensemble. Isn’t that the ideal function of an episode of a serialized show like this one, managing to introduce new storylines and develop old ones without micro-managing the storytelling? Even when introducing a new relationship, the show never seemed like it was forcing the issue, perhaps because Will wasn’t actively involved, and Sue wasn’t there to try to crush New Directions with her bare hands, and New Directions didn’t have its funding cut off for the millionth time.
I have no expectations that this will last: the other writers will come back, and considering that the next episode is the Rocky Horror take-off I have an assumption that subtle character development is not likely in the near future. However, “Duets” proves that it is part of Glee’s future as a whole, as Brennan is capable of dialing things down and delivering a quiet, compelling hour of television. Look no further than the conclusion, when Rachel duets with Kurt outside of the competitive element of the episode and mirror Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland’s iconic performance; the performance is strong in and of itself, but note that it avoids the trope of the entire group coming together in song. It gets the point across, that sometimes people can come together without the need for competition, but by keeping it to the group’s two most competitive members as opposed to the entire group also allows it to reinforce Rachel’s development in the episode along with establishing that Kurt’s decision to go solo has not ostracized him from the group. Brennan could have done that with a big group number, but he chose to tell it with a duet, and demonstrated the storytelling economy which helped the episode work so wonderfully.
Perhaps we should fault the show for not taking any chances, considering that this is one of the show’s defining qualities, but I think “Duets” was daring enough: there was a diversity of music, a moment for every character to shine, and even the resistance to using Sue as a comedy crutch. There have been funnier episodes, and episodes with better music, but I don’t think there has been an episode which managed to so successfully use a simple structure to tell complex stories without losing track of the characters involved.
In other words, it may not be the most Glee-ful episode of the series, but I’d argue it is certainly one of the best hours of television that Glee has produced.
- Tonight’s episode was actually directed by Eric Stoltz, who has been busy this year: he directed an episode of Private Practice in the spring, an episode of Huge in the summer, and then last week’s episode of Caprica. He has a previous working relationship with Murphy, having directed an episode of Nip/Tuck last year, and I thought he did a pretty strong job here (clearly, considering the episode’s quality): I especially liked how he switched angles during Quinn and Sam’s dinner when Quinn decided it was a date, with the camera switching from one shoulder to another for both characters. Clever, it was.
- I don’t know if Harry Shum Jr. is actually a bad singer, but the joke was worth it for “Sing!” It didn’t have the theatrics of Kurt’s “Le Jazz Hot,” but it was definitely one of the show’s strongest performance numbers. For more on Shum Jr., check out Henry Jenkins’ thoughts on his transmedia presence within both film and his role in LXD at In Media Res.
- It didn’t end up playing a role in the episode, but Rachel and Finn would have had my vote simply for choosing the Elton John/Kiki Dee classic “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” – a favourite.
- Interesting that we got real confirmation of Brittany and Santana’s sexual activity – it’s been alluded to, and I never questioned it, but it was interesting to see it presented as something other than a joke – Brittany, after all, seems to really enjoy it, and even wants to pull out the Melissa Etheridge for a duet. I like that the final scene with Brittany could be read as waiting for Artie or waiting for Santana, and look forward to seeing where the character goes in the future.
- On a negative Brittany note, I thought “Duet = Blanket” was too close to “Ballad = Male Duck.”
- Love the fact that Sam’s haircut has been compared with Justin Beiber, Linda Evangelista (a Canadian supermodel you might know as one of the stars of George Michael’s video for “Freedom! 90”), and Patrick Swayze in Point Break.
- Where do we stand on Burt and Finn’s argument that because the world is prejudice Kurt should avoid projecting his sexuality? It seems a bit complicated to me, but then I remember this is Lima, Ohio, and anything that gets Kurt to curb his behaviour is fine with me (even if their message could be slightly more nuanced).