Aired: October 12th, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list, click here.]
I have written more about Glee this year than probably any other show – it’s the only network series other than The Office which I reviewed on a weekly basis, a fact which sometimes might seem at odds with my generally critical approach to television. Sometimes, we associate reviewing with appreciation: we write about Mad Men because we love the show and think it deserving of detailed analysis.
And yet, for me, reviewing is about more than just appreciation (as my readers at The A.V. Club have discovered whenever it is suggested that I am unfit to review The Office since I have fallen out of love with the show). Reviewing a television series is about the search for understanding, dissecting our own appreciation or lack of appreciation for something in order to better understand how it fits into television as a whole. I may no longer love The Office, but I really enjoy writing about it, as I want to understand why I fell out of love, and where the show might go from here in response to a general sense of criticism stemming from a weak sixth season and the impending departure of Steve Carell.
I review Glee because it’s a show that I think needs to be talked about in order to understand what it’s trying to accomplish. Something like The 3 Glees theory is not intended to condemn the series, or even define the series; instead, Todd’s theory offers an explanation for why some viewers may find the series erratic, and why some of its characterization may deemed inconsistent by finding three distinct authorial voices amidst the series. I write about Glee not because it’s one of the best shows on television – it didn’t come close to making any lists I made relating to that subject – but because I really enjoy exploring why it’s not (as opposed to simply how it’s not).
And it’s something that I feel reached its apex with “Duets,” the series’ finest episode over the course of the past year. After spending most of 2010 picking apart why it is that Glee failed to live up to its potential, I found myself standing face-to-face with an honest-to-goodness, and actually honest, episode of television that I’d be willing to put among the year’s best. Perhaps it was just the element of surprise, the novelty of suddenly having to write about how much I unabashedly enjoyed an episode of the show, but as the year has lingered “Duets” has remained in my head not unlike a catchy song; accordingly, it rounds out my Top 10 episodes of 2010.
To avoid repeating myself, I was responsible for singling out this episode for The A.V. Club’s end of year Episodes list, although its selection was not without some debate – Todd VanDerWerff’s highest grade at the site, after all, was given to “Dream On,” where Neil Patrick Harris and Joss Whedon arrived to deliver what was admittedly a strong episode (although one that I feel is ultimately overrated).
I am glad that my side won out in this battle, for a number of reasons. First, because IN YOUR FACE TODD. Second, and more seriously, I want to believe that Glee can be great on its own merits. Without a guest star, without its Emmy-winning actress (Jane Lynch), Glee is a show capable of being something truly exceptional if it finds the right story to tell and chooses to tell it in the right way.
By stripping out the theatricality for all but the most meaningfully theatrical of numbers (Kurt’s ode to himself with “Le Jazz Hot” being a fine example of this), Ian Brennan decided to write an episode about teenagers on a show filled with teenagers, a novel concept which the show so often shies away from for reasons I don’t entirely understand. It’s one thing to tell a self-contained story about guest stars, and it’s another to attempt to tell stories about the characters who have been there all along. “Duets” offers beginnings without endings, setting up key relationships (Sam/Quinn, Artie/Brittany) that the show has shockingly stuck with throughout the season. It became a foundation for future developments, a foundation ignored at the show’s peril considering fan reaction to Sam’s slippery characterization in subsequent hours, and it even looked back into the past to redefine the terms of Kurt and Finn’s confrontation in “Theatricality” so as to overwrite Ryan Murphy’s broad moralizing.
And yet, even while engaging in all of this story, “Duets” is just a really fantastic example of what Glee does best. From a musical perspective, “River Deep, Mountain High” was explosive without an ounce of “production value” beyond Amber Riley and Naya Rivera’s charisma, “Sing!” was one of the most charmingly staged numbers in the show’s history, and the episode-closing “Happy Days are Here Again/Get Happy” was both a touching homage to Streisand/Garland and a wonderful moment for those characters at that particular point in time. The songs carry meaning, whether it is “Lucky” as a sort of musical first date or “With You I’m Born Again” as evidence of Rachel’s cunning opportunism being used for good rather than evil; sure, perhaps there’s no deeper meaning to “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” but I just can’t say no to Kiki Dee.
For a show which often looks to be doing fifteen things but eventually reveals that it has accomplished nothing in particular, “Duets” managed to be about something without the same sense of bombast and without losing its sense of fun. While the series is far too uneven to rank among the best in television, an episode like this one belongs on this kind of list because it realized the potential for Glee to transcend our apprehension and become something truly spectacular.
Without the very spectacle normally associated with it, replaced instead with a sad cheerleader using her nose to push a meatball to the empty booth across from her.