“The Sue Sylvester Shuffle”
February 6th, 2011
Culturally, the Super Bowl is largely considered a spectacle: it is about the commercials, the pre-game festivities littered with celebrity cameos, and the idea of the entire nation tuning into the same event. Culturally, the game is insignificant: the majority of people who watched the Super Bowl tonight probably had no idea what individual journeys the two teams had taken to get to that point, making the FOX-produced context at the start of the game (featuring the dulcet tones of Sam Elliot) the extent of the narrative they received (especially considering that Troy Aikman and Joe Buck are too incompetent to provide much more information).
However, there was a narrative to be found, and it played out in the game itself. It is the game that drives viewership, more than the ads: an exciting football game keeps people watching, creating the actual story which engages those of us who may not consider ourselves diehard sports fans. It can be a story about underdogs, a story about vindication, or even a simple story of an accused rapist being denied another championship ring: a single football play could become part of any number of narratives, and the thrill of the game was in seeing those stories play out within the larger tale of two teams battling for football supremacy. Down to the final play, in what was a tightly contested game worthy of the hype surrounding the event, it never felt like it was just Green Bay vs. Pittsburgh – that might be what you see on the scoreboard, but the true story was multi-dimensional and the real reason the game was as exciting as it was.
“The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” was not multi-dimensional, or at least it didn’t want us to believe it was. There were brief moments of honesty, but every one was followed with broad moralizing. There were smaller stories, but every one was overshadowed by an aggressive straw man the likes of which we have never seen. There was spectacle, but beneath that spectacle was a fundamental lack of logical plot progression, filled with specious reasoning that was only called into question by the characters we were meant to despise.
Perhaps most importantly, though, “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” never felt spontaneous or thrilling: at every turn, it veered towards the predictable, finding precious few moments to truly become something that would capture the spirit (rather than the basic form) of the game it followed. While far from the worst episode the show has produced, it had the unfortunate distinction of having the most problematic lead-in: not because football and Glee are incompatible, but because the Super Bowl was thrilling in a way that Glee only dreams it could be.
The Karofsky Redemption is a fine example of where this episode goes wrong. I’m willing to accept that Karofsky is a character who in some ways is perfectly set up for redemption: in his closeted homosexuality, we have a “reason” for his bullying that allows the show to eventually break through to his real personality when the time is right. However, what is the best way to humanize a character who was so outright spiteful upon first introduction? The answer is small moments of self-realization, with an emphasis on self. Watching Karofsky struggle through the “Thriller/Heads Will Roll” routine was a perfect example of this, in that we could see him slowly committing himself to it. We could see that he wasn’t fighting it as he was before, that something about it was engaging to him. In those moments, I thought Max Adler did a nice job of showing the character’s subtle change in demeanor, and those are the kind of moments that could eventually add up to something meaningful.
Of course, moments later, Will pulled Karofsky aside and monologued the storyline to death. He explained how he was seeing great potential, and he explained that if Karofsky only applied himself he could truly be something great. There are moments where such speeches could solidify character development, like those few moments when Eric Taylor tells played like Matt Saracen or Vince Howard how proud he is on Friday Night Lights. However, Will has only barely interacted with Karofsky, and the last time he did so he was dealing with allegations of extreme bullying and homophobia. Now, I can see the value in Will throwing off a “Good job out there,” or a quick pat on the head: having that positive affirmation is a key to Karofsky not feeling as though he “sucks,” and would be a small gesture that might consolidate his own sense of purpose and identity. However, Will (or, more accurately, the writers) couldn’t help but turn it into a learning moment, making the big speech when a brief moment would have been far more appropriate.
This is, of course, commonplace for the show. These moments are necessary, in the eyes of Murphy/Brennan/Falchuk, in order to make an episode be about something, and there is no question that such a big showcase episode for the show was designed to fit that mould. Picking up on longstanding conflict between the football team and New Directions, the episode looked to the dynamics of popularity which have been central to a large number of episodes of the show (going back most specifically to “Theatricality,” but certainly elsewhere as well). I don’t think this is inherently a bad idea, in that this seems like a guiding force behind just about every high school in the country, but the notion of how to approach that question seems to have slipped away from Ian Brennan with this one.
The problem, I think, stems from the intense vilification that the show is so fond of, here deployed in two particular fashions. The first is one of the most extreme versions of Sue Sylvester yet, an obsessive and one-dimensional sadist who is willing to take advantage of Brittany’s limited intelligence in order to get her to sign a consent form to be fired out of a cannon. Forget giving Sue any sort of sympathetic reason for wanting to continue winning Cheerios championships, potentially folding her into the main narrative and finding a grounding logic in her extreme behavior; Sue, until the bitter end, remains a personification of a cartoon character (perhaps Itchy, of Itchy & Scratchy, given her obsession with terrorizing her arch-nemesis and the show’s belief that we would actually cheer her on in this endeavor). While Sue is generally considered Brennan’s creation, this and “A Very Glee Christmas” show that he is quickly losing control of a character that I thought he dialed in on so well in episodes like “Mash-Up.”
The other problem is that the same broad stroke villainy has been associated with the football players, the same players that we are meant to empathize with by the end of this episode. What frustrated me about this is that their early behavior in the episode was supposed to be considered close-minded, and yet to me it seemed perfectly logical. Now, admittedly, I should by now understand that Glee doesn’t operate based on any sense of logic that we as real human beings would be familiar with, but it is not ignorant for football players to be skeptical of a makeup filled musical number at halftime in the middle of a Championship football game; that’s just common sense. Will and Beiste’s plan was crazy, a concoction that existed simply to create the conditions possible for the spectacle of “Thriller/Heads Will Roll” and the second half of the game being done in makeup. Normally, I’m willing to go along with the show’s internal logic for the sake of not driving myself crazy, but seeing the logical response being used to signify the villainy of the football players was just too much for me to take.
And that describes a lot of my response to the episode: every moment that seemed like it could have worked just became “too much.” The idea of Finn going to convince the cheerleaders to return to the game has various logistical problems, but the core of the scene spoke to Finn’s leadership (which had been blatantly called into question by Sam’s challenge earlier in the episode) and it seemed honest for him to make that pitch at that time. Despite the fact that the scene was necessary to get the cheerleaders back for the big number (which they would never sit out, as it would limit the spectacle), it never felt like it was just connecting the dots…until Sue started talking. Suddenly, this wasn’t Finn proving himself: this was Finn the White Knight, undermining the comic tyranny of the evil Sue Sylvester. The scene wasn’t allowed to remain small, as the show just had to indulge in more Sue in an episode already overrun with Sue.
Glee’s big moments are not without their charms, often effective because of the same bombast which can ruin those smaller scenes. The football game, for example, was easier for me to accept: compared with the football game in “Preggers,” this one actually more or less followed the logics of football, the musical numbers comfortably contained within the halftime show and the in-game zombie-related shenanigans more of a psych-out than any sort of choreographed dance routine. And while it was certainly far-fetched that the players who didn’t start the game could come in at halftime, and it was certainly a bit silly for the girls to gear up, I thought the show got good mileage out of both. The game felt distinctly infused by the show’s sensibilities, and to some degree a dramatization of a football game opens itself up to big moments like Tina recovering a fumble or the zombies forcing the quarterback to blow the final play of the game. In the game itself, the driving force of sports narrative propelled the episode to its finest moments, delivering a very Glee-like spin on stories we’d see in both real life and in sports movies/TV shows.
However, this isn’t a show about football, and the climactic scenes in “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” are immediately undermined by a denouement which suggests that nothing has actually changed where it matters most. Despite my general appreciation for character development and shows which evolve over time, I don’t think this is especially problematic: the show is formulaic to the point that too much evolution would undermine the direction the show has no intention of abandoning, and more creatively I like the idea that large gestures won’t actually change prevailing social structures within high school. I would probably be bothered more if they did introduce big changes based around a crowd’s enjoyment of an elaborately staged musical number, thus proving Will’s theory that what worked in a prison in the Philippines is totally transferable to a rural Ohio high school and making my brain explode.
What does bother me, though, is the fact that Glee still wants credit for coming close to evolving, to some degree delivering a meta-defense of the episode within the same story which it crafts into over-the-top cartoon villainy. Sue is the personification of the writers, the person who wants to go all-out and finds her detractors quoting insurance premiums and “risks” regarding her plan to fire Brittany out of a cannon. Sue just wants to feel something, willing to go to the ends of the earth (or, in this case, willing to touch circus folk) in order to search for something that will reignite her love of her profession. It is a defense of excess, of pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in order to achieve something that reaches great personal significance.
Each week, Glee basically shoots something out of a cannon: sometimes it’s the notion of consistent characters, other times it’s basic human logic, and other times it’s any semblance of humanity for a character like Sue Sylvester. And let’s be honest: seeing things shot out of a cannon is exciting. There are times when the spectacle of Glee is actually its appeal, and I’m willing to say that despite its various logistical problems the “Thriller/Heads Will Roll” number was pretty great: “different” soloists compared to the show’s typical big numbers (in Artie and Santana), a lot of fun choreography, and an intelligent mashup which combines a classic with a thematically similar and musically interesting contemporary song. If various realities had to be shot out of a cannon to create that moment, the resulting spectacle was such that I wasn’t all that concerned.
However, the show wants to believe those cannons can be about more than spectacle. They want to believe that spectacle can become one with emotion, that it can play a part in the self-realization which was otherwise present in the episode: this is most clear with Karofsky, who literally runs off the sidelines in sheer delight as soon as he realizes just how awesome that musical number is. It was the one misstep in an otherwise enjoyable number, a moment slightly overplayed by Adler but dramatically over-written by Brennan. The problem was that it stopped being self-realization: Karofsky didn’t make a reasoned decision based on any sort of introspection, he was overwhelmed by the power of zombie makeup, a fog machine, and the sheer thrill of combining music and dance. The show created a cause and effect between the spectacle and the character development, rendering the latter false (and, frankly, really hokey) and inflating the “meaning” of the former beyond my personal tolerance.
“The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” simply has too many similar moments to avoid becoming defined by the spectacle. Between the intense moralizing, the on-the-nose monologues, the one-dimensional vilification, and the contrived schemes, the episode fired conventions of plot and character out of a cannon more than it gave them a distinctly Glee twist (which doesn’t require explosives). There were exceptions: while we do get a potentially explosive conclusion to close out the episode, the small moments shared between Quinn and Finn throughout the episode never felt overplayed, obvious in the way they were highlighted rather than in the way they manifested. And while some of Karofsky’s development went airborne by the time the episode came to its conclusion, small beats within that story were a real step forward for a characterization that has been indelicately handled from the very beginning.
Overall, though, the stories just never emerged. There was nothing for even regular viewers to latch onto, which makes me wonder what new viewers would have thought of their first Glee experience. Would they be enthralled by the empty spectacle of the Cheerios’ rendition of “California Gurls,” and be won over by Rachel and Puck performing Lady Antebellum to try to convince a bunch of football players to join the Glee club? These moments are there to get attention, something that viewers might recognize despite having no other context related to the series; they are, in other words, the equivalent to the commercials at the Super Bowl. The problem is, did “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” have enough going on in between those “commercials” to capture viewer attention? Were a few small romantic beats for Finn and Quinn, or a particularly vicious Sue Sylvester, the equivalent to a closely-contested football game?
It’s a question that I, obviously, can’t answer: I already watch Glee, and so I knew the smaller stories that the episode (to some degree) picked up on already. This was not a complete failure on the level of “Rocky Horror Glee Show,” and the intense moralizing was not as offensive was it was in “A Very Glee Christmas.” Instead, it stands as a frustrating example of the series’ central tension between spectacle and character, an example highlighted by the episode’s position after a sporting event that arguably unites the two better than any other sporting event in the world.
Let’s hope that Murphy, Brennan, and Falchuk were watching that event while preparing for their own to air.
- Fascinating attempt to create narrative anticipation with the Chevy/Glee commercial during the Super Bowl starting a scene and then paying it off early on in the episode. A unique use of product placement, an enjoyable large-scale musical number (complete with what looked like a cameo for So You Think You Can Dance’s Legacy), and a nice bit of innovation. Also, I think it was also the first time Chord Overstreet was allowed to give up the Bieber cut, and he looked like a different person.
- I understand why they chose “She’s Not There,” the Zombies connection too on-the-nose for Glee to resist, but why “Bills, Bills, Bills?” I mean, Criss performed the song well, but the introduction of a Dalton Warblers number seemed unnecessary, and the choice of that particular number was devoid of any meaning. The music can get a bit precious when it all connects to the same idea, like when procedural cases turn into mirrors of the people who solve them, but this was just plain random. Also: did he seriously make a chess move when he talked about “checks?” Because…ugh.
- There’s been a lot of justified chatter about Lea Michele’s grating public persona, on evidence when she performed “America the Beautiful,” but I legitimately loved her work during the football scenes. The whole cast had fun with that, but Michele seemed most “into it” and I enjoyed it a great deal.
- I’m going to presume that we’re not going to see an actual hockey player on the show, but can we not give them a vaguely Canadian accent? They’re still from Ohio, even if they play hockey.
- There are times when I wonder if the line between Brittany lines and Sue lines is being blurred: “2pm Ninja Poops” sat weird for me, in particular.
- The less said about the Katie Couric conclusion the better: entirely unnecessary cameo, stretching the limits of “reality” for the sake of a celebrity appearance and an overly theatrical comeuppance for Sue’s character. It also sets the stage for an ongoing war between the characters, and the constant battles between Sue and Will have consistently been the show at its very worst. A baffling decision on a number of levels, that scene.