“I Am Unicorn”
September 27th, 2011
When “I Am Unicorn” ended on what I guess we could nominally consider a cliffhanger, I was sort of stunned.
See, in order to have a cliffhanger you need to have a narrative, and that’s something that Glee has largely avoided since the conclusion of its first season. Now, to be fair, the show has had recurring storylines that have occasionally been made more prominent: Kurt’s bullying arc, for example, was a major force that changed the dynamics of the entire series by moving Kurt to the Warblers.
However, the narrative that emerges in “I Am Unicorn” (and which was foreshadowed last week) is holistic, encompassing a larger percentage of the show’s characters than ever before. It’s a collection of narratives that, while remaining tied to the show’s central themes and the musical conceit that the show has relied on, are not about the Glee club winning Sections/Regionals/Nationals and that on some level aren’t about “the Glee Club” as an entity.
Instead, they’re narratives about characters: they may be uneven, and they may not necessarily pay off in the end, but by the end of “I Am Unicorn” I was convinced that Glee is capable of being a subtle show when it wants to be.
And that was a very, very weird feeling.
There is, of course, a whole storyline about subtlety for us to consider, one which unsurprisingly places Kurt as representative of the show as a whole. This isn’t exactly a surprising development, given that Kurt has been at the heart of the show’s themes from the very beginning, but I think the questions he ends up facing as he auditions for the role of Tony are questions central to Glee as well. As he plays Romeo to Rachel’s Juliet, the audience is in the same position as the co-directors (Bieste, Emma and Artie): while Kurt is trying to prove something to the people who he overheard questioning his ability to play the romantic male lead, the show is throwing the question out to the audience. Was this a dramatic scene about Kurt’s struggles, or was this a comic scene about Kurt’s not-so-quiet desperation?
The thesis of “I Am Unicorn” seems to be that it can be both so long as the show owns it. Indeed, the whole unicorn theme is built around owning who and what you are, and selling your confidence in that fact rather than the fact itself. The problem when we map this onto a television show is that it doesn’t get the same leeway that an actual human being does: Glee has often talked about how inclusive it is, and how important it is, but it has only sporadically demonstrated this with any success. Glee started acting like an important television show right around the point where it started being an awful one more often than not, which was unfortunate timing that has contributed to some considerable audience backlash (at least among those who were only hanging onto the show in hopes it would improve).
What makes “I Am Unicorn” work is that the theme is never applied to the show as a whole directly: the episode lacks any sort of large-scale group number, and in fact the “collective” is never really addressed outside of a New Directions meeting early in the episode. Kurt might have a storyline about unicorns surrounding his campaign for student body president and his attempt to audition for the lead role in the musical, and Brittany’s run against him might have been spawned by that storyline, but the episode didn’t gather everyone else to take part. Other characters intersect with that storyline, whether it’s Burt (who Kurt goes to for advice) or Rachel (who he solicits to help him with his second audition), but it doesn’t become their storyline at the same time. It may be the storyline that gives the episode its title, but the rest of the episode doesn’t bend over backwards to fit into that box by the end of the hour.
However, through a more subtle form of connection, the episode does offer a fair bit of synergy without actually putting all of the characters into the same room. Shelby’s return was something that was revealed in advance, given that Idina Menzel is kicking around for half the season, but it gives both Quinn and Puck an actual purpose, and allows them to join the show’s other graduating seniors (Kurt, Finn, Rachel) in terms of using self-reflection as character motivation. The speed at which Beth’s return sends those characters into chaos is maybe a bit forced, but it’s particularly helpful for Dianna Agron who suffered with non-storylines all of last season. Her scenes with Menzel are really well handled, and even her irrational belief that she and Puck could regain custody of their child is compelling in a trainwreck sort of way. If this season is really about the transition from childhood to adulthood, which seems to be the case, there are going to be mistakes along the way, and provided that real stakes come with mistakes – it’s right in the word – I’m all for it.
Now, I’m less enthusiastic about Sue’s congressional campaign, and I thought it was silly throughout tonight’s episode. However, the more the show builds storylines around it, I’m starting to see its function. While Sue’s campaign is ostensibly similar to her attacks on the glee club, it’s indirect: it’s a threat to the idea of the glee club, but Sue isn’t actually meddling in their day-to-day activities, which allows the characters to have their own storylines which don’t feel subservient to Sue’s antics. Although I am kind of horrified at the idea that Will might consider running against her, which seems to be where the story is heading, I do like the idea of parallel elections as a narrative device. The more structure the show builds, the more it has the ability to carry the weight of weaker storylines on its shoulders, which is why the elections, and the musical, and the upcoming graduation have given the show’s characters (and thus the show) a sense of purpose.
It also helps, of course, that the episode never tries to carry the weight of the entire show at any point in the episode. The cliffhanger isn’t about New Directions, or about Glee as a television show: it’s about Blaine, and Kurt, and the way that something so ultimately insignificant as the role of Tony can become this pivotal turning point. It’s about the small seeming large, and about whether Blaine should be able to audition for the role he wants or whether he has to give Kurt his chance to shine. What I found interesting was that, based on what Kurt’s conversation with his father, you sort of expected that he would be supportive of Blaine taking the role of Tony, but they played the scene as if this would be a betrayal. I expected Kurt to cry out from the balcony that Blaine would make a great Tony, and shift his focus to the student council election, but instead he’s still too selfish (or focused, if you prefer) to not feel conflicted about it.
However, I want the characters to be conflicted, complicated in all the right ways. While there are a number of scenes that are recognizable in the Glee context, like Shelby helping Rachel with her audition, they never feel final: their relationship might be better, but their estrangement (and the awkwardness of having Shelby back in Lima) has not been “solved” in any way. Similarly, rather than pitching Kurt as the victim of one of the series’ villains (like, for example, Sue), it’s the benevolent trio of Artie, Bieste and Emma who voice their concerns about his masculinity. They all express their love for Kurt, and think it’s a great audition, but they struggle to picture him in the lead role, a situation that has more to do with social conditioning than with any sort of malice.
“I Am Unicorn” has its moments of silliness, like Sugar getting set up with her own glee club (to justify Shelby’s return), but I want Glee to be silly. I loved Bieste’s A Funny thing Happened On the Way to the Forum joke, as ridiculous as it was, and I thought Sue’s PSA – as stupid was that storyline might be – had some wonderful moments with Becky and her boom mike. The show can earn that silliness so long as it retains the capacity to stop and find resonance, which this episode did on multiple occasions. Whether it’s Puck drawing a clown pig for his daughter, or Finn finally (more or less) finishing the “Booty Camp” choreography, little moments never felt as though they were swallowed by or dependent on a broader moral. Small pleasures were allowed to be small pleasures, and storylines were allowed to breathe (which was a sharp contrast with the season premiere).
Now, all of this might change next week, or at Sectionals, or when they actually stage their version of West Side Story. However, if the show continues on this path, “event” episodes can take on a new meaning, becoming a form of narrative convergence. It can be about storylines coming together instead of storylines coming to an end, and the show might finally be in a position to recreate the spirit of its most transcendent moment (in which Vocal Adrenaline’s performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” played soundtrack to Beth’s birth). While it may still stumble week-to-week depending on how prominent weaker storylines are, the basic foundation laid in “I Am Unicorn” (and picking up on elements of the decent premiere) have the potential to get Glee on the right track.
And that’s pretty impressive given where the show sat at the end of last season.
- I’m curious where they’re going with Sugar. Is Shelby actually going to prove that not everyone is hopeless (especially given that the actress can actually sing)? It’s just a really pointless character on a number of levels, and unless the second glee club becomes a major component of the season I’m sure what they’re going for.
- I thought it was weird that no one called Blaine out on claiming he needed to brush up on his dancing, but then it was clear that they just wanted an excuse to allow Blaine and Kurt to have that conversation during choreography. Shameless, sure, but it worked, and “Kurt, jazz hands!” got a nice chuckle.
- I’m officially curious to see how the iTunes downloads are this season compared to last – I’m guessing they’re lower in general, just based on buyer’s fatigue, but the lack of any non-Broadway music definitely makes this hour an interesting test case for what role those downloads play in determining song selection.
- The focus on auditions also created a real sense of “audience”: while they’re not clear singles, they were pleasurable to watch as an audience member given that there was context and they were pitched to an audience (the directors).
- I somehow doubt Rachel’s musical debut would mean much if it’s directed by the football coach, the guidance counselor, and one of her classmates, so I’d expect Shelby to sub in at some point.