“The First Time”
November 8th, 2011
There is something very effective about “The First Time,” a poignant piece which uses the backdrop of the performance of West Side Story to tell three parallel stories of romantic love moving to another level.
There is also something very contrived about “The First Time,” an episode that still feels the need to force the issue of sexual intercourse in a blunt fashion, lest we be unclear what the episode was about.
I’ll admit that the tension between these two elements never quite disappeared throughout the episode, one which I can admire for its simplicity even as I cringe at the way it creates that simplicity through exclusion and a narrowing of perspective. That I ultimately consider the hour a success says something about “The First Time” as an episode, but I’m not convinced that we can suggest this as a key turning point for the series so long as its structure is so exclusively tied to the episodic structure of the hour.
A bunch of other storylines technically pay off in “The First Time”: Mike takes the stage against his father’s wishes but is comforted by his mother’s enthusiastic support, while Finn continues to ponder his future. However, they’re largely ancillary concerns compared to the anvil of a storyline at the episode’s center, in which Blaine and Rachel each decide to explore their sexuality in order to understand the sexual awakening at the heart of West Side Story.
I actually think there’s a real logic to that notion, but the episode doesn’t allow that logic to emerge in a natural fashion. Instead, it has Artie start interrogating them about their sex lives or lack thereof, more or less giving them “Go explore your sexuality” as an assignment. It’s a frustrating structure when it appears as part of the classroom setting, but at least there Will’s suggestions are presented as actual assignments, and are usually unrelated to serious life decisions. Here, Artie’s call to intercourse is meant as the launching pad for multiple storylines (including Coach Bieste’s romantic awakening of sorts), and that just seemed like a horribly contrived device to introduce the episode’s conflict. Why couldn’t the characters come to that conclusion themselves? And why couldn’t the theme be something that operates below the surface (threading its way between storylines) instead of written on the marquee and announced over loudspeakers to make sure we understand?
It’s frustrating in part because the rest of the episode is quite subtle, once Artie stops butting into other people’s romantic lives and fades into the background. His conversation with Bieste is so completely weird for a student to be having with a teacher, but Dot Jones acts the hell out of her half, and once she’s off on her own with the football scout it’s a basic but well-handled “Oblivious person doesn’t understand that other person likes them because they won’t allow themselves to believe it” scenario. Once the show expands beyond artifice, and once you’re able to forget how they forced themselves into this situation, the storylines undoubtedly improve; however, at the same time, they make you wonder why they needed the artifice in the first place.
Characters are capable of coming to their own conclusions, especially on something as tempestuous as sex and its role in teenage relationships. Limiting Blaine and Rachel’s agency, and basically turning it into a form of peer pressure, is frustrating because it marks a too-clear binary between their initial attempts (forced efforts to follow Artie’s orders) and their eventual success (after they’ve performed, and thus after they’ve proven they can capture that energy without sex). Therefore, the episode asks us not to hold Blaine and Rachel accountable for their actions early on, which feels like a missed opportunity to me. I think we should judge Rachel for seeing sex as a way of advancing her career, and that Blaine’s attempt to seduce Kurt in the back of a car was an enormous violation (whether he was drunk or not), but the episode suggests we shouldn’t have to because it was Artie’s fault for poisoning their minds. Why couldn’t those actions have been their own decisions, reached independently and in response to internal (rather than external) pressures related to performance anxiety and uncertainty about their futures?
To be clear, I think the scenes that comprise these storylines are quite effectively handled, and I was especially impressed that Darren Criss was up to the task here (given that his acting has been inconsistent at best all season). In truth, the entire Sebastian side of things was enormously contrived (that dude was just way too predatory), but I liked the idea that Blaine’s desire to consummate his relationship with Kurt was at least partially connected to the temptation that Sebastian represented. Meanwhile, although they could have spent more time on it, I was quite pleased with Finn’s concurrent storyline about his uncertain future, and the way his road towards graduation has been subtly developed (starting last week with the questions related to what happens if Burt wins, which we presume he sort of has to). These details got the storylines closer to being something more than contrived sex plots, which is at least a step in the right direction.
And yes, there’s a certain magic to the episode once it reaches the point where it’s cutting with West Side Story, and when it’s featuring the actual performance, and when it eventually shows us chaste yet romantic moments of teenage love. Those final shots are beautifully done, and on some level I’d say that the episode earned them as much as it possibly could given the way the storyline started. The actual glimpses of West Side Story provided a strong soundtrack for the episode, the performance of “America” was a nice combination of exciting musical production and terrible accents (I’m looking at you, Puck), and after a while I was able to forget about Artie’s intervention entirely and get caught up in the moment. It was Glee at its most effectively infectious, focused less on spectacle and more on feeling, emotion.
However, why couldn’t they have started there? Why couldn’t that have been the show’s modus operandi at the beginning of the episode the same as it was at the end, allowing the episode to develop from an organic place instead of feeling like a theme episode? “One Hand, One Heart” is a beautiful close to the episode, but it is so tied to the narrative arc presented here that it doesn’t really suggest the show has ironed out any of its long term issues. Instead, it suggests the show has found a way to ignore its long term issues, burying them underneath an effective and powerful moment that did not, under any circumstances, come naturally out of the show’s narrative progression in its third season outside of the recurring presence of West Side Story and the token references to story arcs connected with it). And, while I’d love to be proven wrong, I highly doubt they’re going to carry over into next week’s installment either.
Like “Duets” and “Wheels” before it, “The First Time” takes a time out from the chaos of the series’ larger narrative and allows a different narrative structure to tell a contained story. As effective as that can be, and as effective as the final scenes of “The First Time” might become, the isolation (and contrivance) necessary to create it do little to suggest that those already turned against the series have any reason to return to the fold. As someone who continues to enjoy watching the show, even if that enjoyment will occasionally come through deconstruction, it’s another frustrating yet satisfying outing for a show that’s used to embracing that conflict.
- In general, I thought the performances were very strong here: Colfer, Michele, Monteith weren’t mentioned above, but all put in quality performances.
- Musically, I’m not as familiar with West Side Story as some others, but I thought they were well dispersed/integrated here. The staging of “America” was also nicely limited in scale: the stage was small, so it meant they had to keep things contained, which I found quite realistic for a change.
- While I still think Sebastian is a ridiculous character, I quite liked Kurt’s little run-in with Karofsky – it’s a nice moment of honest conversation, and felt like an important conversation for Kurt to have. I’m sure some will read it as some sort of love quadrangle being developed, but I think Kurt needed someone to talk to about the situation, and as overly convenient as that meeting is it was quite effective.
- Like “Duets,” note that both Will and Sue are highly marginalized here. Of course, unlike “Duets,” so are a whole lot of other supporting characters, who were each given a chance to shine in that season two episode.
- I didn’t get to comment on this last week, when it first became particularly ridiculous, but Mark Salling’s mohawk toupee is an atrocity.
- Speaking of last week’s episode, I know that they’re all involved in the musical and all that, but it’s still super awkward that none of the whole factionalization came into play here. Even more awkward? That Puck and Shelby’s kiss goes entirely unmentioned. I get that they had a very special story to tell, but it’s still sort of weird.
- I found it funny they bothered to throw in a line for Rory, just to remind us that he exists and can’t speak proper English.