When I used to write weekly reviews of Glee, it was during a period where I would often search through each episode looking for a quote to use as an anchor for my analysis. Glee was a show that wore its heart on its sleeve, and so it wasn’t a particularly difficult task with the show; in fact, the biggest challenge was choosing between the numerous moments where characters said exactly what the point of it all was.
It’s therefore not a huge surprise the same could be said for Glee’s two-hour finale. The last hour, in particular, was unabashed: whether it’s opening us up to joy, or Blaine telling Kurt that he’s “the only one I know who would do something like this,” or Rachel Berry standing on the stage of a 3/5 scale recreation of Radio City Music Hall telling all of the children to believe that dreams come true, Glee could never be attacked for a lack of synergy between the message it started with and the message that constituted its ending.
Glee could be attacked for many things, most recently a haphazard final season that understood its strengths and weaknesses and kept pretending they didn’t matter, but that central message has always been strong. Even as someone who wrote about the show critically, a task that will inevitably drive a person to madness, I always believed the core message of Glee was powerful, and I wasn’t surprised to see stories emerge this week that sought to celebrate those principles. I was emotional during this finale because no matter how many wrong turns the show took during its run, the place it kept landing in was a place of hope, and it was hard to root against that.
However, it was also hard to focus on it. During the final performance of OneRepublic’s “I Lived,” with a huge collection of past and present members of New Directions and ancillary characters, the show seeks to paper over a complicated history of characters it served poorly, characters who were ignored then forgotten, and plot twists that sought to fundamentally undo the good work the show was doing in other areas. It was a moment that understood the transcendent power of “hope” and human perseverance, but—like the final season as a whole—simultaneously reminded us how rarely Glee calibrated itself properly to be the beacon of hope it believed itself to be.
I was at a Thanksgiving gathering today, and an open question was asked regarding the quality of Glee this season. An initial opinion suggested the show was terrible this year, and without any hesitation I disagreed: Glee, to my mind, has been measurably better than last season, and probably the season before.
I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion, but it was met with skepticism by the room, and perhaps rightfully so. Given the sheer number of words I spent laying out my frustrations with the show before quitting weekly reviews, I am all too familiar with Glee’s flaws. And to be clear, the show has continued to have these problems, and I’ve continued to sit on my couch and complain to Twitter about them like a crazy person. But around those problems has grown a season moving with purpose the vague “graduation” theme never offered, pulling fewer punches and forcing its characters to ask questions that occasionally threaten to mean something.
Put more simply, Glee is a better television show this season. Its flaws, while still numerous, feel like the byproduct of trying to do something instead of the byproduct of doing nothing, a constructive shift that helps the show overcome its occasional missteps to reach musical resolutions that feel earned.
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.
You’re going to read a lot of reviews of “Asian F” which reference its problematic elements, and they are all correct. Will and Emma’s storyline, in particular, is one of those instances where a serious subject is treated as dramatic without being treated seriously, with bizarre caricatures (Emma’s parents) mixing with some problematic characterization (with Will offering to fix Emma, basically). While I’m glad the show isn’t created obstacles for the couple on a macro scale, regressing Emma is not particularly productive, and the entire storyline felt like it was happening in a different show entirely.
Of course, this isn’t uncommon for Glee. In fact, “Asian F” as a whole sort of exists in these different shows, simultaneously indulging in introspective looks at particular characters (Mike and Mercedes), large-scale numbers (Brittany’s “Run the World (Girls)” and the group sing of “Fix You”), and even some storyline continuity with the casting of West Side Story. In truth, there is little to no cohesion in these storylines, and their effectiveness is decidedly mixed, and yet I still think “Asian F” is a strong step forward for the show.
At the very least, it indicates that Glee is willing to try things, which is a good thing even if they don’t particularly work.
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.
Since watching Glee’s third season premiere late last night, I’ve seen a number of fairly harsh reviews of the episode, and I’m not entirely sure I’m on the same page.
Now, let me clarify that: I agree with pretty much everything that Todd and Ryan suggest in their own reviews, and I wouldn’t say that they were too harsh by any stretch of the imagination. However, my reaction to the episode wasn’t nearly as strong, whether it was positive or negative. I think it was one of those cases where the episode in theory was more offense than in practice, the very idea of the various storylines more problematic than the execution.
Normally I find this particularly annoying, but something about the mood I was in last night led to a fundamental lack of emotional response. It’s one of those situations where I’ve become numb to the pain, no longer at the point where I’m expecting the show to correct its mistakes or remain consistent in its storytelling. Instead, “The Purple Piano Project” was broken down into parts in my mind, and I was able take the parts I liked (as isolated as they might be) and more or less shrug my shoulders at the rest of it.
Which makes for a better viewing experience, but maybe not the kind of viewing experience FOX is looking for as Glee faces the perils of both Junior Year (as a television show) and Senior Year (as a narrative device) simultaneously.
Although, let’s remember that Falchuk, Brennan and Murphy have some friends along for the ride this time around.
I’ve continued watching, though, despite the fact that I still don’t really enjoy it in the traditional sense. I’m not really invested in any of the contestants, and I find myself fast-forwarding through the majority of the performances when I flip through the episodes every Sunday evening, but I find myself thinking about the show throughout the week, discussing it with people on Twitter and wishing that I knew more people who were watching.
The reason is similar to an experience I had last summer with Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, as the oddities of the format and structure of the series drive my engagement with each episode. Specifically, comments Ryan Murphy has made regarding both the intended arc for the eventual winner and a specific experience he had judging the show has given me an entirely different narrative than the text would suggest, one that has me far more engaged than the actual competition itself ever could.
It’s also drawn to the surface how strange this show can be, and how its aims seem more and more (fascinatingly) awkward with each passing week.
As Rachel and Kurt stand on stage at the Gershwin Theater in New Your City, with the land of Oz behind them, Kurt suggests that they take this opportunity to belt out the closing song from Wicked, “For Good.” When Rachel remarks that there isn’t an orchestra, Kurt says the above line, and “New York” begins to fall into place.
Glee’s competition episodes have always felt like they’re sort of off in their own world, a world where show choirs earn standing ovations and where all of the season’s troubles can melt away through the sheer power of song. There was this giddy look on Naya Rivera’s face right before New Directions broke into “Light Up The World” that sells the kind of euphoria that being up on that stage can inspire, and these episodes have been among Glee’s strongest largely because of the emotional pull that the performances can inspire.
Nationals is the largest competition that the show has done so far, but its scale is not demonstrated in the number of songs or the seriousness of the competition. Instead, “New York” turns the euphoria up to 11, transforming the trip to the Big Apple into a glimpse of the dreams that seem so close yet so far away. Up until the moment where New Directions finally makes their way to that stage, this episode is like one long dream sequence, a world where original songs are written and rehearsed in a day, where musical idols are casually encountered, and where Gershwin Theater employees are willing to give two high school kids from Ohio some unsupervised time in a Broadway theater.
And “New York” would have damaged the show irrevocably if it hadn’t shattered that dream as it does. By returning back to the reality of Lima at episode’s end, Brad Falchuk makes it clear that the dreams present in this episode are unattainable, perhaps downright imaginary depending on how far you think the show is willing to stretch its own reality. However, in the spirit of the show and in a decision I don’t entirely hate, he also emphasizes that there’s room for dreams in Lima, Ohio.
At least until a year from now, when the dreams will contend with reality once more.
Last season, we didn’t get a “real” penultimate episode: “Funk” was moved into the penultimate spot arbitrarily when FOX wanted to move the Lady Gaga-enhanced “Theatricality,” which created a whole issue in regards to plot continuity.
This time around, “Funeral” was meant as the penultimate episode all along, and I’ve got to be honest: this just doesn’t work. I actually understand the logic here, as Ryan Murphy takes us back to the pilot by staging a new set of auditions and returning us to the hopes and dreams of Will Schuester. I actually really like parts of this, and the idea of Nationals unearthing some of the initial divisions of talent within the Glee club is actually sort of logical – the line above really gets to the heart of the hopelessness that drives the show’s small town aesthetic, and I really like when the show revisits that idea.
But the way Murphy goes about it only highlights how heading in this old direction undercuts all of the other directions that have been built into this season. As a standalone piece, “Funeral” is a fine showcase for Jane Lynch’s ability to depict the emotional turmoil that makes the character the way she is, and a fine musical showcase for a variety of members of the show’s cast. But as an actual penultimate episode as part of the show’s second season, it takes too long to find the story threads it needed to find to feel connected to that which came before, even if it connects nicely into what comes after (which remains an inherent possibility).
Ian Brennan has always been the Glee writer most interested in embracing the series’ meta qualities, but there are two moments in this week’s episode where he goes one step too far. First, Sue’s list of most-hated songs the Glee club has performed were very clearly a bit of self-deprecating commentary rather than something Sue would actually observe – the notion of apologizing to America was particularly strange, greatly exaggerating the reach of “Run Joey Run.”
Now, note that Brennan wrote the episodes in which both “Run Joey Run” and the “Crazy in Love/Hair” remix appeared, so he’s picking away at himself more than the show itself. This was also clear when Jesse discussed the whiplash nature of his relationship with Rachel disintegrating, which was most evident in the Brennan-scripted “Funk.” In both instances, I found the commentary obnoxious, and it pulled me out of the scenes themselves and into the artifice of the series.
Of course, the show does this quite often, but it felt like “Prom Queen” had a particularly steep climb in regards to fully integrating the viewer into its world. This goes both for the episode’s climax, which was the topic of a huge spoiler controversy over Twitter a few weeks back, and the performance of a particular viral video sensation of questionable quality. I am not among those who asks that the Glee universe presents itself as cohesive or realistic, in part because the show is clearly built around their world extending into our own with concerts, downloads, and everything in between, but also because I think this meta quality has a certain charm to it…when used properly, and when used sparingly.
While it is unfortunate that the climax of “Prom Queen” had to be caught up in the online kerfuffle and thus rendered somewhat less effective, I would argue that the episode as a whole transcended Brennan’s obsession with the show itself to deliver a couple of strong moments which felt honest to Prom at McKinley High School.