Monday, February 7, 2011
Third time's a charm? To be honest, this hasn't been my favorite semester of Glee, musically-speaking. But by the end I came to appreciate the rare moments when the show got off those crutches of straight-up reenactment and put its own stamp on music.
Previously on But What She Said: Quinn's rendition of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and the cast's set at Sectionals topped the charts for last fall, and then Artie's bittersweet fantasy "Safety Dance" and Vocal Adrenaline's "Bohemian Rhapsody" montage rocked the back nine.
Season 2 has been even more volatile than the first, with an episode that barely bothers to contrive reasons for the cast reenacting Britney Spears' "greatest" hits and another where the cast take on The Rocky Horror Picture Show that thinks it has something interesting to say about "adult" material and male body-image issues but consistently undercuts its own arguments. All the while the creators cling to the notion that Glee is musically four-quadrant, because every once in a while Puck breaks out his guitar and reminds us that music wasn't always so photoshopped. Meanwhile the show quickly transformed from Tales of Horror with Rachel and Finn into the Kurt Hummel Variety Hour, which has been great on balance but ignores the ensemble bursting with talent. We also met Sam Evans, who's much cuter when quoting Na'vi and discussing comics than strumming his abs (not that I mind), and Coach Beiste, who Glee has victimized and valorized in equal measure, all without realizing it, like a good, little progressive. All caught up?
Honorable mentions, in chronological order:
"Le Jazz Hot!," "Sing," and "Lucky" - Episode 4, "Duets"
These three duets were too outstanding to drop one for tawdry reasons of mere stratification: first there's Kurt's community theater-aided production of Victor/Victoria, then Mike turning his vocal insecurity into an advantage with the help of Tina, and finally a laid-back Jason Mraz charmer that forces fast friends Sam and Quinn to sing about being both best friends and lovers, which kinda shows all their cards, but this is high school, and Sam's less smooth than he thinks and Quinn's less world-weary than she thinks, so not only is it believable, but it earns Glee some real complexity points.
"Get Happy / Happy Days are Here Again" - Episode 4, "Duets"
The first shot of this sequence is Brittany pushing a meatball across the plate with her nose, which already rockets the number into the pantheon. But the exquisite joy of this number is its irony: nobody's happy on this show, least of all the singers who have parlayed to sing this call to joy medley that's more sonically wistful than truly joyous. The grimaces temporarily soften, but that hardly alters the fortunes of all the Lima lonely.
"Start Me Up / Livin' on a Prayer" - Episode 6, "Never Been Kissed"
An execrable episode that features as its climax Will kissing a woman he's not attracted to as a way of solving her never-been-kissed problem—cured!—and the boys singing for the masculine female football coach they bullied into quitting—bygones!—has its sentence commuted by this ridiculous number where the girls go biker-glam. It's the rare moment of unadulterated fun that sees Santana forget how much she hates Rachel.
"Sway" - Episode 8, "Furt"
This is the perfect place for Will, singing in the background, alone (or at least with people his own age), showing off for an audience instead of his students, and striving to sexy up the squarest numbers imaginable. And as a film snippet, it's nice to see all the kids enjoying life together for once, all those cutaways enlivening what could be a shoehorned musical sequence of a song more appropriate to the bookstore than a party.
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" - Episode 10, "A Very Glee Christmas"
The only tolerable Christmas song was this one, straight out of some Glee variety special where Kurt and Blaine are shacked up, flirting all over what looks like a cozy, professionally decorated cabin—we even get shots looking in through the window—complete with a tasteful fire, waiting, presumably, for Santa to arrive so they can all sing some Ella Fitzgerald. Loses points for losing track of the teenage characters' hormones as they collapse in a sea of Disney-channel laughs and joy-of-singing friendship.
My Top 10 Glee Songs of Fall 2010
10. "Toxic" - Episode 2, "Britney/Brittany"
Much as I am mesmerized by Heather Morris’ dancing in “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Me Against the Music,” slavish music video homage robs Glee of its imagination, which, when you get down to it, is really all the show has going for it when it’s this scantily clad. Ergo, “Toxic” wins the episode with a number that, if it doesn’t balance Mr. Schuester’s lecherous performance, at least acknowledges it—the guy's totally asking for Lauren's hot-and-bothered teenage lust—before powering through anyway with charisma, fluidity, and Santana’s always welcome vocal underscoring.
9. "Singin' in the Rain / Umbrella" - Episode 7, "The Substitute"
Vulgar as R&B-ifying Gene Kelly’s sweetly silly triumph of joie de vivre is, even I cannot resist the moment where the finely tailored and arrayed men burst through all that Rihanna nonsense kicking puddles and singing in the rain. Obviously Gwyneth acquits herself wonderfully, and her presence alleviates my typical cringe reaction to Will singing with his students, but special mention goes to Mike and Kurt for rocking that choreography as they flank their sad, lonely, desperate teacher.
8. "Just the Way You Are" - Episode 8, "Furt"
Fraught with the cumulative tension of Finn and Kurt’s relationship, Finn’s tribute to Kurt is one of the cringiest, most misguided plot points in a subplot full of them and simultaneously one of the most touching numbers in Glee’s history, largely because of the show’s singular way with continuity. Cory Monteith is at his most natural here, and the song is packed with enough tender moments—Kurt dancing with Burt, Sam and Quinn, Rachel of all people ceding the spotlight, and of course Kurt dancing for a flicker with Finn—to truly earn the story’s climax.
7. "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" - Episode 9, "Special Education"
Sam and Quinn are a bit church youth group for my tastes, but they’re such a welcome relief from the Rachel-Finn terror parade that I pretend we haven’t seen this exact musical number before (only with differently colored costumes and a Journey song). The teenage sparks are palpable, providing a bubbly nostalgia, the cast are having a great time with their delicately arranged solos, and Sam doing that line dance move instantaneously reduces me to ‘50s girl watching Elvis.
6. "Valerie" - Episode 9, "Special Education"
Glee is perhaps the most visually incoherent show in television history, except when Joss Whedon directs, so it shouldn’t surprise me that the big showcase for Brittany and Mike, the climactic dance scene, is chopped to hell when the whole goddamn point is the seamlessness of their movement! What we could make out, though, was witty and dynamic, especially the gendered touches, and Naya Rivera once again shows why she should be getting all the solos.
5. "Marry You" - Episode 8, "Furt"
It’s a fun take on a tired concept that the ADD-stricken editors couldn’t really screw up since it’s just different groups of people parading down the aisle—but then Kurt’s dad appears, elevating it to a whole new level with his post-heart attack day-seizing embodied in this moment by his Total Hetero embrace of the goofy dance, and then Finn’s mom, shimmering with joy as Burt doubles back to escort her, all to perfectly played reaction shots from the children they should be very proud of. No other show on the air could score this big with characters this deep in the roster, but Glee’s secret weapon has always been the ensemble.
4. "Hey, Soul Sister" - Episode 9, "Special Education"
The worst thing I can say about this sequence, beyond the ever-present autotune, is that Darren Criss magically floats all over the stage with the click of an editor’s mouse, but it hardly distracts from the rich montage: the camera quietly reveals Kurt’s unease, the tone is bittersweet (in part because we’re rooting for New Directions, in part because the song so mirrors Kurt’s situation, which we know is not the panacea he thought), and the cutaways are so precise as to be masterful, with Artie chuckling at the white boy faux gangster thing he’s prone to, Rachel delivering her greatest moment on the series thus far telling Kurt to smile, Will looking utterly dejected by how good the competition is at just the right moment in the song, and most notably, Kurt, attracted to the ostensible freedom provided by not just Dalton but Blaine while completely out of sync with his new ensemble, unfulfilled in a sea of smiles. It’s Glee in a scene, a mini musical masterpiece of yearning.
3. "River Deep, Mountain High" - Episode 4, "Duets"
The Old Faithful of confidence produced by combining the estimable talents of Mercedes and Santana doesn’t singlehandedly topple McKinley High only because the girls modulate their performance with girly girl touches and a kineticism that channels some of their energy into motivated movements all over the room that are both believable homework choreography and exemplary use of space. That alone makes it Glee’s best classroom-set number, but the star here is the big, bold vocal performance of a brassy song (instead of the R&B muck they've been wasted on) that knows soul can be as light on its feet as pop.
2. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" - Episode 3, "Grilled Cheesus"
This classic song, stripped down to little more than Kurt’s plaintive voice and a surprise drumbeat, earns all the tears and painfully moved expressions on the cast’s faces—total Stanislavskies, these guys—simply with the creativity of the montage, escaping the room where we’re forced to contend with Kurt’s potential tragedy only to confront exactly how much his father means to him in memories that are desaturated, impressionistic, and manipulated for maximum impact—Burt’s there when Kurt falls, he indulges his son’s tea party, and, oh yeah, he’s a widower. It goes literal in typical Glee fashion, but the plot's climax, a hand squeeze, the cinematic voice, a kid with his dad at his mother's cemetery, and the sincerity of the singing remind us that sometimes literal is exactly right.
1. "Dog Days are Over" - Episode 9, "Special Education"
A check-in with everyone before the winter break (technically the penultimate episode, but the Christmas special was pretty isolated) becomes a dreamy curtain call (disembodied hands clapping, an ethereal purple sky, horse imagery) as Mercedes and Tina sing us into an enchanting montage with a song as overplayed as it is applicable: “And I never wanted anything from you / except everything you had and what was left after that too” as Rachel reflects on the selfish impulses that lost her a boyfriend, the spotlight, and what she thought was happiness. Power builds as we drop in on Kurt blinded by infatuation to see he’s just as lonely as before, but it drops to silence as we see Emma second-guessing her happiness (sound familiar?) and then Will, distracted. It’s basically a duet with backing vocals, but everyone participates in their own ways—Santana playing horse, Sam spinning, Mike and Brittany swinging around—as we fade out for the semester with the quintessential Glee image, a celebration undercut by the nagging question, “Happy now?”
The "Heads Will Roll / Thriller" mashup is a pretty sure bet for next semester's top 10, which will hopefully be a bit more timely than this one, but, you know, life happens. So don't hesitate to let me know what your favorites were. Surely I've missed something important.
UPDATED GLEE TOP TENS:
Top 10 Glee Songs of Fall 2009
Top 10 Glee Songs of Spring 2010
Top 10 Glee Songs of Fall 2010