Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Being the only person on the planet still excited about Glee has its advantages. For one, my “Trouty Mouth” ringtone is still underground hip. For another, less competition for Trouty Mouth himself. But I’m honestly perplexed—not for the first time when it comes to Glee’s audience—why so many camel’s backs are breaking now, during the show’s strongest run of episodes.
It’s not that I still love Glee so much as I finally love Glee, now that it’s taken its meds and figured out what it wants to be. Of course, romantics will always look fondly on the honeymoon phase with the hot new thing, forgetting that Mercedes was the black girl—the one who threw a brick through Kurt’s window because he didn’t want to go out with her and who was always saying things like, “Pretty fly for a white guy!”—long before producers found an even heavier girl to steal the indomitable diva subplots. That first semester wasn’t just a breeding ground for cliches counterintuitively illustrating the burden of identity politics. It was also propelled by a fake pregnancy that made All My Children roll its eyes and throw in the towel.
The back nine were Extreme Glee, with a Magical Quadriplegic and a funky funk funk balancing some spectacular heights like probable series peak "Dream On." Also Puck was into Mercedes for five seconds, Quinn evolved into a sage earth mother, and Sue Sylvester became an in-universe Internet meme. Say what you will about Finn’s jerk phase or Quinn’s regression, but Glee has always been hormonal with its characterization, and at least those two make adolescent sense.
Last semester saw three episodes of lazy pop reenactments and one that’s just offensively stupid—hint: Karofsky kisses Kurt! Will kisses Beiste! I kiss my glock!—none of which could quite keep my heels from obediently following my head downhill. It’s part expectation-control, but Glee always had plenty to recommend it, not least an unflagging belief in redemption for its struggling kids, a probably accidental look at both the payoffs and drawbacks of capital-D Diversity, and an impressive control of its central theme and tone: painful, bittersweet, senseless yearning. Top it off with the obvious seeds of some surprising long-term arcs—including the topical bullying plot that was never quite boneheaded enough to diminish its catharsis—powerhouses like “River Deep, Mountain High” and careful montage (“Dog Days Are Over,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), and I was in the bag.
The greatest leap forward is in the writer’s room, er, mansion, er, mansions, where they completely flipped the priority chart on pathos and soap opera. Instead of continuity equaling character arcs across standalones, long-term arcs like Karofsky’s bullying and Santana’s awakening tie the season together apart from its school year/singing competition structure (and, not for nothing, rely on the show’s most impressive regulars in Chris Colfer and Naya Rivera). Instead of an hour of paint-by-numbers music videos, theme episodes now integrate songs more naturally, as in the Rumours episode or “Baby” where the dependably dorky Sam sings a couple Bieber numbers “because everything Bieber does is epic.” Instead of outsized subplots about secret pregnancies and secret birth mothers, we get more relatable plots about falling in love and growing up (with the occasional gay or plastic surgery lesson so the Afterschool Council doesn’t retract funding). Those big crazy plot points are still there—it wouldn’t be Glee if Vocal Adrenaline didn’t throw the gauntlet down via a surprise, one-time performance of “Another One Bites the Dust” on the McKinley High stage, or if the Gryffindor extras didn’t show up to sing Kurt farewell on his lunch break—but they’re the connective tissue, the funny throwaways to get us to the real meat of the drama, like how the romantic entanglements of “Silly Love Songs” depend briefly on Santana’s immunity to mononucleosis.
Of course there are problems galore: the “Born This Way” number wasted a powerful message on joke confessions, Brittany can be so dumb as to break even Glee’s reality, sainthood threatens both Blaine's character and the diversity message, zero-threat Cory Monteith is twice divorced with seven kids, poor Mercedes is adrift until they need her for another cliché, even the cancer kids were insulted by that scene, and, I’ll say it again, Sam’s poverty haircut is wasting a beautiful thing. As for Achilles heel Sue, the jury is still out, but only because I’m convinced her Wile E. Coyote reign of escalating cartoonish terror (punching a politician’s wife on stage, trying to launch Brittany in a cannon, nearly pulling Artie’s teeth out at prom) signals a reckoning ahead, which is to say I perhaps foolishly suspect the writers are aware of the dissonance between the bully storyline and the character of Sue. If not, she is by far the worst part of a show that has always been best focused on the kids.
Every show has problems. Greatness is about transcending them, which Glee achieves in several spellbinding sequences this semester, including one of my favorite ten-minute periods of television this year, the Rachel Berry Houseparty Trainwreck Extravaganza. From the moment Rachel steps into position in front of her painting to the moment the party ends, it's a distillation of the show’s sui generis flavor, and it wasn’t even a Big Scene; it was just Act 2. Cast the net a little wider—those 7-way phone chats are as reliable goodwill machines as the Cohens’ pre-credits morning banter on The OC—and include the bit with Blaine in Kurt’s bed, the night club rendition of “Blame it on the Alcohol,” and the notes where Rachel compliments Will’s vest and you still have as strong a piece of Glee as you’ll find. It wasn’t a competition, nobody broke up or got together, and not once did Quinn’s water break. It was just all the kids in a box with their desires and frustrations. The stakes were there, but they weren’t exposited in an opening conversation with Figgins or a narration about Quinn’s status goals. It was entirely in the looks, the tone, the camera movements.
When Quinn seems upset, the rack focus—from her in the foreground to her ex-boyfriend Sam making out with Santana in the background—clues us in. Later a slight pan from a dancing Kurt to Blaine fighting withdrawal gives us another one-two punch of comedy and longing. And only Rachel takes a hot kiss to mean “new duet partner.” “Don’t You Want Me” fuels the fire with its bouncy, romantic energy surfing on this angry undercurrent (“Don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now / and I can put you back down too”). It’s the perfect score for Blaine and Rachel’s misguided, albeit towering, duet at the center of all this romantic turmoil. The camera makes them the focus, but it opens up the room with glances at Quinn staring at Finn lost in her own tragic romance, Mercedes alone wondering when she’ll get to be one of the cool kids with a boyfriend, Kurt sitting on the piano stool as his would-be boyfriend scrambles away from his feelings and into the lips of an equally confused Rachel Berry. Even the lighter touches like Lauren letting Puck rest on her bosom and Mike and Tina dancing keep the spirit of yearning alive.
It’s not just intelligently made—it’s brilliant. And it’s far from isolated: consider the popcorn narration of “Silly Love Songs,” Santana’s confession to Brittany, Brittany's breakup with Artie, Emma confronting her illness with her therapist, the push on Will as the kids sing “Don’t Stop” and he sits next to April contemplating the lure of Broadway, every Kurt number (“Candles,” “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” his joke-sexy performance of “Animal”), and the latest scene, the “Dancing Queen” montage, a carefree dive into the genuine joys of youth, free of the irrelevant, self-imposed hang-ups that haunt the rest of the hour. This is the show that convinced me Glee was great, and it could not have happened in the earlier, more operatic periods. There’s no surprise revelations or Gossip Girl betrayals by rival show choir moles. It’s just real teenagers with real frustrations stuck together at the bottom of the food chain in the suburban Midwest getting by ever so briefly in song.