“The First Time” S3 / E5
- B- Community Grade
Glee has never terribly been a show that’s interested in process. It’s interested in results. Many shows would have gotten a good half season’s worth of plotlines out of the kids getting ready to put on West Side Story. You would have had the initial reading episode, the episode where we learned all about how Artie was finding himself as a director, the episode where some of the kids had a brief romance, the episode where dress rehearsal was a disaster, etc., etc., etc. But Glee has never much wanted to do the boring stuff on the way to the fireworks factory. It wants to just get to the fireworks factory as soon as possible, so we get an episode that crams all of those different episodes into one—most of them in what amounts to a single scene or a half-scene or just a dramatic beat—and it’s also an episode that’s all about doin’ it. Surprisingly, it works pretty well. Or, put another way, this is an episode where Schu only appears so he can sit in the audience and tear up about how great his kids are. So, yeah, it’s pretty good.
Artie’s worried that Rachel and Blaine’s romantic chemistry just isn’t cutting it—despite the fact that they’re still on book and performing without facing each other—so he summarily orders them to have sex. (Artie, who also goes about hooking up Coach Beiste with her beloved, an Ohio State recruiter named Cooter who has nothing better to do but hang around McKinley all the time, has turned into the show’s relationship expert because he once had sex with Brittany. This makes more sense than it should.) Anyway, this gets into my one big gripe with the episode, so we might as well get it out of the way here. Wasn’t Blaine supposed to be the worldly guy who ushered Kurt into the ways of being a gay man in the 21st century? Didn’t we have that whole thing where he was in love with an older guy who worked at the Gap? And, sure, none of that’s predicated on Blaine being older and more experienced than Kurt necessarily, but didn’t it sure seem like he was there for a while?
In this episode, at least, Blaine’s so young and inexperienced that he needs his own Blaine, some Warbler named Sebastian who’s been to Paris and Lima’s premier gay bar. It’d be interesting if the show were playing around with the idea that Blaine was bluffing, that he was putting on a worldly exterior to hide just how little he actually knew. And, yes, confidence goes a long way and can get you in a lot of doors. But it really does feel like Blaine left Dalton and went to McKinley and also abruptly realized when he got there that he was going to have to replace whole portions of his personality with a different one so he could have a ready-made character arc. The story arc hasn’t been bad by any means, but it does feel like Darren Criss is playing someone who’s quite a bit different from the guy he was playing last season.
That said, I thought most of the rest of the episode worked. This is probably my inner theatre geek speaking, but I enjoyed the vast majority of the West Side Story numbers, and I like the way that the show used them to comment on the action, occasionally directly, occasionally indirectly. The storyline mostly drops away toward the end so the kids can perform an elaborately choreographed and staged—seriously, suspension of disbelief, yes, but this is the greatest high school arts program ever, and the teachers are throwing it together with paperclips and Slim Jims—version of “America” that doesn’t have anything to do with anything but is one of the best production numbers the show has ever done. When the songs are this much fun, the show can get away with having them not really have anything to do with the plot or characters, but this one also highlighted Rachel and Blaine’s nerves, Finn’s anger, and the whole question of whether McKinley could put on a good musical at all. There’s something to be said for getting dessert before the meal from time to time, and “America” was damn good dessert.
Another reason this mostly worked? As much as it possibly could, it focused on the kids. Yes, there were a few scenes where Cooter (who has time to watch the McKinley High football game, give one of the non-Finn players the recruitment spiel, and take in the school musical with Beiste—Ohio State is the best ever!) tried to charm Coach Beiste and she just didn’t get that he was hitting on her, but for the most part, we were zeroed in on Rachel, Finn, Kurt, and Blaine. Much as I love some of the other kids, they only popped up when the story needed them to, and that was the right call. The exception here? A weird, tonally off scene where Mike Chang’s dad dropped by just to repeat everything he said back in “Asian F,” but add in the fact that he wanted to be a tennis player at one time. (In the Glee-niverse, he gave up this dream. In our universe, he won the 1989 French Open and named his son after himself.) It’s tough to criticize anything in Glee for being “on the nose,” but this scene was pretty on the nose, particularly since it was largely the only part of this storyline we got to see (outside of Mike and his mom smiling at each other during the play) and it ended with, “If you dance, then you are not my son!” which should be beneath even this show.
Anyway, yes, the kids. This was basically an episode about the two couples, with Artie wandering through storylines to bring people together or play matchmaker or briefly realize that performing the roles of assistant director and set designer and costume designer and whatever else it was he was doing was too much to place on his shoulders, prompting a pre-show freak-out. The material about Blaine and Kurt and Rachel and Finn talking about having sex was unexpectedly sweet, and there was little talk about, “Oh, gosh, if I give you my virginity, will I always regret it forever, and maybe I should just wait?” Thanks to a pep talk from Tina about how it’s nice to have sex for the first time with someone you really love and how it will give you memories you’ll cherish forever, no matter how the relationship ends, Rachel, at least, seems to think, sure, having sex as a teenager, if you’re safe and conscientious, can be a fun, nice thing to share. Kurt and Blaine conclude the same, and the episode ends with some tastefully shot staring-into-each-other’s-eyes and post-coital cuddling. It’s, dare I say it, nice.
Of course, there’s plenty of stuff on the way there that’s fun, too. Since the episode opens with Artie telling these two crazy kids to have sex with their significant others (and there’s a place where the Glee of season two almost certainly would have had Rachel and Blaine at least make out when they were worried about emotionally fake performances before opening night), the episode has to end with at least one couple having sex or with both of them doing so. (It thankfully avoids the “Rachel and Finn have sex; Blaine cheats on Kurt with Sebastian” ending it seems to be heading toward for a while.) So there needs to be some false conflict, and I can’t say this was my favorite thing in the world. Rachel blurting out to Finn that she was only having sex with him because she was worried about her performance was stupid. I buy that as a character motivation, but I don’t buy it as something she’d just say accidentally, out of nowhere. It was a way to prolong the inevitable.
That said, the big night out at the gay bar was a much better way of extending the other storyline. Kurt’s a big ol’ romantic who wants to have sex with Taylor Lautner in a field full of lilies or something, while Blaine doesn’t have any such illusions about his first time. So Sebastian—who all but steps out and twirls his mustache at several points in this episode—represents something of a credible threat (at least more of a credible threat than “will Rachel say something stupid?”), and the gay bar scene also gets at another difference between Kurt and Blaine. The latter is starting to think, more and more, about how he could stay in Lima and help people. Presumably, he means that there may be a role for an out and proud gay man in a small town as a pillar of the community and someone for gay teenagers to look up to. (Again, this is a place where Rachel’s dads could work well as someone he could bounce ideas off of, but the show seems committed to keeping them offscreen.) And he’s not wrong! But Kurt’s not wrong to want to pursue his dreams in New York either. Like Finn and Rachel, the show is exploring what happens when two people are right for each other in high school but almost certainly won’t be the second they graduate.
It’s at the gay bar where Kurt meets his old nemesis, Karofsky, who’s transferred high schools, so terrified is he of people finding out he’s gay. (Speaking of which, how many high schools are there in the general Lima area?) The two have something like a coming to terms, and Karofsky lets on that he’s just trying to get through his senior year before his life can really begin. (Though, as Santana suggested last season, I’m inclined to believe he’ll stay closeted a long, long time, if not always.) And it’s here that the show zeroes in on what it’s doing this season and why it’s been, on average, a better show than it was in season two, even if it’s not exactly as crazy and wacky as it was then.
For all that Glee doesn’t seem interested in the process of getting to a point and so much more interested in just getting to that conclusion, it’s actually taking its time this season to examine who these people are in their senior years and whether they’ll choose big dreams or something smaller-scale. And to the show’s credit, it’s not really condemning anyone for any of their choices. Blaine’s desires (granted, desires tossed off in a single line) aren’t demonized. Yes, they’ll get between him and Kurt, eventually, but they’re also worthwhile, positive goals. And the scene where Finn erupts at Rachel about how he’ll never get out of town, about how he’s not good enough at football and not good enough at singing, is surprisingly powerful. (Corey Monteith has never been the show’s strongest actor, but he’s quite good here.) Lima is many things, but over this final season, the characters are going on a journey wherein they decide whether or not it’s a place they want to make better or a place they want to escape as best they can, even if escape only comes for a few fleeting moments in bed.
- Speaking of emotional throughlines about people dealing with their Lima anxiety, Quinn turns up to tell us all that sometimes you get something you just can’t keep and remind us she’s involved in the worst plotline ever.
- I think there was definitely a full episode to be made out of Artie’s assistant directing, and I wish the show had done that. His anxieties before the show begins feel as if they come out of nowhere, in a lot of ways, and he’s a character the show could stand to do more with.
- The Burt Hummel Express (for I choose to believe that the folks at Burt’s shop have fixed up an old touring bus and painted it with a picture of Burt in a suit and the slogan, “I’m just a guy… a guy who believes in America”) has borne Burt and Carole to Toledo to knock on doors. Sue Sylvester, meanwhile, plots offscreen, further bolstering the “this show is better without Sue” hypothesis, which is pretty much proved now.
- I’m really, really grateful the show didn’t try to shoehorn in a plot where Will and Emma have sex or talk about having sex or… do anything, really.
- Best musical number: I believe I’ve been quite clear in my praise for “America.”
- Musical number obviously included to sell iTunes singles: The only reason to do a new Warblers number—much less shove Darren Criss in there for no reason—is to sell iTunes singles. And, yes, I like “Uptown Girl” because I grew up in the ‘80s and have no taste, but this was still a totally pointless waste of time, completely designed to trick impressionable teenage girls out of their hard-earned cash monies.
- Last week, I found myself thinking the three funeral directors of Lima might make a good spinoff. This week, I’m all about a show where Cooter travels around Ohio and romances the female coaches of the Upper Midwest, a girl in every port. It would be white trash Lone Star.
- All right, I also want a spinoff about the obviously bored bouncer at the gay bar. “It’s drag queen night,” he says, obviously wishing he was at home, working as a real estate novelist.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: While I enjoyed the cut from Tina talking about Rachel really loving someone to her and Santana singing—you’re speaking my language, Glee!—the young lady I’m intrigued by this week is whoever the girl in “Uptown Girl” was. It was a reference to the video, sure, but who was this fancy young extra? French teacher? Student at Dalton’s female equivalent who’s stumbled into the wrong school? Someone Sebastian hired for extra rehearsal verisimilitude? All I know is that she was very attractive, and she should star in the show with the funeral parlor guys, Cooter, and the bouncer. Let’s make this happen, Fox!