After two genuinely bad episodes of television, "The Substitute" is a relief because it more or less feels like an episode of Glee. I don't know that I'd call it genuinely good, but it has some fun moments, some of the scenes are nifty, and at least one of the musical numbers worked for me. It's a step up, a nice reminder that the people in charge of this show sometimes shoot themselves in the foot but generally know how to put on a good episode of television, even if they sometimes seem to forget all rules of good scene construction or, well, logical sense. Nobody's going to put "The Substitute" in their favorite episodes of all time list, but it had enough virtues that the show's defenders can point to it as a sign that, as schizophrenic as season two has been, there's still something underneath all of the media hype.
First things first, let's start with Will, who's becoming a real drag on the season. Part of the problem with the character is that the show is uncertain just how to feel about him. There are scenes when it seems to want to portray him as someone genuinely creepy and on the edge of doing things that would be horribly wrong for a man in his position. (If one of the chief inspirations for Glee was the film Election, this side of Will is very, very close to the Matthew Broderick character in that film.) I don't have a problem with this. If the show wants to make the guy a great teacher with a dark side or something, I'm all in. But the series also wants us to think of Will as a kind of hero, and that means that it always has him realize he's done the wrong thing, almost immediately after doing it. It also means that we get long montages where the students talk about how Will's the best teacher ever, utilizing evidence that mostly goes against what we've seen of the character so far, as the show did tonight.
Here's another case in point from tonight's episode: For whatever reason, Terri came back for just the second episode this season to nurse Will back to health after he contracted a rare form of monkey flu, a monkey flu that also allowed Sue to ascend to the principal's chair. In the course of nursing Will, the two felt the real connection that used to exist between them and slept together. Right away the very next day, Will has sworn off Terri, saying that what happened between them was a mistake, and there's pretty much no room for ambiguity here. We're supposed to feel that Will is right and that Terri is such a shrieking harridan that he's smart to want her out of his life. The problem with all of this is that it largely ignores any culpability from Will in the matter or in how his marriage slowly crumbled or in being so stupid that he didn't realize his wife was faking a pregnancy (OK, I added that last one). Most of the other characters have settled into a groove where we more or less know how they'll react to things, but Will continues to be all over the map. Are we supposed to think he's a guy trying to do the right thing and constantly failing? Are we supposed to have darker feelings about him? Or are we supposed to see him as a number one teacher and a saint? He's whatever the show needs him to be, week to week, and that's one of the biggest things hurting the series this season. (That said, I liked the way the show made fun of his lame tastes in music this week and by extension, made fun of itself.)
Let's go from there to something that unquestionably worked for me: Gwyneth Paltrow was obviously having a hell of a good time as Holly Holliday, substitute teacher at large, and that sense of fun slipped through the screen effortlessly. Paltrow's an actress who can often seem sort of bored or unengaged, but when she really gets into a role and gives it her all, she's sort of effortlessly charming (even as a glum character like, say, Margot Tenenbaum). There are plenty of people out there who really dislike her as an actress, but I'd say her work in this episode was enough to remind me of why she's also got some very dedicated fans. She threw herself into whatever the episode required of her, from big musical numbers to broad comedy to a pseudo-parody of the film Dangerous Minds, and she had a ball doing all of it. By its very nature, a guest star role is designed to be a short-lived one, and I liked how the show almost made fun of the idea of the special guest star by casting Paltrow as a substitute teacher everybody loved but no one would remember a few weeks from now. She's a transitory character, but one who's a lot of fun in the grand scheme of things. (Best Paltrow bit? For me, it'd be a rough tie between that initial scene in the choir room, when she throws herself into some Cee-Lo and suggests an obsession with tacos and the history class where she does the world's worst Mary Todd Lincoln impression.)
Actually, I liked almost everything about the Holly Holliday plot, too, even though much of it didn't make a lick of sense. Of course, at this point, I think we've all accepted that Glee doesn't have to make sense to be good; it's just a fun prize at the bottom of the box when it does. The idea that Sue would be the new principal, then would somehow manage to unilaterally fire AND reinstate Will was particularly ludicrous, no matter how much Jane Lynch tried to sell the crazy ramblings Ian Brennan gave her. (And I'd say the Sue monologues were particularly good this week, if a little poorly motivated.) Indeed, I almost think the plot would have been better without Sue's involvement. (She already had the tater tots to deal with.) Most of the episode's themes related to Will's fear of being replaced, to the idea that you can substitute something for another thing and come to like that new thing better. If the episode had just been about the kids coming to love Holly but then realizing that she wasn't Will, dorky as he can be, it might have felt much cleaner. Honestly, I thought the show's portrayal of Holly as someone who tries to be fun all of the time and thus avoids anything even remotely like conflict was fairly astute (and perhaps a wry bit of self-criticism), and I would have liked to see that built to more, instead of getting buried under a bunch of Sue shenanigans.
This leads us in to the rest of the episode, which has to do with the following things, all dealt with in rapid-fire fashion: Kurt and Blaine's friendship is moving toward relationship status so quickly (though he insists he won't get everyone into another Rachel/Jesse situation) that Mercedes is starting to feel left out. Then, Sue takes away her tater tots because Sue abruptly realizes a lot of McKinley students are overweight (though even the very slim Brittany misses the tots), which gives Mercedes a new mission in life: Bring back the tots! Except this all has something to do with the fact that Mercedes uses food as a substitute for love (or so Kurt would have it), and the other students join her quest, and ... it all kind of gets lost in itself, honestly. That's not to mention that Kurt's bully (who, of course, has a crush on Kurt) returns this week, mostly to remind us he exists and that he kissed Kurt. (That said, I liked him a little better as a character this week, particularly his fear at being found out, which seemed better realized in the short time he was on screen.) This is a big mish-mash of plot elements, and while I know that the Mercedes and Kurt thing is going to play out over the next few episodes, as will the thing with the bully, I don't know that the tater tots helped matters. Again, it was one element too many to what was a pretty potent emotional story without that element. (That said, it bears repeating that Chris Colfer and Amber Riley played every moment of the story perfectly. I especially like the way Colfer plays the way Kurt can be condescending to his friends without realizing he's being so.)
That said, you can always say one thing for an Ian Brennan episode, and that's that he figures out a way to tie in everything in the episode to one central idea. And I'll admit that I was pretty impressed that "The Substitute" mostly managed to deal with the idea of trying to substitute something for another thing, before you realize that what you originally had was what you wanted all along. Except in some cases, what you want is the new life you're getting. Is Mercedes really going to be Kurt's friend five years from now? Sure, they'll be pals on Facebook and they'll probably keep in touch, but the two of them will likely lead very different lives. High school's a time when emotions are so high because they're necessarily short term; none of the glee kids are probably going to hang out post-high school, realistically. Sometimes, you have to let go of what you had to become the person you'd rather be. But sometimes, you realize what you had was what you wanted all along, even if sometimes, you realize that too late.
- There's been some request that I talk more about the musical numbers, so here I go! I actually really, really, really enjoyed "Forget You," and fuck you if you didn't. I get that the original song is so much better than this version, but I thought the show had some fun with the idea of blanking out the pornography, and the staging and choreography were amazing (I could watch Heather Morris dance to this song all day). I also didn't mind the final number, which was weirdly gloomy for the episode but featured some nice choreography and Artie acting tough, which is always fun. (But don't you think Will would know the song "Singin' in the Rain" predated the movie?) Still, if I'm returning to watch one of the numbers on Hulu, it'll be "Forget You."
- The other musical numbers, however, were not my favorites, particularly since they indulged in one of my least favorite Glee musical number types: the shot-for-shot Gleemake. (I hate myself for saying that.) These bits usually involve taking a number from a film or stage musical and changing JUST enough of the staging (like, say, adding a second to "Make 'Em Laugh") that it doesn't feel like outright plagiarism, but, c'mon. It's outright plagiarism, not homage. I liked Mike Chang in "Make 'Em Laugh," but the Chicago number between Lea Michele and Paltrow mostly seemed to be in there to give Michele something to sing that week. All of this felt like Ryan Murphy's attempt to prove he could TOO do the movie version of Wicked. (He directed the episode, in case you missed.) And, honestly, I think he'd do gangbusters with that. Let him at it, Hollywood.
- The whole Rachel plotline was a little weird, particularly since it felt like one of about a dozen aborted plotlines that the episode introduced, just to have a scene where one character would get something to play, then mostly forgot about.
- Man, this show is fond of weird fever dreams, isn't it? The Glee babies (Gleebies, maybe? No?) were cute enough, I guess, and I liked hearing that dialogue come out of the mouths of children, but the idea of hallucinatory dream states came and went from the episode (as did, come to think of it, the voiceover).
- One of the things I like about Glee is that it really has constructed a little world for itself. I know it can't be inexpensive to toss in Dot Marie Jones for just one scene, but it adds to the show's world-building when Sue is chewing out Beiste, rather than some random teacher invented on the spot.
- Next week, we get a Ryan Murphy wedding episode. And here's the thing: I think it's going to be great. TV weddings are so overdone already that Murphy's over-the-top approach should be just the thing to make that episode fun. See you then!
- "I thought we were friends." "That got boring."
- "You smell homeless, Brett. Homeless."
- "I'm Mike Chang."
- "C'mon, guys. There's gotta be a Journey song we haven't done yet."
- "Hoarders is great, but Animal Hoarders is better."
- "When I showed this to Brittany earlier, she began to whimper, thinking I had cut down a small tree where a family of gummy bears lived."
- "It has nothing to do with the fact that he's one of the five black guys at this school?"
- "You make the underflaps of my breasts burn."
- "I stopped after M and N. I felt they were too similar and got frustrated."
- "That can't be my baby because I don't love it!"