While The A.V. Club values continuity considerably more than Glee, there are some circumstances where it just isn’t possible. Accordingly, I’m stepping in for the inimitable Mr. VanDerWerff this week, just in time to harp further on the series’ struggles with continuity — fitting (and inevitable), no?
There are some things that the show has actually been pretty consistent with, though: Glee has not been afraid to acknowledge criticisms leveled against the show, for example. This season opened, after all, with a meta-documentary that encapsulated the issues many had with the program, while something like the show's obsession with "old" music has been lampooned on numerous occasions.
"A Night of Neglect" feels designed to respond to two criticisms the show has received, the first relating to the marginalization of certain members of the supporting cast and the second being the maniacal behavior of Sue Sylvester in her crusade to end the Glee club forever.
However, Ian Brennan's idea of a response to these concerns is somewhat peculiar. Rather than actually making the characters in question more complex, he creates an elaborate spectacle that emphasizes their marginalization and temporarily elevates them to a higher position. Meanwhile, he decides to just give up the charade and quite literally turns Sue Sylvester into a supervillain, complete with her own League (not Legion) of Doom consisting of other characters who have been rendered one-dimensional villains in the past.
In other words, Brennan's idea of addressing these concerns is making them part of the text itself, as if integrating them into the storyline will make them less legitimate. However, not only was the execution on these endeavors spotty at best and outright obnoxious at worst, but the growing futility of continuity in this series renders any and all developments wholly temporary. This episode was not a step in the right direction so much as it was an escalator to nowhere: A week from now, the chances of any of this resonating in the show itself is slim to none.
Mercedes has had, to my mind, five storylines of substance. The first was her ill-fated belief that she could romance Kurt, whom she clearly should have known was gay. The second was her sudden desire to join the Cheerios. The third was her sudden issues with her weight. The fourth involved tater tots. And now, the fifth involves her marginalization leading her to, along with Lauren, turn herself into a caricature of a modern day diva.
While no one can argue that Amber Riley can’t sing, I think we're reaching the point where we can’t actually call Mercedes a character. She is a prop, someone who can be carried out in an egg whenever they need someone to give a particularly diva-esque musical performance. This season, her two most memorable performances (at least out of those that I can even remember) were both "diva offs," pitting her against Santana ("River Deep, Mountain High") and Rachel ("Take Me or Leave Me") in a somewhat random fashion. In fact, I can't think of a single musical performance from Mercedes this season that has been something that she was driven to sing for reasons unrelated to an overarching episode structure (duets, original songs, etc.) or moral (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” in “Grilled Cheesus,” for example). Even when she played Frank-N-Furter in the Rocky Horror episode (remember that?), it wasn’t a character moment: She was a last-second fill-in for Mike, the character who actually wanted to take on the role to try something new. Instead, Mercedes played the role simply because Amber Riley can do a mean “Sweet Transvestite.”
To be fair, "A Night of Neglect" does attempt to address the character's marginalization, as Mercedes outright asks Rachel why she gets so few solos despite the fact that even Rachel acknowledges they are on somewhat equal footing. The answer Rachel gives is that Mercedes just needs to command it through the power of her performance and a basic sense of self-confidence, but hasn't the character already been boiled down to her attitude? If you go back to "Original Song," and her less-than-inspired "Hell to the No," that is what the character has been reduced to on the show: A sassy black diva. What "A Night of Neglect" argues is that this was actually Mercedes' fault: if only she had more self-confidence (which, to my mind, she only lacks when the show decides she lacks it), and asserted her singing ability (which we've seen her do on numerous occasions), she would be as big a star as Rachel.
It's a bizarre argument to make, because it actually suggests that the marginalization is the character's fault rather than a conscious decision by the writers. Normally, I would have thought the writers would argue that all of the characters are three-dimensional, but we just don't have time to focus on them long enough to reveal this three-dimensionality. As a result, this season has focused on various romantic relationships (Rachel/Finn/Quinn/Sam, Brittany/Santana/Artie, Puck/Lauren, Will/Emma/Holly/Carl) and Kurt's sexuality in terms of major ongoing extracurricular storylines (storylines that take place outside of the Glee club and its activities), but it could have just as easily looked at Mercedes' life at home or Artie's adventures with his magic walking machine. With ensemble dramas like this one, we sort of presume that there is a world outside the one being presented, and that those characters not present (like, for example, Sue's League of Doom) have their own lives they live while our focus is elsewhere.
Instead, Brennan's script seems to suggest that Mercedes has been marginalized because she just doesn't make herself known. But this isn't the start of an arc where Mercedes will be empowered by this realization; instead, it’s a "special episode" where the lesser members of the cast are celebrated. Isn’t suggesting that these characters need a "special episode" (in this case represented by an actual benefit concert for 'neglected' people) to get such treatment undermining any sort of change? Why, for example, did Artie, Mike, Tina and Brittany need to be part of an academic decathlon in order to be considered neglected? If we never see their decathlon team again, is that not just a contrived plot device meant to exaggerate marginalization so as to argue that marginalization is not inherently present in the series on a week-to-week basis? That they’re only marginalized in this specific instance of random Brainiac-related activities?
It's nice to see Amber Riley, Harry Shum Jr. and Jenna Ushkowitz get a chance to perform, but making a spectacle out of it does nothing but point out the show's mistreatment of these characters outside of such special showcases. For example, the show doesn’t address the fact that the three cast members selected for solos on "The Night of Neglect" were all visible minorities, and what that 'neglect' might mean to the series' racial diversity; addressing this would require subtlety the show can’t muster, three-dimensionality these characters lack, and consistency that seems futile at this stage in the series’ development. All "A Night of Neglect" did was transpose emotions and experiences onto pre-existing characters and give them each 2-4 minutes to show their stuff, which hardly constitutes character development on a show where Kurt is exploring his sexuality, his relationship with his father, and the limits of Tolerance Narnia in a season-long arc. It's like Brittany being good at academic decathlon only because she gets categories about which she knows an obnoxious amount for no clear reason: she might know a lot about cat diseases, but that doesn't make her smart, and this episode doesn't make the issues of diversity and hierarchy within the cast any less of an issue.
The rest of the episode was less problematic if not exactly any more satisfying. The only real highlight, at least for me, was Stephen Tobolowsky's return as Sandy Ryerson. It's a welcome return, given my affinity for Stephen's work on The Tobolowsky Files, and because Sandy is actually given something of a character arc within the silly comedy. For the most part, Brennan's just having fun with Sue's villainy, giving Cheyenne Jackson a chance to hit on Gwyneth Paltrow and Tobolowsky a chance to don a pink cape and build catchphrases around “The Pink Dagger” which bend the meaning of the family hour (and certainly went over the heads of those seven-year-olds Murphy sees as his target audience). However, Ryerson got in touch with his glee-club roots at episode's end, acknowledging that not even a spurned former director with a vengeful streak can resist the kryptonite that is Aretha - it's more continuity than Mercedes has at this point, to be honest, and Tobolowsky was having a lot of fun with what was legitimately fun material. Yes, I still have an issue with crusading, villainous Sue and her place within this world, but Sandy Ryerson's always been a slightly over-the-top character, so it worked well to have him serve as the main figure in the (otherwise kind of dull) heckling storyline.
As for the end of Gwyneth Paltrow's recurring role on the show for at least the foreseeable future, what is there to really say when Brennan had Holly lay out every relevant piece of information? In her final discussion with Will she explains that she reiterates her commitment issues, observes that Will is still in love with Emma (who is now officially single), and confirms that she could of course stop by again in the future (since I'm sure there's some profession that Paltrow hasn't tried yet that she could explore on Glee. Like woodworking!). Overall, the episode captured the occasional awkwardness of Paltrow’s presence on the show: "Turning Tables" was an unfair comparison to Adele's original, given that Paltrow's singing is only passable, and the whole "casting an Oscar winner" has its disadvantages when you know that she's only around on a temporary basis. Hiring someone who might conceivably stay on the show would be smart, as there might be some tension that Will would stray from his relationship magnetic north, Emma.
However, looking back, perhaps we should admire Will's devotion to Emma. On a show where characters can't decide who they are or what they're meant to be, Will and Emma keep returning to the same point. Sure, it's reductive that their resting state is "in love with one another" as opposed to some sort of actual life goal unrelated to relationships, but when they're not romancing (or marrying) guest stars they have something to return to. By comparison, what does Mercedes have to return to but a few attitude-filled lines during group scenes? Where do Tina and Mike go from here but a world where their talents are still ignored by the show at large?
Every ensemble has a hierarchy - to suggest otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the complicated realities of production, which includes contracts and perhaps even some personal conflicts (as evidenced, if rumors are to be trusted, by Puck's recent absence). However, Glee has a distinct problem in that it can't just not show certain characters in a given episode: Even if they have no storyline, characters like Mercedes are going to be playing backup singer to whoever is in a more substantial role that week, and are going to be in the background of scenes entirely unrelated to them. As a result, temporary elevations are always going to feel temporary, and without providing any substantial characterization you're just making it that much more obvious — and I would argue problematic - when they're back to playing the Supremes to Rachel's Diana Ross.
- Nice of Kurt and Blaine to show up to support their friends, and get into a random confrontation with Karofsky to lay the groundwork for the character’s more prominent role in next week’s 90-minute extravaganza. It’s a rare bit of foreshadowing for the show, all “Hey, Karofsky’s in the closet and Kurt and Blaine are the only ones who know about it and I bet that’s gonna be important in the future so you should probably remember it.” See also: The reminder that Quinn is running for prom queen, which I had totally forgotten was the character's lifelong dream since like two episodes ago.
- I’m still recovering from the moral whiplash of Holly’s speech about cyber-bullying to the heckling club. I get that the show has a fairly substantial young audience, but there was nothing separating that from your run-of-the-mill PSA, and the correlation between Sue’s evil heckling plan and everyday cyber bullying (which was here equated to trolling on NCIS/CSI:Miami message boards, saying mean things on EW.com, and tweeting about Mubarak) was less than elegant. It made me wonder if it was cyber bullying week at FOX or something, but no: it’s just Glee bein’ Glee.
- Speaking of which, I was apparently not swayed by the message, since I think a heckling club would be kind of awesome if it wasn’t aimed at teenagers putting on a benefit concert. It’s a handy skill!
- Clearly, Ian Brennan never learned from Chekhov: One does not introduce the possibility of puppies in Act One without delivering puppies in Act Three.
- Sam didn’t speak more than a few words in the episode, but his casual enjoyment of Holly’s Wallis Simpson lesson and his pleasant SNL-like introduction of the benefit were the most likeable he’s been since “Duets.”
- As many have pointed out on Twitter, it is clear from his equation early in the episode that Will is not a math teacher.
- I see why Lykke Li might be considered neglected, but Jack Johnson? Adele? Aretha Franklin? I’d say the neglected artist element kind of fell by the wayside.
- "I love salt water!"
- “Because two of them are Asian and Artie wears glasses?”
- “You’re hunky and I’m what they call predatory gay.”
- “You are the honey badger, nature’s most ferocious animal. Look it up on YouTube.”
- “Oh, and also: I have razorblades hidden in my hair.”