To a degree, it was going to be virtually impossible for me to NOT like the Glee Christmas episode. I have an immense affection for Christmas, both the religious holiday and the cheesy, secularized version of it that's become the dominant American holiday. I also have an immense affection for the "sad" Glee, and this episode was chock full of moments that played right into that paradigm, from Will HAVING TO SPEND CHRISTMAS ALONE to Sue RIPPING OFF HOMELESS CHILDREN to that actually well-written little speech from Will about the true meaning of the story Gift of the Magi. There were some nicely heartfelt moments in this episode, and I don't want to take away from them by ripping on the fact that, well, Artie can walk again, thanks to a miraculous Christmas gift from Santa himself.
OK, I mean, NOT REALLY. Artie just has some robotic leg things that he received after Coach Beiste, WHO'S A MILLIONAIRE, APPARENTLY, left them under the tree at Brittany's house after sneaking into said house to convince Brittany that Santa couldn't actually restore Artie's ability to walk, the only thing Brittany really wanted for Christmas. Why did Brittany believe Artie would magically be able to walk again come Christmas Day? Well, because Brittany still believes in Santa, that's why. (I mean, OF COURSE SHE DOES.) And the guys recruit Coach Beiste to tell her that Santa isn't exactly top of the line with the stem-cell research, which requires her sneaking into the house in Santa suit, etc., etc., etc. They do this because everybody involved, up to and including Brittany's parents, really, really wants to preserve Brittany's childlike innocence for some reason, rather than let her think that Santa won't magically come through at the last minute. In theory, this is all kind of sweet, but as I write it out just now, it all sounds ridiculously, ridiculously stupid.
That's often the problem with Glee. Start to try to explain it or just why it works, and it sounds ever more ridiculous. The only way that it really works is if you're there, in the moment, watching the thing, and there may be no episode that's more true of than "A Very Glee Christmas," which is positively filled with stupid moments but also has that sad charm Ian Brennan sprinkles into even the very worst of his scripts (which this one very nearly is).
Though I invented it, I kind of think the "Three Glees" thing has taken on too much of a life of its own. Really what I was trying to do was explain why the Ian Brennan episodes of the show were the ones I most looked forward to (this was way back in early season one), because he usually seemed to be on the wavelength I preferred the show to be on, the one where it's a slightly depressing show about performing arts geeks in Ohio. It's become a sort of catch-all explanation for Glee apologists (including myself) looking to explain just why the show often feels like it's constructed in a similar fashion to those group-written short stories where everybody contributes one sentence, and I suppose it maybe works that way, but, really, I just want to explain why the episodes that have tiny, moving moments like the conversation between Sue and Will on Christmas Eve so often have Brennan's name on them.
That's all a tangent, though, because tonight's episode contains some of the very worst Brennan (and the show) have to offer. For starters, and this is something I never thought I'd say, I almost wanted some sort of basic acknowledgment of Christmas' religious background, outside of Rachel mentioning how she's Jewish and, thus, doesn't celebrate the holiday. So much of the episode is given over to what feel like shot-for-shot remakes of the big three Christmas specials (Rudolph, Grinch, Charlie Brown) that the episode starts to feel a little airless. If there's a show on TV that should be able to earn its Christmas treacle, it's Glee, what with the singing and the dancing and the over-the-top madness, but the episode instead leans on OTHER Christmas shows' treacle, and that ends up making it feel like a poorly Xeroxed copy. There's emotion here, but it feels secondhand. Those homeless kids the glee club keeps singing for never feel like a real presence; they feel like the ghosts of Christmas specials past. As such, building the whole episode around them ends up being a little bizarre. Brennan's usually the king at earning his emotions, but he just doesn't here, almost as if he's coasting a bit.
Here's another example: The big climax of this storyline? Well, that involves the glee club singing the climactic song from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Considering the episode's plot has more or less aped that special's plot, casting Sue as the Grinch, this makes a sort of sense, even if it's hard to see the school's cash-strapped faculty (outside of Coach Beiste, who owns a luxury yacht and a Scrooge McDuck-style money bin) being terribly moved by it. (Honestly, it's not that good of a song out of context, which, again, gets us back to issues of the episode leaning too heavily on emotions in other Christmas specials.) This is a moment that more or less works, but it can't help but feel like yet another example of something that sunk the Rocky Horror episode, the show refusing to examine its own characters or their emotional logic seriously and, instead, just doing whatever the hell comes to mind next.
This is why I bring up the religious thing. I don't know if you've bought the Glee Christmas album. I actually haven't, but looking at the track listing, most of the songs that were left out of the episode carry a religious connotation, as if the producers knew these were nice songs (and they all are) but didn't want to get too heavily into the Christianity stuff. I'm not going to say Glee's been particularly fearless in portraying Christians as actual human beings (though it did some nice work with Quinn when she was still a character), and I don't really think that the episode should have turned into a treatise on the Nativity or anything.
But there's a CORE missing in this episode, a simple, sentimental, emotional core that all Christmas stories must have. There's no DEPTH to anything here, and while that's often true of the show, it's perilous when the series is trying to do something that has more meaning, like a story about helping the poor at Christmastime. Christmas stories don't even need to have religious connotations to achieve this depth. The episode's inspiration, the Grinch, doesn't mention God or the Baby Jesus once, and it absolutely earns its secular sentiment. But the episode's steadfast refusal to deal with the holiday as anything other than a thing it's heard about once or twice on other series and in other specials ends up sinking much of the piece. The religious thing would have been a good way to cut through a lot of this, but I would have accepted, oh, I dunno, adequate story construction as well.
And yet if there's a season that invites disjointed, barely coherent storylines, it's the Christmas season. Sue sneaking into the choir room to steal Christmas while dressed as the Grinch makes absolutely no logistical sense, and the choice to just steal the pivotal sequence of another special for the pivotal sequence of this episode should rankle, but it somehow works. Jane Lynch's gusto, the fact that Sue paints herself green, and the choice to cast Brittany as Cindy Lou Who all work, and the sequence is fairly easy to enjoy without taking over the entirety of the episode. The same goes for the duet between Kurt and Blainejamin Linus, which has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING but is still a lot of fun because the actors have good chemistry, the song is nice, and the voices work well together.
Then there's the Rachel and Finn storyline, which makes basically no sense but really gets at the core of sadness this episode spends most of its time averting its eyes from. Rachel and Finn broke up in last week's episode. Naturally, she's trying to get him to take her back. This, I more or less buy. She feels awful, and she wants to somehow erase everything she did. We've all been there. But this plot has basically no reason to exist, other than to have Finn tell Rachel over and over that they're through, then suggest that if she wants to get back together with him, 2012 might be the year to do it. And yet this was probably my favorite plot of the episode because I really bought how much Finn loves Christmas, and I really bought how much Rachel wants to save Christmas for him. It was all rather silly, but when you toss in a sequence that steals heavily from the Charlie Brown Christmas scene where Chuck and Linus go to the Christmas tree lot, well, that's something I'll probably enjoy. Tack on to that the fact that no one wants to be alone for the holidays, and you have the perfect cocktail of Christmas sadness.
And that's the thing that's most frustrating about "A Very Glee Christmas." It comes so very, very close to working. I like all of the elements, while never thinking they come together as well as they could or should. Some of that may be me excusing stuff because I like the season and the show and enjoy seeing them mixed together, but I don't think that's the case. There's an episode here that could have worked, an episode that's mostly about being lonely at the holidays, granted, but also one that could have earned the sentiment of the ending. Honestly, I might have preferred if just Sue was the person Will spent his Christmas Eve with (and had that been the case, this might have had a significantly higher grade), as having the entire glee club hiding in his bedroom was, well, a little bizarre. But the central idea that Will is trying so hard to make a good Christmas for others because his is going to be so shitty is a fantastic one, particularly for a character the show hasn't served well this season. And that episode, as it pokes out around the edges, remains reliably moving. But there's so much else going on that I kept looking for a bracing shot of cold, to cut through everything else and remind us that the holiday's about religion or family or giving or getting or SOMEthing other than recycling old Christmas specials. Make your Christmas story sad; make it ridiculously joyful; make it endlessly heartwarming. But make it resonate on SOME emotional level. Because a Christmas story without emotion is just tracing over the lines of something somebody else put a whole lot of work into.
- Here's another problem: I don't really like the song list here. I have absolutely no idea why the kids are singing "Island of Misfit Toys" while decorating the Christmas tree, right down speaking the lines from the Rudolph special itself. Does anyone spontaneously burst into that song? (To say nothing of the fact that this song might be the single worst use of Auto-Tune yet, since it sounds like something you might hear in a Walgreens.) Then you have two songs from Grinch, "Last Christmas" (a song I've never warmed to), and a handful of others that get cut off far too soon. Honestly, for Glee to do a Christmas episode that gathers the entire glee club together in Will's house at the end and DOESN'T feature "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" over the close is SORT OF UNCONSCIONABLE.
- It's ridiculous just how silly the Brittany/Artie plotline is. Every time I would start to get into it, like that scene where all of the Glee kids went to talk to Santa, the show would yank me right out of it again. It was minor enough that it didn't ultimately impact my enjoyment of the episode, but there were some silly, silly moments throughout.
- Honestly, if any series wanted to go to the old trope of the characters meeting a friendly old man on Christmas Eve and then there's a hint that he's the ACTUAL SANTA, this one could probably pull it off, but just barely.
- I liked the Gift of the Magi scene (particularly Will's speech, which came closest to that notion of Christmas as an inherently sad time I keep blabbing on about), all the while sort of amazed that any of these kids would get that cultural reference. And, yes ... wait, I need a new subject header ...
- Straight guys, talkin' 'bout Glee: And, yes, Quinn could totally pull off the Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby look.
- I seem to have complained about this episode more than I thought I would, which means I've talked myself down to a much lower grade than I was planning on giving the episode. If I had to explain why it still remains relatively high, I guess I'd say that I thought the episode worked moment-to-moment, without working as an overall narrative. Again, it feels like a story constructed sentence by sentence, as an exercise by a creative writing class, but each sentence is really solid.
- If you want to see a show leaning on old interpretations of Christmas stories but more or less infusing those interpretations with its own thing, then you've gotta see this week's Community.
- I don't want to oversell the religion thing. This show's relationship with religion is complicated enough, already, without, like, including a scene where Santana gets up in the darkened auditorium and tells everyone what Christmas is really all about. At the same time, most of the best Christmas songs ARE religious, and even the inclusion of one or two of these might have given the episode a bit more of that sad, sentimental core. (Notice how many religious Christmas songs are in a minor key.) That would have gone a long way toward earning that ending.
- Christmas song recommendation for everybody: Tom McRae's cover of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime." Glee could have broken this one out and WON ME OVER FOREVER.
- I think I just prefer religious carols to other Christmas songs (despite being pretty much areligious) because they contain such wonderful old LANGUAGE. The whole of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is just full of fantastic turns of old-timey phrase, and the same goes for the non-religious "Deck the Halls." "Fast away the old year passes?" Yes, please.
- Oh, and, hey, we won't be meeting again in this space until the Super Bowl. Assignment for the break: Everyone come prepared to discuss which songs which characters should sing in the INEVITABLE New Pornographers theme episode.
- "Their Christmas gift to each other was rabies."
- "I thought that was Thanksgiving."
- "You're making me hate Christmas!"
- "Can I be honest? I don't understand the difference between an elf and a slave."
- "You don't know how many kittens I've given away because they haven't been just right."
- "It's unseasonably warm, actually, for this time of year."
- "I didn't know what it was. I assumed it was a Transformer."