When Fox sent out screeners for future episodes of Glee, it left off this third episode, “Acafellas,” which is usually a bad sign. All shows have a few rough episodes in the early going, as they figure out just what they can and can’t do, so networks have to be extra alert to avoid sending out these dregs to the critics, who will rightly savage them and blather about how the show has “tone” problems or the like. “Acafellas” is definitely the shakiest episode I’ve seen of Glee so far, and it has a lot of problems typical for a show in its early run, but there’s actually stuff in it that makes me think that the show is simultaneously getting a handle on how to juggle its tones. Should it be able to do that as adroitly as I think it’s capable of, it’s going to be absolutely terrific.
But let’s start with what was bad here. This episode was just all over the place, introducing emotional conflicts, then immediately bringing them to a close within the confines of the hour in a way that might take a more normal-paced series several episodes. Every episode of Glee covers so much story territory that it occasionally feels like an episode takes place over three months of story time. At this rate, I won’t be surprised if Rachel has taken Emma’s position and has three kids of her own while Will has moved into a nursing home by the end of the season. When Glee is doing stupid things that make me want to punch it, this fast pace is a good thing, but when it’s delving into characters who need delving into, I wish it would just slow the hell down for a few minutes and let us really feel just how lonely Mercedes is instead of informing us of that fact point blank.
That Mercedes plotline is a big case in point here. Since Mercedes was pretty much just a stereotypical black character in the first two episodes, it’s thrilling to see the show give her a whole plotline that’s just about her, not to mention a musical number that roughly delves into her psyche. Glee is going to live or die by how well it slowly fleshes out its massive ensemble, so this is a promising sign. But at the same time, the storyline comes absolutely out of nowhere. Mercedes is so easily talked into being in love with Kurt? And then when he rejects her, she, uh, busts the windows out his car. I get that the kids are hormonal nowadays, but good Lord, we couldn’t give this plotline another episode to blossom (or, even better, a handful of episodes)?
Similarly, Will got caught up in examining just why he never pursued a career in performing. This is actually a terrific direction to take the character, who’s filled with rue and regret over all of the things his life could have been and all of the things it’s actually become and a way to get Matthew Morrison singing in a more believable fashion. But instead of having Will secretly nurse stage dreams that his kids egg him on about (just like in The Rookie!), the episode randomly had him start an acapella group with a few other folks, including Ken (revealed, like everyone else, to be a strong singer). This might also have been OK, but the acapella group came and went insanely quickly, with the group having a rise and fall far more precipitous than that of The Be Sharps. They perform for the PTA and Josh Groban, and Will clearly has a great time, but then he just drops the notion of being anything other than a teacher? It’s as though the show realized that dragging Will too far away from the glee club would scatter an already scattered show too much but had already spent a bunch of money to get all of the songs Acafellas were going to sing, so they had to just push on through.
More generally, I wonder if some of the show’s problems stem from the fact that it’s a musical. That the show is a musical is easily the best thing about it (because it can legitimately claim to be like nothing else on television), but the production process for such a thing gets drawn out so far that I wonder if the show will be less able to adjust on the fly like television shows need to. By the time the writers might have realized that they needed to bail out of the Acafellas story or that the Mercedes storyline needed more time to percolate, they’d already gotten the musical numbers locked down. Because this is the third episode, this doesn’t concern me as much as it sounds like. It’s the sort of thing that any show will work out early in its production process, and I’m hopeful that Glee is just going through some normal growing pains.
But there was a lot of good stuff in “Acafellas” too. For starters, there’s no way I could give this lower than a B-, simply because it had Victor Garber in it, and Victor Garber makes all things better. Check out the look on his face when he finds out Terri’s pregnant in that first scene or how he builds a believable relationship with Will in just a few short scenes. Television is so riddled with characters with father issues that it’s nice to see a guy who has a genuinely good relationship with a father who’s a bit goofy, yes, but genuinely caring and supportive. (There’s even more great stuff dealing with fathers in next week’s episode.)
Furthermore, the episode goes a long way toward explaining just why Will and Terri are still together and it makes it much more clear that Terri’s not evil, just a not very bright woman who’s gotten way in over her head. That the two are still together mostly because of who they were (Will still finds her deeply attractive, while Terri likes seeing him perform like he did in high school) makes a lot more sense than the simple plot inertia we’ve been getting a sense of in the first two episodes. A Terri who isn’t the brightest but genuinely wants to make a better life for her and her husband would be a bearable character. It also helps that Jessalyn Gilsig’s performance as this character is just tuned in on a frequency even the writers don’t seem to be. Every facial expression and tic is perfectly attuned to express this woman’s slow falling apart at the seams.
And even if the episode’s storylines didn’t all work, it was still terrifically funny, maybe even funnier than last week’s episode (highlights: that whole runner with the missing thumbs and Josh Groban having the same lady proclivities as Puck). The musical numbers continue to be highlights, even if it feels like the show rushes to get to them, and even if some of the attempts to deepen these characters weren’t completely successful, it’s just nice to see the show trying at this early stage. Not every early attempt at this sort of thing is going to work, but knowing that attempts are being made is a nice promise the show is making for itself.
- Another storyline that didn’t really work: Will abandoning the glee club when they didn’t like his choreography, then the attempted hiring of the other dance instructor, a plot that also could have been teased out over a few episodes. At some point, the show is going to have to stop having people doubt the glee club’s talent and have them express that talent, and we’re coming to that point sooner than I thought we would.
- I love Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester. I’m not sure we need Stephen Tobolowsky there, much as I love the actor, to play the gay male version of her.
- Come to think of it, why were the other members of Acafellas so mean to Sandy? For a show about outcasts, they’re awfully quick to turn him into an outcast, regardless of what he’s been accused of. The show can play these accusations for comedy or drama, but it doesn’t quite work when it tries to play them for both.
- Agreeably filthy line of the week goes to Sandy for his ruminations on shop students needing hot wood in their hands.