B+

Glee: "Born This Way"

Let’s get the bad out of the way first: As an episode of television, “Born This Way” was structured very oddly, with a Kurt subplot that abruptly interrupted everything else in its tracks for no real reason, then hung around for something like 15 minutes, to the point where he got a “goodbye” song and a “hello” song. Yes, we all like Kurt. He’s the sole character from season one who’s been written with any degree of consistency this season, and he’s a fine role model for gay teenagers. But stopping everything dead just to bring him back to McKinley—via reasons where his motivations weren’t entirely clear, outside of his desire to go back—felt like a snore. The show might have been better sprinkling this more through the hour, than devoting two entire acts to it.

In addition, the episode absolutely didn’t need to be 90 minutes. The whole thing was kind of logy throughout, even when it was cooking, and a lot of it felt like it was assembled from stuff that might have been better left on the cutting room floor. Plus, instead of adding on two or three extra acts, it often felt like the commercial breaks were tossed in at random, as though an hour-long episode had had 10-15 minutes of additional footage crammed in, and then the act breaks were assigned at random. I know the story is that the producers saw so much good stuff in this episode that it just HAD to have the extra time, but I’m going to blame this one on the network, which probably wanted to take a chunk out of the heavily hyped The Voice, a show that likely would attract much of the same audience and eat into the small constituencies Raising Hope and Traffic Light have attracted. This loginess wasn’t an episode killer (and I find it hard to blame on the producers), but it did give everything a feel of being slightly too slow, which could be disastrous for this show.

But by and large? This worked. And it reminded me, in some ways, of why I liked the show so much back in the days of early season one. Though the show is obviously more of a hybrid than a project where every single writer has a weird, auteur-ish control over their own vision of the show (especially this season), Brad Falchuk’s scripts have always seemed to come for episodes where he’s at least trying to find a middle ground between the show’s twin impulses of saccharine sentiment (with an undertone of real darkness) and gleeful humor mixed with excess. Falchuk seems to still be trying to make a show where this shit MEANS something, which makes his blow-up on Twitter at an extra who shared plot spoilers for an upcoming episode that much more interesting. (I’m not going to link to the story, since I’m sure many of you have avoided the spoiler, but it’s easy enough to find via Googling.) By and large, I think, Glee is a show where plot spoilers don’t really matter. So much of what makes the show entertaining is in tone and humor, two things that sort of can’t be spoiled. (Even knowing a joke is coming will sometimes be neutralized by strong delivery by an actor.) But this might be a special case.

Because here’s why “Born This Way” reminded me of season one: It feels like a connective tissue episode, an episode that tells a single, standalone story, sure, but also links this episode with the ones that came before and the ones that are coming up in a very specific way. Will the show ignore much of what happened here in weeks to come? Probably. But, to a degree, knowing where the story is going, I can see much more clearly just how Falchuk, Ryan Murphy, and Ian Brennan are trying to set all of this up for the big reveal. Falchuk freaked out because this is the most sustained plot momentum Glee has had since the first half of its first season, and the ending is now “ruined.” But in a weird way, knowing where this is going makes the way the writers are pushing the characters into certain positions that much more interesting. In particular, this might be the most emotionally complex episode of Glee in a while.

The best thing about this episode is Naya Rivera’s work as Santana and the story the three writers have cooked up for her. Rivera’s really come into her own this season, going from just a generic bitchy cheerleader to an actual character who has motivations and might be a better villain for the show than Sue. (You might notice that this episode, yet again, featured no Sue and was probably better for it, just like “Duets” and “Silly Love Songs.”) On a show where we’re meant to accept that the characters do whatever the fuck the writers need them to from scene to scene, the storyline of Santana realizing she was in love with Brittany and, thus, is probably a lesbian has been nicely plotted and surprisingly deep. The reveal about Santana hasn’t washed away her less savory qualities; indeed, it’s heightened them, to a degree, as she struggles to be true to herself and still maintain her status as the hottest girl in school.

Tonight’s episode returns to prominence the prom queen storyline that’s been bubbling around for a few episodes now. There’s been some good material around this story from the start (that scene between Quinn and Rachel about how their lives are on two different trajectories was a heartbreaker), but this episode features the best material so far, as Falchuk’s script attempts to make sense of a great many things that didn’t make sense in the past, including figuring out a way to retroactively make Quinn’s sudden obsession with being the prom queen make a kind of vague sense (she was an overweight girl with bad acne in middle school). Similarly, the scenes where Lauren, Santana, and Quinn all wage their own battles for the title are the strongest in the episode, as Lauren and Quinn’s antipathy explodes into something like war, while Santana ends up doing something good via actions that are entirely self-serving.

Santana, see, has realized that Karofsky is gay, thanks to catching him checking out Sam’s ass, and she decides that her way to the prom queen throne and universal love throughout the school is to get him to act as though he’s done with bullying and, indeed, wants to police the hallways with her, stopping the bullying that’s still going on. Burt smells a rat (and Mike O’Malley reminds everyone just why he should be used more often), and Kurt immediately figures out what’s happening with his tormentor, though Karofsky fills him in on the Santana connection. It’s surprisingly complex, because it means that McKinley is becoming the kind of place where Kurt could go to school again, but it’s becoming so for entirely self-involved reasons. Santana and Karofsky’s plot is all about hiding in plain sight, about not being true to themselves in a way that’s vaguely positive for many of the other students in school. They’re doing a good thing for self-serving reasons. Does that mean the positive effect is still worth it? Or is everything invalidated by the dishonesty at its core?

Now, a lot of the times, the writers on Glee seem to stumble ass-backwards into emotional complexity and clap their hands excitedly when they find it in an old dusty corner, like characters in The Sims who’ve just had a baby, but this feels painstakingly built to in very smart ways. It’s a nice dovetailing of four or five different storylines, and even if it stops the episode dead to bring Kurt back to McKinley, it also feels like the season can’t conclude without figuring out a way to have Kurt and Karofsky come to terms with what happened between them last fall, and the show has smartly paralleled Santana and Karofsky’s journeys, even as it’s suggesting selfish acts can be a net good, in the long run. And that’s why I bring up plot momentum above.

I’ve been rewatching early episodes of the show, off and on, to remember just why I was so excited about it back when it debuted. And those early episodes are rough, yes, with a real sense that the show was trying a bunch of stuff and seeing what stuck. This is typical of young shows in their first season, and it’s typical of Glee. The show, for better or worse, is much smoother now, and it’s mostly figured out a formula that works for it, the magical equation between goofy jokes, huge musical numbers, and moments of schmaltz that makes for a series that doesn’t have the dizzying highs and staggering lows of season one. But there’s also a sense that the formula has become so all-encompassing that the show, weirdly, isn’t as daring and courageous as it once was. The first part of season one was all over the place, but it definitely felt like it was building to a series of twin revelations about Terri’s pregnancy and the competition at regionals. There were numerous episodes that felt like standouts, yes, but there were also more episodes that felt like they were bridges between those episodes, even if not all of them worked.

I’m not trying to claim that Glee was a super-serialized show in the early going or anything. It’s always had standalone stories that it quickly forgets about once the episode is over (remember Rachel’s crush on Will?). But in the early going, it was a show with stakes, a show that felt like it was going somewhere, even if it was going to take every detour that interested it on the way. In season two, too often, the show has felt like ALL detours, as if it’s completely forgotten several parts of its original mission statement and is just interested in giving us a good time, punctuated by occasional sentimental moments. And that’s a fine mission statement, as these things go, but it’s not something that terribly interests me, nor does it strike me as the show living up to its greatest potential.

Look at it this way: Good TV shows entertain; GREAT TV shows take you somewhere. Even shows with entirely standalone episodes are ultimately building toward something: Will Archie and the Meathead ever love and respect each other, despite their differences? Will Sam and Diane make it an everlasting love? Can Michael Bluth ever save his own family? I’d never argue that Glee, even at its worst, isn’t worth watching. There’s something amusing or interesting in nearly every episode, even the ones I’ve given terrible grades to. But there hasn’t been that sense of the show’s overriding ideas and stakes since “Regionals” way back in season one. Back then, the show was about whether this disparate group of people could come together and create something more than themselves. Even in the best episodes this season—“Duets,” “Silly Love Songs,” I’d even argue “Grilled Cheesus”—the series has occasionally felt like it’s tossing up a camera on some other universe from the other episodes. Nothing feels like it hooks up with anything else.

Until now, at least. I don’t know what the stakes are for all of the characters, since the biggest stakes are for two minor supporting characters. The series still has trouble figuring out what to do with too many of the people in the cast (more about Schu in stray observations). And though I know what we’re building to, I’m not sure the show will have anything interesting to say about it beyond a simple plot twist. But in “Born This Way,” I finally got a sense that, yes, this second season has been building toward something and has been trying to tell an emotional story, as well as a humorous one. “Born This Way,” for the first time in a long time, made me feel like I could say I was a fan of Glee without a million qualifiers.

Stray observations:

  • But let’s qualify anyway! The show clearly has no idea what to do with Will at this point, and that’s going to be a problem in the near future, once the original characters start to graduate. He reached a new nadir tonight, when he tortured Emma with store-bought blueberries, then revealed a T-shirt that talked about how much he hated his butt chin. That’s all you have to hate about yourself, Will? Really?
  • Despite being kind of stupid, I enjoyed the “Rachel thinks about a nose job” storyline because it was so inconsequential, contained at least one damn good musical number (the “Unpretty/I Feel Pretty” mash-up), and didn’t take up too much time, outside of the “Barbra Streisand” number, which was the show’s most blatant attempt to just stall for time. 
  • Despite so much of her storyline being bound up in the Will suckiness, Emma got a really nice moment with Special Guest Therapist Kathleen Quinlan, in which she decides to start fighting her OCD with therapy and drugs. Jayma Mays is a good actress, and this show tends to make me forget that.
  • I’ve seen lots of complaining about the final scene where the show finally reveled in its idea of acceptance of whoever you are. And, yeah, the fact that Kurt wore a shirt that said, “Likes Boys” as the thing he didn’t like about himself was a real head-scratcher. (That said, I really liked that Puck’s said “I’m With Stupid” with an arrow pointing at his penis.) But I appreciated that, for once, the dumb theme of the week was just a way for the show to stitch together a bunch of disparate storylines, instead of a storyline in and of itself. 
  • Quinn’s dad got a big enough raise to get her a nose job? Must have been one hell of a raise!
  • This is the rare episode where I didn’t really HATE any of the musical numbers, though I’d struggle to say I loved any of them outside of the “Pretty” mash-up. “Born This Way” struck me as not enough of a payoff for an episode that had been so blatantly building to it, and while I really like that Keane song, it was sort of bizarre that the Warblers showed up to sing it to Kurt before presumably leaving forever. (And, yes, I know we’ll be getting more Blaine in the future. Yay?) Again, I can see why so many people hated “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” but I didn’t mind it. Why? I like the show’s nods toward actual Broadway, and even if the “cardboard trees” were far too literal, I thought Chris Colfer sang the song very well.
  • Surprisingly nice filmmaking moment of the week: Shooting yet another of the show’s endless locker conversation scenes from the perspective of INSIDE the lockers was pretty cool.
  • "I really prefer neat freak or cleany bug."
  • "Is she here?!" "No. This is a mall in Ohio."

More TV Club