Before sitting down to watch “Comeback,” I’d been kind of excited to see it. This might sound perverse, but the main reason for my excitement stemmed from the fact that many, many, many people on my feed—including some hardcore Glee lovers who think I’m nuts when I deride the show—thought the episode was God-awful. As strange as this sounds, I’d rather watch a terrible episode of Glee than a merely average or mediocre one. Some of the fun of Glee is seeing all of the things it tries and doesn’t get right, seeing it fail miserably and talking about it with your friends or fellow Glee watchers online. A show that can veer wildly from an A- episode to a D+ episode? That’s damn rare and well worth preserving. Almost all TV eventually settles into a comfort zone, where it keeps cranking out episodes within a certain narrow range. Unlike almost any other show on TV, Glee hasn’t bothered finding a comfort zone. Sure, it has a small list of things it does consistently well, but it turns to those things more rarely than you’d think it would.
But in the end, “Comeback” disappointed me. Despite some strong potential ideas for the episode and despite some strong ideas with potential to be absolutely awful, the episode mostly settled into a pretty middling range and just hung out there for its length. There were moments that worked. There were moments that decidedly didn’t, but after last week’s assured hour, it was disappointing to see the show suddenly hanging out in the C-range again. And, honestly, nothing much changed from last week’s hour. There was a pretty good idea at the center of the show. There was at least one fun musical number. There were continuations of a number of last week’s best plotlines. There were some nice comic moments. But something was missing, making the whole thing stultifying, lifeless, and boring.
In Details magazine’s recent oral history of Party Down, the incredible Jane Lynch had this to say of the process of finding her character, Constance Carmell, on that show:
“You know, when someone asks me to do something, they're kind of asking me to do what is my brand. And my brand is being mean and in control and insulting and inappropriately sexual. Constance is rather innocent and doesn't have a mean bone in her body—except when she's defending her fantasy, she might get a little upset. You don't want to get Constance upset. But she wasn't dangerous. You weren't afraid of her.”
As much as Sue Sylvester is the show’s breakout character and as much as Glee seems to need that villain to keep things from getting too happy and airy, the series increasingly doesn’t even know what to do with her, outside of forcing her back into her "brand" over and over again. In his (surprisingly positive) review of “Silly Love Songs,” Alan Sepinwall opined that Santana fits the role of the schemer who tries to bring down the glee clubbers much more naturally than Sue does, and he’s not wrong. For as much as I enjoy Sue and as much as I enjoy watching her antics, the show is always cautious to do much of anything to push the character beyond the “Jane Lynch brand.” Sure, she’s rarely inappropriately sexual, but she’s definitely mean, in control, and insulting, and every time the show starts to soften her even an inch, it immediately pulls back, no matter how unrealistically. The show is running out of ways to do this, however, trying so many different versions of the Sue character that it inspires whiplash. Sure, everybody on Glee has five or six different versions of themselves, depending on how the writers are feeling that week, but Sue is the worst. Is she the tough love teacher, who really cares about her students but hides it behind a hard, outer shell? Is she the comically over-the-top villain, solely devoted to destruction? Is she the big ol’ softie, who puts on a mean front because of the way people treated her and her sister as a child? The show vacillates on this from week to week.
This doesn’t have to be a problem. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having her be all of these things (and more!) within the show. It’s possible for even a show like Glee to write nuanced characters (look at how they’ve done with Kurt), people who are more than their stereotypes. Indeed, that’s one of the show’s central mission statements. But it doesn’t seem to have a firm handle on Sue. She’ll change between versions of the character erratically, and those changes will increasingly feel like the show is just scared of getting too far away from the “brand.” I’m not saying the show has to make her soft or tone down her craziness or stop with the insane monologues. I’m saying that it needs to have a consistent answer to one question: Underneath it all, does Sue Sylvester give a shit about the kids at the school? Because some weeks she does and some weeks—as Matt Zoller Seitz points out brilliantly in this essay on the second season’s failings—she’s trying to shoot them out of a cannon to further her own career. Both interpretations of the character are fine. Hell, a character who cared about the students insofar as they didn’t conflict with her self-love would be fantastic. But the series seems unable to hold all of these versions of the character in its head at one time, juggling them awkwardly.
Take tonight, which was a veritable Sue-stravaganza after she sat out last week’s episode. The series is not stupid. It knows that Sue is one of the things that keeps the fans coming back from week to week, and it knows that she works better as an antagonist. But without the Cheerios going to nationals, she has nothing to live for. So we get a string of jokes where she’s threatening suicide—or, rather, groaningly, “Sue-icide”—which are neither dark enough to provoke a startled burst or laughter nor funny enough to overcome their central tastelessness. And then she joins up with the glee club to get that special burst of happiness she’s been so missing. Along the way, she mocks Rachel and Mercedes in a way the show seems to utterly lose interest in midway through, sits on the sidelines and talks about how the kids didn’t follow Will’s assignment, goes to a pediatric cancer ward with Will (no, really) to sing with the kids, and suggests a My Chemical Romance song that similarly doesn’t fit with Will’s assignment, even though she insists it does.
It’s not a bad arc, all things considered. The cancer kids scene is woefully misjudged and inappropriately hilarious. (Will goes to the hospital every few weeks to sing with terminally ill children? Fine, I guess, if overly saccharine. But the way he seemed to hold himself in such ridiculously high esteem for doing so was really unneeded. I skew more and more toward Seitz’s description of the character as a “lump of Silly Putty.”) But the rest of it more or less works, outside of the stuff the show loses interest in midway through. And then at the end, Sue decides she’s going to go and coach the club’s greatest rivals, perhaps because the show just tired of Cheyenne Jackson in that role (though I can’t remember if he ever appeared in anything other than press photos—was he in the premiere?) and perhaps because it’s taking the idea of Sue as the antagonist hilariously literally. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if she hadn’t just learned to love the glee club, thus exposing the character’s softer side. Nor would it be a big deal if it happened in another episode entirely, as each episode of Glee recreates the reality of McKinley and Lima anew. But coming out of nowhere like this? Why?
In some ways, the episode feels entirely like it was crushed together from two separate episodes the writers couldn’t make work on their own. Sue joining the glee club might have worked better as a small arc, and the stuff with CHORD OVERSTREET! singing Justin Bieber songs to win back Quinn, then gathering with the rest of the guys to sing said songs as the Justin Bieber Experience was gone after the midway point, picked up by other stuff. Similarly, Rachel seemingly had five or six different plotlines all about her. In one, she was trying to get Brittany to make her a fashion icon. In another, she was trying to regain her musical confidence. In yet another, she was hurt by the things Sue said. And in still yet another, the show was still navigating her crush on Finn. And in one final storyline, she proposed writing an original song for regionals and was voted down by the club, in favor of Sue’s My Chemical Romance tune, thus beginning the show’s slide toward WRITING SOME ORIGINAL SONGS! (I thought I was exaggerating when I said five or six storylines, but, nope, there were literally five of them.) It’s all supposed to coalesce in that scene where Finn tells Rachel to wow the club with her song, that the hour of her comeback is at hand, but it all felt really scattered. Then there was Will’s visit to the cancer ward and his talk about how he was on the verge of a comeback of his own, both things that were largely dropped after they happened, since the writers don’t know what to do with Will. Also, Puck continued his wooing of Lauren, but it was a lot less assured than it was last week.
The best episodes of Glee are crammed full of incident but feel like they have a connection to some central idea or theme. The worst are crammed full of incidents that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. When Glee is clicking, it doesn’t matter if the stories make sense or are consistent with what came before, not really, because what the show aspires to is a kind of over-the-top emotional collage, a sequence of scenes and images that add up to something more heartfelt than the show could manage by isolating any one of these moments on its own. “Silly Love Songs” doesn’t have a lot of stories that make pure, logical sense (Seitz nicely outlines some of the problems in the Kurt/Blaine plot), but it DOES feature an aching sense of teenagers in woozy love or heartbreakingly out of it, a sense that overrides everything else and patches over the rougher stuff. The show just doesn’t have anything like that here, despite its insistence on the idea that it’s about comebacks, about Rachel trying to become a musical force again and Sue trying to rebound from her humiliation and Will trying to… get back to teaching Spanish or something. Instead, it just becomes about the show tossing a whole bunch of stuff it’s had laying around the writers room into the same episode and hoping it fits. Minus that strong center, it doesn’t, and it makes for an episode that’s less chaotically bad than awkwardly constructed and, in the end, boring.
- When Will announced that the group would be singing anthems, I briefly had a fantasy vision of an episode of the show where every character sang their favorite national anthem. Who WOULDN’T love to hear Puck croon “Yumi, Yumi, Yumi”? Or listen to CHORD OVERSTREET!’s take on “All Hail, Liberia! Hail!”? (It even has the exclamation marks he REQUIRES.) And I feel certain that Tina’s spin on “Patriots of Micronesia” would have reduced me to tears. Just sayin’. (All of those are video links, but if your boss catches you, just pretend you really love Micronesia. Works for me.)
- Favorite musical performance: Lauren sings “I Know What Boys Like.” The underwear joking was unnecessary and overstated, but I like the character, and her growing confidence while performing, even as her voice wasn’t all it could have been, was fun to watch.
- Least favorite musical performance: Does “This Little Light Of Mine” count? It doesn’t? Oh well. Honestly, there wasn’t anything really TERRIBLE here, music-wise, but I guess I’ll go for the second Bieber number, which doesn’t really make much sense. (Would teenage girls be THAT excited by the Bieb? I thought he was a slightly younger phenomenon, but I could be wrong on that.)
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: There were some complaints about how often I talk about Naya Rivera here, so I will just say that Heather Morris was able to take a great variety of styles this week and make them all look very fetching. She’s a good-looking girl, that Heather Morris, and much better looking when they let her hair be in something other than that ponytail.
- I did like Santana’s escalating series of insults about the size of CHORD OVERSTREET!’s mouth. Some very funny lines in there.
- I liked the My Chemical Romance performance quite a bit, perhaps enough to make it my favorite of the episode, but it was marred by the end with, uh, Sue pumping her fist toward the sky. I don’t buy even the nicest version of the character getting THAT carried away. Still, it was fun to see her out there, and I love the dorky enthusiasm of MCR, in a totally shameful way.
- I’m not entirely sure what Rachel and Mercedes’ take on “Take Me Or Leave Me” had to do with anything, and for once, Lea Michele’s voice didn’t seem really suited for it. (I get what it was doing there from a story point of view, but it hardly seems like that should have resulted in the resolutions it did.)
- Spoilers from the next-week-on: Blaine is going to kiss Rachel? And like it? (Granted, while playing Spin the Bottle, but still.) I think a storyline about a self-identified gay teenager kissing a girl and finding he likes it more than he thinks he should could be really fascinating. I’m not sure I trust these writers to explore that particular issue. But onwards and upwards, I suppose! (Since this week is a Glee links-fest, check out this Movieline post on how Blaine is the Benjamin Linus of Glee and not in a good way.)
- "I wanna confirm our date on Friday at Color Me Mine."
- "You know how I feel about hats!"
- "We're going to the pediatric cancer ward! Once a month, I come down here, and I sing songs with the kids getting long-term care." I’m still amazed by the bald-faced terribleness of this line and the fact that Matthew Morrison was able to deliver it with a slight hint of sincerity. Props to you, Morrison! You need a better show!
- "That is offensive! He shot Martin Luther King."