We all have our pop culture blind spots, but for me, the popular culture of the 1980s is a big ol’ black hole. I explained briefly why this was in my review of “The Power Of Madonna,” but suffice it to say that pretty much all of the Whitney Houston resonances or references this evening were lost on me. I’m relatively certain some of the musical numbers directly quoted the music videos, just because of the way they awkwardly shifted format in the middle of the song, but I couldn’t say for certain. By and large, the only Whitney Houston song I’m at all familiar with is her (wonderful) cover of “I Will Always Love You.” My wife’s a big fan, but when I tried to get her to watch “Dance With Somebody” with me, she said she’s done with the show because she finds all of the people on it annoying at best and reprehensible at worst—so you’re stuck with me tonight.
Oddly enough, I feel like having no idea what the musical numbers were all about gave me a clearer picture of what was going on. There were some dramatic scenes that worked fairly well. There were storylines that fell completely flat. The musical numbers mostly seemed to be there to kill time, rather than to advance plot points—with a couple of notable exceptions. The whole thing felt more hastily thrown together than the show usually does, as if Houston died, and the show felt it was obligated to pay tribute to her. At least with the other theme episodes the show has done, it felt like the kids would have gotten excited about the artist in question. I mean, I didn’t quite understand why everybody had such an intimate understanding of Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia page back in “Michael,” but I could at least buy that Jackson was the sort of artist whose cultural influence gave him the kind of weight he would need for the kids to have heard of him. (Madonna, too.) This could just be my own Houston ignorance saying something, but I don’t think she has a single song at the level of “Billie Jean” or even “Like A Virgin.”
So instead of coming up with some way to relate Whitney Houston to everybody’s life, the show simply did a rough repeat of last week’s episode: All of the kids are worried about the future, and they don’t know what’s coming next. I’ve responded to this theme fairly well throughout the season, but tonight’s episode felt like one return to the well too many, and the returns were significantly diminished. Rachel and Finn worrying about how their relationship will change after graduation? Absolutely. I get that. Will worrying that all of the kids won’t come to his wedding if it’s held in November? What the what? (Though I admire his and Emma’s commitment to keeping the blessed event in a sweeps month.)
Glee has always had a lot of stuff going on, but all of that stuff works best when it’s tied into a strong plot or thematic hook (as in, respectively, “First Time” and “Saturday Night Glee-ver”). This episode attempts that trick, but it keeps getting interrupted by the Houston songs, which usually have nothing to do with anything. What, for instance, is Brittany singing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”—enchanting and effervescent as it is—supposed to have to do with the episode’s larger themes of the kids’ hangers-on realizing that their time with these teenagers is limited? It really does just seem to be there to sell the omnipresent iTunes singles.
“But, Todd!” I hear you saying. “How is this any less true of any number of musical numbers you may have liked in the past?” And, really, there’s some truth to this. Coming up with good story motivation for five to seven songs in any given episode must be enormously difficult, and episodes where the majority of the songs have some sort of motivation—like last week’s—are definitely the exception that perhaps proves I shouldn’t get so worked up. They can’t all be “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “Boogie Shoes,” now can they? The problem, I think, comes when the show doesn’t bring anything to the cover versions, when it just coasts on familiarity.
The TV critic Jaime Weinman used to criticize Family Guy for its reference humor not bothering to make a joke. You’d just see some reference to a ’70s or ’80s TV show, and that was the whole gag. This could be funny if you were in the club—as most of the show’s viewers (including myself at the time) were—but it didn’t work if you weren’t. It was the show coasting off the viewers’ goodwill toward previously produced material. I’ve felt this way about a lot of Glee’s musical numbers since the first season, to be perfectly honest. They’re always well-done and well-performed, but more and more, they just seem to be there to coast off of previous associations the audience will have with the songs as they existed. In many cases, they blatantly disregard the song’s original content. I’ve been listening to Houston songs on Spotify while writing this, trying to figure out what I’m missing, and “Saving All My Love For You,” the song that Quinn and Joe (whose name I had honestly forgotten until somebody said it) sing to each other is a song about infidelity, as best as I can tell. Furthermore, why are these two playing desperate-TV-writer couples bingo? Is it because every male character must briefly be infatuated with Quinn?
Suffice it to say that I don’t give a shit about Joe. And I’m sort of his target audience, I’d imagine, as I’d love to see a frank, earnest depiction of what it’s like to be a Christian as a teenager, what with the raging hormones and all. But Joe’s just a dull cipher, just the latest of the Glee Project kids to be absolute duds in the cast as a whole. (Has anybody heard from Rory? Anybody?) His scene where he talks with CHORD OVERSTREET! (it feels good to type that) about how to handle his teenage urges for Quinn could have been a good one if the character were at all compelling or if the relationship between the two had gotten any time to build, outside of furtive glances and then the occasional stolen duet.
Anyway, some of the Kurt stuff worked, I thought. I intellectually comprehend the whole Kurt and Blaine nearly breaking up thing, but I don’t really buy it, simply because Chandler—the guy that Kurt meets in the music store—is such a non-entity. If the show had bothered building him up over time, maybe I’d be more invested in the idea that Kurt would be so interested in texting back and forth with him. Then again, Kurt and Blaine’s romantic struggles pop up in this episode almost as much as the idea that the kids have been mourning Whitney Houston for two months does. I know that part of the appeal of the show can be how it races through story points, to the degree where things you’d figure would be arcs are disposed of within an episode, while other things, like this Finn-and-Rachel wedding nonsense, get dragged out well past the point of anything recognizably human. But watching Blaine and Kurt struggle about this was enormously hard to care about, even if it provided the single number of the episode that had any relevance to the plot whatsoever, as Blaine united the glee club behind him (at least metaphorically) in condemning Kurt for his actions. It’s clear the show is trying to position Blaine as the male lead of the show going forward, but the Blaine we’ve gotten this season doesn’t seem like someone you’d build a show around. What happened to the Blaine who was possessed of enormous, almost crippling amounts of self-confidence? Sigh.
All of this was just a prelude, however, to the single worst thing the episode did, which was to turn Will into someone who’s obsessed with getting his marriage in before the end of the TV seaso… er… school year because he’s worried the kids won’t come back to his wedding after the season fina… er… graduation ceremony. He needs to set up a stage at a KOA campground and commission Don from Big Love (wasted in the role of “Mr. Lavender,” Ohio’s top wedding planner) to get everything ready for him. He’s behaving, in short, like a crazy person, and where the show has done some interesting things with him this season—especially with mocking him—it just makes him seem creepy here. Yes, it’s good if teachers get invested in their kids’ lives. But it’s just weird if they act like they cease to exist once the kids leave. Will has been enormously successful in setting out to create this damnable glee club, and his great legacy will be that it doesn’t die when the first batch of kids graduates. Now he’s messing with that? I’ve tried not to harp on Will as much this last season, because, honestly, why continue? You all know how I feel. But he’s just an idiot here, and it’s like no one on staff realizes it.
It all comes back to Whitney in the end, as the kids unite to sing a song, as they only have so many glee club practices left, then decorate a locker with reminders of their time spent together the last three years. It’s, honestly, a good sequence (as is the earlier scene between Kurt and Burt, though we should probably expect that for scenes between those two), but it comes at the end of a big mush of bland nothingness. Maybe if I liked Whitney Houston a little more (or knew anything about her at all), I would have liked this episode more. But that’s no way to make a TV show, is it? Like… I like to think if this had been a Bruce Springsteen tribute, I wouldn’t have gone nuts for it. But maybe I would have. That’s always the danger of coasting: You don’t know if the reactions you elicit are actual or faded copies.
- We got a Tina sighting, when she popped up in the Blaine number and got her very own close-up. Aw, Tina! Good for you!
- Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: I honestly thought the show might have been on a roll there when “How Will I Know” started up. I really enjoyed that particular number. The others were all fine, but I don’t know enough about Whitney to really tell them apart.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ’bout Glee: Hey, Heather Morris? Please continue getting at least one dance number per week, even if it seems a little bizarre that the Brittany of straight scenes and the Brittany of musical numbers are the same person. Bonus points for sticking a giant-ass bow in Santana’s hair.
- I hope Chandler doesn’t become a character, because the last thing we need is yet another love-triangle plot. I fear that we’ll be seeing a lot of him in season four, though.
- As mentioned, I liked that Burt and Kurt scene quite a bit (it and the final number are keeping this one out of the D-range almost singlehandedly), but if Burt wanted to spend more time with his son in his senior year, why did he run for Congress? (I do like that when he pops up, he’s in suits now.) Also: When are we going to get a “Burt Hummel Goes To Washington” episode?
- Two “hey, we’re graduating, so let’s be nice” scenes that didn’t work: Rachel and Santana patching things over (huh?), Puck giving all of the guys in the glee club… shot glasses? To remember the good times?
- Spoilers that I wish I didn’t know about because it would be so much more amazingly bizarre if they just happened and I didn’t know about them: This show has a body-swapping episode coming up. I’m not even kidding. But before we get to that, which will obviously be amazing, we get to watch Rachel and Kurt’s auditions. Predictions?