Today, I was talking to A.V. Club head honcho and overlord (seriously, he makes us bring him sacrifices) Keith Phipps about Glee and whether he should watch it. My answer, as always, boiled down to a "Yes, but ..." He said he’d heard it was inconsistent and terrible at times. I said this was true, but that if you watch the show as three shows, not one, then it becomes sort of fascinating to watch the three men making the show go about making their own versions of the show and largely ignoring each other (with an exception in tonight’s episode). “Duets” once again proves that the version of the show I’d be most willing to watch week after week is Ian Brennan’s version, but it also proves why, most likely, his version would be unlikely to be a big hit. He’s less interested in giant, insane moments, and more interested in earnest poignancy. He loves obscure Broadway numbers that very few people are going to have on their iPods. And while he writes very funny lines, he’s more interested in small, essentially dramatic moments.
Brennan has written some terrible episodes – “Hairography” did no one proud – but for the most part, he turns out quietly consistent little episodes that stick closest to what I like about Glee, that sense that all of these people are tilting at windmills with their dreams of being famous in Lima, Ohio, and the sense that high school is an emotionally trying time for just about anyone, regardless of what clique they’re in. When he’s at his best, he writes these characters better than either of the other creators, and even when he’s just turning in fairly average work, that work remains solid. If Brennan were the sole creative force behind Glee, I have no doubt that the show’s creative reputation would be impeccable, but I also have no doubt that the show would have ratings trouble. (Like it or not, Ryan Murphy’s love of over-the-top moments is what has put this show on the map for a lot of people.)
I realize not everyone believes the whole “three Glees” theory, and I have promised to talk about it less this season. But “Duets” is probably the best evidence we’ve had yet that these three men approach the show essentially differently. In the season premiere – “Audition,” also scripted by Brennan – we were introduced to a couple of new characters, Sunshine Corazon and Sam (whom I keep wanting to refer to as Chord Overstreet, because the name of the actor playing him is the most ridiculous thing ever – and did you know he’s dating Rumer Willis?). Then, except for a short glimpse of Sam last week, the show acted as if these characters didn’t even exist in the next two episodes. And yet, if you placed “Duets” immediately after “Audition,” it would make FAR MORE SENSE that it does placed after “Grilled Cheesus.” The only connection to the episode immediately preceding it is the fact that Burt’s still ailing. The connections to the premiere are myriad. Some people view this central inconsistency as an unforgivable problem; I view it as one of the reasons that Glee’s capable of stuff nothing else on TV is and (in the show’s worst episodes) a fun critical challenge, what with the reviewing three shows that are actually one, like the holy Trinity or something.
Let’s get the biggest problem with the episode out of the way upfront: Brennan apparently didn’t have Mark Salling to work with in this episode, so he wrote him out via the most ridiculous means possible. Puck has been sent to juvie! For having stolen an ATM? (How much you wanna bet he’s just back like nothing happened in the very next episode?) Honestly, I don’t have a problem with a quick line of dialogue establishing why an otherwise regular character isn’t present in an episode, but “Puck is out with appendicitis” or “Puck is at his grandma’s funeral” is no “Puck is getting himself quite the criminal record!” It gets the episode off on an odd, odd foot, and though it recovers (and fairly quickly), it’s enough to knock a point off the final score.
That said, what I love about Brennan is that he takes big, crazy chances with the emotions of the show, not with the series’ ability to pull off random gags. He’s completely lost it a few times – “Imagine” from “Hairography,” anyone? – but he mostly pulls this stuff off. There are a number of storylines in tonight’s episode that feel like they shouldn’t work, for the emotional terrain they’re pushing into, but Brennan saves himself by letting the characters be emotionally honest with each other. Take, for instance, Brittany deflowering Artie, a plotline that came out of nowhere, but somehow became one of the most resonant things the show’s ever done. Both characters get nice moments, what with Artie ripping into Brittany after he realizes this is just something she does, and he’s given away his virginity (something even more important to him because he wasn’t even sure he could HAVE sex before having it with Brittany) to a woman who uses sex like currency and with Brittany rolling the meatball across the table at Breadsticks with her nose.
But also take a look at Finn and Rachel, who are a lot of fun to watch as conspirators, scheming to get Sam – sorry, CHORD OVERSTREET! – the win in the duet competition, so he stays in the club. Again, it kind of comes out of nowhere to have Rachel realize how selfish she is (unless you account for the fact that Brennan’s previous episode featured a lengthy plot where Rachel realized how awful she can be to other people), but Brennan let it be about more than just the plot machinations. It was also about two kids who are having fun being a couple and realizing how enjoyable it can be just to spend time together. Similarly, Quinn and Chord Overstreet’s slow flirtation was exceptionally well-handled, and the look of sadness on Dianna Agron’s face when she realizes that she’s falling for Sam – and wants to be falling for him – was exquisite.
Brennan also uses songs differently from the other two writers on the show. He’s either using them to underscore emotional moments, or he’s using them as a kind of pure “joy of performance” type of thing. (And the way he uses those two functions is fairly consistent, too. In a Brennan episode, if a character is singing in class, it’s all about how fun it is to perform; if that character is singing in the hallways or a fantasy sequence, their emotions are underlined.) Tonight was all about the joy of performance, and the musical numbers were among the most varied and terrific in the show’s history. For as often as we’ve seen Finn and Rachel sing together (and they were cute singing “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”), it was even more fun to watch Mercedes and Santana rip it up or watch Kurt sing a duet with himself or see Tina and Mike turn Mike’s flaws into a virtue. (And though Quinn and Chord’s number was nice, that Mercedes and Santana lost was ridiculous. Also, have you noticed that Naya Rivera is ridiculously good looking?)
Again, I don’t hate Glee’s inconsistency. I think consistency is overrated, and I’d rather the show try everything on the map than simply turn out one same-y episode after another. And I think Murphy is far better at coming up with completely off-the-wall stuff than Brennan (even if that off-the-wall stuff very often flops) while Brad Falchuk is better at hitting the big moments – there’s a reason he wrote both the midseason and season finale in season one – but Brennan is the one guy who makes a show with some sort of emotional continuity. If Ian Brennan were the sole force behind this show, I wouldn’t have to answer friends who ask if they should catch up on Glee with “Yes, but …”
- And if you hate the three Glees theory, well, it HAS A WEB SITE NOW, thanks to A.V. Club contributor Myles McNutt. So now it HAS to be accurate.
- Also, the next episode is apparently the Rocky Horror episode, as written by Ryan Murphy. I think we all know how this is going to turn out! (I have never been more terrified of an episode of television in my life.)
- Another actor who sat out tonight, presumably for budgetary reasons: Jane Lynch. That's the first time that's happened since early season one, and honestly, I didn't miss her, which surprised me.
- Oh, right. So last season, Kurt pretty much threw himself at Finn, and then Finn called him a nasty name and Burt reamed him out, and there was much debate over whether we were meant to think Kurt was a saint or whether that scene had more emotional complexity than it seemed to. Well, this episode blatantly talks about that scene, with Burt suggesting that Kurt can come on a little strong and freak out his straight friends, a conversation that leads to Kurt dropping Sam as a duet partner. Again, I’m seeing people saying that this scene sends a bad message – in this case, that Kurt should probably keep himself tamped down until he can find another gay guy to be out and proud with – but I think it’s more complex than that. I’m willing to see where they’re – or, rather, Brennan’s – going with this. But I can absolutely see the other point of view.
- “River Deep, Mountain High” might be the best musical number the show’s ever done from a pure performance standpoint. “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” had more relevance to the plot, but Amber Riley and Naya Rivera just knocked the hell out of “River Deep.”
- Random programming note: Even though I kind of hated the pilot, Raising Hope is slowly but surely growing on me. Damn you, Greg Garcia!
- Finally, the “Sing!” number proved just how obnoxious the Auto-Tune can be. Harry Shum, Jr., wasn’t auto-tuned (for obvious reasons), nor was Jenna Ushkowitz (so far as I can tell, since she was just singing single notes), but when the choir broke in, the computerized effect was completely jarring. I wish this show had more confidence in its actors’ voices. (Heather Havrilesky makes a similar point in this excellent piece on what’s good and rotten about Glee, even if I disagree with her that many of the emotional moments fall flat.)
- "No straight boy does his hair to look like Linda Evangelista circa 1993."
- "I need something warm beneath me, or I can't digest my food."
- "For a while, I thought you were a robot."
- "I do the meatball across the table with my nose."