Every week in comments—or on Twitter—a few of you say roughly the same thing to me: Why do you keep covering this show when you’ve decided you don’t like it? Why do you cover it if you’re biased against it? Setting aside the whole fact that all criticism is inherently biased, and it would be ridiculous if people never wrote about things they didn’t like, I find this doubly facetious because, well, I still go into every episode of Glee hoping—nay, expecting—to really enjoy it. This is still a show that nails the big moments well, and it’s still a show that’s turned out episodes I’ve really enjoyed, even in what’s shaping up to be a messy season. Why, just a few weeks ago, I thought Glee might be on its way to a third season that wasn’t as groundbreaking as season one but was at least more coherent than season two.
And there was no episode I wanted to like more than “Extraordinary Merry Christmas.” I love Christmas. I love Christmas music. I love Christmas specials. The set list for the episode was crammed with my favorite modern Christmas tunes, from Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” to The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping.” (It also featured what might be one of my least favorite Christmas song in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” but it wouldn’t be Glee if there wasn’t at least one song I didn’t like.) The episode’s script was credited to Marti Noxon, someone I’ve always felt has gotten a bum rap from fans of Buffy for that show’s final two seasons. The woman’s written on my favorite seasons of both Buffy and Mad Men, two shows I deeply, deeply love. She’s not the worst writer ever, and I hate when people blame her for ruining things with vaguely sexist undertones. Plus, the episode was going to feature Chewbacca! I love Chewbacca!
But I hated “Extraordinary Merry Christmas.” Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated, haaaaaaaaaated it, to quote Roger Ebert, more or less. Last week in the comments, I said that I doubted I’d ever give the show another F because I didn’t foresee any episode being worse than the Rocky Horror episode from last year, and I believe the F should be reserved for episodes that aren’t just bad but legitimately the worst I believe that show will ever produce. In short, unless an episode of this show beat out Rocky Horror, I was going to go with a D or D-. Something would need to be so execrable, so abysmal that it would have trouble getting to the air to get that grade. I doubted that would ever happen.
Well, here we are. Happy, Chewbacca?
This episode made me physically angry. It made me so mad that I felt like taking it out on one of my kittens. And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this is sort of the opposite of what Christmas should be all about, Charlie Brown. Now, I’ll freely admit that a lot of this was just personal. The episode went out of its way to shit all over a bunch of stuff I love, just by doing it crappily or by not particularly caring or by wrapping it into a long, endless “tribute” to old holiday specials that attempted to satirize cheesiness and, instead, ended up being really, really cheesy and really, really boring. As much as I love the performing skills of Heather Morris, she couldn’t save a listless “Christmas Wrapping.” As much as I loved some of the ideas here or some of the attempts to stay true to the characters as established back in season one (like, say, Artie’s continuing adventures in direction), it was still an episode that hinged around Rachel being really excited about what she was going to get for Christmas, even though she’s Jewish.
This would be fine if the show seemed to remember this. Obviously, people in inter-faith relationships are going to exchange gifts at the end of the year, and a Jewish girlfriend might wish her Christian boyfriend a Merry Christmas, just as he might wish her a Happy Hanukkah. But this went beyond that. This was all about Rachel turning into the singer of the song “Santa Baby”—which she somehow never performed—in order to learn a superficial lesson about how there are people who need stuff sometimes at Christmas—a lesson taught to everyone by Sue, Quinn, and CHORD OVERSTREET! At the end, in a line that sounded hastily recorded in post-production and patched onto the episode, Rachel shouts, “Happy Hanukah!” to people as she’s helping ring bells and donating the money she got from returning her sparkling treasures (and the iPod she got Finn) to charity. It feels like a last minute patch job, something tossed into the middle of the final scene as the camera’s pulling away to remind you that someone somewhere said, “Hey, wait a second…” and tried to stay true to the characters as they were at one time.
Obviously, Glee has always been a show where the characters are as elastic as the idea of “reality” within the show’s universe. That’s fine. I don’t mind if they’re one person one week and another person the next. But the show also set them up with certain, easily definable traits way back in season one, traits that were meant to keep them more or less consistent on some level. Finn plays football. Kurt is gay. Artie’s in a wheelchair. Mercedes is African American. And Rachel loves to perform and is Jewish. (In the world of Glee, having two definable character traits counts as good character development.) Yes, all of these characterizations are reductive, and yes, the show hasn’t bothered deepening them, but it’s also not a show that wants to do that. And that’s fine. But it can’t go back on those characterizations either. Finn selling his letterman jacket, somehow, could have been a really nice moment, honestly, since it plays into how he defines himself and is defined for the audience. But Rachel—and Puck, honestly—not even acknowledging her Judaism until the end of the episode smacks of nobody caring about the character enough to even realize what’s going on. And that’s to say nothing of how she spends the entire episode as a greedy bitch who just wants bling for Christmas and doesn’t want to feed poor people in Africa! It wasn’t like Artie suddenly deciding he should be walking or anything as egregious as that, but it was still pretty bad.
Those of you who’ve read my reviews for a while know that I also reserve the F for episodes that are so awful that, on some level, they circle right back around to being kind of perversely entertaining again, to the point where they push so far through the awfulness that they break right back into being good again. And by that qualification, Glee qualifies with its lengthy—seriously, it’s two acts long, which is an eternity in TV time—middle section, in which Artie stages a Christmas special that’s a mash-up of the Judy Garland Christmas variety show and the Star Wars holiday special for a local PBS station. He somehow manages to pull all of this together on $800 (which could have been a fun joke, I guess), and he gets all of his friends to star in a pitch-perfect parody of these two specials. The problem is that the things this is meant to parody—old Christmas variety specials, especially these two—are already pretty awful. To be an accurate parody, Glee has to be awful, too, which is why making fun of those things is so hard. It’s hard to write good, winking dialogue that suggests it understands how bad it is, particularly when it’s supposed to have been written by a high schooler after only three days. Noxon’s script tries valiantly—and I sort of admire the show for just going with this, as I always enjoy shows that try such huge format shifts as this—but the whole thing falls flat, again and again, until it just turns into a panoply of songs because there’s no other way to save it. Sadly, Finn, you are no Bruce Springsteen, and the segment collapses under its own weight.
This episode also aims to develop Rory’s character beyond “Irish”—it’s why he always wears green!—but at this point, we already know that the show will just pick whichever characterization of Rory is most convenient for the episode in question (and, again, if you doubt me on this, look at the treatment of Rachel in this episode), so it’s hard to care all that much about how he’s alone for Christmas or how he’s building a friendship with Sam, who’s now some sort of magic stripper spirit guide. (I’m half convinced it’ll turn out he was dead this whole time and giving people the advice he could only get from the perspective offered from being beyond the grave.) But Rory’s the vehicle for the other thing that most pissed me off about this episode, which is that it, like last year’s Christmas episode, quotes a bunch of famous holiday specials without adding anything to them beyond suggesting, “Hey, remember this?” Here, there are a number of direct lifts from A Charlie Brown Christmas—one of my favorite pieces of art ever made—including Rachel digging out Sally’s line about how all she wants is what’s coming to her. It’s Rory’s moment, in which he reads to everybody from the New Testament after saying, “Lights, please?” that irks me the most, though, because it takes a perfectly beautiful little moment from a nearly perfect TV special—one that has a beautiful nested meaning whether you’re a Christian or a non-Christian (about which more in a couple of weeks)—and reduces it to a Family Guy cutaway gag. Everybody acts as if they’ve really learned something by hearing the story of the angels proclaiming Christ’s birth—maybe Rachel converts in this moment, who knows?—but it’s a shallow moment. It’s a quote from something good, taken and “covered” to lend the episode secondhand meaning it doesn’t earn. Glee continues to believe Christmas is all about consuming Christmas-themed pop culture. Then again, why wouldn’t it think so? That’s what it thinks everything is.
There were things I could have liked here. CHORD OVERSTREET! expressed my preferred reading that Christmas works best when it’s about sadness and hope, about comings and goings. (That CHORD OVERSTREET! is turning into my favorite character is a sad fucking commentary on this show, I tell you what.) I thought the performances of “Let It Snow” and “All I Want For Christmas Is You” were suitably cheerful and merry. Chewbacca was fun. Heather Morris continues to be a gifted mimic when singing, sounding just like the lead singer from The Waitresses here. And at the very least, that faux-special had me howling in pain at its terribleness, which was probably one of the intended reactions (though if that were the case, why spend so much time on it?).
But the ending killed it here. Sue—who’s gotten her yearly dose of Christmas charity because the show requires her to have it—is going to help out at the homeless shelter, but the day she’s going to do it is, wouldn’t you know?, the day the kids have to film the special, and neither can be rescheduled. (The homeless only need to be fed on Fridays, doncha know?) Quinn and CHORD OVERSTREET! go to help Sue out because they like being good people and depressing holidays, respectively, but everybody else goes to film their special. Naturally, they come to the homeless shelter to help out because of course they do. But it’s not the predictability here that bugs me. Predictability goes with the territory in these things, and if you can tug at the heartstrings when the characters realize how lucky they are, fine. That works. Instead, after an hour that already had me bug-eyed, barely able to breathe, on the edge of hyperventilating (I’m not even kidding), the kids sang “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to a bunch of homeless children. (Since they live in the United States, I’m going to say, “Yes. They probably do.”) Mercedes sang, “Tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you”—an awful, awful line—to a bunch of hungry, homeless children. Yes, helping the less fortunate during the holidays is ultimately all about making yourself feel better, but you don’t have to sing about it.
THERE WERE STILL FIVE MINUTES LEFT AFTER THIS SCENE.
I had to check my DVR. I thought I was losing my mind. “Well, there’s nowhere to go but up,” I thought, because I’m still an optimist, and I still love Christmas, and we hadn’t gotten, like, Kurt singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as he stared out at the new-fallen snow or something I might have actually enjoyed, treacly as it would have been. But, no. Instead, we got Finn naming a star after himself because Rachel’s already a star. And then some bell ringing from everybody and Rachel screaming “Happy Hanukkah” like she had it on a to-do list and had almost forgotten. Not as bad as what came before, but nothing here redeemed anything else. Like everything else, it was a well-intentioned mess. I could unpack why, but Jesus Christ. (He’s the reason for the season, or so Rory tells me.)
I’ve really, really struggled with keeping this mostly sober and even-handed. I didn’t write it immediately after watching because I needed to calm down. (Again, I’m not kidding.) I want to love this show. I want to love its Christmas episodes most of all (I gave last year’s a B- even though it was kind of awful). But it’s harder and harder to justify those feelings for a show that doesn’t know how to be heartwarming anymore, other than sitting there and insisting that it’s being heartwarming. Thanks, Glee. Thanks for ruining Christmas. I need a drink.
- Just tell me how the songs were VanDerWerff, God: The two numbers mentioned above were enjoyable. “My Favorite Things” seemed to stretch on forever. “Blue Christmas” was fine, I guess. I always like “River,” but there was no good reason for Rachel to sing it. The song that gave the episode its title was also fine but whatever. I’m done talking about this.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: I’m too sad to be a sexist pig.
- In case you were wondering, Artie’s magic legs broke the day after he first used them. Beiste wasn’t too upset about this, presumably because she’s got a basement full of them. (Also, way to give Tina all the year-old exposition, show!)
- All that chatter about global warming and the end times? What the fuck was that shit?
- Speaking of “My Favorite Things,” I’ve never understood how it got grandfathered into being a Christmas song. It mentions packages, sure, and Sound Of Music shows most years around this time, but those are flimsy reasons.
- I’d say if your local TV station is hiring your glee club to produce its Christmas special because it likes your performing so much, you can no longer credibly refer to yourselves as underdogs, yet I know the show will be right back there next week.
- Man, seeing Brad, the piano guy, turn up so often in this episode really made me want that episode told from his point of view. “Can’t celebrate Janie’s birthday, honey. The kids need to sing!” (Piano Guy scoots off on his Segway.)
- All of that said, the charities Finn’s pig charity were based on are worthy of your attention and funds. I’d almost suggest we pool together our resources and buy a goat named “That episode of Glee was awful!” for some African family. If somebody can set this up, I’ll contribute.
- Suggestion for next year: A Christmas Carol with Sue as Scrooge or It’s A Wonderful Life with Schu as George Bailey. If you’re going to rip off the classics, at least rip off the ones everybody else already has.
- See you in 2012, everybody! Here’s hoping I can keep the incoherent rage to a minimum!