Jane Lynch is the best pure actor in the Glee cast. She can take just about anything—moving drama, goofy comedy, some weird mix of the two—and make it believable. Her acting, in fact, is so good that she regularly obscured the fact that her character, Sue Sylvester, didn’t make a lick of sense until around the end of season one for most viewers of the show (myself included). In season two, the character has been adrift, a cartoon supervillain who occasionally shows hints of humanity when the show wants to pretend she’s something more than a person who would fire a girl out of a cannon for a cheerleading routine. The show has spent season two gradually stripping everything that matters from Sue, and on a series with better writing, that could have been remarkable, letting us see the rage that grows as she finds herself more and more cornered by circumstance and her own bad choices. Instead, she turns up every few episodes to rant for a couple of scenes and hatch cartoonish schemes and make fun of Will’s hair.
Matthew Morrison is also a really good actor. I mean, I’m assuming here. I haven’t seen him on Broadway or anything, but every time the show hands him anything to play that’s something that makes vague sense, he does a good job with it. Will used to be kind of fascinating—a good teacher and good man who was also a bit selfish and venal and occasionally did awful things when he lost sight of the larger picture—but this season, he’s either been a crying man the show cuts to at random or the most horrifying person alive. For as much as the show has zeroed in on some of the kids (and done a very good job of writing for them), it’s completely lost touch with nearly all of the adults—give or take an Emma. This, of course, is a problem. Presumably at the end of next season, the kids will all move on (save CHORD OVERSTREET! who’s a sophomore, I think), but Will and Emma and Sue will still be around. And I can’t imagine watching a show based on those three.
“Funeral,” then, features what’s probably Lynch and Morrison’s best single scene since season one, at least as far as performance goes. It’s way too sappy and sentimental and made me roll my eyes at how manipulative it all was, but, dammit, that Jane Lynch can act, and Matthew Morrison is a handy step-in for when she’s too distraught to do anything else. The scene where Sue tried to read a few words for her sister, who’d recently passed away from complications with pneumonia, and wound up collapsing into tears, forcing Will to finish her speech for her, could have been crap and probably SHOULD have been crap, but the actors were so sincere and heartfelt that they sold it nonetheless. It was a scene that became beautiful, despite working very, very hard to be terrible, and it was the highlight of an uneven episode.
The episode basically has two plots: Jesse St. James tries to bring a bit of the “Vocal Adrenaline method” to New Directions, and Sue’s sister dies, causing her to lash out at anyone and anything that crosses paths with her. It’s remarkably uncomplicated for the show, but it also illustrates the key problem with this season, a problem it shares with Heroes, Desperate Housewives, The O.C., and other first season sensations that struggled in year two: It hit the reset button at the start of the year, and that left it nowhere to go. And in the end, that might be something the season could just never come back from. I want to believe that Sue is done terrorizing the glee club, that the series will move on to having her as a reluctant ally or give her her own storylines or something else. But I also know that the series feels the need for an over-the-top antagonist, and while it’s done a pretty good job of making Santana that figure this season, Sue is still what the series considers its gold standard.
Look: At the end of last season, Sue voted for New Directions at regionals. We also got the sense that she and Will had warmed slightly toward each other. She was still going to be a tough bastard, someone who drove the club nuts because she seemed to default to antagonism, but in the context of the season one finale, it was possible to read this as a kind of tough love, an action taken to help these kids—whom she could see herself in, just a bit (as this episode reminds us)—get better so they might leave Lima and lead lives where their dreams come true. But in season two, that’s been all but lost, but for a couple of moments here and there. There have been good Sue scenes this season, but “Funeral” feels very self-consciously like a way to just remove her character from the table for the season finale (and randomly turn Quinn into the antagonist, which… OK?), and it feels very self-consciously like an attempt by the show to address the fact that the character doesn’t make any sense.
Unfortunately, the show goes about this in a blatantly manipulative way. Glee has always been an emotionally manipulative show. I don’t object to that aspect of its nature. But it’s always difficult to do a story where a character dies and make it feel like anything other than a cheat by the writers designed to get some emotion into a sweeps month that might be a bit lacking. The best TV deaths send ripples through the entire cast, cause everybody to back away in grief, just a bit. There are characters Glee could do this with. There are characters Glee might even do this WELL with. But Sue’s sister is a character who only really shares a relationship with Sue herself (for obvious reasons). The series finds a way to get everybody in the same room to be moved by Jean’s death—and the scene is somewhat moving, thanks to the actors’ commitment to the story—but it’s a hollow motivation, involving the writers yet again jerking the characters around like puppets as they have all season. The glee club plans Jean’s funeral? What?
And here’s the thing: Death is always going to be moving. Even as I was objecting to almost everything about the preparation of this centerpiece (except for, as mentioned, the actors, who sold it to a person), I was moved by it, simply because, well, if you stumble into someone’s funeral accidentally and stick around for a while, you’re bound to be just a bit moved by it. Nobody dies having accomplished everything they always wanted to, and nobody dies without leaving behind at least one person who will miss them (or pretend to miss them, at least). And Jean, a character whose sole mourner could very well have been Sue (since the show seems to have forgotten her mom entirely), was always a character who was used pretty much metaphorically, as a way to explain something about why Sue is the way she is. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not every show can fully develop every character. But killing her solely to right a wayward character arc is lazy writing, and no amount of actor commitment can wholly save it.
On the other hand, the other storyline just didn’t work at all. Jesse’s been brought in as a glee club consultant, and he decides that New Directions needs to be more like Vocal Adrenaline, and, thus, build every moment around the group’s best performer. I mean, I was watching this storyline, and it was one of those things that I still didn’t quite understand. I normally try to set aside questions of logic while watching this show unless they’re too glaring, but this just struck me as silly. Wasn’t this like completely changing the training program shortly before the fight, Ed Romeo style? Wasn’t it completely ridiculous to do this with Nationals coming up IN A WEEK? Wasn’t it constructed almost entirely to give Jesse shades of antagonism he didn’t really need? (I was glad to see in the scene with Rachel that the show hadn’t made him full-on evil, however.) Last year, he was an antagonist because you were never really clear where his motives were. This year, the show is just making him a jerk, and this ties back into one of the weird things about the show at a thematic level.
Glee, on some level, believes that criticism, no matter how constructive, is a bad thing. We’re never going to see an episode where Will pairs the kids off and has them offer each other constructive critiques (a fairly common thing for high school performing arts groups to do) because the show, on some level, thinks that the way to get ahead is to always stick together, always accept everyone, and always praise someone for doing their best. And I don’t fundamentally have a problem with this idea. I like it when people stick together. It’s good to accept everyone. It’s good to praise people—especially young people—for giving it their all, even if “their all” isn’t the best. But the show hits on something very odd in its DNA: Finn continues to be the male lead of the group because he’s the male lead of the show, less because he’s the best singer New Directions has. (Rachel, at least, can make a claim to being the best singer, give or take a Mercedes.) But because he’s trying to get better, that’s OK, and the group will somehow receive a karmic reward for sticking with him, I guess. Glee is a show that tries to create an open environment, a place where anyone can be accepted, so it’s a bit amusing, I guess, to realize that it would have no real place for a fictional version of myself. (Though if you decide to try, Brennan, Murphy, and Falchuk, I should totally be played by Jimmy Smits. I could get too close to Figgins, and then he'd have to kill me after I started killing on my own.)
Jesse gives the lie to this notion, and while he’s perhaps harsh about it (and perhaps stupid to try it with only a week remaining), he’s also sort of right. If you want to win, it’s always good to put your best foot forward. And if your best foot is, I dunno, Puck or Artie, then why wouldn’t you lead with that? Instead, we’re supposed to see Jesse as a bad guy for trying to “pit the group against each other.” And, yeah, his plan to pick the best group member—basically a long series of auditions—is one that seems designed to foster competition more than anything else, but it also pushes Santana, Kurt, Mercedes, and Rachel to all give REALLY GOOD PERFORMANCES. Now, granted, the audition segment is an odd structural choice, since it stops the show cold and puts the Jean funeral plotline on hold for no particular reason but to sell iTunes songs, but it also seems to show that having this element of competition ends up making everybody better, particularly Rachel, who’s been kind of coasting this season but gives a terrific performance of a song from Funny Girl.
Yet the final message we’re supposed to take from this—and Glee is rarely subtle—is that the group is damaged by Jesse’s gambit, that his criticism and prompts of competition hurt the group’s cohesiveness. And I don’t mind the idea that the group is stronger as a whole than they are as individuals; indeed, many of my favorite narratives have this very theme. But it’s also not as if the show has been pursuing this idea consistently over the year, like it did back in season one. Many of the characters have been completely lost. Many have had storylines pushed beyond all reason. And everybody (but Kurt) seems to randomly switch personalities depending on what the plot demands of them that week. You can write some of that off as the writers wanting to have fun or the show being about teenagers or whatever, but you can’t write all of it off and then expect everything to come to a head at the end. “Funeral” ultimately fails because the show has carefully built one particular story—the journeys of Kurt, Karofsky, and Santana—then abruptly abandons them for stories it should have been building in parallel but couldn’t be bothered to. And if that makes me a humorless crank who should have nothing to do with the show, well, so be it, I guess. You get better because someone tells you you need to or because others drag you up to their level. The problem with Glee season two (and not so much season one) is that it hasn’t much bothered to advance either of these narratives, instead asking us to accept them as givens.
- Speaking of complete character resets, this show has completely forgotten how to write for Quinn. Just release Dianna Agron from her contract so she can go work on some other show that properly appreciates whatever talents she has. (This comment extends to much of the season one cast, up to and including Amber Riley, Jenna Ushkowitz, Kevin McHale, etc., etc., etc.)
- Though, come to think of it, Ryan Murphy apparently recently said the show would completely switch the cast of kids at the start of season four. Which… good luck with that, but at least some of the actors not being written for would get something to do again.
- I like the idea of Sue running for the House of Representatives. I have absolutely no belief that the show will try to incorporate it as anything other than a silly cliffhanger.
- The show also writes out Terri—probably for good, I would think—sending her off to the Sheets ‘N’ Things in Miami (Ohio, I presume, because the series may want her to come back at some point). Culling the cast isn’t a bad idea, and Terri’s been in, what, six episodes this season?
- Finally, Will is going to perform on Broadway, preposterously (though he believed in his dreams, which always works), and he believes the show will fail and he’ll be right back in Lima. But I’m sure we’ll open season three with him still coaching at the college level… er… performing on Broadway. (Thanks to Myles McNutt for the connection.)
- Also thanks to Myles for the latest horrifying screencap. Finn’s smile—supposedly seen here as super-gorgeous—is so goofy and creepy!
- Finally, I DID like the parallel drawn between the three boxes for Will and Sue.
- A reminder: We're on later next week because Fox has shifted the American Idol schedule to Tuesday and Wednesday, since the TV season ends (for Nielsen purposes) next Wednesday.
- "They use them like a prop. Like Weekend At Bernie's."
- "The Sue Sylvester American Liberty Party sees that as a bunch of phooey."