It’s hard to blame a flighty, faddish pop culture T-shirt cannon like Glee for not having much of a memory before Journey, but sweet Burt Hummel am I exhausted by the ‘80s nostalgia fomented by television writers of a certain age. We get it: You’re getting up there. I’m not about to lay a decade of mid-life crises at the feet of one episode of one show that’s always been more about the here and now than the good old days (ah, the harmonious ‘80s!). It’s just that focusing a celebration of movie music so tightly on the movies these guys grew up with is like an Oscar tribute to the Hollywood musical nobody but the producers have much of a stake in. If Finn can’t stroll through an airport singing “The Sound Of Silence,” the least he could do is lop off a cop’s ear while Sam and the guys sing “Stuck In The Middle With You.”
This particular high school reunion reminisces the period from roughly Animal House to Ghost (hitting Risky Business, Top Gun, Footloose, and Say Anything) with a couple of bones thrown to Moulin Rouge! The New Directions brainstorm some favorites: Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Working Girl, Beaches, you know, movies beloved by all children of the mid-‘90s. I know, it’s an old saw, but after the stunt-acular lump of a wedding episode, these full-blooded teenagers are getting a little too transparent.
Case in point: The “Footloose” number, which abruptly dismisses the heavy cliffhanger and gets to the business of selling singles! As usual, the final number has nothing to do with anything. The kids dance around the stage in matching, affordable costumes. They celebrate nothing in particular. They’re just happy to be alive! It’d be unsettling in a Stepford kind of way if it conveyed any emotion at all.
Naked plot mechanics, even half-naked guys, have nothing on the more abstract musical numbers. Will’s dream of Emma and Kurt’s Moulin Rouge! fantasy had me at hello, one ironic, one sincere, but both expressions of the longing that has always fueled Glee. And both monuments to artificiality. An iris takes us inside movieland, where one long shot sees Will and Emma playing Fred Astaire on the walls, singing “You’re All The World To Me.” Never mind that the black-and-white, centered long take of a paneled room screams Kubrick. The dance, the looks, the whimsy: It may not hit all its marks, but I floated away nonetheless. And then Will wakes up and the camera rushes in on him. That's Glee! It’s ambitious and imperfect and laced with disappointment. This episode is supposed to be about theatricality and the language of cinema, but shouldn’t they all be?
The much-hyped 500th piece of tie-in merchandise or something has the cinematic advantage of collapsing space so that the New Directions can conga line “Shout” all the way to the cafeteria (where they receive applause, in case you were wondering how much Glee has changed), but the 501st is the real beauty. And again, it’s not perfect. Editing “Come What May” down to time leaves an awkward rhyme scheme, the commingling of Chris Colfer’s voice with Darren Criss’ is unusually stark, and the gauzy memories are a sequin too far. But holy Nicoley do those hang-ups fall by the wayside when the extravagance of the scene meets the simplicity of two guys singing. The set is this soundstage mash-up between the roof of Kurt’s apartment and the Moulin Rouge elephant, the sky glowing a deep blue against the wooden cutout cityscape. It’s magical, and yes, by “magical” I mean it’s snowing and sparkly and it totally pulls the rug out from under us. Blaine’s the one who sings us into the act, and the editing suggests he’s the one remembering the first time he and Kurt tastefully panned to the fireplace. But it turns out this isn’t another fantasy of Blaine longing for Kurt. It’s Kurt fantasizing about Blaine longing for him. Call me easy or sappy or deeply entrenched in the lone star bastion of neoconservatism, but there’s something about seeing two guys sing to each other on Fox that still gets me.
Note that the two highlights are populated by the Old Directions. “Girls (And Boys) On Film” has the usual hang-up about the new kids on the block: They’re funny, but in a fight for attention, I’ll pick Rachel’s pent-up worry over Marley’s love triangle any day. It doesn’t help that the mash-ups are like highway merges, discrete chunks of music politely going one at a time. Or that Marley confides in Kitty just seconds after Kitty confessed to being the most duplicitous non-gigolo on the show (I stand by my first reaction to Brody’s cash, mostly because I’d be even more disappointed if he’s just a drug dealer, but also because it’s hilarious). When Glee gets around to its Wizard Of Oz episode, I hope Marley gets a brain. Otherwise, what are we rooting for? Hats?
Contrast that with Kurt’s love triangle. I don’t understand why that old man has no friends or life of his own, but at least he provokes some emotion. (And honestly, I see the sweetness in his final moment with Kurt, even if I’m still attached to Blaine.) Rachel’s pregnancy is equally contrived, but it doesn’t make her worry any less moving. Hopefully Santana’s aimlessness starts to manifest in ways that won’t win her the Guinness record for history’s worst roommate, but even she can bring out human emotion when needed.
The climax, though, is this exquisitely Glee mixture of cringe dramedy and sudden gravity with a hint of suspense. It doesn’t exactly land for me, but the dismount is almost perfect. After a clumsy excuse to get Finn and Will walking down the hall, Finn blurts out that he kissed Emma in order to calm her down. I couldn’t count how many shots went by without Will speaking because it was too unbearable, but Finn just keeps talking and explaining and apologizing, and the whole thing’s still totally clumsy. But eventually Will takes a stab at a disappointed Coach Taylor that plays best as parody (better luck next time) and walks away. Finally this plot holds promise. Glee is never better than when it’s torturing Finn.
- Sam’s Nicolas Cage impression raised the grade a half-step. But the ginger stuff dropped it back down. C’est la Glee!
- Continuity! Sugar wants the girls to do The Artist so they don’t have to sing. Because she’s bad at singing. Except when she sings.
- Santana needs to learn that being that sour is only okay when you’re funny. Her best line: “It’s like Eli Roth decided to make a gay horror movie, and this is the scene right before we all eat each other.”