When Finn takes the guys to Burt’s spacious and thriving auto shop, they jump into “Greased Lightning” so seamlessly that it charts a new uncanny valley. I’m not talking about the sanitized lyrics, which mercifully sidestep another Rocky Horror situation. Instead of, say, an instrumental lead-in cuing Rachel for a stage performance or Quinn suddenly breaking into a fantasy sequence, this uncanny valley lies halfway between the diegetic and musical realities. It’s awkward. Some of the fault lies with Ryder, who’s a little tepid getting into the number, as a high schooler might be. But the more entrenched issue is that Glee can be so exhaustingly literal. I guess I should just be happy “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” isn’t preceded by a missed period.
Sure, the boys dance their way into the film’s fantasy garage, and “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” is sung by the episode’s second of four Rizzos, and it’s pleasant enough to see the characters in new but familiar parts. But the musical numbers that are the whole point of this excuse for a new album live or die by their imagination. “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” makes a lot more sense as a metaphor for Kitty’s feelings about Marley than it does as an actual sleepover aided and abetted by the upperclassmen and the once and future Rizzo Unique. Don’t even get me started on the not-even-laughably considered weight-gaining plotline that exists solely for Marley to get her groove back in the reprise.
It doesn’t help that the new class is still so thin. I don’t envy the task of juggling familiar faces with this season’s failures to launch, and I’m certainly not complaining about seeing Santana on the regular. But it seems like a problem to introduce Ryder Lynn one week, cast him as Danny Zuko the next, and ask us to care about some romantic entanglement of his while all the established plots fight for attention. On the other hand, decentralizing Danny and Sandy is a pretty Glee thing to do.
Speaking of the oldies, Glee is unsurprisingly nailing the experience of returning to high school after graduating. When Mercedes talks about taking classes at UCLA, it’s like seeing a high-school friend, having to imagine her college experience as opposed to seeing NYADA with our own eyes. And hearing about Puck—behaving exactly like Puck—is the perfect little taste of nostalgia (and presumably a promise to catch up with him in the future). Then there’s the other side: After watching the four-way awkward-off among Rachel, Finn, Kurt, and Blaine, I discovered that your face can stick like that. Not only do none of the couples from “The Break Up” even hint at reconciliation, but they all dig their heels in harder. Finn sees Rachel crying over Brody, Kurt reiterates the broken trust between him and Blaine, and Santana tries to do the mature thing and resists getting back together with Brittany. These scenes are essential considering the habit of television in general—and Glee in particular—to renege on plot developments, especially breakups. “The Break Up” is stronger than a backstage reunion. But Mike isn’t giving up on Tina, who gets the still rare opportunity to have the spotlight for a few minutes, so maybe love is not dead.
The onstage musical numbers are so much better than the rehearsals for two intertwined reasons: They’re all enhanced by a classic cast member, and they all have some transformational spin on the familiar scenes from Grease. Blaine doesn’t miss a beat in his rendition of “Beauty School Dropout,” but the look on his face when he spots Kurt in the crowd is a kick in the gut. It’s really as simple as that: a practically shot-for-shot remake of a scene from someone else’s imagination justified by one little shot of Glee. “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” calls with Santana thinking about Brittany in the wings and raises by two Rizzos: Cassandra July seducing Brody and Unique in what I assumed to be a fantasy sequence until the most prominent extra started staring at her.
“You’re The One That I Want” is so manic I achieved nirvana. Frankly, starting with a bunch of boring reality-based musical numbers and slowly casting off the chains is a pretty weak plan, but at least it serves the finale. It starts off with the new kids, who had just kissed offstage, and I start to hope that maybe Ryder and Marley will be as interesting as what came before. No need. Suddenly Rachel goes Roxie Hart and imagines herself up there singing with Finn. Director Michael Uppendahl even gives Finn a POV shot; after all, this is about Rachel showing off for the camera. Before that settles down, boom: perfectly timed flashback to season one when they first sang the song in rehearsal. All the while the real Finn and Rachel are watching from the audience. He’s into it and she’s stone-faced and it’s killing me. Now Kurt’s onstage with Blaine, two greasers who could do without the Pink Ladies, and now Santana’s dancing with Brittany, and before you can say, “What about Mike and Tina?” there they are, and Artie too, and the audience roars and the real cast bows and I’m floating above the universes only I have no form but I somehow know that I’m a stegosaurus-spirit? I don’t know what the number means for the couples, but I know its delirious construction warps time and space and reality to see them onstage together. The point is that music doesn’t have to be so literal. It can be the dream of the escapist or a nostalgic fantasy or a cloud of semantic connections that don’t translate perfectly into real life. Music shouldn’t tie Glee down but launch it into the sky. When music is freedom, Glee can really soar.
- Let’s just acknowledge that Finn running New Directions doesn’t make the sense the writers think it does and move on. School-sponsored extracurricular activities aren’t the same as, like, community-theater programs.
- Sue still has it out for Finn and by proxy glee club, but she doesn’t do much to get in the way of Grease. Though it seems like Bully Sue is back because the writers want an external villain, I’m still hoping she can stay focused only on Finn. At least that vendetta makes sense. “I’ve seen your true colors. You’ve got hate in your heart, Double-Stuff.” Sue isn’t really into self-awareness.
- Far more interesting are Unique’s parents, who have reasonable safety concerns for Unique that nevertheless butt up against Unique’s sense of self. “Most little boys don’t want to dress as Shirley Hemphill for Halloween.”
- Biggest laugh of the night: Rachel telling Cassandra July that she can take a harsh critique. Looking forward to that episode!