Glee is as earnest and misguided as a zealous neighbor’s holiday lawn, so it’s only natural that, in the parlance of our times, Christmas would eventually throw up on the show. “Glee, Actually” piles on so much holiday cheer that it sounds like Stefon describing the new “It” club. It has everything: short-story structure, It’s-A-Wonderful-Life-mares, leprechaun angels, apocalypse weddings, Jesse Tyler Ferguson lookalike contests, dancing 1920s gangsters, that thing of when your dad tells your ex that he has prostate cancer and flies him out to New York so you can skate-duet-hug. Everyone from Terri un-Schuester to Unsolved Mysteries abductee Rory returns to celebrate the holidays. Some plots progress, some are self-contained, and only one approaches immaculacy. But considered as a whole, “Glee, Actually” is an impressive conclusion to an impressive fall resurgence.
Maybe that’s just the afterglow of Glee’s ringer Mike O’Malley speaking, but all that eclectic accumulation is balanced by some really modest stories: Artie has a bad day, Kurt spends Christmas with his father, Millie has a secret Santa. Life-altering shit happens—cancer, a proposal, a cross-country move—but the focus is so intimate. These aren’t stories about weddings and diseases; they’re stories about how these characters experience those things. Most of the boldness gets walked back where possible: Marley hugs her mother but then makes a note to have the police investigate the breaking-and-entering that occurred, Burt says the cure rate is almost 100 percent, Coach Beiste was just fucking with Sam and Brittany. One wonders about Tina’s new wheels, but Brittany’s cosmic silliness aside, “Glee, Actually” is beautifully focused.
It’s no coincidence that the Kurt-Burt-Blaine (Blurt) vignette is the most restrained and the most affecting. Of course, restrained for Glee means singing “White Christmas” while ice-skating in Bryant Park, the historic seat of New York Fashion Week and presumably Kurt’s Medina, but if that’s peak extravagance, Glee is truly turning over a new leaf. Here we are celebrating Christmas in New York, a fantasy for some people, and we stick to the old traditions. Burt tells the story of his first Christmas tree, he warms himself over hot chocolate practically alone with Kurt in a diner, he sits there in that chair with the big NYADA shirt draped over his body and a matching cap on his dome. The big moments knock you over—the Blaine/Burt bait-and-switch at the door, the “I’m just gonna say it” revelation that’s over before you’ve registered the preamble, the hand-clasp echo of Burt’s heart attack and Kurt’s Beatles ballad—but director Adam Shankman and writer Matthew Hodgson highlight exactly those little moments that will last in Kurt’s memory. And the moments that Burt will treasure, too, if all those shots of him smiling over his son's shoulder like a man whose days are numbered are any indication. I can hardly believe it, but this is almost like a real character drama.
The rest is a mixed bag, but the lower the pitch, the less the strain. Artie’s high-concept no-good very-bad day is George Bailey on Five-Hour on fast-forward on a train—perhaps giving an inadvertent boost to the quiet, slow Kurt sequence to follow—but the snowball is mostly delightful. Shankman puts Terri in scare quotes using nothing but a camera, “Feliz Navidad” is shot through with exaggerated perspectives and a budget-Kafka row of desks, the alternate futures compose a silly, little cartoon that doesn’t curdle until you consider that Artie credits himself with giving Becky self-respect by going on a date with her. The Marley vignette produces a lovely a cappella number, the Roses tragically unable to afford instrumental backing. It lives or dies by the Santa Claus element, but really, Sue selling a bristlecone pine to a luxury toothpick company is transitioning Marley out of this eating disorder “subplot,” so no complaints here. The Puckermen confuse me, however. If Puck is so lonely that he latched onto the half-brother he just met a few months ago, why doesn’t he try to get his best friend Finn to join him? Surely he heard about “The Break-Up.” Eventually the Pucks wind up in a diner scene that would be perfect with different actors and less syrup and a real story. The skeleton, though—the concept of this makeshift family coming together thanks to this asshole dad—is strong. If only Hodgson weren’t so distracted by cross-country trips and Hanukkah carnivals to develop that spine.
Which leaves us with Brittany and Sam. Their end-of-the-world episode isn’t as crazy as I expected, but neither is it all that meaningful. They pass right through your system with two exceptions. Their wedding vows are disarmingly cute, albeit inherently fluffy. And Sam’s rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” brings out some welcome humanity in Brittany via reaction shots. But all the while, Sam’s relaxed vocals are way out of sync with his emphatic physicality, which I regret is not a euphemism. So once again I have to register my disappointment that Glee isn’t really selling the butterflies of this romance, and that’s unmistakably due to the shallowness. When Sam’s with Brittany, he gets flattened into her male counterpart, and Brittany is probably beyond rescue at this point outside scenes with either Santana or the stage. There’s only so much emotional impact a coupla blonde jokes can muster.
The other distracting burnt-out bulb is that a whole subplot revolves around a minimum-wage worker so strapped for cash that she won’t waste money on a Christmas tree—and so idiotically, television-ly proud that she tries to return the $800 cash gift her secret Santa broke several laws to deliver—while everyone else spends money like it’s going out of style. But that’s Glee for you, wringing its hands about an issue until it isn’t. The tough-love paternalism (e.g. Artie, the Puck mothers, Millie, etc. at first resisting but eventually coming to accept the support of others for their own good) is pretty rank, too, consistent with the Glee vision though it may be. Worst of all, “Glee, Actually” has almost no relation to Love Actually, whose subplots intersect and overlap. What, couldn’t get the rights to “Christmas Is All Around You?”
Still, “Glee, Actually” is a heartening experiment. The regimented structure is perfectly in tune with the show’s newly centerless ensemble, and the diversity of tones, plots, and even styles makes Glee feel as lively as it has all year. Now that the season is mercifully liberated from the competition schedule, Glee is going to have to explore other kinds of stories than practice and love triangles; the family stories are a nice start. But the real gift is that Glee produced an episode of surpassing ambition whose greatest virtue is modesty. There’s a lesson there.
- Rory Clarences about an empty wheelchair standing in for a dead Quinn. “Quinn texts and drives in every timeline, Artie.” Communiglee!
- Jake asks why Puck is at McKinley. “Just scopin’ out some chicks, doin’ a little research for my screenplay.”
- Wouldn’t mind seeing more of Gina Hecht and Aisha Tyler. Unsettling to see Lana Kane so demure.
- Brittany is telling everyone how she really feels now that the world is ending. “Tina, acting is a pipe dream for you, and your decision to pursue it as a career is both irresponsible and shocking for you.” Where did that come from? Tina’s hilarious. On the other hand, “Joe, you haven’t really made much of an impression on me, and I don’t know what your deal is” is dead-on.
- Brittany and Sam agree. “Some people just can’t face the cold, hard fact that this earth is really just the back of a giant crocodile that’s destroyed and recreated every 500 years.”
- Millie pays a visit to Sue’s office. “I wanted to say thank you for what you did for Marley and me.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I had nothing to do with the making of that film.”