There are times when I like Glee because it is genuinely good, and there are times when I like it because it is simply not awful, against all odds. Regardless of your thoughts on the show, it sets its sights enormously high much of the time, taking aim at things that a musical dramedy with heavy camp elements about high school kids who like to sing really shouldn't even be cognizant of. Sometimes, praising an episode of Glee can turn into an exercise less about praising it for what it did and more about praising it for not completely embarrassing itself. "Sure," this reasoning goes, "the episode was wildly uneven and tonally inconsistent, but at least you didn't feature an elaborate number where Mercedes and Kurt sang 'Ebony and Ivory' in your race relations episode. B-!"
But I really have no idea if I genuinely loved "Grilled Cheesus" or if I'm overlooking some pretty big flaws because what it's about - religion - is a subject that is enormously important and interesting to me and the show didn't completely fuck it up. It's rare to have a TV episode that's respectful to both people of faith AND atheists. Usually, the people of faith are yahoos, or the atheists realize at the last minute that their beliefs were wrongheaded. This being Glee, a show that never met an over-obvious stereotype it didn't like and a show that is in love with people coming together in harmony to sing together, the fear that either of those two things could happen was ever-present. For the most part, the episode avoided either portrayal. For the most part.
Let's start with the biggest thing that didn't work. The song selections were largely atrocious, as if the show simply made up a list of every song it could think of that's even tangentially about God or religion (or features references to either in the lyrics) and then figured out a way to work them in, no matter how strained. "Only the Good Die Young" is the greatest Billy Joel song (I will allow no arguments), but there's really no reason for it to be here other than the show needing a song in the first act and not having given Puck any material so far this season. "Losing My Religion" is not about what the show wants it to be about, other than the fact that the words "losing my religion" are in it, and, also, Finn is singing it about a sandwich. "One of Us," though well-performed by the cast, is such a bad song that the show CUTS AWAY FROM IT, something it almost never does. The series sends Kurt and Mercedes into an African American church environment and somehow has the choir perform "Bridge Over Troubled Water," while completely ignoring the one great intersection between Broadway and spirituality, "You'll Never Walk Alone." The only number that even slightly works is "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" because it genuinely grows out of the moment, although the fact that Kurt is singing it to his dad never stops being kind of weird. (Chris Colfer, who gives one of his best performances on the show, just goes for it, to his credit.)
Furthermore, the idea that Finn has dedicated himself to making wishes to a grilled cheese sandwich is almost too dumb for his character. I don't have a problem with Finn stumbling into prayer and becoming convinced everything that happens to him is an answer to his prayers, not because of the people around him and how they're affected by what he does. I think this brand of ATM-Christianity, which is often sincere but treats God as a giant gift dispenser, is ripe for satire, and Finn's a good character to use to make fun of it. But by having him discover faith by seeing Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich, the show goes maybe one step too far into craziness. And while we're at it, I think the portrayal of Kurt as an atheist, while bold, also made some missteps. I appreciated that neither he nor Sue came to be believers in some sort of altruistic deity by episode's end, something most shows wouldn't do, but to force an arc on him, the series simply made him act like a dick to his well-meaning friends in a way that few non-believers I know would act. If your dad's in a coma and you're an atheist, you probably don't care if your friends pray for him so much as you care about getting him better. That Kurt takes it so personally struck me as a false moment for the character.
It's easy to complain about Glee. It's easy to mock the show for everything it tries to do and fails to do or be made uncomfortable by the series' hyper-earnestness. Yet there's something to be said for trying to tackle a topic like religion and faith and mostly succeeding. The weird stuff I mentioned above is, yes, weird, but it takes up around 20 percent of the episode (even the songs are surprisingly, mercifully short this week, suggesting the show is freeing itself up to play around with its identity as a musical). The other 80 percent is a success, and it's succeeding in an arena where I wouldn't have thought the show capable of succeeding. When the episode was first announced, another critic and I were joking about how the series would inevitably just introduce a bunch of Christian stereotypes, have the glee kids make fun of them, and then have the glee kids realize that everybody likes a good song in the end. To the show's credit, it doesn't do this.
Sue and Kurt probably still get the better of it. There's some lip service paid to the idea that religious believers (particularly Christians) feel sometimes as though the public sphere unnecessarily limits their ability to practice their religion as they see fit. (Though, sidebar, if the kids wanted to sing about God and Will assigned them to find songs to sing about a nebulous concept like "spirituality," I don't know that any court would see this as a violation of freedom of religion, though I could see the school just not wanting to deal with the issue and siding with Sue.) But the majority of the moments that score come from the lips of Sue and Kurt, as they talk about why they don't believe in God or how Christians make gays feel unwelcome or how there can be just as much power in the interaction between two people as there is in the interaction between one person and what they believe to be God. These are well-written, well-delivered moments, and there's a magnificent moment where Mercedes is singing about God, and her face is rapturous in close-up before the show cuts to Kurt in close-up and he's close to tears both because his dad's in a coma and because he just can't get on the same page as his best friend. It's a slick bit of both editing and acting, and it underlines just how much these ideas can divide even the closest of friends. Yet I'm sure the temptation will be there for some Christians to read the episode as an attack, since much of their point of view is expressed by a guy praying to something he made on a George Foreman grill.
At the same time, the episode is wonderfully sympathetic to the positive force religion can be in people's lives. At its best, any faith is less about excluding people and more about building communities that love and care for each other. This is something that's all too easy to forget in an America where the most prominent religious figures are often all about exclusion. But the scenes at Mercedes' church, where the various people attending all include Kurt in their number even though he's not one of them and doesn't believe what they believe, simply because they don't want him to suffer or lose his father, are beautifully drawn little sketches of something that's important in millions of Americans' lives, and they don't condescend to the people who treat this church as a vital part of their existence. And even the Finn storyline concludes on a strangely moving note, as he and Emma (used better here in this episode than she has been in ages) talk about how God cares for him but probably doesn't intervene to break someone's arm or let him touch Rachel's boobs. Even the kind of cloying, "Look! We're all praying and we're of different religions!" scenes work better than they should.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is the fact that Glee, at its best, is about the squarest show on television. When it's a good show, when it's not a show that believes itself to be edgy and ironic and cynical, it's a show that revels in just how damn earnest it can be. Television doesn't do earnestness well. It also doesn't do religion well, probably because religion is the ultimate hyper-earnest thing humans have produced, at least in its best, purest form. At its worst, Glee is not a show about human beings; it's a show about one-liner-spouting, callous little jukeboxes. But at its best, Glee can dig into topics other shows have trouble with. "Grilled Cheesus" may not be perfect, but I grew up in the fundamentalist church, and even though I've left that all behind, I can look at the people in this episode and recognize the things about it I still miss, that sense that there was a community waiting for me somewhere and that everything would be all right if I just believed the right things hard enough.
- Given my affinity for the topics discussed here (as mentioned above), I will not be surprised if literally everyone else hates this episode.
- An interesting thing I like about Brad Falchuk episodes (I actually don't know if he wrote this one, as I watched it on a screener, but he's the only one without a credited episode so far this season): He often ends the acts abruptly, in a moment of euphoria. Look at how he immediately cuts to black in the church sequence or at the end as Finn throws out the remnants of the sandwich. It's a stylistic choice he doesn't get a lot of praise for, and I like it.
- Another nice touch: The camera pulling away from Finn from overhead every time he thanked Grilled Cheesus.
- Talking with Rebecca Milzoff (the recapper for Vulture/New York magazine for the show), she suggested this episode's Jewish gags were too much, given last week's episode (where they were truly execrable). This may just be me being dense, but I didn't think this episode was too bad in this regard, allowing Rachel a moment to express just why she didn't want her and Finn's children being brought up as Christians (or sandwich worshippers, technically), and the actual jokes were more jokes against Finn and Rachel. But, again, this could just be me, and I could be missing the forest for the trees because I was impressed with some of the other things the episode was doing.
- Awkward foreshadowing in paraphrase: "Oh, gee, dad, you can't eat like you're a teenager anymore because I don't WANT YOU TO HAVE A HEART ATTACK."
- I did cringe when Sue's sister believed that God doesn't make mistakes. Just a few steps too close to the saintly mentally handicapped person for my tastes. (Though that character has always been that way, so I don't know what I was expecting.)
- I still don't buy that Artie would be allowed to be utilized like that on a football field, but I don't ask a lot in regards to realism on the rest of the show, so I'll overlook it for now.
- "Are you calling Mr. Billy Joel stupid?"
- "I didn't go to Sunday school, so I don't know if God is like a genie and you only get three wishes."
- "I did a book report on heart attacks if you want to give it to the doctor."
- "Is God an evil dwarf?"
- "I made him a card that said heart attacks are just from loving too much."
- "Jesus appeared to me on a sandwich. And it has special powers!"