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Glee: "Hairography"

Even the best TV shows occasionally find themselves wandering into a terrible storyline or two. Every so often, Landry is killing a man, the Earps are hanging out in Deadwood, or Kim Bauer is threatened by a cougar. In some ways, it's easy to make a show work when all of the storylines are clicking and the actors, writers and directors are on the same page about where everything is going from here. To me, what often separates a great show from a very good one is the way that show is able to salvage its terrible storylines. Once the terrible storyline is started, it's sometimes very hard to abandon it without doing major damage to what's going on, so there's a certain element of a show gritting its teeth and going about the hard work of setting things right. Landry comes clean, and it helps him establish more of a connection with his father. The Earps become a way to explore how Bullock has matured since he came to the camp. Kim escapes and runs into a crazy survivalist man. One of these things, as they say, is not like the other.

Since Glee started, its biggest problem has been both the Terri character, who's inconsistently written, though Jessalyn Gilsig is doing everything she can to make the character believable, and the fake pregnancy storyline that seems to constitute her sole reason for being on the show. There have been moments and flashes when Glee has taken her character seriously - like her speech to Emma or her attempts to use Will's student crushes as a labor force (which suggested the character had more of a sense of humor than previously thought) - but for the most part, she's saddled with one of the storylines the show has seemingly been trying to ignore in its last few episodes.

Because we were on a long drive and because all we do is talk about television (seriously, I'm a very boring person), my wife and I were discussing if there was any way to salvage the pregnancy storyline, if there was a way to, in essence, get through the awful central premise and use it to somehow express something true about the characters. Because "Hairography" was written by Ian Brennan, my favorite of the three Glee creators and the one most inclined to take the characters dead seriously at all times, I was hopeful he'd figure out a way to make something of Terri's character before it's too late. And he almost landed at the best solution my wife and I could come up with before pulling away abruptly.

Basically, the fake pregnancy storyline - which, it cannot be said enough, is the worst plotline I've seen on a show that's this genuinely good in many years - only works if it somehow reveals something fundamentally interesting about Terri's character (just as the plotlines listed above revealed facets of Landry and Bullock's characters). So far, we don't know a lot about Terri. We just know that she's the kind of shrewish harpy wife that pops up on a lot of television shows, and we know that she has a bit of the dumb blonde to her. The show, seemingly realizing that Terri's character could be misinterpreted, often forces her to share her scenes with her sister, who's even MORE of an awful female stereotype, as if to suggest, "Hey. It could be worse." Who is Terri? We don't really know beyond the broad outlines, which are things other shows have done and done better. She's a former cheerleader. She's trying to recapture her glory days. She's easily manipulated with a manipulative streak of her own. She's not very bright.

What would make the storyline work, I think, is if it so cornered Terri that we learned just what she's made of. How much does she love Will? How much does she want a family with him? Does she care about Quinn, or is she just a means to an end? The whole concept of a woman faking being pregnant and her husband somehow not noticing would still be as stupid as ever, but at least the whole thing would be adding dimensions to a character who desperately needs them. "Hairography" kind of heads in this direction, but it gets cold feet at the last minute. We get a voiceover from Terri that asserts that she DOES want a family with Will, that she's starting to feel in over her head. We get a really lovely scene where she tells Quinn that Will's going to make a great dad. And we get a scene where she seems on the verge of telling him everything. But around all of those scenes are the usual terrible shenanigans with the sister or idiotic plots to distract Will from the truth, and even if Brennan's trying to expose some of the central truths of the storyline, as well as some of the ways Terri has kept the pregnancy hidden (since she apparently just stopped having sex with Will), he can't ever overcome the nastiness inherent in the story's core.

Compare and contrast this with another potentially problematic storyline that Glee is mostly pulling off. Quinn's pregnancy, particularly with its structure where the real father is not the one Quinn has chosen to be the father, seemed like just another way to make one of the female characters - and a conservative Christian one, no less - into the kind of person who is deeply unpleasant. Instead, Glee has stuck to its guns and deepened the emotions of all three parties, creating a situation where a lot of what Quinn is doing is fundamentally unethical, but it's absolutely understandable why she's doing it and just how terrified she feels at the prospect of being a mother. Here, the series has taken a fairly unbelievable plot element - Finn has so little sex education that he believes he got Quinn pregnant without having sex with her - and somehow made it a virtue, as it's shown both Finn's strengths and weaknesses. Had Glee somehow used the fake pregnancy storyline in this fashion, I doubt it would draw as many complaints as it does.

I like Brennan's version of Glee because it's the one that most gets at the sadness at the core of the show that I find so intriguing, the sadness that keeps me coming back. All of the characters are in desperate situations, and all of them are slowly realizing just how desperate those situations are as the season wears on. At the same time, Brennan's the one who feels the most comfortable going for broke on hyper-earnest moments like the "Imagine" number, which was so earnest it almost made me uncomfortable (and, believe me, I loved Everwood; I can handle from earnest), or the final "True Colors" number, which was somehow sweet, funny (since the song's lame) and in character, since it's exactly the kind of song I'd expect Will to find deeply moving. I wasn't even sure I liked "Hairography" until the final five minutes, but, once again, Brennan pulled everything together in the end. Just not quite as well as he has in the past.

Stray observations:

  • Things I didn't like: The portrayal of Jane Adams. The occasionally tone deaf scenes with the partially deaf teacher. The fake pregnancy stuff, for the most part (see above). Will's sudden grease monkey tendencies. The general lack of character consistency in some of the kids' relationships (like Kurt and Rachel's relationship, which is all over the place at this point). How Sue is once again randomly the character she was in episode three. Most of the musical numbers. Terri's sister, who almost singlehandedly makes me wish I hadn't defended the show against charges of sexism and/or misogyny in comments a few weeks back.
  • Things I thought were kind of fun: Rachel's makeover plotline.
  • I've been involved in a couple of discussions with friends about how the show doesn't seem to have a firm handle on how the progression toward sectionals is actually going in the way that, say, Friday Night Lights keeps us abreast of every game the Panthers and Lions play. The show seems to acknowledge this tonight and reveals that all of the numbers the kids have been performing were being considered, and now Will has made his final choice. That the kids are learning new numbers weekly is unbelievable, but I'm willing to go with it.
  • And I think this is the last bit of A.V. Club content until the end of the long weekend. Everyone have a great Thanksgiving, and those of you who don't live in the U.S. have a great Nov. 26.
  • "I'm the fine arts administrator or something."
  • "Rachel somehow manages to dress like a grandmother and a toddler at the same time."
  • "I was gonna stand outside the 7/11 looking depressed until someone buys me beer."
  • "It works best when you pretend like you're being tasered."
  • "You look like a sad clown hooker."
  • "That's actually a very good question because I've forgotten both of your names."

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