I think just about everyone watching Glee is, on some level, waiting for it to fall apart somewhere in their subconscious. The series tries to blend so many different things and tries to be so many different kinds of shows that there's virtually no way it can sustain. It also doesn't help that it's been mercilessly hyped (which is not the show's fault). Any show that has been on as many magazine covers as this one, has been as heavily promoted as this one, has a tendency to experience a backlash and/or reduction in quality sooner, rather than later. Usually, the series is able to make it out of season one before this happens (see also: Heroes, Lost, Desperate Housewives, The O.C.), but Glee's unusual production schedule and episode scheduling means that the first season is essentially split into two seasons, one that was produced with virtually no fan reaction at all while it was being produced and another that was produced with a huge fan reaction to draw off of.
The temptation, then, for the show, is to just give everyone more of what they want. More songs. More Sue Sylvester. More complications on the relationship front. I still argue the show is essentially sad on a lot of levels, but at the same time, it has to be that for people like me (who appreciate the emotional irony that keeps the show from being complete camp) but also has to be a big, happy, joyful ball of gleefulness for people like the Obama girls, who have yet to be crushed by the random heartbreaks of life like your humble author. My fear for the show in these back nine episodes is that it will push so far in all of these directions that it will essentially end up even more center-less than it already is sometimes. I'm worried we'll get a big production number careening into a scene where Sue makes fun of Will's hair hilariously careening into a scene where one of the characters deals with an issue out of an after-school special tearfully.
Now, you might say that the show was already doing that back in its first 13 episodes or that it did that tonight. And while I can see that point of view, I think what's made these first 14 episodes (because, yeah, I quite liked tonight's episode, if the grade wasn't an indication) work is the fact that there was always connective tissue between those scenes, be it thematic or just in matters of tone. The connection between episodes wasn't always as strong as it could have been, but within individual episodes - usually - the show was able to keep everything bubbling along without seeming like it had completely lost it. Now, it's pretty obvious that the show is going to lose it at SOME point, but "Hell-o" makes me think we can at least wait until season two, when I'm convinced the New Directions kids will go to the glee club Olympics or something. (Basically, I'm expecting the first three seasons of the show to follow the Mighty Ducks template exactly.)
One thing that I think is making the show work in "Hell-o" is the fact that it's both embracing the emotional complexity it was heading toward in the last run of episodes back before it left for four months and making fun of itself. I normally am not a huge fan of so-called "meta" humor, but Glee uses it sparingly and uses it well, as when the string section shows up in the school library or when Finn realizes that the band is there for a private conversation between him and Mr. Schuester, for no apparent reason.
Glee seemed a little ashamed of its musical roots at first, trying a little too hard to suggest that every song it presented was happening exactly as presented, which made the glaring, Auto-tuned nature of the production more glaring than it needed to be. In a musical, when everyone sings, of course they have amazing voices and know the dance moves intuitively. It's just the way it is. In a musical on stage or screen, there's rarely as much emphasis placed on just why the characters are suddenly singing, but on TV, where I guess we're all used to verisimilitude for some reason, a musical is often given lots of reasons for why the people are singing. Tentatively in the first few episodes, Glee broke out of the idea that every song was a glee club performance. In "Hell-o," the show has mostly given that idea up. People sing everywhere and about anything. They're still singing pop songs, but the show is looser with its sense of when and how a musical number can pop up.
At the same time, even as the series is ramping up the number of songs (including at least one largely unnecessary number in "Highway to Hell") and ramping up the crazy stuff Sue and Brittany say, it's finding that emotional core that has kept the show from flying apart in the past. I know that Will is no one's favorite character on this show (especially since so many episodes seem to give him little to do beyond watch his kids perform and proudly smile with one tear glistening in his eye), but I liked what the show did with the notion that he's jumped immediately from Terri to Emma. This is, after all, what most shows do. The characters partner hop, and it's ridiculous and borderline psychotic. Glee really digs into this notion, suggesting that someone who did that clearly wasn't very confident in himself and defines himself via his partner. Putting this in the mouth of a new character - Idina Menzel's Vocal Adrenaline coach - should have made it have that much less punch, but Menzel brings such an air of authority to what she's doing that the scene still plays.
Meanwhile, Emma's realizing the same thing (thanks to a scene where the show used Terri well for the first time ever), imperiling the new relationship, while Rachel's falling for Jesse, the lead singer for Vocal Adrenaline, played by Lea Michele's Spring Awakening co-star Jonathan Groff (and I think it's worth pointing out that the chemistry Michele and Groff have is several degrees more substantial than the chemistry she has with Cory Monteith). It's a pretty nice little plotline about two kids from different sides who are trying to fight their growing attraction and mostly failing, but I don't like the suggestion that what Jesse's doing has malicious intent. Already, I know where this storyline is going, and while unpredictability is not exactly in this show's playbook, it'd be nice if this felt a little less calculated on all levels.
Sure, there were scenes that didn't work in this episode for me (the meeting of Sue Sylvester's spinster club was particularly stupid), but "Hell-o," for the most part, continues Glee's run of strong episodes that mix a whole bunch of ideas and tones that shouldn't work together into something that makes them work together, even if it has to force them to. I'm still not sure Glee's off the hook for my worries that it could all fall apart at any given moment, but "Hell-o" is a good indication that it at least knows how to make this all work still.
- On the other hand, that could just be because so many of the numbers in this episode work. "Gives You Hell," "Hello" and "Hello, Goodbye" are all just terrifically constructed, and the extra money the show is spending on filming the musical sequences is obvious.
- Or it could be because I first saw this on a big screen at the Paley festival, with a room full of screaming Glee fans. Which, of course, probably made me like it more than I normally would.
- Another nice meta-joke: After Will asks the kids to find songs with "Hello" in the title, Rachel then finds every song the audience is thinking of with "hello" in the title at the library.
- It's hard to do "dumb character" dialogue nowadays, but everything Brittany says in this show is hilarious. I don't know exactly how the writers are doing it, but they've come up with some utterly bizarre yet believable things for her to say, and they're all funny.
- "What do you guys say when you answer the phone?" "No, she's dead. This is her son."
- "Oh, that's why the band's here."
- "I've got a full-ride to a little school called the University of California, Los Angeles. Maybe you've heard of it. It's in Los Angeles."
- "Look, I'm pretty sure you have to do what we say, and this food was unsatisfactory." "Mine had a mouse in it."
- "Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?"
- "A lot of people didn't think I could take nationals with a routine where the kids danced entirely on their hands."
- But don't think Glee's off the hook just yet! I've seen two more episodes, and I have ... concerns.