Season four is starting to feel like a skeleton of Glee. After three years of establishing McKinley as an expansive high school bursting with all sorts of colorful characters, suddenly what little time Glee does spend there is feeling empty. Even with new cast members, New Directions is smaller than usual, and most of them are ignored this week. The crowd shots are intentionally—but effectively—sparse. And nothing happens there anymore. Brittany faux-spirals and Blaine runs for president, but what does any of that mean? The other 20 minutes are spent in the nation’s biggest city, but you wouldn’t know it from the five characters. The New York plots have the opposite problem from the Lima ones: They’re so fast-paced that everything loses impact. Kurt goes from lonely, jobless wannabe in the big city to Sarah Jessica Parker’s best friend in one scene. Meanwhile, Brody’s personality so far is just abs, so his romance with Rachel goes in one ear and out the other. When I praised Glee for its smallness, “Makeover” isn’t what I had in mind.
There are worse ways to repeat a story than the school election subplot, which is really just a way to play some characters off each other and make self-deprecating jokes about Glee’s special approach to continuity. For four acts, the debate exists to hang diverting entertainment on: Brittany and Sam get their share of dumb jokes (though nothing tops the first, Sam’s immediate “What’s a debate?”), they rebel against their handlers in a surprising rendition of “Celebrity Skin” that doubles as an on-topic runway show, and Sam gets to strip for votes. So far, so good. Half of the jokes are funny, the musical numbers are bold, and the muscles are rippling.
Then at the end, it’s supposed to mean something. Apparently Kurt having to call Blaine back in an hour because he’s the president’s new fashion adviser is such a crisis for Blaine that he starts questioning why he’s even at McKinley. Then Sam tells him that they’re cross-orientation bros now. If you missed that development during the early part of the episode, that’s because it didn’t happen. Glee is one big ret-con. Next Sam gets some more closeness with Brittany, and this is where the sparks should fly. Set aside the impossible stupidity dragging down their relationship in “Britney 2.0.” Here’s a boy with a crush on a girl who is hugging his chest. The shot holds on Sam’s face just long enough. He’s speechless, caught up in the moment he’s been waiting for. We should be, too. So why doesn’t this come close to Glee past?
I’m not romanticizing. In “Blame It On The Alcohol,” Rachel hosts a house-party that, like the election, exists for no other reason than to get these kids in a room together for purposes that have little to do with a cappella. Like the election, it contorts the usual foundation of performers yearning for spotlight into teenagers yearning for each other. Sam makes out with Santana in front of Quinn. She and Lauren harangue Puck. Finn tells Rachel why they’re apart. She gets a quick, requited crush on Blaine, and Kurt feels suddenly jilted. Mercedes sits there pretending to be happy while even Mike and Tina dance with each other. And that was just act two. Glee’s small brilliance lies in those snapshot impressions of a feeling so powerful it stands out in the whirlwind of the montage. “Makeover” is completely different. It plays around for 40 minutes and then tries to mean something. It has fewer relationships to work with and less long-term development. Now, for better or worse, the show is less manic. And Glee has proved time and again how successful it is as a traditional teen drama.
None of that emptiness can diminish Glee’s gut-punch finales, though. After a whole episode of singing and flirting with Brody, which are of course the same thing to Rachel, she has the world’s boringest date with him on the floor of her apartment. It should be magical. Italian food, champagne, and New York evoke Rachel’s Lady-And-The-Tramp-scored stroll with Finn on their first visit to the big city, another of those tingly, unpredictable moments. But there are two impediments: The new Rachel, whose only connection to the old Rachel is a penchant for cheating on Finn, and Brody, who smiles and watches Rachel’s classes through the doorway and then evaporates into an inkstain on someone’s pinky when he walks off-screen.
And then Finn arrives. Rachel thinks it’s Kurt forgetting his keys, and it seems like the evening is headed for more of a friend intervention than a romantic confrontation. But Rachel throws open the door, and that guy we haven’t seen in three weeks is there. It's like Santana slapped Finn across the face again. “Moon River” gives way to police sirens outside. And Brody is lying in the middle of her apartment. You don’t have to be swooning over Rachel and Brody to feel the emotional whiplash. Now, that’s a romantic climax, and it comes courtesy of character development.
All during Rachel’s slo-mo trainwreck, Kurt’s on fast-forward. If Cassandra July is the wicked witch, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Isabelle Wright is the good witch, or as Kurt calls her, his fairy godmother. She doesn’t even let him sweat—which, again, is part of why his story lacks impact. She hires him in one scene, seeks his counsel in the next, promotes him in the next. Halfway through the episode, he’s using his tenuous position to sneak into the Vogue.com offices at night to shoot a music video. Just go with it. Isabelle catches him but is taken by the idea, and they impress Anna Wintour for the first time. As the okay Finn Hudson once sang, “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you just might find / You get what you need.” The NYADA rejection may have slowed Kurt down all summer, but he sure is seizing the day now. Isabelle is so impressed she suggests he totally change his life-plan and try his hand at fashion. It’d be nice to get a sense of how monumental this is for Kurt, but hasn’t he done enough this week?
All that—underfed romances and one bullet-train plot—make the episode feel a little skinny, especially for such an enormous show. But even a light Glee is colorful. The opening montage brings all the mania I could ever want. Blaine sings “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” in an empty auditorium, because he’s joining a bunch of clubs to fill his life, and all the while, he’s narrating one of those diary entries about how he’s handling his senior year in Kurt’s absence. No mention of Skype-sex, unfortunately, but when Blaine absent-mindedly offers his bowl of popcorn to Kurt’s chat window, Kurt picks up a kernel on his end in a great, goofy touch. It’s a musical number, an internal monologue, and a set-up for Blaine’s loneliness that’s somewhat less needy than the scene where Kurt is too excited about impressing Anna Wintour to focus on his boyfriend’s class election. And it ends with Blaine walking through superheroes and medieval fantasy LARPers as he sings the title. There's the passion I've been looking for. Glee is a crazy splatter collage with almost no consistency, and it’s so much better when it acts like it.
- Glee is still in the running for best Previously Ons: “And Sam’s new blond besties with Brittany, who didn’t graduate and thinks she’s still president, even though all she accomplished last year was a dinosaur prom.” The first of many jokes in “Makeover” about how story is a priority somewhere between hair gel and Breadstix.
- Another such joke: Sam tells Brittany, “You and I dated.” “We did?”
- Blaine says about his relationship, “The only time we’re really in sync is when we’re hate-watching Treme together.” In the same week New Normal made a joke about how nobody watches Treme (not about the show itself). I’m not sure anyone has a case for tomorrow’s Ryan Murphy Bashes Treme articles, but it does feel particular to Murphy’s comedic sensibility to pick something as odd to hate-watch as Treme. Kurt follows up: “These songs go on forever. Why isn’t there more zydeco?” I laughed. P.S. Treme is the best musical on television.
- While Kurt waits for his anointing ceremony as archduke of New York fashion, there’s a nice montage of talking-heads making him nervous about Isabelle’s magnificence. “Rumor has it she gave Steve Jobs his first black turtleneck.”
- Artie says to Brittany, “So I can be Cheney to your Bush?” “I’d rather be landing strip.”
- I’m as invested in this Will story as Glee is, which is to say I can spare him a bullet point. Those rack zooms into his head are pretty effective. There’s more drama in his sudden ennui than “Makeover” wrings out of it, but still, it’s a little disconcerting to hear Will “I looked at your file” Schuster talk about his students with no emotion.
- Will has two ideas for glee, classic TV themes and a salute to autumn, both treated like a joke. Yeah, because Glee is too deep to sing some Growing Pains.
- Gay guys talkin’ ‘bout Glee: Pretty sure that’s what this whole thing has been.
- Sam says, “My impressions are hilarious 100 percent of the time.” Not sure if that’s true, but I have always loved his bizarre James Earl Jones. “This morning I woke up and decided to swallow the sun.”
- In response to the theme, “Leather but in unexpected ways,” a Vogue.com staffer starts riffing: “It’s Italy, Salo, 1944, a belt is punishment, a belt is reward.”
- Artie defends Glee by way of cheering up Brittany: “Your brain exists in this magical other dimension where anything is possible. It’s really amazing. We just need to focus on a little preparation.”
- At the debate, Stoner Brett stands up and shouts, “Separation of powers! Woo!” Not every show would have a character whose sole purpose is to walk through scenes heckling them.
- Oh, yeah, “Makeover” is also a little bit about makeovers, and the power of fashion to help you feel and project confidence. Hence the two trying-on-clothes numbers, both awesome. But that still doesn’t explain why Kurt wears a fox tail attached to his belt loop.
- More proof singing is sexual to Rachel: She tells Brody, “I like to do something every day just to keep my machine well oiled.” He says, practically winking, “Oh, me, too.”
- Sam tells his new best friend Blaine, “We’ll be like Wolverine and Cyclops,” and somehow there’s no suiting-up montage?