I wasn’t the biggest fan of “The Power Of Madonna,” when compared to a lot of people, but even I’ll admit that episode got the spectacle aspect of this show right. I don’t know that there’s been a flashier episode of the series, and that’s not for lack of trying. The production numbers were huge, the various songs were used relatively cleverly (or, rather, as cleverly as Glee ever uses songs), and Sue Sylvester sang “Vogue.” It was all pretty good fun, and it attained a height the show has seemingly been trying to reach ever since, while falling short every time. Still, the musical numbers on the show remain reliably entertaining—they’re still the best reason to tune in—so just cramming an episode full of Michael Jackson songs, crossing its fingers, and hoping for the best wasn’t the worst idea the show ever had.
What’s weird about “Michael” is that what didn’t work was the spectacle, while what did work were the smaller, character-based stories. Yes, there’s a lot of ridiculousness around the edges of this one, which we’ll get to, but season three has pretty reliably developed the idea of the kids all deciding what their futures hold, and the motif of college acceptance letters (or, in the case of NYADA, finalist qualifying letters) used throughout the episode provided a spine some of the other spectacle-oriented episodes have lacked. It had pretty much nothing to do with Michael Jackson, granted, which made it all the more bizarre when, like, Kurt would croon “Ben,” a song about a rat, to his ailing boyfriend after learning he would be going on to the next step at NYADA, but the college acceptance stuff was all pretty much aces, from Quinn’s quiet shock at going to Yale to Rachel’s tearful breakdown when she thinks she’ll be stuck in Lima her whole life to Kurt and Burt’s celebration.
All of these scenes fell back on one of the show’s worst traits—which is a scene where the characters just stand there and tell you exactly what they’re thinking and feeling, as undramatically as possible—but it worked in spite of itself here, because there really is a “summing up” quality to figuring out what’s going to happen next in your life. This is a point where taking a step back and looking at how far you’ve come makes a lot of sense, and I could forgive Quinn her ultra-on-the-nose monologue about how sometimes you just have to let go, simply because I could see both that she, herself, was trying to come to grips with the turns her life had taken and because she had randomly become a mustache-twirling villain, who tries to break up Lima’s happiest couple all in the name of… I don’t really know. (Seriously, that scene in the bathroom between Quinn and Rachel was going along great until the last 10 seconds, when Quinn abruptly all but said, “YOU MUST BREAK UP WITH FINN, OR HAPPINESS WILL ALWAYS ELUDE YOU!”)
So that was all nice! I also liked the idea of an episode about what happens when the bullied decide to fight back, when those who’ve had violence turned on them decide it’s time to turn that violence back against their tormentors. This is something Glee could have plenty to say about, and while, again, it didn’t have a damn thing to do with Michael Jackson (despite the show’s best efforts) and while the scene where Blaine was potentially blinded in one eye by a slushie laced with rock salt was patently ridiculous and while the whole thing concluded with a half-hearted declaration that when someone does something patently illegal to you, you should just outsing them, I still liked the scenes where the kids were all, “People can’t just treat us like shit!” Will would say, “Yes, they can! We don’t do violence!” And then there would be some grumbling before everybody—led by Kurt, of course—concluded that, yes, violence was wrong, but so is payback of any kind, even when Santana keeps using the word “underboob” (hilariously, I’ll admit).
One of the stronger episodes of season two was an episode I didn’t review, “Rumours,” which used the songs from the classic Fleetwood Mac album to comment on the action in ways that seemed surprisingly organic, given that you know the whole thing originated when Ryan Murphy turned to Brad Falchuk, raised his eyebrow, and started singing “The Chain.” There, the songs were largely used in a fashion that pushed the action forward or talked about it at a distance, and it made for a lovely juxtaposition of song and image, the sort of thing this show fails at all too often. Now, if this episode had used the songs of Michael Jackson to comment on the idea of the kids fighting back or on the desperation of high school seniors waiting to hear back from their colleges of choice, that would have made it a truly stellar piece of television, give or take that thing where Glee feels the need to cram at least three plots too many into any given episode.
Instead, the episode proceeded pretty much like this: Scene where something dramatic happens. Scene where the characters talk about that dramatic thing and express their emotions about it. Scene where someone talks about what Michael Jackson would have done for no apparent reason whatsoever. Pivot to Will Schuester tossing glitter into the air and proclaiming, “MICHAEL! JACKSON!” Cue a shot-for-shot recreation of a music video. Instead of commenting on the action or driving the plot forward, the musical numbers tonight were trucked in from another series entirely, maybe the sixth season of Smash, when Debra Messing sits up in bed and says, “Someone should make a musical about Michael Jackson,” and then she loads up the trucks and puts them in a time machine.
I’m willing to cut Glee some slack on the kids all suddenly being obsessed with Michael Jackson and having intense, intimate knowledge of his career and struggles, even though they were all born in the ‘90s (God, am I that old?). We all know the real reason has to do with Ryan Murphy wanting to do a Michael Jackson episode, and the characters, thus, becoming obsessed because he needs them to. But if I really want to, I can excuse that by suggesting Will forced them all to read the Wikipedia entry or something. I’m trying to be charitable here! The problem is that every time the show turns into an episode about Michael Jackson, it stops dead in its tracks entirely, so it can pontificate about Michael Jackson, who is not only a great recording artist but also, apparently, a warrior poet who solved humanity’s problems with only some sweet dance moves and a “Hee-hee-hee.”
There’s precisely one number here that really works well as a number that comments on a character’s inner emotions and pushes the plot in new directions, and that’s Quinn’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Not coincidentally, it’s one of the simplest numbers of the episode, staged with Dianna Agron in a killer dress on an empty stage, singing the song, then confronting Puck, Finn, and Sam, in turn, before cutting to a nicely composed shot from inside her locker, in which she looks at the photos of the people and places she’s known (nice touch: Rachel’s face is covered with a magnet), and you sense her already pulling away, just a little bit. It’s not a number that needs much more than what’s on screen, and all involved wisely leave it be. It’s some strong work, and it’s the one number in the episode that doesn’t fall all over itself trying to be more than it is.
And, yes, there were some other nice numbers, I guess. Whatever song that was that Rachel and Finn sang about how they were each other’s true love (I’ve already forgotten because the rendition of it was so bland) got her to say “yes” to his proposal, which would be fine if the whole storyline weren’t so patently bizarre. The Sam and Mercedes “Human Nature” duet pushed those two crazy kids together, but we all knew this was headed that way anyway, and it was a story that plopped in for that scene and that scene alone, before wandering off in another direction. Maybe you’ve noticed this already, but the number that worked was the one number that commented on what was happening in the story, rather than dropping in from the fevered brain of a Michael Jackson fan site. All of the others were either connected to storylines that didn’t have anything to do with the episode’s main thrust, or they were connected to one of the two main stories tangentially. (Look, I’ll spot you that Rachel now has to choose between Finn and NYADA, but we all know what she’s choosing—if the show has any character integrity—and it’s a silly, bullshit plot point to force a once-strong character to put up with. Also, why is Finn just a total creeper now?)
This wouldn’t be such a big deal if there were five-to-seven songs, as there have been in most episodes this season, and if those songs didn’t take up too much time. Instead, this thing is crammed wall-to-wall with numbers, and nearly every single one of them goes on for several minutes. There are three—three—shot-for-shot music video recreations (“Bad,” “Scream,” and portions of “Black Or White”), none of which add anything to the story or do anything to express the characters’ inner states with nuance. Okay, yes, the “Bad” number ends with the rock salt slushie thing happening, but Sebastian is so fucking evil at this point that it seems like he’s being groomed to take the role of Dick Dastardly in the inevitable shot-for-shot recreation of a Wacky Races episode you just know is coming (with that little kid who expressed concern for Blaine as Muttley). This makes him and the whole plot so odd that it’s remarkable the show rallies as well as it does. (I was also sort of partial to “Smooth Criminal,” just because I like that arrangement, and I liked the ridiculousness of Santana getting Sebastian—God, what an evil name… SEBAAAAAAASTIIIIAAAANNNN!—to cave by singing at him.)
What I’m saying, and I realize this is totally the wrong show to be saying this about, is that Glee is now a show that’s completely devoid of nuance when it comes to characterization. People are always who they are, until they’re not, and then it’s just them being who they always are. Sebastian is a total evil douchebag who wants Blaine all to himself. Kurt is a perfect individual who eventually realizes he didn’t want to hurt anyone, even someone who possibly blinded his boyfriend. Santana is clever and devious. And so on and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with consistent characterization, but this is consistent to a fault. Increasingly, the show seems assembled from bits and pieces of what it thinks other people want. When there are emotionally true moments—as there were in spades tonight—they stand out less for being part of the show’s crazy fabric but for seeming like the last thing to hang on to.
Story grade: B+
Spectacle grade: C-
Average (being charitable because I really did like that applications plot): B-
- Dianna Agron’s haircut makes her look her age, which is 25. I’m not saying I’m complaining about this (it’s a nice haircut, and with that dress…), but I briefly mistook her for Emma in the final number, and when she was telling Rachel all about how she needed to break it off with Finn, it really did seem like a teacher telling a student wisdom from her many years upon this Earth.
- Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God: I think I went on about this at length, but I really didn’t mind “Gotta Be Starting Something” either.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ’bout Glee: I suspect this was another banner episode for the Naya Rivera fans out there. My favorite was whatever she was wearing in that opening number.
- Yes, Artie, you standing up to the Warblers is just like Michael Jackson standing up to MTV to get the video for “Billie Jean” played on the air.
- Okay, I laughed pretty hard at Santana’s assertion that if Kurt had taped a recorder to his wang, the club would have sung songs about it for a week.
- Look, even those of you who still really like this show will grant me that the “Ben” number was fucking weird, right? I mean… just give me that much.
- I do like that the Warblers are apparently the villains now. I don’t know if the show will lose interest in it quickly, and Sebastian remains like something out of an old-time movie serial, but I’m hopeful that a consistent, non-Sue antagonist could perk up the storytelling in this season’s midsection.
- Why Artie and Mike Chang for “Scream”? Why not?
- You remember how they made such a big deal out of how expensive the videos for “Scream” and “Black And White” were back in the day, particularly because of the morphing in the latter? And now just any ol’ TV show can do the exact same things! Where have you gone, James Cameron? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo. (I JUST GOT THE BEST GLEE SPEC SCRIPT IDEA!)
- I cannot emphasize enough how bizarre the conclusion of the Warblers vs. New Directions storyline was. So Captain McEvil assaulted one of your members, possibly blinding him in one eye, and instead of reporting it to the proper authorities, you decide you'll teach him a lesson in a few weeks time out on the dance floor? All right then.
- I have no idea if I will be around next week. I don’t know if I can handle an episode where one of the press photos is this.