There are two kinds of bad television episodes. There are episodes that are just so colossally miscalculated that they become utterly, completely terrible, irredeemable in almost every way. Those episodes are like the last episode of Glee, "The Rocky Horror Glee Show," which was, yes, terrible, but was also something I could conceivably see myself watching again at some point. Its awfulness went around the bend to become something sort of entertaining in how thoroughly it missed the point. But there are also episodes that try for something but keep undercutting themselves, ending up misconceived messes. These episodes are usually boring, and that's what tonight's Glee, "Never Been Kissed" was. For a show like Glee, boring is the ultimate flaw. I can't imagine ever wanting to watch "Never Been Kissed" ever again, simply because of the long, long sections where basically nothing was happening, to say nothing of the idiotic plot reversals. It's bad TV, yes, but it's also the difference between a D and an F. Honestly, sometimes, the D is worse, much as it wouldn't seem to be.
The episode starts from a pretty good place: Kurt's being bullied by some football player who's probably been an extra all this time but hasn't had much to do otherwise. The lack of concern seemingly even extends to Will, who offers to help but hasn't exactly been helpful in the past, and his glee club pals, who aren't bullies, necessarily, but also aren't very nice when he proposes his idea for the second annual "boys vs. girls" showdown. So he runs off to check in on one of the club's two competitors for sectionals, the Warblers of a nearby prep school. There, he's immediately taken with a young fellow named Blaine, who sings Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" with the backing of several other a capella singers but seems to sing it JUST TO KURT. All of this was more dramatic than Glee usually is, but it was built around Kurt, one of the few characters the show can afford to be dramatic with.
But you can also probably see the seeds of the episode's destruction being planted here. Brad Falchuk wrote this episode, and while I've liked a good number of episodes he's written, he's also the most likely to fall into the pitfalls of making straightforwardly earnest after-school specials that try to confront serious issues. The problem with Glee is that it often pretends that noticing an issue exists is the same thing as tackling it dramatically, and Falchuk is particularly susceptible to this. I liked his "Grilled Cheesus" quite a bit because it forced him out of his comfort zone. I didn't like "Never Been Kissed" because it pretends that showing a gay kid getting shoved into some lockers and then talking a bit about "courage" is the same thing as being bold in confronting the anti-gay bullying epidemic in the United States.
There are problems scattered throughout this storyline. The prep school Kurt visits isn't anything like a real place; it's a kind of Tolerance Narnia, where everybody behaves like kids never possibly would. Sure, it would be nice if the schools of our land specifically outlawed bullying someone for being gay (and that there are school board members who stand in the way of policies like this is absolutely horrifying), but that doesn't mean the school will immediately become Utopia, that the kids will gather in the hallways and sing earnestly about their skintight jeans, making everything all better. Furthermore, Blaine is less a character than some sort of gay genie, who always knows exactly what will work best in every situation. Kurt isn't torn between a life that's terrible at McKinley and the possibility of the grass being greener on the other side. He's torn between two stereotypes that don't function the way the world really works.
Because let's back up here. That football player? He's bullying Kurt because he, too, is secretly gay. From the second that football dude started angrily singling out Kurt FOR being gay, I started getting the queasy feeling in my stomach that the episode was going to go to the old "You're homophobic, so you must be gay!" chestnut. And when it actually did by having football guy kiss Kurt in the locker room, it made my heart sink. This episode honestly had a chance to deal with a serious issue in a forthright way, using one of the most interesting characters on TV right now to confront that issue, and it completely biffed the landing.
Telling gay kids—or even just kids who are made fun of for being gay when they're really just outside the school's norm—that their bullies are being mean because they harbor secret homosexual desires may be true in some cases, but in almost all, it's not. Some people are cruel, and we live in a society that too often doesn't see that cruelty as anything remarkable. The best you can do is grit your teeth, hold your head high, and move to San Francisco or New York as soon as you graduate. It gets better, etc. Suggesting that sexual desire underlies homophobia, instead of twisted readings of religious texts or long-held prejudices or just general assholery, isn't a cruel lie, since it tries to restore some of the power to the bullied person, but it's a lie nonetheless, and the second it's deflated, sorrow comes all the quicker. (That half my Twitter feed was filled with Glee fans praising the show for "going there" suggests this idea has permeated the culture more than anyone would want it to.)
But outside of the kissing scene and the fact that neither the prep school nor the Blaine character wholly made sense, the "Kurt gets bullied" storyline at least had some sort of emotional core that mostly made sense. It wouldn't have been enough to carry an episode on its own, but if the stereotypes had been the only thing holding the episode back, I might have felt more kindly toward it. Instead, the other two (or three?) plots were just as terrible. The least objectionable of them was probably the "Puck takes care of Artie for community service" thing because Puck's a pretty good character, and there's potential for a good dynamic between him and Artie. But the awkward shoehorning in of a song in the sequence where the two busk in the outdoor cafeteria thing (where people are eating, even though it appears to be snowing), the fact that Artie is abruptly in love with Brittany again, and the forced nature of the scene where Puck doesn't want to go back to juvie all conspired to keep the storyline from lifting off. There were nice moments and nice gags, but if you hadn't guessed that ARTIE would wind up rubbing off on PUCK instead of the other way around, well, you're probably the ideal Glee fan.
Or maybe the story of the boys and girls competing for bragging rights would keep the episode afloat, in the way that the duets competition kept "Duets" humming along nicely. Sure, the first episode where this competition came up, "Vitamin D," was a season one lowpoint, but I'd seen the previews. I knew "Livin' on a Prayer" was coming. And, again, there were some nice-ish moments throughout here—I particularly liked Lea Michele shrieking "SPIES!" —but the overall sense of the storyline was that it was only present because the show needed to throw some songs out there. Both numbers were mash-ups (the girls focusing on classic rock and the guys focusing mainly on Motown girl group hits), and while Will pressured both groups to do something different from what they usually do, this theme of "opposites" really only came and went as Falchuk remembered it. Both numbers were a lot of fun, but neither seemed to have anything to do with anything else. When the boys ostensibly sang to cheer up Coach Beiste, it was hard to imagine why she would want to see a number like that at all, unless she gets a cut of the iTunes sales.
Because—and I know you doubt me, but I swear I'm saving the worst for last—the final storyline involved the guys in the glee club figuring out a way to calm themselves when in the midst of heavy petting (do people still use this term?) by ... imagining Coach Beiste in a variety of compromising positions. Sam comes up with the idea, proving even more that CHORD OVERSTREET! is the worst person on Earth, but it soon spreads to some of the other guys and even Tina. Sue, of course, sees it as an opportunity to get Beiste fired, utilizing the subtle skills of Quinn (yes, that's sarcasm), but she also comes and goes from the plot, as though Falchuk kept forgetting she was a character on the show, much less its breakout star. Anyway, Beiste eventually quits, then cries about how she's never been kissed (tying her to Kurt, who said the same to Blaine) and all she wants is for some boy to love her. Then Will kisses her in a moment that is somehow both heartfelt and COMPLETELY HORRIFYING, a combination I didn't know was possible.
The problem with Will this season is that he's become a patronizing twat. Beiste wants to know why all of the glee clubbers are pointing and laughing at her, so he tells her about their secret scheme (including information about HOW they picture Beiste that would just be odd for him to know without having mind-reading powers or asking uncomfortably creepy questions). Then, when Beiste is leaving and talks about how she just wants a kiss, he deigns to be the man to give it to her, though he has no plans to have a relationship with her whatsoever. You'd think he'd know that this is just an utterly symbolic gesture, devoid of meaning, but instead, the show treats it like something borderline heroic. It's ridiculous and maddening. Furthermore, Beiste is a successful career woman making her way in a field where no other women do. Why should she need a man to make her feel complete when the show has never suggested as such in the past?
Add to this one simple fact: If the show is going to lecture us about making fun of people like Beiste, then it needs to stop making fun of people like Beiste. The shots of her in her cheerleading get-up or in ballerina outfit are purely there to shock and provoke. They're just there to get us to laugh at the mannish lady dressing like a lady. The season premiere did such interesting things with Beiste and with how the initial reaction to her proved to be unwarranted that I hoped the show wouldn't continue to fall back on these easy gags, yet in every episode where she plays a major part, her unattractiveness or her masculine nature or her freakishness are played up to the hilt before the show wags a finger at us about how we're wrong to laugh. Glee can be a wonderfully tolerant show at times, even when it's being a weird show, but its treatment of this storyline is downright schizophrenic.
One of the things I've liked about Falchuk all this time is that he's the most consistent of the Glee writers. Ian Brennan's best episodes are the kind of Glee I wish I could watch week to week, but he has a distressing tendency to ditch nuance and go for the sap. Ryan Murphy's best episodes are the funniest episodes Glee produces, but he has little ability to keep his eye on anything coherent when there's crazy fun to be had. Falchuk has just made his name at blending these two approaches and amping up the "very special episode" stuff, to the tune of episodes that rarely go above a B+ but are usually reliably entertaining. Unfortunately, he probably bit off more than he could chew with "Never Been Kissed," and the episode fails on almost every level. There are fun musical numbers, and I admire the attempt to tell these kinds of stories, but "Never Been Kissed" is a miss on almost every level.
- I really enjoyed this piece by Matt Zoller Seitz, if only because he defends "Grilled Cheesus" in even greater terms than I would but also because his vision of what the show COULD be is so terrific.
- Next week, we get to see if the combination of Ian Brennan and Gwyneth Paltrow can somehow save the show. But wait! Is that Terri I see on the horizon? Blurgh.
- I would totally watch a show where Puck, Artie, Santana, and Brittany lived in some kind of freaky, common-law sex thing.
- "How are we supposed to compete against a bunch of adorable old people?"
- "You, like everyone else at this school, are too quick to let homophobia slide. And your lesson plans are boring and repetitive."
- "I'm gonna have to go straight to the wound care center. I'm gonna have to stare at some wounds."
- "Oh, man. Now I'm picturing the two of them making out during an episode of Who's the Boss."
- "Best community servicer ever, right?"
- "I don't pay for food! It's my thing, yo!"
- "They kept taking my waffles."
- "Totally. You're nougat-y."