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Glee: "Original Song"

Of all of the many, many criticisms the Glee haters level at Glee, the one that’s always made the least sense to me is the idea that the show is somehow a failure for using covers of big hit songs, rather than coming up with its own songs or at least fascinating arrangements of those big hit songs. For starters, this wouldn’t fit within the show’s own reality—just how many high school show choir do YOU know that constantly come up with cool arrangements or write their own music?—but it also would probably make for a terrible show. And I get the people arguing in this fashion are mostly arguing against the show’s domination of the pop charts with songs that are the most blatant of copies, and that’s fine. But writing original songs on a TV schedule is probably impossible. When Cop Rock tried it, it eventually descended into lots and lots of sequences where the characters pretty much just sang descriptions of what was going on onscreen, like the worst DVD commentary ever. There’s just not the time necessary to write pop hits on that TV schedule.

I’d also argue that it doesn’t really fit with how people experience music. If Glee is nothing else, it’s a celebration of the ways that people use music in their lives to stand in for their emotions. Put on a happy song when you want to be even more happy. Put on a sad song when you need to wallow. And so on. Glee matches pop songs to emotional moments in an attempt to make those moments somehow MORE than they normally would be, in the same vein as I used to go into my room as a teenager and put on “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” when I wanted to protest just how UNFAIR the world was. From a plot standpoint, it mostly makes sense that the kids exclusively sing songs that come from other sources, since no show choir would be writing original songs. From an emotional standpoint, it does too, simply because everybody in the world has used a pre-existing song to express something they can’t say themselves at some point in their lives. 

“Original Song” has been teased in one way or another for almost a year now. (I first heard about it at last year’s Paleyfest panel for the show.) The show itself first brought up the concept a few episodes ago, when Rachel decided that the best way for New Directions to stand out at regionals would be to, well, perform some original songs. We’ve dropped in on her efforts a few times since, including in the genuinely very funny scene where she performed the first fruit of her efforts, “My Headband.” Almost all of the focus in “Original Song,” then, is going to BE on the original songs, and the episode was crowded with them, from pure joke songs—“Trouty Mouth”—to songs that seemed to acknowledge that the show has lost control of its ensemble this season—“Hell To The No”—to the songs the group won at regionals with. And none of these songs was exquisitely bad, particularly in the show’s universe. I didn’t like “Trouty Mouth” at all, but the others worked well enough for what they wanted to do, and “Big Ass Heart” was actually kind of a toe-tapper. The songs performed at regionals didn’t sound substantially different from the normal pop hit covers the kids perform on the show, which suggests the purpose of these numbers is less about working within the show and more about feeding the great Glee merchandising machine (finally, the show can get some songs on the mainstream radio!). Hell, the performance of “Loser Like Me” (or whatever it was called) seemed aimed less at the regionals crowd and more at future people who will attend the series’ touring show.

But the original songs weren’t bad. They didn’t distract from what was going on, and they more or less served their various functions within the plot. The first song Rachel sang at regionals, in fact, was a nicely done little ballad, the sort of song you could both see someone like Rachel writing and later belting. Am I, myself, going to download any of this music? Nah. But the show did well by coming up with songs that sound enough like their normal numbers to not stand out egregiously (there was no, say, Broadway pastiche) while still seeming like songs that could plausibly come from the pens of teenagers. Yes, it was completely ridiculous that the kids wrote these songs based on throwing out names of their favorite songs and poring through rhyming dictionaries—the songwriting scene in School Of Rock was more realistic, in fact, and that featured third-graders composing a genuinely enjoyable pop song in an afternoon—but as a story arc, this all worked well enough.

It just would have worked better played out over five or six episodes. Imagine that the events of this episode were played out over the last handful of episodes. Just imagine it for a moment. I get that there were some very good—“Silly Love Songs”—to pretty good—“Sexy”—episodes in that run, but let’s assume all of that gets tossed aside in favor of this. (Or, if we must, let’s assume some of those story developments are kept around to feed into what the show is trying to do.) I’ve argued in favor of Glee’s ridiculousness and inconsistencies before, saying that the show doesn’t need to be a dark, serialized drama to work (though I still want to see that version of the show at some point), but this was an arc that had so much meat to it that it could have pulled off at least three interesting episodes, if not more. Yes, the kids of New Directions can do anything they set their minds to, but they don’t really seem to STRUGGLE anymore, not like they did when the show was new. An arc about them coming up against an entirely new problem like this one could have been a good one. Hell, it would have even given Will something to do, as he realized that, yeah, asking teenagers to just write songs might not have been the best idea in the world before realizing his kids can do anything, then beaming at them beatifically from Heaven. (Oh, in my version of this arc, Will dies in an elephant stampede.)

It’s tough for me to write about “Original Song” because I liked a lot of it. I liked many of the performances. I liked many of the scenes. I liked many of the character moments. Hell, I liked the brief return of my favorite Glee of them all, the deeply sad show about small-town Midwesterners with big dreams who’ve begun to realize this just might be IT. The only scenes I outright DISliked were all in the closing act, when the judges’ debate was a pale ripoff of the same scene from last season, Sue punched someone because the show realized she hadn’t done anything for a while, and Rachel was given an award just for being herself. Plus, it was a competition episode, and those are generally good (with last year’s “Journey” remaining one of my favorites in the series, with what’s still my favorite performance and the greatest thing the show has ever done in “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Plus, scanning the reactions of people I usually agree with on various TV blogs and on Twitter, I find they all generally liked it. So I should love this, right?

Despite all of this, I find that even though I liked a lot of the pieces, I just didn’t like the whole nearly as much. Theoretically, a scene like Quinn pushing Rachel to write a great song by talking about how someday, she and Finn will be married and stuck in Lima, while Rachel will be off doing her own thing should be right in my sweet spot. And it was! Similarly, the fact that the Blaine and Kurt relationship got off the will-they/won’t-they fence and just had the two kiss already should have worked for me. And it mostly did! (I didn’t like that the show had Kurt sing “Blackbird,” one of the most delicate and sweet songs in the Beatles canon, to a literal bird, no matter what other emotions and subtext it was meant to express.) So much of “Original Song” should have been right in my comfort zone that it should have worked for me, considering that I didn’t hate the original songs and, indeed, liked a couple of the performances of them. And, indeed, I’m giving the episode a passing grade, even if I didn’t think the whole worked nearly as well as the parts.

Part of it might have been the series’ brief return to its season one roots. Almost everything in the episode felt like it was a retread of something season one had done better. That judges’ scene, for instance, was a pale retread of the original, only this time, it had Kathy Griffin and Loretta Devine, as well as a bunch of tired Tea Party gags that were tired when this episode was written. There are only so many ways to do a competition scene as well, and despite the show’s best efforts, there was no real attachment to Aural Intensity, since Sue’s coaching there always felt like a random plot device. And despite the best efforts of the show, the Warblers of Dalton Academy haven’t felt like a real threat either, because they seem to consist of Blaine and a bunch of back-up singers (though at least the show made a pretty solid joke about this tonight). This left the competition scenes feeling like rehashes as well, where higher personal stakes might have helped. Plus, there were all kinds of weird season one touches around the edges, like the return of the narration for no reason, or the fact that Quinn is back to her status-obsessed self. (I really wish the show would pick a version of this character and write her that way.)

And this is the cost of inconsistency. Inconsistency is a lot of fun in the moment, but when you try to make things add up, it just hurts the show. And so you have a fun, exciting episode like “Original Song,” but it also feels curiously hollow, as though the show made a chocolate cast of “Sectionals” and keeps breaking it out, even though it’s more and more picked over and melted down. TV shows, like everything else, rely on a kind of faith bestowed on them by the people who watch them. And at this point, I just may have lost my faith in Glee. I can appreciate the show’s pleasures, and I enjoy the good episodes when they come along, but I have absolutely no faith that anything that was raised in “Original Song” will be brought up again until the next competition episode. The competition episodes have always existed in another show entirely, a show where there’s stronger plot development and the themes are closer to those expressed in the pilot, but the show that surrounds them is starting to gobble them whole. There’s plenty to like or even love in “Original Song,” but there’s very little sense that it will matter in the end.

Stray observations:

  • Other performances: I liked the Warblers’ performance of that Pink song (indeed, it was the first time I’ve been able to listen to the full thing). And even though the circumstances of it were odd, I thought Chris Colfer acquitted himself nicely on “Blackbird.” This episode felt jam-packed with music, in a very odd way. Again, spreading some of these developments out over even two episodes might have made it feel less rushed. I can see a very good two-parter that builds up the songwriting process AND the interpersonal stuff in part one, with us certain that New Directions will fail at the end of that hour, then turns regionals into a full, hourlong thing in the second episode.
  • While we’re talking about rehashing things, what was in that Santana and Brittany scene early in the hour that wasn’t already covered last week? I know TV shows need to repeat themselves, to some degree, but is there a more rabid fanbase than this show’s? They’ve probably started a million “Brittany and Santana are the best!” Tumblrs already.
  • It’s nice that the show gave Mercedes something to do, since she’s utterly ceased to be even a bit character this season, but did they have to reference the tater tots subplot (the only one she’s gotten all season) again?
  • All right. NOW where’s Vocal Adrenaline? One of the things that’s rubbed me the wrong way is that the show can’t even bother to keep its villains consistent. Last season, you generally knew where you stood, with Sue, then Vocal Adrenaline, trying to stop New Directions. Now, after spending much of the premiere setting up a rival for Rachel, the show has apparently just forgotten the other choir exists, unless they somehow moved to another region and are already on the way to nationals. My head hurts.
  • I like to imagine the people sitting in the audience during that “Loser” number New Directions performed, utterly baffled as to why the group was throwing confetti at them out of Slushie cups.
  • Stating the obvious: Kurt turns to Blaine. “MY GOD. They’re doing original songs.”
  • Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: I thought all of the ladies looked quite fetching tonight. Something about those hideous show choir dresses was hideous in all the right ways. Also, have you ever noticed that Dianna Agron looks ten times hotter in the little interstitials Fox uses to promote the show than she does ON the show? No idea why.
  • "Your solos are breathtaking. They're also numerous."
  • "Mr. Schu, we're not doing a song at regionals called 'Trouty Mouth.'"
  • "What's your favorite song of all time?" "'My Headband.’"
Filed Under: TV, Glee

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