I’ve been watching a lot of Smash lately because I have to stay up late to make sure I’m awake to write up the network upfronts, and if anything, that show’s utter, drab clumsiness makes me appreciate Glee a lot more. Smash is certainly a more competent show than Glee in almost every way. It looks like we expect television to look, and it has recognizable character arcs (even if the characters within them don’t behave like any human beings to ever have lived). It follows a plot from beginning to end without taking a bunch of weird detours, and it knows the value of using a musical number as something more than a way to prop up the show’s budget with iTunes sales. (Seriously, Rachel had to sing a song to psych herself up to call Carmen tonight? What?) It’s a very disappointing TV show, but it looks and acts like a TV show that’s been somewhat cognizant of the advances made in serialized storytelling these last 30 years.
But it’s not Glee. Everybody wants it to be the “adult Glee,” but it just can’t hack it. After some solid episodes near the start and a couple of randomly good hours in the middle of the run, the show was just a bland, boring mess, a show that had literally no idea what its audience thought about it at any given time and often seemed to race in the exact opposite direction of what the audience wants. Glee is a little like a hyperactive puppy in regard to giving the audience what it wants, and it burns through story like a comic book supervillain burning through wads of cash to bankrupt a small Central American country, but there are times when the show is incandescent, even now, in a season that’s been unbelievably messy (as even its greatest defenders will allow). Glee is always in pursuit of the perfect moment, the perfect storyline, the perfect gag, and if that means it falls on its face more than just about any other show on TV, well, it also means that it can sometimes string together enough of those moments to make an episode that’s like nothing else on TV. Smash could never be Glee for adults because it was too afraid to fail and, therefore, failed all of the time. And tonight's episodes of Glee proved that abundantly.
But we will get to that. First, though, let’s talk about body swaps.
The second I heard about Glee’s body swap episode—the first episode in tonight’s two-hour extravaganza—I assumed my friend was joking about it. “No,” he said. “It’s real.” And he linked to a news report that explained how Tina would hit her head and come to see herself as Rachel, and everybody else in the cast would swap roles as well. I had fears that the entire episode would be dominated by this device—which could have quickly grown tiresome—or that it would just be a five-second gag—which would have been a lot of hype for nothing. Instead, the show splits the difference and spends about five-to-10 minutes having everybody swap lives before it gets back to the business of whatever it has to do. The episode’s an Ian Brennan special—he both wrote and directed—and it plays well to his strengths of acid comedy and sad stories of small-town teenagers who’ll never get anything but to sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream. But the body swap thing ends up just feeling like a totally odd curiosity that comes out of nowhere. Seriously. I’m not sure what it’s meant to accomplish, other than being the sort of thing people who work on a time-intensive TV show come up with late in the third season, when they all want to either take a nap or murder each other.
I get that it’s meant to show Tina what Rachel’s life is like—ostensibly the point of this whole storyline—but the show’s really been layering on the “Rachel’s life is so tough, and now, she’s not gonna get to go to NYADA!” storylines a little thickly lately. Therefore, the body swap isn’t nearly as successful at accomplishing this as Rachel and Tina’s later car trip together to see if Rachel can irritate Carmen into letting her attend NYADA. (Surprise! It nearly works!) A cursory glance at Twitter suggests lots of people found the very idea of this storyline—that Tina would eventually realize that her role was to stand in support of Rachel (at least for the time being)—utterly abhorrent, but I found it sort of fascinating. Most of us are going to be supporting players, but all of us think we deserve the solos. (He said, totally thinking he should get all of the solos.) Glee has danced around this from time to time, but it’s never come right out and confronted it as it does in this episode. Tina will get her chance, but she has to pay her dues first. Paying your dues is a frustrating thing, to be sure, but it’s also a necessary thing. This is a blatant attempt to ret-con Tina’s utter lack of involvement in the show… ever, but so long as the show follows through on giving her more to do next year, it could be a successful one. (It also gets bonus points for that utterly amazing “previously on Glee” segment that pointed out how little she’s gotten to do, as well as the meta-level awareness that her little speech about paying dues sounded like Ryan Murphy and company’s warnings to the actors to best not step out of line.)
The rest of the episode had the same problems this whole season has had with bizarre tonal shifts that are off, even for this show, and with storylines that get started, then utterly disappear for half the show before returning at the end. (Even the Rachel and Tina storyline fell into this category.) The body swap—which was sort of amusing, I guess—gets in the way of the show’s attempts to pick up some of the threads from “Choke,” namely Puck’s fears of not graduating and Beiste’s domestic abuse at the hands of her husband (which has escalated to the point that she sleeps with a knife under her pillow!). Both of these storylines worked better than they did in “Choke.” In the case of the Puck storyline, the show quietly acknowledged just how different the Puck we see today is from the Puck who was in the pilot, and those sorts of character journey bits are appropriate for a show where most of the characters are about to graduate.
The Beiste stuff was, naturally, more problematic, but I think it worked better because Brennan allows her to be her own character, not just an accessory to someone else’s storyline. We actually get a glimpse into her marriage (outside of a montage), and the show gives us a chance to feel pity and revulsion toward Cooter, something that “Choke” was sorely missing, since he was just a cartoon monster in that episode. Where “Choke” felt like an after-school special, this version of the storyline was filled with raw, bruised hurt. Beiste’s students are hurt that she hasn’t left her husband, that sometimes, adults disappoint us with their actions. She’s hurt by what Cooter’s made her. He’s even a little hurt by how terrible he’s been to her. The scenes still feel dropped in from another show entirely, but they’re at least better conceived. Plus, they don’t clash nearly as much with the other storylines, and the fact that both Puck and Beiste’s storylines resolve at the same time in the same scene is a nice piece of writing, with some strong acting. (I probably could have done without the two of them singing “Mean” together, though.)
“Props” is a big ol’ mess of an episode, but it’s one I feel charitable toward because it makes the emotional moments count. Tina and Rachel smooth over their relationship. Sue gets to wear some Schu hair gel. Puck and Beiste have a moment together. Beiste leaves without killing Cooter (or without being hurt further). Puck will get a second chance. The episode largely works because that final act works as well as it does, but the final act is solid enough to bump it up a few grade points. It’s not Glee at its finest, but it’s a solid example of many of the things the series has done well in its third season (including some nice Sue moments, as the show has randomly realized how to use her again, even as everything else is falling apart). The bad was there, but the good was what I remembered, and that’s what I most ask from Glee at this point.
It was all prologue, though, to “Nationals,” one of the finest episodes the show’s ever done and perhaps the best it’s done since the season one finale. (The only one I can see that might trip up this theory is season two’s terrific “Duets.”) Again, there was stuff here that was mediocre-to-awful, but it’s so minimal that I can probably dispatch with it in two sentences. Observe: The scene with the judges at nationals wasn’t very good, and it relied far too heavily on the comedy stylings of Lindsay Lohan and Perez Hilton (two people whose comedy stylings should never be relied upon), even as it returned to a device the show had seemingly abandoned because it realized how uninteresting it was. And having the big montage, in which the characters are greeted joyously by the other McKinleyites in the wake of their triumph, be interrupted by Emma throwing herself at Will was… um… a little too creepy, at best, and possibly reducing serious psychological issues as something to be minimized if you want to give your fiancé something nice when his show choir wins nationals at worst.
But the rest of the episode was awesome. (The script was credited to the great Ali Adler, and it was directed by Eric Stoltz, I should point out here.) It was all of the best of Glee with little of the worst, like another visit from that alternate universe Glee I keep harping about in these reviews. The show had to deal with a foregone conclusion in the fact that it was obvious New Directions was going to win—so the show choir can undergo the inevitable rebuilding phase next season—but it found a nice way to work within that inevitability: It showed what the kids did to really earn their championship. The show so easily forgets that this is a competitive show choir in the week-to-week episodes that it’s nice to see an episode that shows us the kids working their asses off for something, then nailing a triumphant performance of Jim Steinman songs. (“Paradise By The Dashboard Light” was one of the better New Directions group performances, though I’m not sure I’d put it on the level of the show’s best numbers. It was close, though!) I could quibble that Vocal Adrenaline had stronger choreography overall, or that I found Unique a more engaging performer than Rachel (perhaps because I don’t have to watch her every week), but New Directions also used its whole ensemble better than Vocal Adrenaline did, and for once, either outcome seemed reasonable to me.
The show often does its best in the competition episodes because the competitions force the series to focus on one thing and put all of the characters in one place at the same time. This is a show that can be lethal when it gets its teeth into something, even in its overburdened, logy, third-season state, and the competition episodes are all about the show sinking its teeth into a storyline and refusing to let go. Plus, it allows the show to be much more purely about the thrill of performance, about the moment when you’re a senior in high school, and the curtain comes up, and you absolutely nail it. There’s nothing like that, because there’s always that abyss of uncertainty on the other side. Even when you’re an adult and have a good day, it won’t quite be like that, because adulthood is a constant tightrope walk across that abyss. But being a teenager and having a good day… man, there’s nothing quite like that. The performance segments for both show choirs here capture that emotion perfectly, that feeling of elation, followed by the cut to black that is everything that comes after.
I said at some point in this show’s first season that what I liked about it most was the feeling that it was all swirling chaos, and then the title screen was just simple white letters against the darkness of a pure black background. It was the simplicity and terror of wanting something so much and realizing you might not get it, juxtaposed with the swirl of emotion that is adolescence. The show’s adolescent swirl has gotten more and more confusing and complex, but it’s never lost that simple, blank title screen, with its silent solemnity. The third season has been a colossal mess in some ways, but it’s worked almost perfectly every time it turns its eye toward the emotion of what it is to not know what comes next. Rachel even says it in that first hour. Some of them are just going to get stuck, and she’s terrified of that, of settling for whatever is just good enough to keep her from wanting to kill herself. The actual plotting of this—particularly in Finn’s arc—has been very, very wonky, but that almost doesn’t matter when confronted with the fact that these are all people who are very good friends, who love each other very much, and in just a few days, they’re going to wake up, and they won’t all be there anymore. Noise and color and excitement and then… just black.
And whatever comes next.
- We have achieved GLEE RUMMY, people. We have achieved GLEE RUMMY. What a momentous day for all of us! I didn’t think we’d ever get here, but I couldn’t have done it without all of you and without my blatant rigging of the grade scales to get us that C- a couple of weeks ago.
- I’m starting to think that “here’s what you missed on Glee” guy is my favorite character. Apparently, that’s Ian Brennan himself. He always makes me laugh.
- The body swap thing was very bizarre, as mentioned, but I was vaguely impressed by how on Jenna Ushkowitz’s Lea Michele impression was. Matthew Morrison mostly seemed to think Sue Sylvester would require a lot of glowering, but Jane Lynch nailed most of the Will Schuester gestures as well.
- I really did enjoy when Mercedes was all, “Hey, Unique, have you considered becoming a series regular next season?” and then Unique was, like, “Oh, no, I hadn’t, but I’ll definitely put some thought into that. Thanks!”
- I also liked the Starlight Express shout-out. What a bonkers musical that one is!
- Okay, I really didn’t like all of the characters referring to Unique as he/she or him/her. It was minor enough that it didn’t upend my enjoyment of either episode, but the show is either going to be trans-friendly, or it’s going to make the easiest possible jokes you can make about trans-people. And it can’t use the excuse that Sue was the only one making the jokes, either, since others did as well.
- Fox’s rampant abuse of the Twitter hashtag thing was much less awful this week, but they still tried to make “#porcelina” and “#LiLoAlert” happen. I feel like the network needs to be whacked across the nose with a newspaper at length.
- I can’t believe New Directions didn’t take smiley-face guitar guy to Nationals. Also, that bus looked really full for the glee club being so unpopular. I didn’t realize it had so many members!
- I saw the confetti bombing at the end coming, but I still liked it. Nice work, Rick “The Stick.”
- Man, Quinn overcame her debilitating physical injuries quickly!
- Here’s a sign of how much I enjoyed that second episode: I found the final tribute to Schu kind of sweet, though I’m skeptical anyone in McKinley other than the members of New Directions knows who he is. Wouldn’t they just see him as a creepy guy, smiling and nodding at them from corners?
- Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: Almost all of the songs in the first hour are a blur to me now, but my wife really liked Tina’s rendition of that Celine Dion song. The big performances in the second episode were all aces.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: Hey, Jenna Ushkowitz really looks nice in bright, primary colors, doesn’t she? See what happens when you give her a storyline, Glee? And also make fun of how she now apparently dresses like she lives in London in the swingin’ 60s? Nice work!