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Glee: "Rumours"

(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)

We are not fucking around here. Musical theater is powerful stuff.

Oh, sure, it's easy to mock. Grinning idiots gyrating across a stage, supposedly spontaneous explosions into song, corniness so high it'll run you six, seven elephants stacked on top of each other staring unblinking into the spotlight. Gangs singing and snapping their fingers threateningly at each other. And these days, of course, costumed heroes fumbling through ill-conceived, muddled production numbers before flinging themselves into the back-breaking darkness. But forget that. Forget the cliches, forget Broadway's increasingly panicky grabs for attention, with its awful jukebox musicals and movies put on stage for No Damn Reason (Shrek? Really? I don't know who, but someone should be ashamed of themselves), and realize this is a singular art form which, at its best and most beautiful, is capable of transcending the limitations of space, that has access to passions both universal and immediate. Great musical theater can take hundreds or thousands of people and reduce them to tears with a single note. If it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you, but if it does, cynicism and irony and detachment can be swept away in a moment. This is primal stuff we're dealing with here. Elemental, intimate, bombastic, and glorious.

Musical theater works for me. And that's why I can't stand Glee.

I got this assignment after months of trying to figure out where I stood with this show, because I said that I could write an article delineating my problems with the series without turning it into an ad hominem attack on fans. I doubt that will make this any more enjoyable for those of you who love Glee, but as far as I can, I do get the appeal. Really, I wouldn't have so much to say about the show if I didn't find it fascinating in some awful way. There's something automatically gratifying when you hear a song you like covered by chipper, attractive young people, and while the auto-tune can be grotesque, the numbers still sound pretty and bright. It's poppy, it's colorful, and it dances around the edges of camp, full of the soap opera sexual dalliances and snarky one-liners that adults always seem to assume are a natural part of the high school experience. (Mine was considerably more puke green, and while teenagers were definitely sleeping around, I don't remember anyone being all that clever about it.) And infuriating as it is in the long-term, the show's ability to turn on a dime and pretend any old twist is reasonable or well-justified can be fun in the moment. Like, Sue Slyvester, as a character, dressed up as David Bowie going full Ziggy? Idiotic. But Jane Lynch in those clothes? I laughed.

"Rumours" works out fairly well for me, because it's got excellent examples of the show working well—most of the Brittany and Santana plot, the revelation about Sam's home life—and not so well—April Rhodes, the attempts to oust Will, Will's ridiculous "assignment" of the Fleetwood Mac album Rumours, basically anything with Will, really. It shows how the series works the best when it commits to an idea long enough to actually give it some emotional depth, instead of just randomly throwing something at the screen and then hoping a musical number will help make it all stick. I've read articles by critics who encourage the show to go crazier, who excuse the fantasy-land plotting by saying that this show is great at creating moments, and those moments are worth enduring the randomness. I can respect this perspective, but I don't share it. The wackier Glee gets, the more it focuses on sequences instead of stories, the faster it'll lose its appeal, because eventually, wackiness wears thin. Todd has said this is a show about sadness, but you need memory for sadness. At its worst, this is a show without memory, one that uses the immaturity and emotional upheaval of adolescence as an excuse to never grow up.

The storylines that worked tonight were rushed, but then, they always are. It's basic math, really. We had four or five different plots running around in a 43-minute show, and at least 10 minutes of that was taken up by musical numbers that failed to advance any of the stories. Which means that's only 33 minutes to play with, which means you've got, at best, seven minutes per storyline. And that's being conservative. There's nothing wrong with numbers that exist largely to express emotion, especially since Glee nearly always uses pre-existing songs, but if you're going to cut yourself down that tightly, you need to limit the number of plots you juggle in an episode. As it is, Will's journey from meeting April, to writing songs for April, to performing those songs with April at some sort of bizarre dress rehearsal (I know I'm not supposed to question the logic of all this, but that was bizarre), to being tempted to run away to Broadway (!!!), to deciding he has to stay because of "the kids" was rendered even more ludicrous by the fact that it all happened in less time than it would take to listen to the first two tracks of the Fleetwood Mac album that gave this episode its name. There's no reason for any of the Will story to be there, beyond some need to give him something to do and allow Matthew Morrison one more chance to go all teary while talking about "the kids." 

Which is a shame, because there were ideas worth exploring in both the Brittany/Santana and the Sam/everyone else stories. As far as I can tell, the show has been going back to the "Santana loves Brittany" well quite a lot, and that's smart, as it's an interesting relationship; Brittany's guileless goodwill contrasted against Santana's Machiavellian machinations works nicely, and it's one of the few pairings on the show that seems to have actual stakes for both parties. (Compare that with, say, Finn and Quinn, who I assume are a couple because we want to give Rachel a reason to pine?) The idea that Brittany won't be a couple with Santana unless she admits their love publicly makes just enough sense to make life difficult for both of them, and while Santana's performance of "Songbird" wasn't the most dynamic, it came off as unforced and sweet. And the episode handled the Artie/Brittany break-up quite well. 

As for Sam, I'm getting the impression that CHORD OVERSTREET hasn't had a lot to do this season, so it's swell that he finally gets some plot to chew on. Good plot, too. There's a lot of worry that he's somehow nailing both Quinn and Kurt, but it's all a big misunderstanding. Turns out Sam is living in a hotel with his family because his dad lost his job, and Kurt and Quinn were helping carry some of the load. Arguably the most affecting scene in the entire episode came when Finn and Rachel visited Sam in his new home, and he told them the details of what had happened, and everybody looked sad, until Finn brought in a guitar. It's not high art, but it worked, because for a brief moment, there were consequences, and there was a reminder that just because all this crazy junk is going on at school, there are real world problems that some of these kids have to deal with. All of them, really. Glee, to me, works best when it simultaneously manages to serve as an escape hatch for a bunch of confused and stressed out people, while at the same time never letting us completely forget that, when the song is over, these people are going to keep on being stressed out and confused. It works best when we're seeing for ourselves how important it is to have some kind of escape hatch when your life is a mess, and not when we're hearing Will explain for the umpteenth time how important everyone is to him. 

There's also the fact that Sam's big scene in his hotel room leads directly to the last musical number of the show, "Don't Stop," which Sam "presents," and ends with the whole club (plus Sam's little brother and sister) running around on stage, grinning and enjoying themselves. It sort of works, because for once, the number has some actual ballast behind it. It feels like the a small resolution of Sam's story, even though the only thing that really improved for him is that he got his guitar back, and he's not alone. Actually, not being alone isn't really an "only thing." Before "Don't Stop" starts, Will gives a speech about how he's not leaving the school or glee club behind, because the "group" is important to him, because of what they mean to each other. Maybe that's what bugs me about the show. Musical theater is powerful, and Glee throws it around casually, more often than not cheating in songs for no other reason than it might be fun to do a random Michael Jackson number. I don't care that they don't write their own music—in fact, given what we've seen, I think it would be pretty awful if they tried—but I do care that there's no respect for how much emotional impact even the most casually handled performance can inspire. Songs should be culminations of moments, not part of a checklist. Done properly, musical theater can bind the most disparate individuals into perfect harmony.

Okay, that's a bit much. But... well, this whole episode is supposed to get started because Sue has a new plan to break up the glee club and kick Will out of school: She opens up the school paper and encourages her student reporters to assume everything, verify nothing. So we get Brittany spreading rumors about Santana (inadvertently, I'm assuming; I thought her line about playing "for the other team" was too nasty to be in character, but they managed to come up with an explanation that made it work), and we get Finn and Rachel obsessing over just what the hell Quinn is doing spending so much time with Sam. The Fleetwood Mac album Rumours ties all this together with the most tenuous of threads, and by the end of the episode, we're supposed to believe that everyone is all friends again, having learned their lesson about being paranoid. Until whenever the show decides they need to be paranoid again, which they totally will be. I don't really buy it. I buy that everybody was cool with Sam and felt sorry for him, but I don't really buy these people as a unit, and I'm not sure I can at this point. This is a group of loosely considered stereotypes, who shift to fit the needs of whatever pop hits or ill-considered notions the writers decide they want to explore. Sometimes, the individuals find their voice, and it's great. But time and again, those voices will get lost to expedience, and they never really combine as well as they ought to.

Musical theater, however silly and forced it can be, helped me get through high school alive, along with my school's own version of glee club. We didn't always get along, but we were friends, and we cared about the shows and the performances. We wore cummerbunds on occasion, and I had to wear chaps once. And we had an actual, honest-to-god grown-up to teach us and hold us together and be responsible. So maybe that's why I don't like Glee. I can pretend it has something to do with theory (and it does, because I think a show like this desperately needs a center, and it doesn't have one) or principle (given the limited running time of each episode, a musical number can never exist simply to exist—it has to express something that matters, and that isn't always the case), but really, when you come down to it, I'm just annoyed because they took something that means a lot, and they kept all the surface and left all the soul. I should love this. I want to love it, and I envy those of you who do. But for me, it's just a lot of sound, a little fury, and of no real significance at all.

Stray Observations:

  • Yup, the grade is a B-, and yup, this doesn't sound like a B- review. Or maybe it does; I never know for sure. But in case there's any confusion: I'm not invested enough in Glee to be able to grade it well for people who are invested. I feel like this episode had some good moments, and that it was passable. I could see rating it higher or lower. But  "B-" is my standard "I don't want to piss off anybody, so I'll kind of annoy everybody" grade.
  • I would watch Fondue For Two. That Lord Tubbington is a star, dammit.
  • "The Muckraker motto: 'If I heard it, it's probably true or something.'"
  • "My all-white production of The Wiz was a disaster."
  • "Fooling around isn't cheating. It's just friends talking with their tongues super close."
  • Oh, my favorite number this week was "Never Going Back Again." Most of the guys playing guitars while Artie sang was a nifty visual, and I just like the song. 
  • "You know what I call an afternoon getting drunk? An afternoon."
  • "And I once became an Avon lady just to rob demented seniors."
  • Todd VanDerWerff will return next week, so if this review left you baffled and/or sore, I hope that helps.
Filed Under: TV, Glee

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