Glee is at its best when everything is executed so well that you don’t really stop to think about how none of it makes a lick of sense. In this elaborate, messy season of television, the story about what the kids will do after graduating is the one that’s been handled most capably. It’s a good spine to base a season around, and try though the show might, it hasn’t been able to fuck it up. Every time it heads for material about how these people have big dreams that they’re scared won’t come true, everything snaps into place, like a camera abruptly focusing on a far-off object. This has even held true in otherwise awful episodes, where one or two scenes about post-high-school plans would take a giant mess and reorient them. In short, this whole conundrum gives the series stakes, something it’s lacked since the first half of the first season. The show, of course, barely focuses on this, in favor of other stuff. But when it does, it’s easy to remember why we all loved Glee in the first place.
Take, for instance, an absolutely amazing scene in the second half of tonight’s episode, which is entitled, unfortunately, “Saturday Night Glee-ver.” (Yes, just typing it made me throw up.) Finn Hudson has realized that he doesn’t know what he wants to do after college. Rachel, Will, and Emma have tried to talk him into any number of possible options, and he’s smiled and laughed through their presentation, before chucking the materials he gave them in the garbage. Will confronts him about how he doesn’t care, and he unleashes a devastating attack on his teacher: He doesn’t know what he wants to do because what he wants to do is freeze time. He wants to stop everything in this moment and be young forever. Finn, uniquely aware of his status as future protagonist of a John Updike novel about the cruelty of aging, wants to bottle the feeling of being 18 and just keep taking long pulls from it. Will, who started a high school glee club just to run away from the phantoms of his own failed adulthood, gets a pained look on his face. He was afraid of this.
I talked in my review of the first season finale about how this show occasionally gets visitations from the alternate universe version of the show, the one that took a much smaller-scale approach to the show’s premise and remained basically Friday Night Lights crossed with Election—but with show tunes. What’s odd is that when this other version of the series drops by, it’s rarely all that awkward. It somehow fits alongside the other 16 variations of Glee. I think that’s because the pain of adolescence is universal. We all know what it was like to have that first serious relationship, to have a crush that just didn’t notice you, to worry about where you were going to go after graduation. The show is ruthlessly good at tapping into these emotions at the drop of a hat, so good that I wish it did it more often. Instead, the alternate Glee has mostly been missing for the past two seasons.
It returns with a vengeance in the second half of tonight’s episode.
The Finn scene is just the finest example. You’ve got the sheer joy of Unique (the drag persona of a boy named Wade who’s gained inspiration from Kurt and Mercedes, despite being a member of Vocal Adrenaline) performing “Boogie Shoes” and winning over the crowd at VA’s regionals competition. You’ve got a surprisingly sweet scene where Sue and Brittany outline the alternate future they’ve lined up for Santana—just in case. You’ve got the strange sadness of ”Stayin’ Alive,” which positions itself as a potential “last number ever” for the group, even though we know we’ve got seventy-billion episodes to go. It’s enough to make one realize that if Ryan Murphy had actually gone through with his plans to write some of these characters off the show, these scenes would have even more punch.
What’s interesting is that most of these scenes don’t make any sense whatsoever if you step back and think about them for a moment. How on Earth does Finn have this much cognizance of the emotions he will have when he’s 28 at the age of 18? How does Unique keep her appearance at regionals from everyone who would be able to stop her, despite all of VA almost certainly having to know what she’s about to do? How, in God’s name, does Sue somehow apply to college behind Santana’s back, without the girl even knowing she’s going to do so? None of it makes sense if you think about it. All of it strains credulity. All of it crumbles into ashes.
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. For instance, I don’t give two shits about Finn and Rachel as characters. Whether they get married is of no interest to me because I don’t think their pairing is all that interesting, and I’m pretty sure it’s a terrible idea. But I am interested in them as archetypes, as basic examples of the high-school boyfriend and high-school girlfriend who are about to be split apart by the simple fact that time passes, and you keep getting older. Finn doesn’t matter to me as a singer or a dancer or a quarterback or a guy who makes stupid faces, but he does matter to me as a very basic example of a guy I once was, somebody who was leaving home and struggling to hold on to friends I didn’t know I’d ever see again. The show’s two-for-two on episodes based on albums, instead of artists, now, and I think that’s because the idea of an album forces the series to focus in on a theme, rather than a general iconography. Saturday Night Fever is about having big dreams, so that’s where the episode goes. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Was there stupid stuff in the episode? Of course there was stupid stuff in the episode. This is Glee, where a scene could start with Puck going to buy a soda at a convenience store and end with him falling in love with a polar bear. For starters, there’s a bit where Sue Sylvester has a disco floor—just like in Saturday Night Fever!—that she tears down and brings into the choir room for no real reason. Also, we’ve got the blatant rigging of the contest to win the Travolta suit (that everybody’s weirdly excited about), so that only the students Will’s concerned about get to the finals. There’s a scene where Will tells the kids their assignment is to “perform a song from Saturday Night Fever and then tell us about your hopes and dreams,” which is just about the stupidest thing ever. There’s a whole bit about Mercedes’ performance of “Disco Inferno” getting uploaded to YouTube that both misunderstands the website and undercuts the show’s own reality about how its musical numbers occur. There’s a sex tape intercut with a cat doing household chores that—okay, that was pretty great and very amusing.
But all of this—and all of the weirdness listed earlier, about how the scenes don’t make any sense—is washed away by the fact that this episode nails the emotional moments, and the emotional moments should ring true with anyone who’s ever been a U.S. high-school student (and probably most high-school students in developed countries the world over). You can only be a kid so long. Eventually, you have to grow up and start pursuing the person you’re going to be as an adult. That scene with Finn and Will gets at that, via the character of Will, who’s often terrible but here resonates as a cautionary tale. He’s a guy who got stuck, and the last thing he wants is for the kid who reminds him so much of himself to get stuck as well. Finn and Rachel could be the next Will and Terri, if they don’t watch out, and that possibility haunts him.
TV writers have a term called “fridge logic.” The idea is that if something in the script doesn’t make sense, it’s okay if the viewer only notices it after the episode is over, when he’s going to pillage the fridge for a snack. I don’t think this is always the case—you can be pretty dazzling in the moment but be completely undone by the slow unraveling of the series’ fridge logic (this happens to a lot of genre shows)—but Glee is a show that can get away with a myriad of logical leaps if it just grounds everything. As I was watching the episode, I started out in a place where I sort of snidely didn’t buy what the episode was selling, but then, around the halfway point, the long string of solid musical numbers and that Finn-Will scene won me over. Then the episode started to floor me on a regular basis.
And then I did something I haven’t done with Glee in a long, long time. I went back and watched it again. I didn’t want to leave home either, once upon a time, but I did, and I moved far, far away, and I learned more about myself in the process. But there’s still a part of me that would go back and do it again, just to be young again, to realize that there’s so much still ahead of me. Glee somehow tapped into that reservoir, and it led to its most powerful episode in ages. If it can keep tapping, it might salvage this season yet.
- Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: Honestly, I quite enjoyed every single musical performance in this episode. I always enjoy the competition numbers, however, and “Boogie Shoes” is the unquestioned highlight here.
- Just tell us how the cameos were, VanDerWerff, God!: Jonathan Groff returns as Jesse St. James, and he’s mostly wasted, but he’s also not wandering around causing romantic strife for no particular reason. I have no idea, however, why the show brought on Neil Patrick Harris just to have him yell, “Jean jackets,” unless Harris is going around to every show on television and yelling one randomly chosen phrase on all of them, which I would support.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: As a renowned fan of both Naya Rivera and Heather Morris, this was a good episode for your humble columnist, but I think I was most impressed with the way Lea Michele seemed completely uninterested in whatever Cory Monteith was singing to her in that “More Than A Woman” number.
- Speaking of Heather Morris, I think there should be some sort of Heather Morris Dancing Quotient, which predicts how enjoyable an episode will be based solely on how often she dances.
- Sue Sylvester’s personality transplant is complete, but it looks like Jesse will be the one making fun of teenagers for shits and giggles now. I did like Sue calling Finn “Solomon Grundy,” though.
- I would so watch Lord Tubbington doing household chores. You wouldn’t even need to intercut a sex tape. I just want to see how he manipulates those dishes with his tiny paws!
- Let’s have a contest in comments, everybody! Whichever of you can perform the best number from Pet Sounds will win this vintage goat to feed carrots to! Get your confidence up, you guys! I know you can do it! (Goat may be imaginary.)