One of the things that I think has gotten a little underrated in conversations about what works on Glee is the fact that the show has built a fairly complex and consistent world in which it takes place. McKinley High doesn't feel like a real high school, but it feels like a consistent place, where all emotions are cranked up just a little bit past where they would be in real life. The show's large collection of recurring players adds to this sense, as does the sense of the school's various subcultures. None of this is horribly groundbreaking stuff, but I'm always a bit surprised by the way the show can break out a guest character or two, then turn the spotlight over to them, and have it make perfect sense. (Outside of that poor guy who was on the glee club last year, then DISAPPEARED.)
"Special Education," an episode title that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens in the episode proper, expands this sense of the show's world. Last season's sectionals competition consisted of two teams that were largely played for laughs, making the scene where Will comes in and reminds the kids how they were underdogs at last year's competition just a bit nonsensical. By making the Warblers the Others of Glee, the show has already started to build an alternative form of McKinley's public school shenanigans, and the Hipsters, while seemingly another fairly easy joke, actually perform well and seem like they deserve a better fate than just being consigned to a one-and-done scene. (I liked the way they seemed to have elderly person counterparts for every one of the Glee kids, and I hope the network greenlights a spinoff about them.) The show's sense of this corner of Ohio as a coherent place is surprisingly well-carried off, and I think it's able to get the series through some of its rougher patches.
I've always enjoyed the episodes of Glee where the choir goes to some sort of competition or another, but these episodes, along with the season premieres, increasingly feel like they take place in a completely different series than the one we usually watch. As I pontificated on at length last week, this doesn't terribly bother me, but it is bizarre to head from a show that doesn't terribly care about plot continuity to one that expects us to care about every single thing that happens on the series as if it matters. More specifically, the Will Schuester of these episodes is the Will of the pilot, not the formless character that's rapidly devolved into one of the least-defined lead characters on television of all of the other episodes. He's really into this glee thing, but he's also really into practicing what he preaches, into making sure that everybody feels included. There's a pretty great scene tonight where he takes himself to task for his own hypocrisy in front of the choir, and if the show had slowly been building to this, had been consciously aware of this as a story arc, it might have felt like a powerful culmination. Instead, it's just a nice little moment of meta-commentary from a show that at least seems to acknowledge it has some problems from time to time.
Brad Falchuk usually ends up with his name on the episodes that feature the competitions, and while semi-finale episodes like this one probably prompt quite a bit of attention from all three writer-producers, Falchuk's preference for the performances being things that actually happen and then spin off into fantasy acquits itself well in these sorts of episodes. (He's also very good at pulling together a bunch of story strands that don't seem to have anything to do with each other and making them work as a unit, somehow.) Even more happily, tonight's episode is directed by Paris Barclay, whose work on season one's "Wheels" saved a lot of moments that could have been far too maudlin in that episode. Barclay's the regular director over on In Treatment this season, a show that benefits from his fascination with blowing small moments up big, so I wasn't sure if he'd pop up on the roster again this season, but his touch gives this episode a weight it could easily be missing.
Because let's be honest. This is basically just a shot-for-shot remake of "Sectionals," in a lot of ways. Sure, the show has learned any number of lessons about how to build nice character moments between that episode and this one, but this is an episode that redoes that episode's "we're all sad as we get on the bus for sectionals, and the late fall leaves are swirling around" sequence for no apparent reason. Obviously, the episode is destined to be structurally similar to "Sectionals" just by virtue of having to incorporate a lengthy performance sequence in act four, but this episode copies so many elements from that episode that it feels like conscious mirroring in some ways. "Sectionals" remains one of the highlights of the series, from back when it felt like the show was really getting its feet under it and was turning into a sensation, so there are worse episodes to rip off, but the sense of deja vu is strong.
Two major ideas spin off everything else that happens in the episode, and they're both good ones, as they stem from the kind of choir wonkery that is always fun when the show tries it: Emma's challenged Will to highlight members of the choir other than Rachel and Finn, and Kurt's departure to Dalton requires the choir to find another new member to meet the minimum 12 member requirement for sectionals. The former plot ends up being more interesting than the latter, but they both at least make sense for a sometimes sad show about kids in a glee club in the middle of nowhere, which is what Glee is in its competition episodes (and almost never at all other times). The latter gets a fairly easy answer: Puck tries to recruit another football player, but they beat him up and lock him in a Port-a-Potty, so great is the stigma of not adhering to strict gender roles, for whatever reason. He's rescued by Lauren, the heavyset girl who's lurked around the edges of the show from the start. (She was in Sue's group of lovelorn students and was a wrestler, in addition to appearing as a side player in a number of other scenes.) He invites her to join the glee club, and after she coerces a little making out out of him, she's in. (This could be creepy, but it's somehow sweet, perhaps because Mark Salling and Ashley Fink have a nice, understated chemistry the show could do something with in the future.)
Lauren's attitude, which boils down to "Who cares? It's just show choir," is fun, but that plot's the side plot to everything else that's going on with the choir. Will realizes that he hasn't been using the club's members to the best of their abilities. He also realizes that the Hipsters and Warblers aren't going to be very good at the whole "dancing" thing, and he's got two terrific dancers in Mike Chang and Brittany. Also, Quinn and Sam won the duets competition, and that was a good episode, so the show decides it cares about this fact. Hence, Quinn, Sam, Mike, and Brittany are going to carry the performance, something that gives everyone in the choir one issue or another. Rachel, of course, makes the biggest stink, and Will eventually chews her out. And when the competition is on, well, everybody's happy to work together.
It's hard not to see this as meta-commentary on the show itself, which has largely turned into the Kurt Hummel and Friends series in the past few weeks. Where Will, Rachel, and Finn were the clear leads last season, with most of the supporting players getting showcase episodes here and there, the leads this season have ranged from Kurt to Britney Spears to the concept of duets. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the show boasts a strong ensemble and there's nothing wrong with tossing compelling storylines to assorted actors, but the show and its writers' elevation of Kurt to sainthood status has largely relegated many of the characters fans like to also-ran status. While tonight's episode features a Kurt subplot, it's nowhere near as prominent as it has been in other episodes, and the show returns ably to the idea of the glee club as a true ensemble, where individual issues are smoothed over in light of putting on the strongest show the kids possibly can. One of the things Glee best captures about doing performing arts in high school is that, yeah, the usual teenage emotions boil over (Rachel spends most of the episode being mad at Finn for having sex with Santana before they were dating, then lying to her about it), but those all get smoothed over in the face of performance, everybody's truest love.
When the show doesn't forget this fact, when it remains, at some level, a show about a bunch of kids who just love to sing and dance and maybe have wacky adventures on the side, it remains fundamentally strong, as it does tonight. When the show loses sight of that and floats off into the atmosphere to be about whatever the hell is on its creators' minds that week, it tends to fall apart because it doesn't have the courage to go as crazy as it would need to to justify the lack of character consistency. Glee is a wild, inconsistent mess of a show, one that wants to be both wildly entertaining and deeply meaningful, a blend that doesn't really make a lot of sense. But when the characters are entertaining each other as much as they are tonight and when the show doesn't forget that at its core, it's got a lot of sadness in it, the series works. Those last moments, the moments when it seems like nothing will work out, even though the kids are seeing great success, sell this idea, and sell it hard, making "Special Education" impossible for me not to like. In some ways, "Special Education" feels like a greatest hits album, but, man, the hits were a lot of fun, weren't they?
- No, seriously. The Warblers are the Others. They have the weird rituals, the strange hierarchy, and a canary that may as well be this show's Smoke Monster. Just wait until they slowly kidnap and turn every single one of the glee club members. (This also makes Sue Glee's John Locke.)
- The fact that the Warblers and New Directions tied, while probably necessary for whatever reason, is ridiculously anticlimactic and keeps this episode from an A- pretty much singlehandedly.
- Check the blonde extra in the scene where Kurt and Rachel sing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." He looks like he didn't get the note that this is a musical and is wondering why Kurt's singing half of a song to no one in particular. (Yes, yes, it's his audition, blah, blah.)
- Music thoughts: "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" was pretty good, if a little odd in some of its editing choices. All of the sectionals performances were a lot of fun, though I have little to no idea what the central theme of New Directions' set is supposed to be, other than "Quinn and Santana are good looking, and have you seen these kids dance?" And "Dog Days Are Over" is right in this show's wheelhouse, so, naturally, it hits the song out of the park. (Love the final tilt up to the lights in the bay, Barclay.)
- I liked Will's nervous little thumbs up to the idea of organ donation when the kids are waiting to learn the results of the competition. Matthew Morrison is so good when the show just lets him be, but it constantly has to toss inexplicable shit at him, hoping he can save it.
- In an alternate universe, there's a Glee where the show builds to sectionals, instead of having them drop on our heads, where we see the gang slowly pull together the numbers and set list, instead of making it just seem like the kids threw all of this together on the bus over. I don't want to give up this show for that show, but I want to SEE that show. Get on it, Whedon! You can add a super-powered teenage girl if it'll hold your interest!
- Lots of talk about how Glee "stole" the Hipsters joke from Community on my Twitter tonight. Technically, Glee made the Hipsters joke in an earlier episode, and given the vagaries of TV production schedules, this episode was probably already well into the pipeline before that Community episode aired anyway. It's not theft until Glee adds Musical Abed (though I'd like to see that).
- Also, why must Community and Glee always be in conflict? I get that they're basically the same show in some ways (ooh ... blog post), and Community is much, much, much, much, much better, but the two ultimately aim to provide very different experiences. They don't even share a timeslot or anything. Oh, right. Jeff Winger made fun of Glee, and we're all cool, just like him!
- Things I never thought I would care about that I now, for no real reason, do: Brittany and Artie's relationship, which has gone from bizarre plot point to genuinely sweet.
- Straight guys, talkin' 'bout Glee: I have no idea why Santana was wearing that hat thing, but it was great.
- Things I did not comment on, even though they were well-executed: The Will/Emma/Carl business. The Rocky Horror episode burned this particular storyline to the ground so thoroughly that it's going to take a LOT to make me care again. Furthermore, this used to be so prominent in the show's universe that you can't just return to it whenever you feel like it, as the show can with the Burt and Carol relationship.
- Also, Finn and Rachel broke up because she made out with Puck to make Finn mad. This was actually a pretty good episode for Rachel (her conversation with Kurt made her seem like an actual human being), but that was a stupid twist.
- I realize none of you trust my grades on this show anyway, but my grade next week should REALLY not be trusted. Christmas is my critical Kryptonite.
- "Have you been going through my desk?"
- "They're gonna dance in front of me while I sing my solo?"
- "I'm pretty sure there's some Eagles songs."
- "I know that I'm more talented than you. Britney Spears told me that."
- "If we lose, we should throw a possum."
- "Then I realized there was no way I could do that, so I changed it to just Jews."
- "And you let me comb my hair with it?"
- "I'm not nervous. You know why? ... Because show choir's stupid."