“Sweet Dreams” is that rare Glee lecture on following your dreams, trying to find your own path in the world, and leaning on friendship for support. Rachel’s auditioning for Fanny Brice on Broadway. Finn enrolled in college in March or so. Marley has been frantically writing songs ever since she needed a reason to live or something during the school non-shooting and her mother wasn’t enough. While there’s definitely some enjoyment to be had from the fact that these thematic left-overs worship originality, look how far Glee has to walk to repeat itself. It’s so difficult to contrive these fresh insights that Mr. Schu is suddenly a hard-ass, Finn goes through two months of college in a week, and Regionals is still at some vague point in the future with a spoilerishly few episodes left in the season for Nationals, as if competition schedules change so drastically based on how far Lima’s New Directions will go. In the end, that confused timeline is far more interesting than any of the putative ideas “Sweet Dreams” is peddling.
What first strikes me about “Sweet Dreams” is when Puck says, “Doing it with my best bud is a dream come true.” No, wait, I meant a line a little later in his big speech to Finn. He tells him that he wants to prove everybody wrong, all the people who told him he’d be pumping gas someday. Which is a curious expression, considering the first time the New Directions wrote an original song they came up with “Loser Like Me,” which features the lyrics, “I could be a superstar / I’ll see you when you wash my car.” The only reason I remember that pure-profit anthem with radio appeal is that it pretends to be about raising up the downtrodden and then veers into outright classism. But the real point here is that Marley’s “Outcast” is “Loser Like Me” all over again, minus the outright offense. For a season about moving forward, this one is stuck in the past.
Ever since the sudden flashbacks in “The Break Up” proved so moving, season four has been repeating the formula, but nothing has achieved the same effect. On the bright side, Glee is a lot safer playing with its own iconography that that of the latest newspaper. In “Sweet Dreams,” Rachel sings “Don’t Stop Believin’” at her audition. Talk about icons. In every incarnation of Glee’s fight song, Rachel has had a prominent role. This time, she changes it up, in part because she’s alone on-stage, in part because her accompaniment is different, and in part because she’s doing something new with the song. And then she imagines her friends there singing back-up, and it’s not a flashback to the pilot but a reenactment. I suspect the goal is to evoke warm fuzzies, but I was more excited by the weirdness of 2013 Kurt retreating back into his shell and Mercedes rocking her old hair and Artie randomly wheeling out half-way through. Like the climax of “Glease,” it’s not a nostalgic aww but an excited WTF.
Now, Rachel and Finn working together, that’s a full-blown nostalgic aww. That phone call, the two one-time romantic leads side-by-side (collapsed space to complement all the collapsed time in the episode) for the first time in months, is surprisingly powerful, because Glee has actually followed through on something and kept these two apart for so long. He inspires her, or rather tells her directly, which is the Glee version of inspiration, to pick a personal song for her audition. And that’s after Shelby shows up to tell her to do something original instead of a Barbra standard so that the show producers can feel like they found a new Fanny, not just a new Barbra. That blast from the past isn’t so electric, but they sing a nice rendition of “Next To Me.”
At the end of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Rachel and her friends stand in a row and step forward. The same thing happens at the end of “Outcast,” the glee club forming a row and walking downstage together, and that one has its own burst of historical weirdness. In part, the new New Directions are retreads of the old ones. Look no further than Puck and his bro, and the dreamy lead female. Brittany even calls Unique Mercedes in a hilarious bit of racism. But there’s also a character or two from every season in that line-up. Brittany and Artie and Tina, Sam and Blaine, Unique (are Joe and/or Sugar in hiding?), Marley and the new kids. It’s all of Glee’s history collapsed into one. “Sweet Dreams” is built around these trite themes, but underneath it’s the most temporally confused episode of the most temporally confused show since Doctor Who. All season long, Glee has been trying to work through its obligations to the past while moving forward. “Sweet Dreams” couldn’t betray more of that tension if it actually featured time-travel.
Unfortunately “Sweet Dreams” is also stuck in very recent history. I don’t know if it’s worse if Sue Sylvester was written out in that school-shooting clusterfather or if that festering plot is still running around haunting perfectly fine episodes, but the more “Sweet Dreams” bathes in “Shooting Star,” the more its fun curdles. For instance, Marley surveys her friends: Tina’s dressing steampunk now, and Sam’s pretending he has an Australian twin named Evan Evans in the funniest and shortly thereafter most overdone gag on the show. “Ever since that gun went off in school, everyone’s been acting strange. It’s like they’ve all got PTSD.” You think? By the time Will tells Finn something about how he’s trying to live for the day I had to pause for a minute because my eyeballs got stuck pointing inside my sockets. Best of all, all of Sue Sylvester is back except Jane Lynch, the one saving grace. NeNe Leakes navigating the Sylvester insuliloquy is like watching Glee navigate Newtown. She says the words and grasps none of it. Luckily, Blaine’s onto Becky, so instead of working with Sam to take Sue down (“Oh yeah,” say nine Glee writers in unison), he’s now trying to bring her back. Can’t we treat this like everything else and forget it ever happened?
- Finn’s college life is hilariously fast-paced, albeit a 20-cliche pile-up. I love when Finn gets to be bad. But boy is that weird partnership ultimatum asinine. He’s a college freshman getting class credit. Will is a championship-winning teacher who has been hired to educate.
- Puck tells Mr. Schu, “Technically I’m not enrolled. I’m just auditing a few classes.” “Do you even know what that means?” “Gotta go.”
- Which is worse, Mr. Schu telling Unique to “tone it down with the whole boob thing” or Mr. Schu making it up to her by saying she’s looking good?
- After Finn and Puck “save” a frat party with a little Beastie Boys, the frat guy thanks them. “You saved our house, its honor, and its position as top party house on campus.” “Well, Puck and I do have musical training.”