I'm of two minds about "The Power of Madonna." On the one hand, the musical numbers, particularly a couple, are among the best things the show has ever done. They're elaborately staged, impeccably choreographed and nicely directed and produced. It's safe to say that there's nothing quite like them on any other show, and they automatically raise the bar for what the show is capable of. It also helps that they're a large portion of the episode, so, really, they take the pressure off the rest of the episode to be about anything other than singing and dancing and having a good time. The musical numbers are often the best thing about Glee (next to Sue Sylvester), and it's great to have so many incredible ones stacked up right next to each other.
On the other hand, just about everything else around them gets short shrift. Glee has made a conscious choice to give us way more songs in the last nine episodes of its first season, and while that's promising in the sense that it's fun to watch this show try to top itself (and usually succeed), it means that a lot of the complicated tonal balancing from the first half of the season goes out the window. Last week, the number of songs was all right, simply because so many of the songs pushed the narrative forward in one way or another. The characters were singing about things that were deeply personal to them, and the themes and story were moving forward, even if they were moving forward in typically abrupt Glee fashion.
This week, though, I can't say that every number here added anything to the storyline. It certainly didn't help that the storyline itself - something about the girls of the glee club prompting Will to ask everyone to prepare a Madonna number so the ladies can have more confidence or something equally specious - was so weak. Sure, a number like "Four Minutes" was just terrific to watch, but I don't know that it accomplished anything in terms of pushing the characters forward. I suppose it could be argued that this is our introduction to Kurt and Mercedes as Cheerios, but that's such a jarring sight that it requires the follow-up scene where they explain to Will just what it is they're doing. It leaves the previous number as a fun highlight that, nonetheless, feels empty emotionally.
Another good example here is the "Vogue" number, which Fox has sadly run into the ground. (When I first saw it a few weeks ago, my wife and I had to pull up the YouTube of the original video to compare just how thoroughly the producers had paid homage - or ripped off, if you're feeling less charitable - to the original.) It's a very, very fun scene, and it's good for a great rolling ball of laughter that comes to dominate the scene, but it doesn't really accomplish anything insofar as pushing the story forward or explaining anything to us (even facetiously) about Sue Sylvester. It's funny, sure, and in an episode with more narrative-focused numbers, it could have been a great bit of comic relief, but, again, it feels empty.
I don't object to artist-specific episodes. I'd love to see an episode centered on The Beatles or Bruce Springsteen or, hell, Justin Timberlake. It makes total sense to me that Will would assign the kids to work up a number based around a certain artist. I don't even object to a Madonna-centric episode, even though I realized in the course of watching this episode how few Madonna songs I actually knew (thanks to a rather comical series of events I promise I'll tell you about sometime). I don't even object to a Madonna-centric episode that takes as its theme female empowerment. And, look, I know that Glee has never been subtle. But I need something more than Will saying, "You girls aren't feeling good about yourselves. Let's sing Madonna songs!" as a basis for this episode. It was clearly just an excuse to do a bunch of Madonna numbers, and that means you like the episode about as much as you like Madonna. If you're mostly unfamiliar, like me, much of it leaves you kind of baffled.
What's too bad about all of this is that the core of a very good episode was in there somewhere. The triplicate stories of Rachel, Emma and Finn all worrying about losing their virginities could have provided some great parallels for the show to play with, and it showed this all off during the "Like a Virgin" number, which might be one of the best mixtures of song and story development the series has yet come up with. It's a fun, kinda sexy number that allows for the show to play around with the fantasy of the first time - how it seems like it will be all song and dance - and the reality of it, which is something much more frightening indeed. It's the latest from the show's new direction of looking at its characters as both characters who exist in a fantasy world and a real one, and it's a good use of that motif.
I get that the songs are the show's franchise. I get that the show only succeeds insofar as its songs create water cooler buzz. But I also think that drowning the show with more songs than it knows what to do with (there are something like nine of them in this episode, and most of them are useless) will eventually rob the songs of some of their power and uniqueness. And I'd imagine that will happen sooner, rather than later. I still rather enjoyed this episode, but I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't have been better if it took a little more time developing the story and a little less time coming up with songs. Again, I get that telling a story through song is hard on a series where the songs have to be locked into place before the scripts are finalized. I also get that this is a problem the series struggled with in its earliest episodes before it better figured out how to blend the singing with the sentiment in the later episodes. So it's possible that this will sort itself out. But, at the same time, I'm not entirely sure that will be the case. More songs means less time for story, and Glee needs all the time for story it can find.
"The Power of Madonna" arrives with a ton of hype and plenty of pre-acclaim and pre-buzz (not least of which from Lea Michele herself, who chirped it was the best hour of TV she'd ever seen in Entertainment Weekly). It's almost certainly the kind of episode that people who like Glee will like. But if you have a more uneasy relationship with the show - if you think that it's good but not great, though it has the elements of a great show buried within it - as I do, it's an episode that's fitfully entertaining but never as good as it could or should be. I want Glee to be a show I enjoy week to week. It has been a show I enjoy week to week. But episodes like this one make me worry it's heading in a direction that will bring it mainstream success but choke out what unique spirit the show had in the first place.
- Is it just me or does the Sue Sylvester storyline in this episode kinda come out of nowhere? I get that it's just to give her something to do (remember how we all complained when she wasn't in an episode back in the fall?), but it also doesn't really make, y'know, sense.
- On the other hand, Lea Michele's choked delivery of "No!" after Jesse challenged Finn to a sing-off? Gold.
- Look, I know that she's a 15-16 year old girl and that she's in good shape and all of that, but it really does seem like Quinn should be showing just a LITTLE bit at this point. I get that the show doesn't want to have Dianna Agron dancing in a pregnancy pad in the musical sequences, but I could see them sacrificing that for the more fantastical scenes in favor of having her in one for the more realistic scenes.
- I know some of you are going to complain about that out-of-nowhere gospel choir, but, hell, I dug it. The more the show makes the musical numbers obviously unrealistic - what the characters FEEL like while performing - the more I like them.
- "Simply saying the word aloud makes me feel powerful. Even in voiceover!"
- "Let's just say that hypothetically, we went to a Wiggles concert last Friday night."
- "Sloppy freakshow babies!"
- "When I pulled my hamstring, I went to a misogynist."
- "Simply put, you have all the sensuality of one of those pandas down at the zoo who refuse to mate."
- "Mercedes is black. I'm gay. We make culture."
- "Just come out so we can talk. Or sing about it."
- "Future center square Kurt Hummel there and his brassy hag Mercedes just tore that Madonna song a new one."
- "I've decided to add vocals to my already wildly overproduced Cheerios numbers."
- "Sing-off. The parking lot. 5 p.m. Be there." "No!"