Here in its fifth episode, Glee has finally completed its transition to its third incarnation as a show. With most series, I’d be completely terrified by that, but since the show has randomly become the series I thought it would be when I reviewed the pilot, I feel vindicated and pleased. In the pilot, the series appeared that it was going to be some sort of crazy, feel-good musical version of Friday Night Lights. In episodes two and three, the series seemed like it was going to be an overly spastic Ryan Murphy production where everything happened for no reason other than it being crazy and wacky and FUN, and while that can work for an episode or two (I’m on record as quite liking episode two), it’s not exactly sustainable as everyone who gave up on Nip/Tuck at some point realizes. Now, in episodes four and five, Glee has essentially decided to pretend that episodes two and three pretty much didn’t exist and turned it into something like a really depressing high school procedural with character elements and musical numbers. Reading that over, I’m not even sure what it means, but it also accurately describes the show. So.
Let’s start with what didn’t work about “The Rhodes Not Taken,” which I thought really continued the quality jump the series made with “Preggers” but still wasn’t perfect. The Rachel storyline is essentially forced drama, my least favorite kind of drama. I think it ultimately was useful in helping to darken up Finn just a tad (guy was too noble before – kinda dimwitted is not necessarily a character flaw on a show like this) by having him sorta play Rachel to get her back in the club and in reminding us that Rachel’s dreams have an undercurrent of desperation to them. But at the same time, the fact that she left the glee club in one episode and came back in the one immediately following was ultimately disappointing. We all knew Rachel would be back in the club and probably sooner, rather than later, so trying to make the storyline into a big deal and suggesting it was tearing apart the club was just sort of an over-obvious direction to go in. No one was ever going to think that this would end the club forever (OMG?!), so there was a bit of a missed opportunity here in deepening Rachel’s character.
So, yeah, even though the Rachel storyline was a good third of this episode, I’m still really into it. And why? The superficial answer is Kristin Chenoweth, who is just turning into a televisual box of delights in these last few TV seasons. After turning Olive Snook into an impressively sad character on Pushing Daisies, she turned up on Glee (as she inevitably had to – like a woman over 60 turning up at some point on Law & Order: SVU) as a blowsy woman of a certain age who lacked three credits and thus never graduated from McKinley High, recruited by Will to solve his Rachel problem by joining the glee club. Even if we imagine that the storyline of the episode was completely incoherent (I would argue it wasn’t) and that the rest of the episode was a mess, Chenoweth might have singlehandedly saved it. She drank wine from a box! She sang a whole bunch of songs for no apparent reason! She introduced Kurt to the ways of alcoholism and vintage muscle magazines! She had her moment in the sun and then quit the club mostly because the plot required her to and somehow made it work!
But Chenoweth also accomplished something else: continuing to help Glee morph into the most depressing show in the history of network television. The central message of Glee is damned dark. Everybody wants something bigger than themselves, and almost none of us are ever going to get it. No matter how nice it is when we sing “Somebody to Love” and everybody claps for us, Lima, Ohio, isn’t Broadway. It’s not even the community theatre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. These are people chasing ephemeral impossibilities and – at the same time – realizing that their lives IN THE MOMENT aren’t working out so hot.
Nobody’s with the people they wish they were with (like Peanuts!). Life is constantly shitting on all of them (like Peanuts!). And every small moment of happiness is ultimately so tiny that it only carries over for a few minutes after (like Peanuts!). As an avowed lover of all things Charles Schulz, this really gets to me. The ending of A Charlie Brown Christmas, like the ending of this episode, is only a happy one precisely because we know that what lies on the other end of the story is utter sadness. A few days after now, everyone will have forgotten that Charlie Brown can sure pick out a nice tree, that the club rocked the Queen to the delight of everyone, and be back to their old problems and points of view. There’s a shot late in the episode when Sue (in her only scene) drops by to tell Rachel that she can have complete creative control of the production of Cabaret. Sue tells her she’s gotten everything she ever wanted, and doesn’t that make her happy, and Lea Michele’s face breaks out into a rapturous smile that gradually fades into a look of sad uncertainty. The balance of Glee – what makes it work as a television show (if it works for you) – is in that moment, the moment when, well, glee turns into despair.
Which is where Chenoweth’s April Rhodes comes in. (And I have no idea where that tangent came from, but I’m leaving it in.) Will remembers April as the big star in waiting of his youth, his first crush, the girl he wished he could sing with when she was a senior and he a freshman. So not only does he look her up, but he goes out of his way to stalk her, like that creepy guy you used to know in college who randomly friends you on Facebook one day. Because he’s such a goofy guy and a good singer, it’s easy to forget that Will is a sad, desperate son of a bitch (it’s what makes him relate so well to Finn and Rachel), and he’s going to do whatever he can to recapture the one happy time in his life. It’s a side that even manages to kind of turn off Emma (who really comes into her own as a character in this episode), who obviously thinks he hung the sun and moon. But April’s no longer the star of Will’s memory. She’s a sad, defeated woman who squats in houses in foreclosure, and even though Chenoweth makes it hilarious, the whole thing serves as a counterpoint to all of the other stories. When Finn starts thinking about a music scholarship, it’s because of this, this element of small town entrapment that the show hadn’t really dramatized until this moment (hoping that we’d just accept it as fact because it told us this was the case). By telling a funny story about someone who did get trapped, the series raises the stakes both thematically and plot-wise in a real way, unlike how the Rachel storyline created false stakes.
I still get that Glee has flaws that need to be ironed out. I get that there are completely implausible story elements in every episode and that some of the early story development in the first three episodes was inconsistent on a character basis, though the show seems mostly dedicated to ignoring those developments (probably the right call). I get that the series is having a hard time finding its voice, but “Preggers” and “Rhodes” have slowed the story down so much and given it so much room to breathe while also presenting deeper thematic and dramatic stakes that I’m hopeful this is the direction the show will go in the future. Unless the preview for next week is accurate and it’s as bugnuts as it seems like it will be, in which case, I’ll be here complaining or something, and maybe I’ll work in a Garfield reference out of nowhere.
- One of the things that I think the show has gotten better at is establishing the “rules” of its musical universe. They don’t completely have these ironed out, just yet, but it’s becoming clearer when a musical number is a fantasy and when it’s an actual performance and that the lines between the two can blur – i.e. a musical number can start as a performance and morph into a fantasy and vice versa. It’s still not quite there, but it all feels a lot clearer in these last few episodes.
- Working theory: Glee is at present a developing argument between the co-creators, all of whom have very different ideas of what the show should and could be. Sometimes, this results in something approaching sublime (the pilot). Sometimes, it’s a giant mess.
- I’m still not sure how I feel about Sandy, though I’ll admit Stephen Tobolowsky is playing the hell out of him.
- Random shot I liked: During the "Somebody to Love" number, Finn looks over at Rachel and smiles to see her singing next to him, but the framing keeps Quinn lurking just off to the right, a presence neither will be able to quite shake.
- "Let me tell you about my planned production of Equus. Have you ever hung out at a stable?"
- "Lord Google demands my attention."
- "You guys look like the world's worst Benneton ad."
- "I huffed a lot of upholstery cleaner in the '90s."
- "I'm a girl who knows her solvents."
- "I think they call that the full Silkwood."
- "I was aroused, then furious."