Part of the problem with watching TV critically—particularly with watching a big hit show like Glee critically—is that it doesn’t really mirror the ways that people consume television. Yes, there are a bunch of us who watch TV and dissect every little moment, but we’re still the distinct minority. Most people just have the TV on while they do other stuff. It’s something that fills lulls in conversation or prompts parents and kids to talk about what’s going on in their lives. It’s something to have on while you do homework or fold laundry or prepare dinner. It’s something to leave on in the background while you’re surfing the Internet or exercising. Watching TV and not letting yourself be distracted by other things is, in some ways, watching TV incorrectly, at least in terms of how most people consume it. I’ve suspected for a while now that paying attention to Glee is antithetical to enjoying it. The show doesn’t really want to be coherent, after all.
So I let myself get distracted a bit during “The Spanish Teacher.” I brushed my cats. I discussed how bizarre some of the episode was with my wife. I responded to a couple of e-mails. And, actually, I enjoyed the episode quite a bit. I legitimately don’t know if that was because the episode was one of the better ones of the season—my hope—or because it was actually terrible and I’ve stopped being able to tell the difference—my fear—but I think the whole thing can be read in that scene where Will performs “A Little Less Conversation” as an “authentic Spanish matador” and just completely bombs. The show’s not afraid to call him on how terrible the performance was, and it’s not afraid to call him on being kind of a dick throughout the episode.
Now, naturally you have to accept a bunch of crazy premises to even get this far. First, you have to accept that tenure is a vague, no-holds-barred reality show between the many teachers at McKinley High. This is an exaggerated enough version of reality for me to just go with it, but I’m sure that tripped up some of you in the educational field. The next thing you have to go with—and this is far more problematic—is that Will would have gotten a job as a Spanish teacher, even though he couldn’t speak Spanish. (Ian Brennan’s script has great fun with this idea, however, and I loved when one of Will’s subtitles featured “of/from” in place of “de.”) You also have to go with the idea that he would give up his job to a night school Spanish teacher played by Ricky Martin and get shuffled into the history department—despite having no qualifications to teach history!—to enjoy the climax. (You also had to accept that a sad piano cover of “Summer Lovin’” would accompany every tortured gaze between Mercedes and Sam, but I’ve lived through Secret Life’s sad piano cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” so I can handle anything in this regard.)
In terms of letting go and just going with stuff, however, that’s a pretty small amount of things to have to swallow for any given episode of Glee. Much of this episode felt like a very deliberate throwback to season one, in some very good ways, from the emphasis on Emma’s weird pamphlets (which she apparently makes herself!) to Sue having some legitimately funny monologues and then turning into a saint randomly to the weird, dark despair at the heart of Will’s plight: He’s a high school Spanish teacher, and he mostly is that because he doesn’t know what else to do. The world has turned and left him here, and if you’ll let him, he’ll cover all of the rest of the songs on the Blue Album.
It helped that many of the musical numbers—while mostly superfluous—were pretty fun, from the guys of the glee club dancing in weird but awesome Mexican shoes (in a number that segued into Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” kind of out of nowhere) to the strained hilarity of Will’s bull fighter dance. I wouldn’t call any of these numbers essential to the story, but at least they made an effort to tie into the plot: Will wants the students to sing Latin songs because he just “loves” Latin stuff (when, in actuality, he wants them to teach him Spanish or something). As excuses for frivolity on this show go, that’s not a bad one, even if it was just there to get Ricky Martin singing and dancing in as many scenes as possible.
Speaking of Martin, he was actually quite a bit of fun as David Martinez, the night school Spanish teacher who comes to threaten Will both professionally and… in terms of being a virile male. The role pretty much just asked Martin to play Ricky Martin, but he did a better job of playing himself than Dawes did over on Parenthood tonight. He was fun and infectious, and it was easy enough to see why the kids would be more into him than gloomy old Will, who’s ready to tell his fiancée that his first marriage failed because his wife didn’t believe in him (no, seriously) and fond of telling his students they’re fucking with his life when they put in complaints about how he’s a shitty Spanish teacher when he doesn’t even know Spanish. Yeah, I’d want to hang out with Ricky Martin, too.
But a funny thing happens the longer “The Spanish Teacher” goes on. As much as I think Will’s a terrible character the show never did much with and as much as I’m sure I’ll revert to that in a week or two, I think this was probably the best episode for the character since early season one. When Sue breaks into the obligatory talk about how Will Schuester is just the best and everybody just needs to understand that, it feels less cloying than it usually does, less like the show is telling us things when it could be showing us. Will’s always at his best when his impulse to do the right thing—which Sue so memorably memorializes—clashes with his desperation about the way his life hasn’t turned out like he’d have liked it to. When his petty selfishness clashes with his otherwise basically good nature, there’s the potential for some compelling inner conflict, though the show too often makes him skew too much toward one side or the other in this equation. He’s too often a goofy plot device or expositional font, not a character, but “The Spanish Teacher” let him be someone real and dark again.
It also helped that there were minimal storylines about the other characters. Sue’s desire to have a child is bizarre, and her new clash with the swim team coach over who should lead the Cheerios was easily the episode’s weakest point. (I don’t know why the strategy the writers always use to get us to sympathize with Sue is to have someone else yell at her, but it rarely works.) Finn and Rachel’s engagement news leaked to Mercedes and Kurt, both of whom were predictably horrified by the news—though Kurt tried to make the best of things by giving Finn some college literature for New York. And the Mercedes and CHORD OVERSTREET! flirtation continued unabated, despite my clear indications that I don’t really care about it one way or the other.
But other than that, the episode was very clean. The three plots above were all very much secondary to the tenure struggle and Will’s attempts to learn Spanish and/or better himself. The main storylines had room to breathe, and that made the intrusion of, say, the Mercedes/CHORD OVERSTREET! storyline easier to stomach than it was in last week’s episode. Brennan’s script was often very funny, but it also kept the emotional conflicts front and center, which is a lethal combination when this show gets it just right. And it certainly didn’t hurt that Paris Barclay—director of “Wheels,” still one of the show’s best episodes—was back to keep everything nicely tamped down and normal.
Look: It’s possible this episode was just awful and I was unfairly distracted by general cat maintenance. But I’m legitimately impressed that the show got me to care about Will Schuester again, even though I’m sure I’ll just go back to finding his character a waste next week. If you pay minute attention to every little thing Glee does wrong then, yeah, it’s easy to pick apart every episode with a fine-toothed comb. But that’s been true of the show from its very start, and it’s not going to stop being true now. Glee’s a moment factory that aims to make us go “Aw,” too, and there were more than enough moments that accomplished the intended reaction this week.
- I sort of suspect I’m going to be alone in mostly enjoying this one. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age.
- From now on, Emma Pillsbury will be referred to in this space as “Professor Dollface.”
- God, VanDerWerff, just tell us how the songs were: Look, I can’t be this positive throughout. That performance of “Sexy And I Know It” was just dumb and stupid and wrong. I like when the show stages many of the musical numbers in the choir room—it’s this show’s version of a bottle episode, almost, at least in terms of cutting costs—but I really don’t like the ones where the kids all run around and have a great time and laugh and dance and sing. Much better was the big shoe number, and I kind of enjoyed Naya Rivera dancing around to “Isla Bonita” for the obvious reasons.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: See above. Though I sort of wonder if the show isn’t trying to consciously win this category with Rivera week after week. THE PEOPLE DEMAND HEATHER MORRIS!
- I sort of feel like the relationship between Sue and Becky is one of the few the show hasn’t fucked up. Prove me wrong!
- Another thing the show rarely screws up: Emma’s pamphlet titles. There were some amusing ones this evening. Though I don’t know if Emma… sorry… Professor Dollface… would be calling students “ho-bags.”
- Okay, I really want someone to YouTube Will saying, “I’m an authentic Spanish matador,” because the self-seriousness of the moment was just hysterical. (This is what I mean by how I can’t entirely tell if I liked this episode because of things the show intended or because I found it agreeable to my preferred readings of the show.)
- Another fairly large criticism of the episode: It didn’t end so much as run out of time and stop. Sure, most of the storylines had wrapped up, but it didn’t really feel like the ending was an ending so much as the place where all involved just decided to cut things short before they got too overwrought. Possibly a good decision, honestly.
- Blaine is still recuperating from last week’s injury, which translates as Darren Criss having other things he needed to do.
- I actually thought Kurt had a pretty good point about how most college theater programs would kill for a jock type who can sing and “kind of” dance. I know my college theater program loved to have one or two of those guys around.
- We’ve only got two more episodes before the spring hiatus. Next week: Valentine’s Day, a holiday the show’s had some success with before, though this one is bringing us Jeff Goldblum and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Rachel’s dads. Could be… interesting.