Seven weeks in, Glee continues its long-running experiment in whether emotionally true scenes can be built from emotionally false foundations. The answer, at least at this point in time, seems to be a resounding, “Not always!” and I suspect a lot of that has to do with the fact that the show has three different creators, who are pursuing three divergent visions of what the show should be, all the while trying to incorporate elements of each of the others’ visions. If Glee seems occasionally wildly incoherent (an understatement), this is probably why. It’s a show being tugged in a bunch of different directions, and it’s not clear how long the series can survive that structural problem, even with all of the musical numbers and cutting lines in the world.
In pretty much every way, “Throwdown” was a really fun episode of television. Focusing an episode, for the most part, on Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester practically guaranteed plenty of laughs, simply because she’s the show’s best comic creation – an absolutely unfettered id that lets go with whatever she wants to say at any given moment. The plotting, which has been getting markedly cleaner in the last few episodes, was maybe the cleanest yet, as every storyline made sense and the plotting was coherent throughout. The character work – especially for Quinn – was really solid. And it even featured a few of the show’s best musical numbers, including a few that managed to directly comment on the action of the storyline without being afterthoughts, as the musical numbers have been in the last few weeks.
But when you get right down to it, some of the episode’s finest moments were built on incredibly shaky foundations. And to get into that, we have to get into the show’s three divergent voices. Most TV shows are room-written, meaning that a team of writers comes up with the storylines and then various people take various passes at the finalized script to produce a product that is more a part of a cohesive whole than sparking with an individual voice. Glee is unusual in two regards. It seems to be written entirely by its three creators – Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan – but all three of those creators also seem to have wildly different ideas of what the show is. Murphy, responsible for “Acafellas” and last week’s “Vitamin D,” is most interested in making the show a funhouse mirror version of an afterschool special. Brennan, responsible for “The Rhodes Not Taken,” is most interested in the sadness buried down at the core of the show’s concept. And Falchuk, responsible for tonight’s episode and “Preggers,” still probably the best post-pilot episode, is most interested in pulling the two approaches together in a hybridized fashion while deepening the teenage characters on the show. (For the record, the three wrote the pilot and “Showmance” together.) I don’t doubt that the three creators all plot out where the show is going generally, as well as what’s happening in each episode, but where Brennan (on the scant evidence of one episode) mostly tries to avoid the soap opera plotting of Murphy’s show as much as he can, Falchuk tries to incorporate those verifiably insane moments while sticking with Brennan’s more emotionally realistic tone. I don’t imagine this is going to be a way the show can work going forward, but the three writers are somehow making all three of their different visions seem like they take place in the same universe, which means the show is still working. But just barely.
Take, for example, one of the best moments of the show tonight. Will, at the ob/gyn with Terri to see the first images of his baby on the sonogram, teared up at the vision of the child, even as he learned it was a girl, not a boy, and he and Terri seemed to share an authentic moment together at the vision of the kid. But, here’s the thing, the baby wasn’t real. Terri had apparently paid off the ob/gyn to display the footage of Quinn and Finn’s unborn daughter as her own, and the moment, at some level, was almost completely false, despite the fact that the emotions involved were true. The fake pregnancy is still the stupidest thing about Glee – there’s no way Will can’t know his wife is pregnant unless he’s a complete idiot, but the show has never given us any indication he’s this stupid – but it’s also something the show clearly seems to be dedicated to playing out (largely because production of the first 13 episodes occurred before any critical or fan feedback was present for the creators to react to). So at this point, you have decide whether the central premise is so bad that you can’t go with the other stuff or that you’re willing to forgive a lot because the good stuff can be so good. At least in these first 13 episodes, Glee is probably going to be unable to get away from some of the stupider plot points it came up with in its early episodes, but I find something perversely admirable in its attempts to find emotional honesty in soap opera shenanigans.
Another criticism leveled at the show is that too many of its characters are one-dimensional stereotypes. I don’t disagree, but I make a caveat. Glee has a huge, huge ensemble, both of regular characters and bit players, and in the case of huge ensembles, I generally invoke something I’m going to call the Lost Rule: If a show has a huge cast, all characters are assumed to be three-dimensional until proven otherwise. Had Glee not deepened any of its characters at this point, I’d be convinced it had no plans for them, but it’s done an admirable job of deepening Rachel, Finn, Kurt and, now, Quinn, so I’m willing to give it a chance at deepening everyone else, particularly since the actors seem up to the challenge. Hell, the series even took a stab at adding a few dimensions to Sue, of all people, tonight, and Lynch, as always, was up to the challenge. Really, what people are complaining about when they say Glee has one-dimensional stereotypical characters are characters like Sandy and Terri, who could have been deepened by now but remain steadfast stereotypes.
Again, I complain about the show because there’s a lot there to love. “Throwdown” was maybe the series’ most consistent episode yet, even if some of the bigger developments in the show will always keep some of the moments from reaching their full potential. And any time you give Jane Lynch room to monologue in character as Sue Sylvester, you’re going to have a very funny episode. What’s more, there’s nothing quite like a show that can make you feel an emotional reaction to a formerly deeply stereotypical pregnant Christian cheerleader by using a song written by Avril Lavigne for a movie about a dragon. Glee’s so much better when it’s shoving aside the stuff that’s been holding it back since early in its run. Here’s hoping once the series gets into its back nine order, it finds a way to shove that stuff to the side.
- This is something I haven’t seen a lot of conversation about out there, but I think the direction of Glee is generally really good. Tonight, in particular, I liked how Murphy (who directed the episode) used the camera during the musical numbers to move between the characters and lay out all of their various love triangles and what have you.
- Listen, if Terri is a bad character, then her sister is even worse. The less of the both of them, the better, as far as I’m concerned.
- Was I hearing things or was that impromptu jam session between the kids not over-produced at all and, indeed, something captured live on set? There was something loose and freeing to the vocals that I’d like the series to play around with more instead of the constant over-production.
- "Oh, hey, buddy. I thought I smelled failure."
- "Your psychosexual derangement would be fascinating, Will, if it weren't so terrifying."
- "Then I came up with the best baby name of all time. Drizzle!"