I've watched "Wheels" twice now, and I think I like it. Indeed, look at that grade! The thing that's making me say I "think" I like it is the uncomfortable nature of the tone, which at least has gotten away from the sort of over-the-top camp that Ryan Murphy (who wrote this episode) has preferred in his previous episodes of the show - "Acafellas" and "Vitamin D" - but he occasionally skews too much toward rank sappiness. Look at that scene where Brittany comes to the bake sale with Becky, the mentally handicapped girl who wants to be a cheerleader. It's a sweet scene, but something about it ends up leaning a little too hard on the schmaltz-o-meter. Maybe it's because Brittany's basically unexplored as a character up until this point, so her sudden turn to being best friends with Becky when all we knew of her previously was that she was one of Sue's spies was a left turn out of nowhere. Or maybe it was that the scene was just a little too MUCH, pushing a little too hard.
But I like that Murphy's heading in this direction instead of toward high camp. This was yet another episode that had nothing of the Terri's fake pregnancy storyline in it, and that automatically pushes an episode to at least a B in my book. And even if all of the schmaltzy stuff didn't work, I'm glad that Murphy went in that direction. For the first time, it felt like a lot of these characters exist as something other than foils for the main characters, and that can only be a good thing. I said in an earlier review that I'm applying the Lost rule to Glee, since it has a large ensemble. I'm assuming that all of the characters are well-developed until the show proves otherwise. This episode validates turning to that principle. At this point, the only character who's a complete stereotype anymore is Terri. (Also, hey, I think Sandy Ryerson just disappeared until tonight?)
As the title might suggest, "Wheels" is the big, Artie-centric episode we've all been waiting for. When Will finds out that the school can't afford the special bus that will help bring Artie to sectionals, he insists the glee club hold a bake sale to raise the money to do so. When the members don't want to, saying that Artie's dad can just drive him to sectionals, the episode turns into an examination of just how separate from everyone Artie often feels. There was a great comment on my last Glee review thread taking issue with my thesis that Glee is an essentially sad show and saying that it's more a show about performance. The characters may feel sad, sure, but the thing the show is more interested in is the way the characters act as though they're not, both to convince others that things are fine and to convince themselves. Artie has less of a chance to do this. Because he's in a wheelchair, people are always going to perceive that something is different about him, and he may feel stymied in forming a genuine connection with them.
From there, the episode is mostly a supporting character celebration, with the major plots going to (in order of how major their plot was) Artie, Kurt, Tina, Puck, Quinn, Kurt's dad and Sue. Will was in quite a bit of the show but mostly in the background, and Rachel was actually portrayed as something of an antagonist. For a long time, Glee has been burdened by the sense from fans that the show hasn't let us know who some of these people are, but this episode was like a big flag signifying that the show has some idea of what makes them tick. Hell, the final number even found quite a bit of room for Mercedes to sing. Because the show was focused on the supporting characters, it couldn't rely on the "Rachel feels overlooked"/"Finn feels overburdened"/"Will misses his glory days" kinds of plots that are getting a little old.
While there were scenes that felt a little too schmaltzy, as mentioned, the majority of the emotional beats were warmly and believably portrayed, and the show didn't sacrifice its sense of humor to get there either. There were more than enough amusing Sue lines, more than enough goofy sight gags (like that entire sequence of the kids riding around in the wheelchairs) and at least two really good musical sequences. (I wasn't terribly high on "Defying Gravity," but, then, I don't much like the song.) And then next to those, you'd get something genuinely endearing, like the Artie and Tina courtship. While will-they/won't-they relationships are one of my least favorite television tropes, I still sort of bought the fact that Artie would find the fact that Tina's lying about her stutter as heartbreaking as he did.
The Kurt and his dad plot was also strangely moving, another plot that seemed like it was going to be too sentimental and then explored some interesting emotional territory. Kurt's attempts to wrest the "Defying Gravity" solo from Rachel (in a nice bit of meta-commentary on how Lea Michele keeps getting the solos) led to him trying to nail a high F but also led to his dad getting a call saying "Your son's a fag," which angered him. The earlier stuff, where Kurt's dad fought for his son to get a chance to try out against Rachel, was funny, but it was everything that came after, where Glee reminded us that its emotional universe is a serious one, no matter how much ludicrous plotting there is, that stuck with you. Even the reversal where Kurt botched his tryout so his dad wouldn't have to deal more with the fact that people hated his son for no good reason, while predictable, was well-done.
In a lot of ways, Glee is a show about perception, about the way that people see us and the way we want to be seen. The series has been a little heavy-handed about some of this in the past, but "Wheels" is almost entirely about how people attempt to subvert the fact that they look like one thing or are one thing to portray a different face to the world. Or, as that commenter said, it's all about performance. The best thing about "Wheels" is the reminder that this is still our world, this is still a place where people can hurt each other or be kind to each other. The worst episodes of Glee seem to take place in some universe where everything is completely on the surface, but the best episodes of Glee - and "Wheels" is certainly among them - peel away the performance and reveal what's driving the need to fake it.
- I haven't said anything about Sue's plot, which is too bad, I suppose, since I thought it was actually fairly well done. Jane Lynch, who's been so funny throughout, absolutely nails the ambiguous way Sue puts Becky on the Cheerios and similarly sticks that scene where she visits her older sister. I've seen arguments that if Sue has this sort of an emotional connection in her life, we should have had a clue sooner, but I like the way the show is keeping Sue a hilarious one-liner machine and deepening who she is.
- I was similarly impressed by the Quinn/Finn/Puck work in the episode. Mark Salling just seems to have a ridiculous amount of chemistry with all of the female cast members in the show, and it's fun to see him and Dianna Agron get in that food fight. Again, fun stuff, but a serious emotional core that keeps the show grounded.
- On the other hand, the whole "The kids have to use wheelchairs!" thing was a little heavy-handed. I get that the show is trying to be a satire of after-school specials some of the time, but this felt uncomfortably close to an actual after-school special device. (Though I appreciated that Will came up with the idea, as it's totally the sort of doofy thing he'd think of.)
- Also, this may force me to revise my "too many cooks" hypothesis, since Murphy apparently wants the show to continue to have this tone going forward.
- And maybe consider that an aspirational grade for the show. Because this also had a plot about pot-laced cupcakes, and that's a device that never ever, ever needs to appear on TV ever again.
- "We've got homework and football and teen pregnancy and ... lunch."
- "You're irritating most of the time, but don't take that personally."
- "What is she doing here?" "Yes, what am I doing here?"
- "I still have the use of my penis."