Just why is Will Schuester a terrible character?
I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, when I was wondering if I’ve reached a point where I can’t forgive this show anything it tries to do. Way back in my review of the second episode, I said that Matthew Morrison was a major TV star just waiting to happen, and if I’m remembering correctly, those early reviews were quite pleased with the way the show portrayed this weird man in his 30s who had found a life that hadn’t turned out the way he’d hoped it might in the slightest. There was a sort of tragic grandeur to that guy, a sense that this was his last shot at happiness. And yet as that first season went on, I went from finding him one of the best things about the show to something I tolerated to get to the good parts to something I actively despised.
But why? Part of it was that Will was caught up in what’s still probably the show’s worst plotline ever, the fake pregnancy of Terri Schuester. Part of it was that the show lurched so randomly between having the character be the guy who’s supposed to do the right thing at every turn to a guy who was so desperate to hang on to the good things in his life that he didn’t realize how amoral and creepy he was being. There was a way to make this character work, honestly, but the two conceptions of Will didn’t seem at all to occupy the same man. He was a dancing weirdo who increasingly didn’t seem to have a life outside of the choir room. He was a guy who seemingly every woman in Lima wanted to sleep with, even if he seemed rather limp in terms of romance. Of all of the characters in the show, he was the one most hurt by its inability to tell an arc over the course of several episodes because he was all arc. Will has been stuck at the start of his arc since the series began, and just as the kids in the glee club continue to get slushied, he continues to wish he could do something with his life, even after he coached the glee club to nationals, was offered the lead in a Broadway musical, and singlehandedly lifted a mechanic to the U.S. House of Representatives on a write-in campaign.
“Yes/No” contained the very best and very worst of Glee smashed together so haphazardly that I’m a little uncertain how to grade it. Much of the stuff with the kids—the furtive, failed romance of Artie and Becky; the “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” number; hell, even the Finn and Rachel proposal scene—worked for me. There was a real sense of the emotional stakes that keep the show from flying off into the stratosphere at all times, and even if there were some scenes that were inexplicable and dumb—I’m looking at you “Summer Lovin’” and Sam’s brief foray into synchronized swimming for fun and letterman’s jackets—the moments that needed to work were there, especially when the show needed them most. The last 10 minutes of the episode were damn solid, even if Will Schuester can now walk on water. (It’s not a trick. It’s an illusion.)
But throughout it all, there was Will Schuester, wandering around and dancing in slow motion and being a jackass. And so, so much of this episode was predicated on the notion that what we in the audience want more than anything is to see Will and Emma get married, just like how the kids erupt in applause when Will tells them of his plan to propose. This storyline is just so pathetic and sad, not in the way you want the central figure of your TV show to be pathetic and sad (if that’s ever something you want). One of the things I was trying to get at in that weird Mike Chang, Sr., piece was that this show has increasingly felt like everybody in it ceases to exist when they’re not on screen. The best TV shows feel like you could walk right into them from your living room, and you’d be able to find any of your favorite characters or visit any of your favorite settings. There was a time when Glee felt like that, but increasingly—and especially in the adult plotlines—it feels like these people come out to say their lines, then go and have somebody hang their characters up in a closet somewhere.
No character has been hurt by this more than Will. Back in season one, this was a guy who felt like he had a life outside of the school, even if it was a life he was desperate to escape. Now, he pretty much has, but, paradoxically, it feels like he doesn’t really exist unless he’s on screen. It feels like Will and Emma’s engagement is coming up so suddenly both because it kind of is—they’ve been dating for less than a year—and because there’s never any sense that their relationship has been proceeding offscreen. We’re just occasionally told about it, in the midst of all of the other stuff that’s going on. Is there anyone who really feels like these two are more in love now than they were when they first started hanging out back in season one? It feels like they’ve regressed into themselves, like they’ve become adolescent versions of the adult characters that used to exist.
Glee’s elastic version of reality doesn’t really bother me, but it does in this case. I suspect that’s because in the pilot, Will was the one thing that kept us tethered to Earth, and now he’s the least grounded element of the show. I’m fine if the kids fly off into flights of fancy or have giant dramatic moments or propose marriage to each other in ways that make it clear how terrible getting married would be at this juncture. They’re teenagers, and the reason Glee’s weird tonal mash-up worked so well for so long is because teenagers often experience the world in that heightened sense. The funny things that happen are the funniest things to ever happen, and the dramatic things that happen are so super important. That’s not really something you can do in a show about 30-year-olds, and Will has been drastically hurt by wandering off into the show’s elastic universe.
It’s, of course, very silly to complain about an episode of Glee being overstuffed at this point. That’s what the show is, for better or worse. But there are overstuffed episodes that manage to make all of their beats land—“First Time” was pretty good at this—and there are overstuffed episodes that cram a bunch of stuff into the frame because that’s what Glee does. So while we’re dealing with all of the marriage proposal wackiness—and how much better would an episode just focused on Finn’s journey through this story have been?—the show is also shoehorning in an absurd number of other things. There are things here that work, like Artie and Becky’s little “relationship,” which is handled with just the right level of pathos, and there are scenes where Beiste tells us she’s married to Cooter in a moment of exposition that seems to come up just in case the writers ever need to return to this plotline.
The show increasingly feels like it’s written by a committee with a big, long checklist of stuff that needs to be crossed up to create a “successful” Glee episode. You’ve gotta have a moment between Santana and Brittany in there (and the two in this episode are quite sweet). You’ve gotta give Mike Chang a chance to do some dancing. You’ve gotta have at least five musical numbers and hopefully more. You’ve gotta have moments for Rachel and Finn and Kurt and Quinn. You’ve gotta have a bunch of Sue one-liners. You’ve hopefully gotta have a moment where a character completely reverses themselves in the most heartwarming way possible because that’s what the plot requires of them. And you’ve gotta have lots and lots of big, obviously comic ideas, like angry synchronized swimmers or ginger supremacists. And if you can have whiplash from those big comic moments into dramatic ones, so much the better.
Not every episode of the show has all of these elements. But it increasingly feels like the writers are trying to cram as many as possible in, so the show often feels like it’s rolling downhill in a way that can’t be stopped. The best episodes are the ones that slow down and realize they don’t need to include a moment from absolutely every plotline. The worst episodes are the ones that just abandon rhyme and reason and keep tossing stuff at us until it sticks. And most of the episodes are in the middle like this one, just hoping that the majority of the random plot elements work better than the others. And the increasing attempts to force everything all of the time into every episode are making the show feel weirdly formulaic. The power of Glee used to be when it would harness its perpetual motion happiness machine to moments of unexpected emotional depth, but now a moment like, say, Santana reminiscing about the first time she saw Brittany (which I will caution was very, very sweet and part of the episode’s best single number) feels tossed in because there are a certain number of Brittana animated .GIF Tumblrs that must be serviced.
Glee, like The O.C. and Heroes before it, is in a weird place because it was such a big, Zeitgeist-defining hit for a while, even as several poked at it and found flaws in its foundation. But it was such a weird show, unlike any other show on the air, that when it came time to maintain that hit status, to settle into the place where it would run for seven or eight years mostly undisturbed, it wasn’t able to translate all of those elements into a show that could run indefinitely. It was a conceptually top-heavy show, one driven as much by chasing and endlessly devouring its own hit status as anything else. And like those earlier shows that burned bright early on and then flamed out spectacularly (though, yeah, the last season of The O.C. was pretty good), Glee increasingly just seems as desperate as its main character, doing slow motion pirouettes as other people sing.
But the more I thought about Heroes and The O.C., the more I thought about a show that somehow escaped the pattern of “huge, critically acclaimed first season; even bigger second season in ratings though critics turn on the show; third season that flames out,” even though it hit the first two beats. That show was Desperate Housewives, and though I never much loved that show, it definitely pulled out of its death spiral in time to avoid the season three collapse. (Indeed, the show’s third season may be its best.) And it did that by quite literally going back to basics. The jokes were stronger—the show recruited a bunch of sitcom ringers to fill out its one-liner department—and the storylines were at once crazier and more emotionally resonant. That show is ending after an eight year run, and it’s one of the most successful programs of the last 10 years.
You can see where Glee is almost pulling this off, too. There have been shaky storylines featuring the kids this year, but for the most part, the material with the high schoolers has been pretty strong, especially when the show goes to the well of “What the hell happens once we graduate?” which has tied the season together in a way that season two just didn’t have. But if the show is going to make that work, then it needs to both figure out a way to make graduation final so the characters don’t hang around McKinley after they leave—something it simply is unable to do, given its hit status—and it needs to return its adult characters to who they were in season one. Will needs to be a man struggling to cling to his lost dreams, not a pathetic sap who tells off his beloved for being mentally ill and apparently doesn’t have any adult friends. Sue needs to stop being a cartoon supervillain and be more real (as she was several times tonight). And yet these are the things the show struggles most with, perhaps consigning it to history as yet another show that flamed out after a strong start. Oh well. It happens.
- The scene with Finn’s dad’s back-story getting retconned was some powerful stuff, but it was also kind of bizarre and an example of how this show’s hyper-plotting can hurt the dramatic moments. If Finn’s plan to join the army had played out over a few episodes, this moment could have played out with even more power (as could have the proposal to Rachel, honestly), but the show needs to move on to its Michael Jackson tribute episode.
- Will: Emma isn’t refusing to take down the tree because of her OCD. She’s refusing to take it down because she believes the Christmas season doesn’t end until Candlemas. You insensitive jackass!
- God, VanDerWerff, just tell us how the songs were!: I actually liked most of them. “Summer Lovin’” was dumb and unnecessary, but “First Time,” “Yellow Diamonds,” and “Wedding Bell Blues” were all fun, and in the case of “Yellow,” there was even a nice sense of visual spectacle that the show sometimes lacks. The only one I outright hated was “Moves Like Jagger,” but that’s more because I hate that song than anything else. (And, okay, the slow-motion dancing from Will was just ridiculous.)
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: This was a very good episode for Santana, from this section’s point of view. That’s all I’ll say about that.
- We’re just not going to point out how much that “Emma and Will walk down the hall and everybody hands her a rose” moment ripped off Michael’s proposal to Holly on The Office? (Though that relationship was even more rushed than this one!)
- Poor Tinker. He’ll never catch a break, will he?
- I wasn’t sure the running gag with having Helen Mirren do Becky’s inner monologue would work, but I think it all paid off in the end. Plus, the whole weird incongruity of it was wonderful.
- I also liked Nene Leakes as the swim team coach. In general, I like whenever anyone on this show yells at someone else loudly.
- So what do we think? I don’t see a way Rachel and Finn getting married at 18 could be considered a “good idea,” but I also don’t see a way the show has her say no. It’s Jason Street and Lyla Garrity all over again!