Another hour of trying to change the words to “We Didn’t Start The Fire” to fit Glee season five isn’t going to help, but I think the sentiment comes through. Glee is what it is at this point, a show about white guys rescuing minorities. Not consistently, and not even primarily. Glee is way too (accidentally) erratic and (deliberately) anarchic to read the show as, say, Sue Sylvester heroically trying and failing to stop that maniac Will Schuester before he turns more children into PSA monsters. For instance Will doesn’t commit a single fireable offense in “Movin’ Out,” and Sue is back to treating the school like a black site, although the ear-douche is somewhat less cruel than prom-torture. But the after school special remains, and that covert conservatism curdles this self-styled liberation porn. As the soft Full House piano starts playing, Marley’s mom counsels her about getting physical with Jake, well, about her decision to wait, that is. “Your first time is something that you can never get back, honey.” Also your second time. Your 20th, too. You will never get that 56th time back, kids.
That scene is played in earnest, underlined by the score as the actors advise their teen audience not to give it away. But Glee is flighty. There’s already been a whole episode about “The First Time,” in which Rachel and Kurt decide to lose their virginity to their relatively long-time high-school loves. For years I’ve complained about Glee having its cake and eating it, too. But “Movin’ Out” didn’t start the fire, to borrow an on-theme phrase. Glee is built on an after school special chassis, always making time for direct address of old ideals. The drama around those scenes is more diverse, though, and different opinions duke it out on the battlefield. More often than not that just means most of the cast will get on board with the theme du jour while someone voices dissent to co-opt the hate-watchers and eye-rollers. The only thing Glee believes in is a big-tent audience. But there’s something to be said for the way Glee has freedom to complicate and challenge itself. If it would only make something out of that freedom instead of just pretending to autosnark and selling conservative life lessons.
Speaking of which, Artie rescues Becky from herself and gets her interested in college for handicapable people. Just once I’d like to see Unique get through to Ryder about what’s really going on in his head, but I suppose this is progress because Artie’s in a wheelchair. The best part is when he sings her “Honesty” on the McKinley stage and I started to feel this pin-prick pain in my eyelids. She responds, “Finally, you tell the truth. You’ve been in love with me since kindergarten.” See what I mean? For those of us who have no idea why Artie thinks singing “Honesty” is a coherent way of saying, “Becky, deep down, you do want to go to college,” there’s Becky to voice our pain. Way easier to just hang a lantern on this shit than rewrite it so it makes sense. That cake is endless. So Artie accompanies Becky to a University Of Cincinnati program for students with Downs syndrome taking an independent living course, and a cute boy flirts with Becky and the natural order is restored. Thanks, Artie!
But to complicate that, Sam decides/reveals that he doesn’t want to go to college, and since Billy Joel didn’t, he justifies his decision in class to this extraordinary “yikes” face from Will (See, it’s not Matthew Morrison that grates nearly so much as the writing of Will Schuester). Sam also gets a bit of an after school expository scene, but it’s from the opposite angle. Sam confesses to Rachel about the tension between pressure to continue an academic career he isn’t good at and the motivation to go his own way (whoops, wrong theme episode). Just like Kurt revealing how his life in New York isn’t shaping up the way he wanted, Sam’s got some real pain, and it’s a subject Glee hasn’t gone over a thousand times in a thousand permutations. What is such a subject is the flickering candle between Rachel and Sam. It’s cute, especially when Santana makes this incredible OMG face after watching them dance during the final New York number, but I wonder what the meeting was like when the writers decided three episodes was sufficient.
Sam and Blaine taking a week off of high school to visit New York and prepare for their post-high-school lives is the impetus for this Billy Joel I-hesitate-to-say tribute episode, and once again everything in New York sings. Over the past four and a quarter seasons, Glee has invested in nothing so much as New York City. For the first couple of years it was a kind of fantasy. People like April Rhodes had been there and come back to tell of its glory, but that only stoked the fire. When Rachel finally gets there to compete in Nationals, she gets this huge moment, almost entirely silent, a rarity on a show this bubbly, in a tracking shot around Times Square set to “Rhapsody In Blue.” It’s still a fantasy at that point, as it is when Rachel and Kurt sneak off to sing Wicked alone in a Broadway theater.
And it is a city of dreams insofar as Rachel and Kurt have led some charmed lives for struggling artists. But even the way Glee presents that is laced with disappointments and indignities, albeit laughable ones to the rest of us. Everyone makes a grand, dramatic entrance—Finn putting Rachel on that train, Kurt surprising Rachel on the phone, Santana holding “This Girl Is On Fire” across two states—and then they’re immediately swallowed up. Rachel and Kurt were practically the only characters east of Cincinnati in season four. Gone is the colorful magic of Times Square. Now New York is brown and gray. Brody was a prostitute. Santana’s working three jobs. As Kurt says, “The city’s huge, the buildings are huge, and everywhere you look there’s all these beautiful people who seem to just come from some secret meeting where they teach you how to make it in the big city.” What’s really magical about the city isn’t the feeling of soaking up Times Square. What’s magical is opportunity, people, liberation from that liberal-guilt monster Will Schuester.
Sam and Blaine arrive at the end of a musical montage, as per usual, but they’re both nervous about their plans. With Blaine, it really is as simple as that. He’s just nervous about his NYADA audition and couching that in not wanting to pursue it at all, which someone must have thought made a good parallel for Becky. After he sings for everyone at The Spotlight Diner, Kurt cheers, “There’s no way you’re not getting into NYADA,” which should have been hilariously exaggerated foreshadowing, but nope, Blaine auditions off-screen and successfully. Dramatically it’s quite the cop-out to cut Blaine’s audition and to have Sam exposit how good he was, especially after a history of some seriously tense NYADA auditions, but maybe they couldn’t find an appropriate Billy Joel song?
As for Sam, Rachel helps him pursue modeling, which lands him a meeting with Tyra Banks’ sad retread of every severe New York authority figure Glee has thrown at us over the past few years, Bichette, which I believe is pronounced “Beeshette” but Bichette isn’t very forthcoming. After a modeling shoot that involves a cowboy hat, some photographer decides on three of the least striking photos—the Glee equivalent of calling Adam Levine the sexiest man alive when Chris Hemsworth and Jamie Dornan are smiling from nearby magazine covers—but it works. Bichette is impressed enough to welcome Sam to her agency as long as he loses 10 pounds (“The camera likes starvation”). This, too, resolves in pencil, since Sam refuses to walk out on the biggest game in town in one moment and then decides he doesn’t need to look emaciated to become a model the next. If Mercedes’ album cover is any indication, that means he won’t compromise his values like a good after school special. Which is for the best, dramatically. Rachel’s dreams are coming true, and right now, that’s awfully nice of the universe, but everyone else is still struggling, as it were. The writing goes back and forth, but the sight of the ex-New Directions singing together in that cavernous apartment as they take the road Will Schuester didn’t, now, that’s magical.
- Why does everyone change her mind just because someone sang a song at her? I’m looking at you, Marley, Becky, and Sam. It’s rhetorical, though. The answer is that’s just how the Glee universe works. Love it or leave it.
- But how do you think the timeline will work? Will the spring half of season five be summer or the next school year? Or will the show flash forward to get this high-school love triangle out of our hair?
- Sam briefly considers college based on his impressions reel and the Channing Tatum Former Male Stripper Grant (Never forget!). But after an excruciating interview (“So you’re black? That must be interesting”), he reveals his true dream: To see himself in underwear on the side of a bus so his junk can be as big as a car. It’s certainly in-character, I’ll give it that.
- Blaine has a confession. Kurt: “If you cheated on me again, I will not accept sex addiction as an excuse.”
- Blaine’s feint at going pre-med gives us a delightful flashback to young Blaine in a bowtie playing Operation.
- Sam protests: “You think I’m fat?” Bichette: “Not for Kansas.”