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Glee: "Puppet Master"

After last year’s non-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving episode scored Glee’s lowest ratings yet, setting a bar that almost every episode in season five so far has failed to clear, it was a no-brainer to repeat the scheduling again this year with a non-holiday episode sneaking by while half the audience is in tryptophan comas. It reeks of Fox playing out the clock on these last two seasons the network signed up for, especially given the show reportedly taking two and a half months for winter in what might turn out to be Glee’s first shortened season.

Last year’s Thanksgiving episode, not the one about Thanksgiving that aired a week after the American holiday but the one that aired on Thanksgiving itself, was the out-of-nowhere delight “Dynamic Duets,” so there is potential in a Thanksgiving episode. Sure enough, “Puppet Master” has a certain “the cat’s away” energy about it, and I say that knowing full well that this is a show that had a dinosaur-themed prom when the cat was very much present. There are three main reasons I say this. For starters there are Muppets, everyone’s favorite tired fad resurgence of a few years ago given new life by way of this cast of already caricatured performances removed even further from real life and this writing staff just twisted enough to turn Muppet cheer into sick self-reinforcement. Eventually Blaine starts to consider his reliance on Muppet role-play. “Maybe the fact that I can only really feel like myself with friends I can totally control is keeping me from really feeling like I’m close to anyone. Maybe it’s indicative of a deeper intimacy issue.” Muppet Jake responds, “Or maybe everyone should wise up and start doing everything you say because you are so right-on all the time!” 

Then there’s that Janet Jackson mash-up. It’s the height of silliness that it involves lesser Cheerio demon Bree of all people complaining about someone being toxic, but teenage hypocrisy fuels this entire genre, and besides Erinn Westbrook finally gets to drop the act and live on-screen, which is about the best thing you can say for a Glee musical sequence, that it actually reveals character. And I don’t just mean the pre-written dialogue and the way she lets her hair down, but Bree’s total attitude adjustment. She’s not playing the after-school type she plays in every other scene this week. She’s the same old Bree, just with another wrinkle. And it’s always a trip when Glee goes full-musical, supplementing its diegetic singers with the rest of the cast, which “Puppet Master” does not only for Bree but for Sue. That scene isn’t quite the rush that “Nasty”/”Rhythm Nation” is, in part because we’ve seen it before. Remember “Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing)?”

“Puppet Master” also has this spine about bad leadership that rings loud and clear on this show of all shows. Sue’s supercontrolling principalcy outshines Figgins’ gas-leak sabotage so the school board grant her the position on a permanent basis. Meanwhile the Muppets are hilarious, misguided yes-men to Blaine, who tries to boss his real team around and winds up on the outs. Kurt reminds him that New Directions is a democracy, but apparently Pamela Lansbury is not, and Kurt is driving my new favorite thing into the trash heap of Madonna cover bands (fun number, though). While the band waits on Kurt for a meeting he called, Starchild tries to defend him. “He is our leader, and artists should be allowed to fail,” and then he winks at the camera over the credit that reads, “Written by the guy who gave us ‘Shooting Star.’” Agreed, Glee! Even in this season I’m leniently calling a perma-B-minus wasteland, Glee’s willingness to fail makes it indispensable.

The issue with late Glee isn’t that it fails so often. It’s that it doesn’t reach very high. “Puppet Master” is a new coat of paint on another diva episode mixed with another pregnancy/love triangle subplot mixed with another Sue-Will detente. The retreads aren’t illuminating, which is an even bigger waste considering none of the New Directions are yet animated by anything with the force of Rachel’s longing or Santana’s anger or Kurt’s struggle. What do we really learn about Blaine from his diva moment, other than what sounds like his newfound predilection for Muppetplay? Bree feels like a completely different character, perhaps a sign of the forest-leveling impact of pregnancy on her, but without a pregnancy test, the subplot feels written, not lived. Didn’t Rachel just go through this? And for such a crash of a scene as the one where Bree tells Jake she’s pregnant, there’s no time to feel the weight thanks to the whiplash editing from “Cheek To Cheek” to Rizzo to Blaine in a superhero get-up. It’s like “Puppet Master” is so embarrassed of this plot that it just wants to get to the fun stuff.

That discord is what really feels lazy. There’s no meaning in the mix of songs in this episode or the way these plots have almost nothing to do with one another, even though three vaguely revolve around leadership. They just fill time. Sue’s trying to seem more typically feminine, Jake’s apparently sleeping with every Cheerio but trying to reform, Brad’s in online gambling debt. The spotlight characters—Sue, Blaine, Jake, Kurt if you’re generous, Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty—don’t resonate much with one another, but someone’s gotta host the show.

So the power lies in the moments. Like when Marley tells Jake she’s over him. It’s not only a strong stand for a once-manipulated character. He says, “You are the only one who can make me a better person.” And she replies, “I’m not here to fix you.” My jaw is still on the floor. Did a character on Glee just say she doesn’t want to fix someone? It’s telling (and empowering) that it’s Marley, who stops in her tracks in this wide shot of two stationary figures in a bustling hallway, tells Jake no, and keeps going. A little more consistency in this regard and a lot more stands like that and the white-knighting on this show might start to look like perceptive commentary. Then there’s the more superficial delights of seeing Sue and Figgins as teachers in 1986, or hearing Sue in the grips of infatuation even if she doesn’t trust the cute superintendent’s hairline. “I happen to have a sizable crush on the handsomest man in the universe.” Clearly there’s new life in these characters—hell, old life in half of the New Directions—and low-key episodes like “Puppet Master” make great opportunities to explore and define them. Artists are certainly allowed to fail. Hopefully Glee starts failing bigger.

Stray observations:

  • Brad The Piano Player rocks his bored face while Blaine blathers on about how the team doesn’t do everything he says, but periodically he interjects: “I can’t stop playing online blackjack. I owe thousands of dollars to some very shady people . . . My house is getting foreclosed on.”
  • Sue makes the obvious puppet joke. “If I catch you with your hand up the butt of anything that isn’t human, you’re in for a world of trouble.” She also hangs a lantern on the discount bullet train the kids must use for their weekly jaunts to New York.
  • Only one person shows up for the Pamela Lansbury performance. “And he thinks Angela Lansbury’s performing,” says Rachel. Really evocative of Glee to make the audience feel like it’s stuck in Lima when all the fun people are in New York.
  • Someone Get That Kid A Self-Respect Pamphlet: Sue calls Unique into her office. “When a woman of my stature needs a makeover, she rings up all her best gays. But unfortunately Porcelain, the sassy toothless elf, is in New York. So, God’s most fabulous mistake, I turn to you. I want to look more like a lady.” Couldn’t Unique at least have bartered for something?
  • In detention, Blaine tries to come up with ways to pass the time. “We could sit in a circle and tell each other about our core wounds?”
  • Sue: “Little known fact: McKinley saved a bundle on new lockers by using recycled metal. These lockers are actually Kalashnikovs, that were melted down during the war in Chechnya.” 

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