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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Glee: "Mattress"

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Back when I first started writing up this here colossal mess of a television program, I advanced the thesis that Glee is basically a sad show that's covering up that sadness with a happy smile. I believe I said it was a whole television series constructed out of that scene where Marge Simpson tells  Lisa to quash her depression down deep and cover it up with a smile. As I continued to advance that thesis, I came in for some abuse both from you guys and from others on the 'net, who all wished to inform me that I was either depressed or giving the show too much credit, that the series was essentially a happy one, even if there were minor, depressing complications from time to time. I've been holding back in saying that I think the series has been increasingly backing me up as it's gone along, particularly since it came back from its baseball-enforced break. But after "Mattress," there is only one thing I can say to everyone: Glee is the saddest show on television. Also, neener, neener, neener.


Look, it'd be one thing if the show were just clearly setting everything up as a cliffhanger before next week's fall finale. I'm sure everything's going to turn out just right at the end of that episode (if only because it has to so the show has somewhere to go when it comes back in April). But Glee has always built its foundation on the idea that most of these people are fundamentally sad in some way. Will's trapped in a marriage that's coming untethered and realizing many of his dreams will never come true. Terri's willing to do whatever she can to keep him around. Rachel wants to be a star so badly that she can never get anything else she wants. Finn believes himself to be the father of his girlfriend's baby and finds himself in over his head. And so on. Glee says a lot of happy things about how if you try hard, you'll get what you want, but the entire show is essentially proving this isn't the case.

Then you have this episode, which not only involves all of the characters confronting something unhappy at their core but also ends with Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" (as covered by the Glee kids, of course), a song that's about many things but is also about how if you smile when you're feeling down, you'll feel a little bit better for a while. I mean, I get an immense, joyful charge out of seeing the kids bouncing around on mattresses and singing "Jump," but at the same time, it's a segment that is essentially the forced smile of the Chaplin song, plastered on the show to keep everything from getting too gloomy. And in the process of recording that song, enjoyable though it may be and as much as it may send the kids on the road to local stardom, the kids also inadvertently made it so Will couldn't take the kids to sectionals. Though he inevitably will (and though the sight gag of all of those mattresses was inspired, particularly in Will's reaction to them), the show's still underscoring everything with something approaching realistic emotional conflict.

Also, as my friend Myles points out, Glee briefly turned into Mad Men tonight. While I still think the fake pregnancy was the worst thing I've ever seen on a show I otherwise enjoyed, the final scene detailing how it exposed all of the cracks in the Schuester marriage was a borderline terrific one. (When Will walked in and forced Terri to lift up her shirt to reveal her baby bump, it was some Don Draper shit right there.) Though it seems a little forced that Will would jump from finding the baby pad to suspecting his wife of faking her pregnancy, everything else in the scene provided the emotional tension the storyline has been missing, even if it felt a bit like the writers (Ryan Murphy, who's gotten back into my good graces with this and "Wheels," in this case) retroactively trying to make the plot work.

One of the things that first made me think Glee was a sadder show than it was letting on was the pilot's reveal that Terri was pregnant, that Will, who clearly was falling out of love with her, was going to have a baby with her. (Apparently, the original script for Glee - which was for a movie version of the show - played this plot pretty much straight.) As soon as the show began saying that the pregnancy was a phantom one, it felt increasingly like network notes on the show, as though they didn't want a married man with a pregnant wife flirting with the cute guidance counselor. So Terri became more and more of a loathsome individual, and the storyline became more and more forced. But tonight, the show found a way to restore some of her dignity. She was worried that Will was drifting away from her - a reasonable fear - and she did the only thing she could think of to keep him around. Jessalyn Gilsig's performance was so much cannier than the writing she was handed that if the show had played these notes from the start instead of forcing her into scenes with the horrific sister character, the storyline still would have been stupid, but it might have played in a more resonant way.

That said, though, so much of this episode played to the emotionally resonant version of the Glee I love that it threatens to become my favorite episode of the show's run so far (I want to watch it again before making that call). Check out Rachel working through her disappointment that Finn didn't show up by talking herself out of a crying jag in the mirror, forcing down that sadness to plaster on a fake smile. Or look at Sue, with her continued vendetta (increasingly seeming to be pointless) against the Glee club. Or even Quinn, who managed to come up with an apt way to kiss off the woman and the group that once meant so much to her, even though it must have hurt to do so.

But it all really comes back to THAT scene, in a way, because that's the scene that reveals that Glee can do the hard work of coming up with scenes that resolve its goofy plotlines in ways that both make sense and create balanced, emotional lives for the characters. Glee's been stumbling in this general direction since at least "Preggers," and while the series is nowhere near all of the way there yet, it's finally beginning to look like a show that will find its way to being something vital, something that cannot be missed. Here's to a good fall finale.

Stray observations:

  • Fall finales are such a stupid concept anyway, right? I mean, Fox is listing fall finales for shows that are going away for SIX WEEKS on their schedule. Though Glee's extended absence is certainly going to cut more deeply.
  • "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is one of my favorite songs of all time. My opinion about next week's episode will not be able to be trusted.
  • I liked the way the yearbook plot ended up being kind of a great way to keep the episode mostly centered.
  • Now all we have to do is get rid of the bizarre Emma/Ken wedding subplot, and we'll be good to go!
  • "Strangely, it did make me feel more American."
  • "Ken has a lot of flaws. He has 74 flaws as of yesterday."
  • "What's that song about overcoming personal and professional disappointments? Oh yeah!"
  • "Aside from nudity and the exploitation of animals, I'll pretty much do anything to break into the business."
  • "A pocket square's gonna make you look like Ted Knight."
  • "Hey, Andrea. That Sue's Corner I just did? Talkin' about you."