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Glee: “Big Brother”

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As soon as I finished watching “Big Brother,” it immediately started slipping out of my mind. Here it is, an hour or so later, and I can barely remember a thing that happened unless I really try. Glee has always been a show most easily measurable via impact. It’s a show that doesn’t do everything right (and never has) but gets just enough things so perfect that you forgive it the problems. And those moments that work—be they musical numbers or hilarious lines or perfectly pitched emotional beats—hang with you like few other shows on TV. There’s just something about a high-school show that gets right down to the core of our very beings, reminding us of who we were at that age. Adolescence is universal, as are all its pains and awkwardness. Glee has always dialed right into that when it’s at its best, but the very worst it can be—worse, even, than boring—is forgettable. And “Big Brother” was forgettable.


Well, it was but for one element: Matt Bomer’s performance as Blaine’s brother, Cooper, which was absolutely terrific. Bomer’s been quietly making a case that he’s a huge star just waiting to happen on White Collar, and this episode cemented his status as such. He sings and dances. He stars in a credit-report commercial. He gives hilariously bad acting advice. He nails every laugh line he’s given. He somehow makes a storyline that should be kind of ridiculous and/or offensive—all of these kids abruptly turn into dim-witted naïfs who believe anything a guy who’s been in a commercial and might possibly be up for a Michael Bay movie tells them—a lot of fun. There’s no good reason for everybody to get taken in by Cooper’s advice, which is self-evidently bad, but Bomer is having so much fun dispensing it that lines like “Stanislavsky says the fingers are the eyes of the body, but he never mentions that the toes are the ears” kill.

The emotional side of this storyline—Blaine has always been overshadowed by his charismatic older brother—is a little undernourished, but I like that the show at least took it seriously. The final performance of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” was a strong one, since it featured both Darren Criss and Bomer at their most enjoyable (and a pretty damn good song). Sibling rivalry is a typical source of teenage angst that the show hasn’t really touched on, so it was nice to see the show turn to it, if only briefly, in this storyline. And even if the star status that Cooper held didn’t make a lot of sense, I totally bought that he’s been overshadowing Blaine his whole life. It was a storyline that shouldn’t have worked but did, because the actors were so damn committed to it. (And, okay, that rendition of “Fighter” was completely ridiculous, but I sometimes enjoy when the actors realize they’re trapped in a terrible musical number and just grit their teeth to get through it.)

There was at least one other storyline here that worked for me, and that’s the story surrounding the revelation that Quinn is in a wheelchair after her accident. It’s just about the worst-kept secret in the history of television, but I liked that the show didn’t bother trying to make us think it was going to kill the character off. She rolls in beside Artie in the first minute of the show, and we’re off to the races, with a storyline where Quinn is certain she’ll walk again, since she’s starting to regain a little feeling in her legs, and Artie doesn’t want her to get her hopes up for something that might not happen. There’s a scene where the two sing “I’m Still Standing.” There’s another where Quinn’s speech is poorly written, so it sounds like she won’t be able to go to Yale if she’s in a wheelchair. (In reality, she’s just bound all of her hopes up in being able to walk again, which is healthy, I’m sure.) There’s a scene where Artie takes her to see all of his friends in wheelchairs, and they do some energetic wheelchair dancing. There was also a palpable sense of longing throughout.

Longing is the engine that drives Glee, more than anything else, and though I felt like this storyline rushed Quinn’s arc, I liked the way that it played off of both Artie and Quinn’s desires for something else. Artie liked having someone else in his situation, someone who could understand what he was going through (and I was impressed with the chemistry between Kevin McHale and Dianna Agron, just on a pure “friends” level), but he also could see the idea that she, indeed, might be able to walk across the stage and get her diploma. I don’t want to say that Artie “hopes” Quinn will stay unable to walk, but I’m sure the thought crossed his mind. Similarly, Quinn hopes that she’ll walk again, and she refuses to consider the alternative, because that would mean everything breaking down. It’s another storyline where perhaps everything’s too rushed, but all involved do their best with what they have.


So, yeah, if “Big Brother” had been about the above two storylines, it might have been one of the better hours of the season. Instead, the show kept piling stuff on top of that. We had Finn and Rachel realizing that maybe getting married in high school was a bad idea, that maybe both of them will want different things! We had Sue confronting the fact that she might have a baby with Down syndrome, something that gave her more pause than she might have liked. We had Will and Emma accompanying her to the doctor’s office, because they needed something to do. We had Puck trying to convince Finn that going off to California to help out Puck in his pool-cleaning business was the way to live life. We had… a long and unfortunate vignette at Six Flags.

Here’s the thing: Not a single one of these storylines was bad in and of itself. The actors were clearly invested, and everybody was willing to give their damnedest when it came to putting the emotions across. There are versions of all of those stories that work, and I didn’t find any of them awful. (Well, the theme-park sequence was pretty terrible, but it was mercifully brief.) There was room for humor and good music and emotional catharsis in every single one of those storylines. Instead, I found myself forgetting what happened almost immediately. Why?


For starters, check out this excellent article by Willa Paskin, which asks if the show has always struggled as much as it has in the last few weeks. I revisited some season-one favorites before this season started, and I concur with Paskin’s assertion that the show’s bad side has always been present—but in season one, it was tempered by the show keeping things relatively simple. Somewhere along the line, the series gave in all the way to its own worst tendencies—and elevated a few things that weren’t problems (like Sue Sylvester) to a status where they couldn’t evolve organically, thus making them problems. There were a handful of episodes in that first season that tried to do too much and came up lacking, and somehow, those became the template for the show going forward. When the show is simply unable to distinguish which of its storylines is most important and when it can’t provide its actors with the space necessary for believable catharsis, we get things like the dud of a cliffhanger in this episode, which is all about whether Rachel and Finn will break up. Ugh.

There’s still room for the unexpected in Glee. That’s always what the show has done best with, and that’s always where its strength has been. Bomer’s performance—and the surprisingly soulful material in the Quinn storyline—were new and fresh enough to carve out a little space in the imagination. And in both cases, the actors’ commitment to the material kept things that could have been rough and choppy on an even keel. There are story cheats here and there and emotional beats that are rushed along. But the show gave them (and the actors) just enough room to make the stories land. The problem is that it continues to try to do too much, to ladle on item after item, when, say, a quick beat between Finn and Rachel might have been enough. The show has always burned through story quickly. That was exhilarating at one time, but as with The O.C. and Heroes before it, it’s created a situation where it’s run out of things to say. Here’s hoping the just-announced fourth season provides a much-needed overhaul.


Stray observations:

  • Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: Outside of the very silly “Fighter” and that theme-park number, I rather enjoyed the songs in this episode. “I’m Still Standing” was fairly fun, and I liked the Gotye number a lot.
  • Straight guys, talkin’ ’bout Glee: Lea Michele’s really giving it her all this season, despite being saddled with some pretty silly material, and she looked very fetching tonight. Golf claps, gentlemen.
  • In case you were wondering, Quinn’s accident delayed Finn and Rachel’s wedding. But you probably assumed that already.
  • I kind of liked Quinn’s positivity, until it was revealed it was all she could do to not confront the possibly devastating consequences of the accident. I liked that, too, but this episode gave Dianna Agron more shades to play than she’s usually asked to, and that was a good thing.
  • The “don’t text and drive” PSA in the first act was very, very odd (did Agron take that right to the camera?); the long string of commercials around the same theme was even more puzzling. Are teens really that oblivious to the idea that texting and driving could lead to their deaths? I have to assume most of them know the risks.
  • In case you were wondering, part two, there was no mention of Karofsky, so far as I could tell.
  • Kurt’s glee over seeing Cooper was a fun little moment and well-played by Chris Colfer.

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