So what kind of a show do you want Glee to be?
The pilot suggested there were many different kinds of shows the series could become. It could be a semi-realistic look at the life of high school performers, always striving for something more and always being kind of cognizant of the fact that this could be it. It could be a heartwarming sentimental sapfest, always ready to give us a scene where the underdogs overcame the odds and made it in the end. It could be a fanciful musical, where the performances were more important than the story and took care of most of the emotional subtext (by making it text and, also, SONG). Or it could be a sarcastic take on after-school specials that occasionally veered into a REAL after-school special, a weird blend of sneer and smile that wore its heart on its sleeve but coated it beneath a layer of acid.
The answer, as we know now, is that Glee tried to be all of these things, often within the same episode, but more often from episode to episode. Some of the episodes that tried to blend all of these tones - "Wheels," for one - worked. Some of the episodes that tried to blend all of these tones - "Acafellas," for one - failed utterly miserably. But the show managed to find a way to make this all mesh together more often than not, and while it was never the tube's most consistent show, I tend to find consistency a little overrated. The highs of Glee were usually enough to build little bridges of suspension of disbelief over the lows, particularly in the first 13 episodes.
But there's a desire to see the show start to push for something more as it heads toward the end of its first season. Maybe that desire is only held by myself and the other critics I tend to talk to about the show, but I sometimes feel as though the series could be something more but doesn't terribly want to be something more, since what it is is, let's not forget, a top ten hit in the ratings. And, honestly, the kind of show I'd like Glee to be - a sadder show about the fact that dreams sometimes don't come true with catchy musical numbers - is probably much less conducive to mainstream hit status. You see glimmers of this show peeking through the sunny happiness, but the back nine have missed some of the sadness the first 13 have had, and it's been to their detriment, to my mind.
But that's a lot of preamble for me to say that "Dream On" is one of the two or three best Glee episodes ever. Hell, it might be THE best. I'd like to give a little more time to settle and make sure my love for it is not entirely due to my inner Joss Whedon/Neil Patrick Harris fanboy, but most of the good stuff in this episode is not directly attributable to either of those two (though we'll talk about what they bring to the table in a minute). Most of what's good about this episode comes from the script and performances, and it's easy to believe it would still work without Whedon at the helm or with some random character actor in the role of Bryan Ryan. Sure, there are the usual clumsily written scenes, but they're fewer and farther between, and the highs are high enough to buy the show goodwill through the dumber stuff.
"Dream On" is centered around one of the themes of the pilot that the show has mostly dropped and only sporadically picked up since: It's about what it is to have a dream and only slowly realize that that dream will never come true. You may have figured this out merely from the title of the episode (and how often the characters in said episode said the word "dream"), but Glee has never been subtle about its themes. What makes this one work is that it's one of the few themes that can plausibly and realistically be extended to the entire cast. Will is a good teacher and a pretty nice guy, but he's also kind of a warning sign. If these kids don't watch out, this time in high school glee club could be a high they'll chase for the rest of their lives to diminishing returns. Will's unhappy marriage, his stifling life, his bouncing between romantic partners … all of these can be traced back, to some degree, to the fact that he's still after a high school life that will be impossible for him to ever have again.
I'm going to advance a theory here that I've been sort of dancing around for a while. There's a single cut in this episode that may have had more impact than any other moment the show has done so far. Artie has revealed to Tina that his dream is to someday be a dancer, even as he tells most other people that he wants to be a director. Artie, of course, is in a wheelchair, but Tina's a good pseudo-girlfriend, and she wants him to feel good about himself and what he's capable of. So she starts giving him research into new experimental treatments for people who are paralyzed, and she starts to get his hopes up, and he starts to dream. Now, in any other context, I'd hate a dream sequence in an episode like this, but Glee makes it so obvious that we're heading into the realm of fantasy when Artie stands from his chair in the mall when Tina says she's going to get him a pretzel that I didn't mind. And, of course, it's followed by an elaborate musical number (staged like a flash mob for some reason). This is all par for the course and largely fun.
But what I'm talking about is the cut from the end of the song to the next shot, where Artie falls back into his chair in a split-second. We've realized from the first that this is a dream sequence, so the show doesn't telegraph it as much as it might have in any other case. It's just a guy sitting in his wheelchair, watching the world go by, alone with his thoughts. It's a surprisingly powerful moment, and it's even more powerful for the show's refusal to comment on it. Similarly, a scene where Artie tries to use some crutches to walk and ends up with his face on the floor is a sad and lonely moment, one where Tina knows that she should be helping him but really doesn't know what to do beyond helping him up.
Dreams, in a way, are among the most dangerous things in the world. They have a tendency to start out with a feeling of brightness early in life and eventually turn to rot as they don't come true. The only way to get around a dream that stops being true is to adjust to something else that you want (which is why so many dreamers thrust those dreams onto their kids) or set your sights lower or just forget all about it and pretend the life you have is the one you've always wanted. But lying to yourself has a tendency to take its toll, and you end up as a bitter husk or something worse as you realize your life has turned out nowhere near what you wanted.
Will, of course, is following the classic path of thrusting the dreams he's had onto other people in his life. In his case, it's mostly the kids he's been teaching in glee club, but at least he seems to have found a borderline healthy way to deal with the fact that he was never big, that he never even tried to be big. Harris' character, Bryan Ryan, is the guy who tried to make it big and failed, the guy who's come back to town to stop anyone else from dreaming. When I put it that way, he sounds like kind of a Care Bear villain, but Harris plays him with a sort of monomaniacal zeal, as an antagonist who is so messed up about his own stuff that he can't look outside of himself. There's a broadness to some of the scenes in this storyline that bothered me, but the central idea of it - and Harris' performance - are so strong that I didn't mind the rather abrupt way it all ended. I hope Bryan comes back next season, as I don't think the show is done telling stories about this kind of thing.
But it's the third story that has, I think, the most potential going forward. We always knew Rachel was going to find her birth mom. I think most of us always knew it was going to be Idina Menzel, because this is not a show known for subtlety (though I thrilled when Jesse pulled the cassette out of his pocket, as I thought the show was heading in another direction from there). But I was certainly not expecting the show to treat this storyline with the level of emotional seriousness it deserves. Giving a kid up - even to two gay guys who are paying you handsomely for the chance - is a tough decision. Wondering about who your birth parent is can be just as tough. It's a dream that can come true, certainly, but it's also one that carries a huge degree of risk. What if you hate them? What if you just can't stand them?
It's here, I think, that Whedon does his best work as a director. Whedon is fond of long, long shots, and he uses them to absolute perfection in the "I Dreamed a Dream" sequence. Watching Menzel and Lea Michele move in and out of the central shot of the piece (which is over a minute long - an epic shot by TV standards) though they never quite share the frame for more than a few seconds says as much about both how close and how far apart these two are as any dialogue scene could. Whedon's steady hand with actors also makes the scene where Menzel makes her confession in the rain-soaked car a heartbreaker. As scripted, this storyline could have gone either way, but Whedon keeps it grounded in a real, emotional place. Even though Glee has gone exactly where I expected it to, I'm excited to see how it all turns out.
Yes, there are things that don't work in "Dream On" - I'm looking at you, scene where Sue and Bryan debate the relative merits of sports and the arts in high schools. And yet, there's so much at the core of this episode that both resembles the Glee that is - the massive pop culture hit that has taken over the zeitgeist - and the Glee I'd love the show to be and see hiding within the show that is - the kinda-down show about what it means to not always get what you want - that I think "Dream On" is an episode that points the way forward for what the show can be. There are laugh lines, sure. There are great musical numbers, sure. But there's also a real, beating heart. Glee wants to be all things to all people, which is hard to do. As long as it has that core, it'll be just fine.