When I signed up to review Glee, it was because I thought the show's pilot, though a mess in places, got at something I'd never seen portrayed on TV before: the sense of what it's like to perform as a teenager. When I was in high school, the arts were about the only outlet I had, the only way I could convince girls I was worth talking to, the only thing I was any good at. I spent hours playing instruments, singing, performing … not really dancing, since I've always been terrible at that, but at least trying to dance. In its pilot and in its best moments since, Glee has captured the feeling of what it's like to be 16 and need to perform, the desperation that comes when you realize that these are really the only times you're going to get to do this, the weird sense of community you build with your fellow performers. Glee gets all of that just right.
Obviously, it gets a lot of other stuff wrong. The storytelling is sloppy, veering all over the place with little rhyme or reason. Huge plot points will be forgotten and then picked up again, as though the show has abruptly realized that, oh yeah, Quinn's been pregnant this whole time. Episodes will introduce big, potentially Earth-shattering plot developments, then shrug them off with very little in the way of logic. The show will have its sad moments, but it will veer abruptly into big, happy musical numbers or broad comedy or whatever it wants to. It's a big, hit show. It has no terrible need to moderate. It's just going to keep doing everything it wants to do, and we're expected to either hop on board for the ride or to have gotten off long ago.
On its own, "Journey" is a fantastic episode of Glee. As a capper to the season, it mostly works. As a way to tie together all of the plots the show has developed this year, it sometimes feels like it's dropped in from an alternate universe where the plot followed much more closely from the pilot. There's a moment where Will breaks down in tears in his car while listening to "Don't Stop Believin'" because he thinks the glee club - the best thing that's happened to most of his kids and the emotional constant in what's been a rough year for him - is going to go away. He's worried the kids simply aren't going to do well at regionals (where, apparently, "placing" means getting first or second). Sue Sylvester is one of the judges, and she will surely work her increasingly implausible demon magic to keep the kids from winning.
Honestly, this is a moment that would have absolutely killed if the Will of every other episode had been the Will of the whole season. You'll get little glimpses into his life, into just how adrift he is from what he really wanted, and it always gives a better sense of why this adult would be so obsessed with restarting the high school glee club. To have all of that taken away from him would be devastating to the Will of the pilot or of "Dream On" or of "Mattress." Similarly, the Will of those episodes is the kind of guy I'd buy the kids singing "To Sir With Love" to because he's changed their lives so. But the Will of the other episodes has been a frustrating idiot manchild who doesn't realize his wife is faking a pregnancy, an utter asshole, a vapid dancing soda can who tears up at everything his kids do, or any number of other things. "Journey" felt like a fantastic culmination for a phantom season, a season that didn't exist, one that earned our desire to see New Directions triumph then made us feel genuinely bad when they didn't, when they realized they were good, but they weren't good enough just yet.
And yet, I'm going to place this episode up there with the best Glee has ever done. I think there's something very smart said in the early moments of the episode, when Puck is getting Quinn drunk and persuading her to have sex. In three years, neither of them will remember who Finn even WAS. Will says much the same to the kids in his speech to them in the choir room. They won't remember all of the specifics of regionals in even five years' time, but they will remember the high of performing with their friends, the feeling of being out there and having the crowd with them. Glee is a show that is rather smugly certain that the good stuff it does will be so good that we forget about the trashy stuff. And, honestly, while I remember not liking "Acafellas," I'm hard-pressed to remember why. But I can recall just about every moment of "Jump" from "Mattress" or the original "Don't Stop Believin'" performance. At its best, as Matt Zoller Seitz argued in a wonderful piece today, Glee is achingly sincere, and it's that sincerity that causes some to dismiss it out of hand, even as many of the rest of us find in it a certain Kryptonite that wears down critical defenses. Why are we so primed to turn away from simple, heartfelt expressions of emotion? I'm not sure, but Glee is trying to make the world safe for earnestness again, and I'm on board.
Make no mistake. There's stupid stuff in this episode. I'm not sure I completely buy that Shelby would suddenly adopt Quinn's baby out of nowhere, and while the show went to one of my favorite thematic devices to get Sue to vote for New Directions (in that she realized that she, too, was stuck in Ohio and wasn't going anywhere), I wish that her sudden change of heart had had even the slightest bit more build-up. It was obvious that she was going to relent and let Will have the choir room back for another year because this is that kind of show, but the fact that she did struck me as the show suddenly realizing that it didn't want to end on a forced cliffhanger. The scene between Will and Sue was nicely acted (Jane Lynch always does just as well with these humanizing moments as she does with the broad comedy), but it could have used a polish at the script level.
But for once in this back nine, the good stuff absolutely overwhelms the stupid stuff. I loved the choice to show all of the New Directions performance, even if I didn't think it was as good as their sectionals performance. I loved the almost documentary-like feel the show adopted backstage, capturing the kids putting their hands in to psych each other up or Finn telling Rachel he loves her or Will dancing nervously backstage, barely able to watch his kids out on stage (one of the rare "Will watches the kids" moments that absolutely worked). I loved "To Sir, With Love," which wore down my natural resistance to sap surprisingly quickly. I loved how the show wasn't afraid to let New Directions lose and wasn't afraid to let us feel the sorrow of that moment. I loved Emma's eruption to Will about how Sue must have cheated and the kids deserved to win. I loved the way the episode reoriented Quinn - one of the better story arcs of the series - at the center of everything and the way it would call back to old episodes or moments within a single shot or glance. It felt like the end of a journey, a culmination of something before we go forward.
I don't know what kind of show Glee is going to be in season two. I'm not sure how long I'll be OK with the show completely saving itself at the last minute via improbable moments unlike anything else on TV. But I know that when Glee is playing at its absolute level best, there are few shows on TV that can even go where it goes. To watch Glee is to be bashed over the head until you care, sometimes, but once you do care, oh, it's a helluva show those kids put on.
- I've saved this for the stray observations because I didn't know where else to work it in, but "Bohemian Rhapsody" was, no joke, one of the best things I've seen on television in a long, long time. I've seen a lot of grousing about it on various places around the 'net, but I think it's an incredible sequence. Consider all of the things it has to accomplish. 1.) It has to provide a justification for Vocal Adrenaline to win the whole thing going away. 2.) It has to show Quinn's baby being born. 3.) It has to tie together Puck, Quinn, Quinn's mom, and the rest of the glee club. 4.) It has to show us Rachel's unresolved feelings for Jesse. 5.) It has to put a button on Jesse's arc. Now, honestly, the sequence accomplishes all of these things, and it does so with ABSOLUTELY NO DIALOGUE. It's done entirely via music, camera movement, and editing, and it's fucking thrilling and completely audacious. I've seen some complaints about the fact that Quinn starts saying the lyrics of the song, but she's saying lyrics that would be appropriate for the point she's at in her labor, and the show wears away this initial resistance to what could feel stupid. Furthermore, the times she's not talking with the song, she's shouting at Puck that he sucks or cradling her newborn baby girl and realizing she has to give it up. It's a stunning piece of TV, it takes up an entire act, and I'm impressed that the show used its power as a hit to push for something so thrilling.
- I did want one last moment between Rachel and Jesse. Instead, we got one between Rachel and Shelby, which wasn't bad.
- What the hell is the show going to do with Terri next season? I don't mind that it tried to pretend she didn't exist in these back episodes, but she's presumably still under contract and getting paid for all of these episodes she doesn't appear in.
- Pizza party at Will's house! Honestly, when I saw Quinn standing in his kitchen holding plates, I was very, very worried that they'd sprung yet another abrupt plot shift on us.
- Preference: Pilot "Don't Stop" or finale "Don't Stop"?
- I promise to stop with the "three shows" thing next fall, but Jane Lynch inadvertently offered even more evidence for it in this interview with CBS news. And looking over the episodes written by each creator, I'd definitely watch any of the three Glees, but I think Brad Falchuk's Glee would probably be the most consistent and make the most sense. Conveniently, he wrote and directed the finale.
- And that's it until the fall. I do hope that I'll be around covering the show again come September, even as I'm aware that what I enjoy out of the show (the weird sadness around its edges) is not what most enjoy out of it (the songs). Join me come fall for the inevitable decline!
- "I realize my cultural ascendence only serves to illuminate your own banality."
- "I keep expecting racist animated Disney characters to start popping up and sing songs about living on the bayou."
- "I, for one, was offended that only one of the groups chose to honor me in song."
- "Kiss my ass, Josh Groban."
- "I spend large segments of each day picturing you choking on food. And I recently contacted an exotic animal dealer because I had a very satisfying dream that the two of us went to a zoo and I shoved your face into one of those pink, enflamed monkey butts that weeps lymph."