It’s obvious “Lights Out” is pure Glee from the moment its pixel-people lecture each other on paying too much attention to their screens. So earnest, so oblivious. After a balloon takes out McKinley’s power for a week, another perfectly Glee incident right down to the “Congratulations On Your Successful Hysterectomy” balloon’s I’m-not-touching-you provocation, Will improvises a new theme for the week: unplugged. There’s an a cappella anthem, a Stomp tribute that’ll have you checking the year, and such restrained auto-tune that lucky listeners can actually hear the cast voices. And then Ryder performs a rendition of “Everybody Hurts” so serious it parodies itself. He begins by saying that he’s not even following the one rule for this assignment. The entire cast stew in the sauna of gravitas for a few minutes. And it all revolves around a montage of slushies that the characters have endured. Slushies. Shot in instant replay for the viewer’s entertainment. And quicker than you can say, “Oh, dear god, please don’t, why?” Ryder has a confession to make. I prayed to Barbra to let it be something fun, to let him please be bi, but no. Instead Glee tries to curl seven times its mass and snaps its arms off in the process. It’s the molestation episode.
In retrospect, the “Everybody Hurts” montage might have been an attempt to set the stage for just such a confession. What a difference a slushie makes. Strip that away and the sequence becomes a heartfelt if overwrought scene of communal support. Everyone has his issues. What’s more, “Lights Out” is an episode all about sharing pain in words, scenes of oral storytelling with no supporting images from Roz tattling on Becky’s blinking fart-noise prank to Kurt updating everyone on his father. Take out the slushies and this would fit right in. But the whole point of the slushie being the weapon of choice at McKinley is that it’s funny or at least funny-adjacent. Like Sue Sylvester walking through a bunch of clauses before she arrives at the punchline, a bully has to carry the slushie from the gas station to the target. Those shards of ice might hurt, but they’re also a joke.
Get over the whiplash and it’s still cringe-worthy. As usual, there’s some good stuff on paper, like the boys wondering why anyone would be ashamed of a 17-year-old babysitter touching them in the shower and Will gesturing feebly at the legal protocol. If Glee is determined to address the issue, it may as well cover its bases. It’s just that molestation is such a serious issue that Glee, with its thin types and awkward performances and hysterectomy balloons, isn’t really equipped to handle it. The characters don’t just invoke child molestation. They tell stories about it, about a baby-sitter getting in the shower with an 11-year-old and an older brother touching a sixth-grader’s private parts. It’s viscerally nauseating. So Ryder’s trauma can’t help but overwhelm an episode that would rather, if the opulent direction is any indication, reminisce about the ballet than seriously confront this pain. Becca Tobin and Blake Jenner find some humanity in their dinner scene, in which Kitty confesses that she was also molested as a girl, and that had its own share of consequences, but mostly “Lights Out” approaches child molestation with a paint-by-numbers kit. When everyone’s gone through the motions of Serious Issue Drill Number 12, Glee returns to normal and gets back to discovering the incessant wonders of percussion.
Ryder’s past also colors the pedophile angle on the catfisher. And why all the stalling? Sue Sylvester comes back just to say that she’s not coming back. Regionals is still scheduled for never. Most maddeningly Ryder talks to his catfisher about the very subject of his/her refusal to reveal him/herself several episodes into this story. This is pretty slow-moving for a trainwreck.
As per usual, the New Yorkers show the Limans how it’s done with the most vivid manifestation of the episode’s idea of sharing pain in a 14-minute rendition of “At The Ballet.” Once again the characters are molded to fit the story, but the musical number straddles reality and fantasy, complicating the strict confessionalism of, say, Isabelle announcing that her parents only had her to try to save their marriage. For most of the number it’s the four main characters lit in spotlight against a black stage, metaphysically linked with the New Directions in content (characters sharing pain with each other) and form (a kind of solidarity with McKinley’s flashlights and miner hats). The number is so long and involved that it builds up to this baroque climax of infinite diagonals and muted childhood flashbacks and gradually settles back to a spare stage with four busts in a row. This is what Glee does well.
Not only is it an extravagant set-piece, but it actually lives up to the episode’s ideals. After chipping away at Santana for 40 minutes, her walls come down naturally. Naya Rivera is nuanced enough to sell it. She’s even better in her final scene when Santana’s dance teacher cuts through her attitude with a single question. Her face just drops, but then she picks herself back up and the future looks bright again. And by sharing her load, Santana bonds with her roommates and picks up a new mentor in Isabelle. This being Glee, “Lights Out” naturally validates Isabelle’s advice and totally dismisses Santana’s hard work. She’s a tragic figure because she lost sight of her childhood dream, never mind the fact that she’s working three jobs and supporting herself just fine, thank you very much. The Santana I know would have stood up for herself instead of just closing off. But at least she sells her piece of this sickening pie.
- Santana protests her intervention: “What is so wrong with taking a little time to figure things out?” “Nothing, but why not doing something in the mean time like taking dance lessons. NYADA has a great extension program for non-students. Something to keep your motor revved,” Kurt says to the woman working three dance-related jobs to support herself in the city.
- Sue: “95 years I gave those girls, and what did it get me?”
- The “Little Girls” number is another delight. The best touch is the flashlight shadow turning Sue into a childhood monster.
- Ryder’s catfisher: “Can I ping you back in a few minutes?” Yep, totally checks out. Can I ping y’all back next week?