There’s a crafty little trick that a TV show with wild tonal shifts can use: Take something that’s meant to be a joke, make fun of it several times throughout the hour, and then use it to deliver some sort of brutal moment of drama right toward the very end. It’s a trick that’s been deployed well many times throughout the history of the medium—and I’m sure if you think a bit, you can think of a time Glee did it as well—but Glee tries to pull it off tonight, and it doesn’t quite work. Don’t get me wrong: The gut-punch moment is sufficiently gut-punchy, and we’ll get to that in a bit. But everything building up to it is so messy that the solidly dramatic moment almost made me angry. There’s something about this show that leads to messy tonal mash-ups. But where the show’s musical mash-ups are usually pretty harmonious, the tonal shifts can often be brutally unsubtle.
That’s, of course, because Glee does nothing halfway. It only does something if it can go all the way over-the-top with it. So Sue isn’t just making ridiculous campaign attack ads. She’s making the most ridiculous campaign ads in the history of parodies of campaign attack ads. And because the show needs these ads to work, it’s somehow making the people of Ohio’s whatever-eth Congressional district nervous to contemplate the idea that Burt Hummel might be married to a donkey when that makes no logical sense. Now, obviously, in a satiric work, things don’t need to make complete and utter sense to be successful because you can sometimes score more points by showing the idiocy of people involved than by not doing so. But the problem is that the Sue ads aren’t tonally of a piece with the rest of the episode, which is a fairly earnest tale of the two glee clubs battling (or having a “mash-off”), Puck and Shelby’s secret love, and Finn and Santana having a fight that turns very personal. The Sue ads don’t seem ported in from a different series; they seem ported in from a different universe.
But the show also wants to use the campaign ads to smuggle in something that will pay off in the final moments of the episode. Finn and Santana have been having a trash-talk war, see, and even though Kurt has become upset at the way that the two glee clubs are at each other’s throats and gets everyone to promise to be nice to each other, Santana just can’t resist laying into Finn about how fat he is one last time, unleashing her own version of a Sue Sylvester monologue on the kid. And Finn, being a teenager, goes nuclear: He tells Santana that the reason she’s so happy to tear people down is because she always tears herself down for not being honest about who she really is, which is a lesbian who’s in love with Brittany but isn’t sure Brittany reciprocates her affection. This is all well and good, as these things go, since Naya Rivera’s a hell of an actress that the show rarely uses well, but it also seems like it will be the end of things, mostly just there to remind us that, hey, Santana’s a lesbian, and that’s a plot that will pay off…
Oh, at the end of the episode? And some pizza guy’s made an ad that questions Sue’s family values credentials, given that she’s got a lesbian cheerleader and that she, herself, has never been married? And Santana’s just been forcibly outed—albeit accidentally—by Finn? That’s… good TV, I guess? But where the hell was it hiding in the 55 minutes before? I mean… the last five minutes of this episode are phenomenal, one of those times that the show gets the mix of tones just right and something that’s vaguely comedic gets more and more horrifying and dramatic, and then we plunge down the rabbit hole and everything goes nuts. The final song—a mash-up of two Adele tunes performed by the TroubleTones—is the episode’s musical highlight, and Rivera plays the whole thing on the edge of tears, which gives her vocal performance an appealingly raw quality. (Rivera can make a claim to be the show’s best “belter,” and the episode gives her plenty of chances to belt.) Santana, watching her world spin apart (and notice how the camerawork and editing reflect her mental state), sees Finn whisper something to his girlfriend, and she, well, she flies off the handle and slaps him. You can argue about whether he had it coming or not—though he shouldn’t have outed her, he couldn’t have known it would go this far—but it’s an expertly deployed emotional moment that perfectly puts you inside Santana’s head.
Part of the reason this moment works, I’ll admit, is that it arrives out of nowhere. If the rest of the episode leading up to it had been a wacky light comedy about the two groups at war, then it might have made for a near-perfect episode of Glee, one where the comedy and music gave way to an emotional wallop. But everything leading up to those final five minutes was a tonally whacked out mess. I mean, for God’s sake, Kurt made an earnest plea for the end of dodgeball. Just… what?! Kurt wants to end bullying—positive goal! He’s approaching it by starting small—good first step! He’s going to get rid of dodgeball—again, what?! (Sorry. That whole thing was so stupid I was certain the show was making fun of Kurt’s occasionally cloying idealism until Rachel dropped out of the race, and it became clear it wasn’t.)
At least the worst plotline in the history of the world is gone, as Shelby found out about Quinn’s plotting—thanks to the sweet, sweet ministrations of Puck—but the scenes where Shelby gave her a mild scolding acted as though what Quinn had done was a reasonable thing that some teenage girl who missed her baby might do, instead of the ludicrous plotting of a deranged lunatic (which Quinn isn’t). Puck and Shelby had several chaste scenes where the show tried to take their love seriously on a level other than, “Guess what every other teen soap has done at some point, so we might as well, too? A student-teacher relationship!” Will assigned the kids to do mash-ups—the Will Schuester equivalent of wasting a week of class to show a movie—then remembered he was Burt’s campaign manager and pretended to be concerned anybody would actually believe that Burt was married to a donkey and/or that anyone would give a shit if he had a baboon heart.
Brittany continues to be written alternately as someone with sage, savvy wisdom, a teenage sexpot, and someone with the intelligence of a 4-year-old. (Her “I’ll go topless on Tuesdays!” thing was an embarrassing submarining of what started out as a pretty intriguing plotline.) The show’s inconsistent about bullying, in that it’s totally okay to bully someone until the bully gets their feelings hurt. (I know that the show doesn’t intend to give this message, and I get that much of what comes back to bite Santana is karmic payback for how hard she was on Finn. But why on Earth does Sue always get wrapped into this stuff too, as if the show wants to remind us that she’s a human being with emotions and such as well?) The show’s sense of humor is almost completely absent, with strained wackiness taking the place of the kinds of sharp dialogue and satirical bite that worked well in previous seasons. And Rory’s sole character trait continues to be “Irish.”
Now, granted, none of these are new complaints. The show has always had a number of these problems, but in this season, it’s done a pretty good job of making the stories with the teenagers feel sweet and honest and real. All you need to do is look at last week’s episode to see the show handling a classic teen theme—losing your virginity—in an honest and moving way. Have there been issues throughout? Of course. It wouldn’t be Glee without those issues, but every time I read grumbling from people that the show has lost it because it’s not as crazy as it was or because it’s not as zany as it was, I disagree, simply because I’d rather the show tell honest, straightforward stories with some fun musical numbers. And it’s not like this episode didn’t do that. Santana’s storyline—though packed with that one soapy twist—was pretty darn good. But the others are weird, over-the-top soapy stories played for emotional resonance, and that’s a mix that’s harder to pull off. It’s not something Glee has ever done terribly well, and I think it’s contributing to the “why isn’t this wackier?” disconnect some of you are feeling this year. This episode was packed full of those sorts of storylines, and it mashed them all up with the increasingly off-her-rocker Sue, creating a mix that just fell apart far too often.
The music was pretty good, I guess, so I can see liking the episode on that level. And those final five minutes were so effective that I can see making the argument they saved the episode. But if Glee isn’t going to have consistency of tone, then it needs to be fucking crazy as balls. And the show just isn’t managing that this year. To be clear: I like the earthier, more honest emotional tone of many of these episodes. But I find it hard to watch an episode like this and be entirely certain what’s supposed to be satirical, what’s supposed to be taken seriously, and what’s supposed to be a mix of the two. Pull it off, and you get something like that Santana moment. Fail, and you end up with Kurt earnestly asking us all to reconsider dodgeball and a musical number that seems created exclusively to reflect the show’s promotional campaign. Maybe, at the end of the day, Glee has bought too thoroughly into the mythology of being Glee.
Grade for first 55 minutes: D+/C-
Grade for final five minutes: A
Grade for Finn slaps: A+++++
- The week in music: As mentioned, the Adele mash-up was a killer, but while I’m usually not bothered by the show’s relentless Auto-tuning, it really got to me in the Hall & Oates number (and I don’t get why Finn would be so in love with them but fine). Everybody sounded like a robot, but especially Finn, and it killed some of the entertainment there. I liked the show doing a shot-for-shot homage to the “Hot For Teacher” video until it turned into a really long performance in the choir room (complete with Schu nodding approvingly at crotch-grabbing dancing). The other mash-ups were completely superfluous, but fine as those things go. If you just watch the show for the music—and I know a lot of you do—then you probably had a pretty good episode.
- Straight guys talkin’ ‘bout Glee: She’s currently trapped in the worst plotline in the world, but it’s kind of fun to watch Dianna Agron’s eyes flutter about as she starts to realize this. “Shit, I have a five year contract?” her brain is registering. What I am saying is that I find self-awareness attractive, and I’m owning that.
- I seriously want to see Will’s campaign strategy binder (or Trapper Keeper, which you know it must be) because I imagine the whole thing is filled with meaningless buzzwords and storyboards for campaign ads where every cut is a wipe that’s just a bald eagle flying straight at the screen. After sketching one, he throws his arms in the air triumphantly and cries, “America!”
- Why you should vote for Burt Hummel: He’s a small business owner. He’s on the right side of all of the “issues.” He took a pay cut so he wouldn’t have to fire staff. He is, apparently, the greatest man who’s ever lived. Why you shouldn’t vote for Burt Hummel: He’s married to a donkey, and you are angry at the world.
- If this were The Good Wife, Burt would explicitly state that he had nothing to do with the “lesbian Santana pizza” ad, but when people would ask him to disavow it, he’d say, “I don’t agree with it, but it shows people are asking questions about Sue Sylvester, as they should be.” And then Kurt would tearfully say something about how he should be above that because he has a gay son, and then he’d think about it, but he wouldn’t take what he said back because he needed to win, and then he’d get elected to Congress, but he’d be compromised, man. Also, Eli Gold would be running his campaign. Or Sue’s. What I’m saying is that I want Eli Gold on this show. Preferably singing “What A Girl Wants” by Christina Aguilera.
- Has there ever been a good teacher/student relationship storyline? And why is it always a younger guy and older woman? Do we, as a society, find that somehow more weirdly acceptable than the reverse (or some sort of same-sex pairing)? Why is that? Is this just a way of acknowledging that Mark Salling is starting to look his age? Discuss.
- If the next week on is any indication, everybody’s going to learn about how Santana feels hurt by being outed by singing “I Kissed A Girl.” The model of restraint, this show.