My junior year of high school, the marching band I was in took a trip to St. Louis, leaving behind the tiny town of 800 we all lived in for the big city. If we’re being honest, a lot of people—myself included—were mostly in the band still just to go on the trip, which also involved any number of side adventures in the wild and exciting world of St. Louis. The trip solidified something in my head that had been growing for quite some time: I didn’t want to live in South Dakota my whole life. I wanted to go somewhere big and exciting, like St. Louis, or, if I dared, even bigger. I was smart enough to know that playing a saxophone wasn’t going to take me there, but it could be my gateway drug toward bigger and better things if I’d let it. And eventually, I did move on, ended up in California, while most of my classmates stayed within a 60 mile radius of home. That worked for them. It didn’t for me.
“New York,” the second season finale of Glee, is the second consecutive season finale that feels dropped in from another, better series that’s plugging along in an alternate universe. It probably has much lower ratings, but it also probably has scads more critical support and Emmy wins up the wazoo. I like this series quite a bit, and I’m always glad when we get to drop in on it, even as I’ve made my peace with the fact that the series we do have is never going to be the other series full time. “New York” wasn’t as good as “Journey,” largely because it wasted a lot of time on performances designed solely to show off how the show was actually in New York and also because it borrowed a lot of that episode’s set pieces without finding anything remotely as powerful as the performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but it was still a good piece of television, and at its heart was the question I faced a decade ago, the question that animates many of the best episodes of Glee: At what point do you accept that you’re from Lima, Ohio (or Armour, South Dakota), but you’re not always going to be from there?
I understand the complaints leveled against this episode. For all of Quinn’s ominous talk last week about how she was going to ruin everything when the choir got to New York, she ended up just getting a haircut (though Dianna Agron was very good in the scene that built up to that). For all that the back half of this season has focused on Karofsky and Kurt or on Brittany and Santana, the finale abruptly shifted back into the Finn and Rachel storyline that ceased being too interesting long ago (though I’m much more in favor of the third leg of the triangle being “the future” instead of some other person). Even more than “Journey,” this didn’t feel like a satisfactory ending to the season we got, instead feeling like it was tossed together from what the season was originally meant to have been, as though Brad Falchuk wrote the script for this one right after the premiere was written, then locked it away in a drawer somewhere. It closed off emotional arcs that didn’t really need closing off—like the adventures of Sunshine and Rachel—and it made concrete new ones that aren’t strictly necessary—like Mercedes and CHORD OVERSTREET! dating for some reason.
But I still dug this episode quite a bit. Weirdly, the musical numbers ended up being what I liked least about the episode. The number where Will has his moment on the Broadway stage (taken from Matthew Morrison’s album, I believe) was way too self-indulgent for a character the writers have lost track of in the last season and a half, and the “New York” number, taken from a Madonna album and mixed together with the Sinatra classic, had some nice location footage but also what sounds like a legitimately terrible song. (I’m told I should respect Madonna, whom I know basically nothing about, but did she REALLY rhyme “york” with “dork”? Clearly, she subscribes to the Will Schuester “15 minutes and a rhyming dictionary school of hit songcraft.) And while I liked the idea behind Rachel and Kurt performing “For Good” from Wicked, I still think it’s a pretty weak song (and will fight, bare-knuckled, anyone who’d suggest Wicked deserved the best musical Tony over Avenue Q). Glee can overcome weak song choices if the songs are utilized well, but too many of the songs here were utilized as, “Hey, we’re in New York!” choices.
Yet I thought the emotions of the episode were solidly on point. I like the show best when it’s about the contrast between the heightened emotions of the kids on stage and the more prosaic reality of life in Lima, Ohio, and this episode cranked up the idea of New York as a kind of fantasy wonderland that these kids can disappear into almost at will. If there’s ever a “Rachel goes to New York!” spinoff, then the show can deal with the messy realities of being a young kid in a big, unforgiving city, but for now, it strikes me as appropriate that these kids would stare at the tall buildings and the Central Park foliage in awe, eyes wide and round. (On that St. Louis trip, we ended up in an inner city grocery store when our bus driver got lost, and it was like the BEST GROCERY STORE WE’D EVER SEEN.) New York is the end result for someone like Rachel or Kurt, but it’s both unattainable and not necessarily the place to end up for someone like Finn and Quinn. To the show’s credit, it doesn’t look down on the latter two for not aspiring to quite as much as the former two.
And then you have the comedown, in a wonderful, song-less epilogue set back in Lima. The kids are stuck back in their day-to-day lives, the only real acknowledgement of their 12th place finish a tiny trophy and a banner Emma’s hung (that says, “Good on ya!”). And yet there’s something about the whole experience that’s freed them up just a bit, let them be a little more open with each other and the world at large. Kurt’s not depressed about losing at Nationals because, well, he’s seen his future, and he likes the limitless possibility. Mercedes and Sam can start tentatively dating. Brittany can tell Santana she loves her, edging closer to the two acting as an out couple. And Finn can kiss Rachel, even though she tells him she’s leaving in a year’s time. Hey, they still have a little while, right?
Season two of Glee was a season when I lost faith in the show in a lot of ways, but this recent stretch of episodes (roughly since “Rumours”) has made me think that the series still has what it did back in season one in a lot of ways; it just needs to know where to look for it or be given the incentive to try. The season opened and closed strong, but the middle section was mushy and filled with plenty of episodes that just didn’t work. (The more I think about it, that Christmas episode seems like a particularly terrible execution of an idea this show should have knocked out of the park.) For all of the wild experimentation the show is known for, the season too often seemed to be playing it safe, trying to find a formula for mixing heartwarming schmaltz with edgy comedy and big production numbers. It ultimately failed in that quest, and in the last handful of episodes, it went back to trying to tell big, emotionally resonant stories mixed with dashes of dark humor and lots of songs. That’s the Glee I’ve always liked best, and seeing the creators slowly find their voice again gives me hope that the third season, even with a regular writing staff, will be more consistent than this one and perhaps have a better, more logical build in the over-arching storyline.
It’s become fashionable to rag on Glee in a lot of ways. In fact, I rather contemplated ditching this assignment heading into season three (I still might) because I’m never going to hate the show enough for some and never going to love it enough for others. Nobody really wants a Glee skeptic, simply because it’s the kind of show that invites heavy passion on either side. But as we’ve headed into the last few episodes of this season, I’ve been reminded that there are things this show can do that no other show on TV can, no matter how good they are. There’s no series on the air right now that’s this close to the throbbing, intense emotions of adolescence, no show that understands just how much it can hurt to throw your all into a performance and have the rest of the world find it baffling. It’s the kind of series where Kurt and Rachel can dream an orchestra into existence, and that idea is at once sweetly poetic and kind of blue all at once.
Or, look at this another way: At the end of the first number in New Directions’ performance at Nationals, Finn and Rachel kiss. It’s an unscripted moment, one that Jesse rightly derides as unprofessional (even as he’s obviously deeply hurt by Rachel kissing Finn and not him) but one that Will tries to save with applause. Yet when Rachel and Finn kiss, the giant auditorium—which I think was Lincoln Center—is empty. For just a moment, they’re all alone in the space, all alone in their affections. And, yeah, it’s not the world’s most original idea, and, yeah, the idea that this costs the group their chance to go on to the next step at Nationals is a too neat way of suggesting that Rachel can’t have both Finn and her Broadway dreams, but it resonates all the same. And even better is the next moment, when we cut back to the two and see that the auditorium IS still full of people, and the last thing they care about is two teenagers working out their relationship angst on a national stage. For the kids in Glee, the show always goes on, but the hardest thing to realize is that sometimes no one cares. That’s the show I loved in season one, and that’s the show I’m glad is finding itself again as season two wraps up. Let’s hope for the best in season three.
Finale grade: B+
Season grade: B-
- Let’s get this out of the way first: The new original songs the New Directions kids wrote (in a device that was meant to be the spine of the episode but just felt kind of ludicrous) were not nearly as good as the ones they wrote back in “Original Song.” Why not just perform those songs again, other than the iTunes sales? The Journey numbers in “Journey” felt logical because it felt like the conclusion of, well, a journey. Here, the new original songs don’t work nearly as well in that regard.
- Best episode of the season: Probably still “Duets,” which gave every character something interesting to do and found a very strong central idea to build an episode of a series about a show choir around. Runner-up is probably “Silly Love Songs.”
- Worst episode of the season: Do you even have to ask? Though I’m sure I’ll watch it again to embrace its unique brand of awfulness, “Rocky Horror Glee Show” remains the show’s lowest point. And that face. Ew. Shudder. Runner-up: “Brittany/Britney.”
- Does anybody else remember that Artie and Tina were a couple last season and that early in this season, their break-up was a major plot point? I had kind of forgotten about it until this episode.
- Speaking of which, I did like how the musical numbers at Nationals gave all of the characters little moments together that closed off their theoretical, more consistent character arcs in the alternate universe. It was a nice way to put a button on, say, Artie and Tina without really calling attention to it. Good work, alternate universe writers!
- OK, I did like one number. “Bella Notte” was a sweet little moment between Finn and Rachel and well-performed by the glee club guys.
- It is entirely possible that I am overrating this episode because it hit the, “You chose the wrong coast, buddy” button in my soul pretty hard. (I love Los Angeles, but, man, New York is the tops.)
- That said, I do kind of wonder if the show couldn’t have made better use of its location shooting. The production numbers felt surprisingly small in wide open spaces, when I think the show wanted them to feel larger than ever.
- OK, here’s a gripe: Will’s all about going to Broadway, until he isn’t (a choice I respect), but his performance in the theater ends with a guy coming in to tell him, “I KNOW TALENT AND YOU’VE GOT IT!” and it’s NOT a dream sequence? C’mon.
- I do really enjoy every time the show has the kids sing sans Auto-Tune. Thus, Kurt leading the others in “New York, New York” was a nice little moment that ended too soon.
- I probably shouldn’t do this, but it’s time for… Straight Guys Talkin’ ‘Bout Glee: Look, there were plenty of fetching young ladies in the episode this evening (even Emma was doing well for herself in her three-second cameo), but Heather Morris always looks so damned happy when dancing that it’s impossible not to be just a little attracted to her.
- Finally, what are your season three wish lists? I want the show to give Dianna Agron something worthy of her talents. I also want more Heather Morris dancing, and I want Puck to get a parrot that rides around on his shoulder and repeats everything he says. And while we’re at it, let’s have an episode that’s an elaborate homage to Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. We’ll see you all for a hopefully ballet-riffic season three!