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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Glee: “The Purple Piano Project”

Illustration for article titled Glee: “The Purple Piano Project”
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I was raised to believe in the final judgment of the living and the dead. And while I no longer believe that it all ends with everybody going before the great throne of judgment and learning their ultimate, eternal fate, there’s still a small part of me that worries that’s how it’s all going to shake out. Like, we’ll get to the end of all things, and I’ll be in that great line of everybody who’s ever lived, and I’ll finally get to the front, and the great Voice will boom out, “HOW HAST THOU SERVED ME?” or something, and I’ll stand there and stare for a long moment, and the Voice will follow up with, “WHAT HAST THOU DONE WITH THY LIFE?” because, y’know, this is God, and He wants to give everybody a chance. And I’ll have to sigh and say, “My life? I spent it watching fucking Glee,” and that’ll be a one-way ticket out of there and into a pit of eternal sorrow because I said a bad word, and then, oh then, I’ll be sorry that I ever abandoned my plan to stop writing about the show in its third season. Because I’ll be in Hell. Thanks, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan.

Tonight’s season premiere featured the absolute best Glee has to offer in one sequence, a handful of okay performances, one or two pretty good lines, and then a whole bunch of awful, proving that bringing more writers into the writing process wasn’t going to stop the show from being as erratic as it’s always been (if it even could). I’m a believer in the U.S. television writers room process. I generally think that when you get enough good voices in the same room, they can come up with some pretty good stuff, and I’ve heard enough showrunners talk about how their writers came up with ideas that saved the show or kept said showrunners from doing things that would have destroyed said show that I know all too well how things could go. My hope, I guess, was that having more people in the room would prompt a more consistent Glee that also allowed for the show’s wilder tangents now and then. Based on the season premiere, however, the show is apparently just all wild tangents. It’s as if the three guys jerking Glee in all directions were squared this year, and everybody started mashing on typewriters at random.

First, let’s start with the good stuff because, hey, we’re positive here, and we all like to believe that everybody involved in the show will have this all hammered out by episode three or so. Rachel and Kurt going to the NYADA mixer thing in Dayton was a good example of how the show expertly plays these kids grand dreams off the reality of their bland existences. Rachel and Kurt, having seen a randomly confrontational (but kind of awesome) performance of “Anything Goes” mashed-up with “Anything You Can Do” seemingly just tossed off by the other mixer attendees, sit together in the car, crying about how they’re not so much hot shit outside of Lima. Sure, they’re the best performers in their school, but, hey, McKinley High isn’t the whole world, and they have to realize at some point that the rest of the world doesn’t really care that they were awesome in high school. It’s the sort of thing every high schooler who excels at something eventually realizes, and the scene between the two of them features some of the best work Chris Colfer and Lea Michele have contributed to the show. (Also, bonus points for the hostile-through-song Harmony, who may be the best new character ever.)

Back at McKinley, though, things were… let’s just say… uneven. Will, who makes a joke about morning wood and tosses glitter all over while talking about “showbiz sparkle” and eats out of a Superman lunchbox in this episode, has apparently spent the summer—when he wasn’t winning a Tony—sitting quietly in his apartment, not having sex, and reading up on those weird street art projects many major cities embarked upon in the late-90s to mid-2000s, when every town picked a sort of unofficial mascot, crafted several dozen fiberglass versions of it, then had local artists paint them, placing them at several points around town, with people eventually bidding on owning them or whatever. (I’ve lived in two cities that did this, Milwaukee—which had “beasties”—and Riverside, Calif.—which had oranges. In Milwaukee, someone, er, “liberated” one of the beastie and sent it floating down the Milwaukee River, to the general merriment of all.) Anyway, Will’s procured a bunch of old, beat-up pianos, fixed them up, and painted them purple, because what the hell else does he have to do? And he’s going to place them at strategic locations around the school and ask the Glee kids to sing songs when they see one, as part of a recruitment drive.

At the same time, Sue Sylvester has decided to take her crusade against the glee club to a congressional district-wide audience, because, well, she was the most popular character in season one, and she will be again, via blunt force, if necessary. Sue gets one of the few lines in the episode that makes me laugh (when she compliments Becky for her cunning), but, as always, her storyline doesn’t make sense. She destroys a piano with bolt cutters she apparently had in her back pocket (because she’s a character in an adventure game), she goes on the news—which continues to sponsor her even though she’s a Congressional candidate!—to rant about how she wants all arts funding (not just some) in schools cut, and she is once again coaching the Cheerios, because it’s a new year, and bygones, right? Anyway, Sue’s candidacy becomes a sensation throughout the known Internet and the Ohio fourth Congressional district, which would have been completely implausible when the show started but has taken on the eerie ring of truth in our current world. Thanks, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan!

I just asked my wife, “What else happened in this episode,” not because I didn’t know but because I wanted to hear what she classified as important. I got the answer, “Everyone was terrible,” because she’s my little ray of sunshine, but she also was hard pressed to explain what the episode was about, beyond the idea that there are a lot of good songs with the word “Beat” in them. (Also, penises. Everywhere penises.) I think there’s a reason for this. This is an episode absolutely crammed with incident—lots of new situations are set up—but an episode where pretty much nothing happened. Storylines got started, only to dodge along nonsensically enough and then eventually stop. And pretty much every character got one of these storylines, from Quinn to Santana to Coach Beiste to Sam, who isn’t even on the show anymore. This is typical for a season premiere of a high school soap or a premiere for a show with this many characters, but there’s no reason it has to be handled as inelegantly as it is here. Setting up the storylines to come is one thing; hitting us with a barrage of clumsy exposition is quite another.


Because here’s the thing: This could be a pretty damned spectacular season of television, if done right. The show’s central four teenage characters—Rachel, Kurt, Finn, and Quinn—are all graduating, about to head off into the real world, yet they don’t seem terribly prepared for what’s to come. (Who is, really?) Rachel and Kurt have overestimated themselves; Finn and Quinn have underestimated themselves. This all collides with the fact that the glee club, always suspect, pretty much has to win Nationals to justify its own existence. As a season-long arc for a TV show? That could be truly, truly awesome. And all of the pieces for it are present in this episode! They’re just buried underneath a bunch of stuff that nobody cares about, from Will’s sexual dilemmas to Sue’s campaign to Santana’s latest attempts to wreck New Directions and somehow curry favor with Sue, even though she’s always there, ready to dance when the music starts. (This, however, is a musical, and I’m willing to roll with that plot point.) At the same time, you’ve got the idea of romance enticing Rachel and Kurt to stay close to home, especially as Blaine gives up his Dalton alumnus status to come chill with Kurt at McKinley (and wasn’t he older than Kurt at one time? Or did I make that up or just read it into what the show was implying?).

All of this? This could be powerful stuff. If it was combined with the Will Schuster from the alternate universe Glee—the one who gave up his dreams and now funneled them into high school choir, all while trapped in a loveless marriage and pining for a woman who puts up invisible walls everywhere she goes—man, that could be just amazing stuff. I’ve often talked about how I’d love if this show were Friday Night Lights with show choir, and that may be a ship that’s long-past sailed at this point. But I had a different idea tonight, one that the show could almost tackle, even if it meant abandoning some of the things the show evidently holds dear: This show could be Buffy with show choir. (Minus the vampires.)


Maybe I was thinking about it because Buffy vet Marti Noxon is writing for the show now. Maybe I was thinking about it because I write crossover fan-fic where Brittany helps Buffy fight Angelus using the power of dance. But my point is this: Buffy maintained a similar mixture of tones compared to Glee. Unlike the more sentimental and somber Friday Night Lights, Buffy was comedy, drama, tragedy, romance, genre piece, or conceptual television experiment depending on the episode or given scene. But it also believably escalated the conflict, expertly using its villains to metaphorically put Buffy and her friends through the sort of ringer people go through between the ages of 16 and 22 (roughly the show’s run). In ascending order, starting with season one, Buffy and her pals confronted the following ultimate evils: Adolescence. Failed romance and doomed love. Change. The responsibilities of adulthood. The institutions of the world. Life itself and depression. And, finally, uh, Evil. (Yeah, that last one wasn’t thought out so well.) The point is: The conflicts onBuffy shifted. The villains changed—both literally and metaphorically.

Glee’s biggest mistake, like Heroes’ biggest mistake, was a failure to understand that it needed to shift its basic storytelling structure. The idea of the kids getting slushied in the face and Sue wanting to kill the glee club worked well (and was often entertaining) in season one of the show, when it was relatively new, and it was somewhat believable that these people would run through the same paces over and over and over. But season two—which had a natural progression to another storyline, wherein every character would confront the temptation of a life they could be leading instead of this one—instead kept falling back on the same old tropes. If the villain in season one was Adolescence, like on Buffy, then the villain in season two could have been Dishonesty, the idea that being true to oneself is more important than trying to chase fleeting popularity. This would have unified nearly every story thread the show tried, while also giving a throughline to some of the messier material. And this season already shows its thematic cards (albeit as clumsily as possible): Make Nationals the final battle. Make graduation the big bad. Make uncertainty the darkness in the corner. Make this a story about how fighting to find your place in the world is both the most necessary thing and the scariest thing. Do all of that, and I’ll be forever in your corner Glee. Do all of that, and when I say, “I was watching fucking Glee,” I’ll do it with a thumbs up, knowing the ride down to Sheol will be that much more bitchin’. Just don’t repeat what you did here. (Dammit, Glee, you made me believe in you again.)


Stray observations:

  • Welcome to your season three coverage of Glee! I'll be your host most weeks, but in other weeks, I just might hand things off to Brandon Nowalk, who likes this show a little more than I do, but in a totally cool and unique and awesome way, I promise.
  • VanDerWerff, dammit, what about the songs?: The songs were fine. There wasn’t a one I disliked, though I found some of them shockingly poorly motivated for dramatic purposes. (I hope the show escapes its, “Here’s a song because that’s what we do!” malaise, but I’m not hopeful.) I probably liked “We Got The Beat” best, but that may be because it had the most close-ups of Heather Morris dancing. I have no shame at this point, people. Let’s all just stop pretending we do. We’re still watching this show, after all.
  • Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: Welcome, friends. How I’ve missed you. Now, last year, I believe you all came to know of my general affection for Naya Rivera, and while I still believe her to be a very attractive young lady, my affections have shifted more to the lovely and talented Ms. Morris. She dances so feistily! Is it any wonder she’s the one Glee actor America can still agree on? (Well, I think we’ve all agreed we don’t like Matthew Morrison, too.)
  • New character alert: The apparently ageless Vanessa Lengies turns up as a girl with Aspergers who can’t sing named Sugar. This is Glee. It’s about as awful as that sounds.
  • What’s Quinn up to these days? alert: Quinn’s hanging out with the bench from the  “freak” side of the 2002 Freaks And Geeks. Why? Because no one knows what to do with Dianna Agron, that’s why.
  • What’s everyone else up to these days? alert: Puck and Lauren broke up. Mercedes and Sam broke up, but she’s with Tinker from FNL now. (He was also on Cougar Town, remember?) Artie is still on the show. Mike Chang is applying to Harvard and still with Tina, who is not applying to Harvard. Emma still finds sex gross. Brittany still says dumb things. Becky is captain of the Cheerios, well, co-captain with Santana, who gets wrapped into another dumb scheme of Sue’s and gets kicked out of glee club. Blaine (whom I keep wanting to call “Klaine” because I ran afoul of a mad Blaine-Kurt shipper on the Internet) transfers to McKinley, and his decision to do so is actually pretty sweet. Iqbal Theba likes his paycheck. And April Rhodes’ show won a Tony, despite there being pretty much no way to make that possible within the series’ timeline. (I CARE ABOUT THE THEATRE, DAMMIT.)
  • Awesomely stupid line of the week: “We’re planning this big recruiting number, and it’s gonna be a tribute to the Go-Gos!” I love Rachel’s silly enthusiasm here. YES, I LIKE RACHEL. I SAID IT.
  • Maybe the creators hate Will as much as we do? His “viral video” is just stupid, and I kind of love how bad the line, “I think you could use a little showbiz sparkle!” is. Also, he starts talking about his sex woes with Sue? As the kids on the Internet say, “Wut?”
  • Apparently, there are only going to be two theme episodes this season. I figure one almost has to be Bruce Springsteen at this point, but I do so dearly hope that the other is a conceptual presentation of The Streets’ “A Grand Don’t Come For Free” performed entirely by Artie and all of the random characters who’ve been written out. Worst case scenario: A theme episode “built” around LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” which you know this show is going to use at some point.
  • That said, I do appreciate that the music was slightly more wide-ranging in this episode than it often seemed to be last season. We got more show tunes, and we went all the way back to the ‘80s! Progress, I guess.
  • What’s everyone else up to these days? alert, part 2: Finn still gets voiceovers every so often. And still knows how to play the drums.
  • I make you make things for me on YouTube alert: Seeing Tinker made me think about how awesome it would be if he proved a small, fertile bud that slowly spread through the whole wasteland that is this show, bringing with it vitality and general Friday Night Lights-ness. And that made me think about how awesome it would be if the show turned into one where Coach Taylor was suddenly coaching the glee club so gradually that none of us even noticed until we looked around and it was great. I mean, Kyle Chandler needs the work, right? And we already know Ryan Murphy likes Connie Britton! This could totally work, people. So, Internet: I challenge you thusly! Make me an opening credits sequence for this show, set to the theme song from Friday Night Lights, with Chandler and Britton in the leads, and then the kids from this show in supporting. Trust me. It'll be awesome.
  • “Kent State has a wonderful musical theater program and a macabre backstory!”
  • “Oh, Becky. Your twisted genius excites me.”