Admit it: when you saw that this week’s “Glee” was supersized, you either jumped for joy or jumped off the nearest ledge. I didn’t really do either of those things, as I figured “supersized” was code for “about 7 extra minutes of show and 23 extra minutes of commercials.” That proved to be true, making “Born This Way” an episode that felt quite choppy for anyone watching it live. Then again, the show’s scattershot approach to what should have been a fairly streamlined episode probably felt choppy to most even if they fast-forwarded through the many and sundry commercial breaks.
[Full recap of Tuesday’s (April 26) “Glee” after the break…]
I know I’m a broken record stating that the show has an insanely difficult time keeping things simple and focused, but there are times in which they seem to have a solid idea…only to discard it upon seeing something shiny out of the corner of its eye. Having “self-acceptance” as a theme should have given the episode a nice through line, with everyone in the group being able to explore their own insecurities around those they nominally respect. After all, who in their teenage years doesn’t have insecurities? A few weeks ago, I lamented that “Alcohol” left the confines of Rachel’s basement, where a drunken night could have led to some serious revelations between the group. Just like in that episode, “Born This Way” took something simple, overcomplicated it, took it into a back alley, and then beat it almost past the point of recognition.
The best way to look at just how convoluted things got? The shirts that everyone wore in what was supposed to be the climatic number of the show, set to Lady Gaga’s song that gave the episode this title. Here’s Emma’s direct quote about the purpose of the shirt: “We will…use this letter press to write a word or a phrase that best describes the thing about you that you’ve most ashamed of.” OK, fine. Simple, a bit didactic, and more than a little after school special, but it’s not like “Glee” doesn’t go to this well and go to it often. Part of the deal with watching this show is that I recognize that as corny as it sometimes gets, there’s usually a genuine heart behind the awkwardly enacted sentiment. Face it: there are worse themes to hang an episode’s hat around than teaching people watching “Glee” that it’s OK to embrace that which others mock.
So here’s today’s study question: why in the hell did Kurt’s shirt read “Likes Boys”?
I mean, yes, you can say that Kurt wasn’t in rehearsal that day and might have gotten the point of the assignment wrong. But plenty of other members had shirts with head scratching phrases, most of which were head scratching because the show didn’t bother to develop the idea for the whole group. The shirts either stood in for what would have been an arc, represented something ironic instead of self-loathing, or were simply superficial. (It’s sorta funny to see Sam wearing a “Trouty Mouth” shirt, but I’m not sure he actually developed a hatred of it until Santana constantly pointed it out.) But Kurt’s shirt above all stood out as an example of how badly “Glee” seems to miss the mark without realizing AT ALL how badly it misses it. Kurt’s most ashamed of being gay? Really, “Glee”? Do you watch your own show?
“Born This Way” as a title can mean many things, and having the show explore various meanings is fine. But there has to be a narrative limit to the scope of it, otherwise things just turn into a trainwreck. Here are a few options, and how they played out in the hour:
1) Physical appearance. Between Rachel’s Jan Brady nose, the Quinn/Lauren prom feud, and Tina’s obsession with her eyes (created as far as I can tell for the purposes of this episode), having the ways in which bodies are dissected for sport could have been a fine theme, especially in terms of prepping for the popularity contest of prom king/queen. But the fight for that position also involved…
2) Sexual orientation. “Glee” doesn’t come out and say it, but I’m pretty sure it comes down on the side that being gay isn’t a choice. Coming out is most certainly one, and with Kurt offering Karofsky the option of the closet, it doesn’t seek to impose the choice on someone. So linking this with Gaga gets Kurt back to school, gets the supposedly brash Santana almost deeper into denial than her new beard, and shows again that there’s both pain AND possibility in expressing one’s inner nature. But there’s also another way in which the title applies…
3) Psychological makeup. Emma states that she wasn’t in fact “born this way,” but for all intents and purposes she knows no other life. Her symptoms developed as age five, and without a vivid memory of happy go lucky days playing in the pre-school sandbox, her condition in fact IS who she is. It takes Will being the absolute worst friend in the world and freaking her the hell out during lunch (not a psychologist, that Will) in order to get her to separate her illness from her identity. In some ways, this aspect also applies to Quinn, who we learned tonight isn’t a bitch because the show forgot Season One ever happened but because Quinn made the conscious choice to reaffirm a role lost to her during the pregnancy. It also applies to Santana, the loud-mouthed “Lebanese” who is afraid to say the one thing that might actually set her free.
That’s a LOT of stuff. And none of it is inherently bad. But given a choice of “either” and “or,” “Glee” always picks “both, and also this and that.” The IDEAS the show throws out usually have merit to them, but they either give the ideas too little time to develop or take a huge shortcut when they realize they don’t have a good solution for the problem they’ve presented. Rachel’s arc isn’t a bad idea, but when the reason for her eventually acceptance of her nose is “an entire mall starts a spontaneous, unrehearsed flashmob because Kurt’s FABULOUS scarf commanded them to do so,” well, sorry, I’m going to say that’s an unsuccessful execution of a strong premise. She credits her friends for helping her through the decision-making process, but couldn’t that have been done inside the rehearsal room rather than in The Mall Of Suddenly Dancing America? Sure, maybe they would have been harder to write, but it certainly would have been more effective.
Kurt’s horrific final shirt aside, there were aspects of his return I liked. For one thing, the Kurt/Karofsky storyline is one of the few that the show 1) consistently takes seriously, and 2) treats consistently from episode to episode. Considering that I never know which version of someone like Finn is going to show up on a weekly basis (I think we had the down-to-earth, fairly non-stupid one this week, making him Finn-616 for you Marvel fans out there), it’s good to know that the show, when it wants to, can plan out something that feels organically developed, unrushed, and fairly logical. It exists in a maelstrom of inconsistencies that is “Glee,” but I respect that the show recognizes a magic wand isn’t going to solve the problem by any particular episode’s end. In fact, I can see them never really resolving this truly, with Karofsky leaving the show still in the closet but at least having come to some sort of understanding with Kurt. (The storyline still gets preachy at times, but I’m not sure I can truly hate on over-preaching tolerance. I’m a jerk, but not a complete one.)
That doesn’t mean that Kurt’s return was perfect: for one thing, kids transfer schools the way 80’s hair metal bands traded groupies in this show. And having The Warblers not beat up the McKinley High students who apparently never learned the concept of a cappella seemed like a missed opportunity. While I’m a Kurt fan, his reintroduction to the school stopped the episode dead for 15 minutes*, as the show put him on a pedestal to have all gaze upon him and be merry. Had the episode been about only Aspect 2 of the aforementioned breakdowns of the Gaga track, perhaps his return wouldn’t have felt so shoe-horned. It’s great that “Glee” wants to be all things to all people. But it can’t seem to realize that it can’t be all things to all people in the same episode.
* Not only was Kurt’s shirt inappropriate given the week’s theme, but so was his song. I’m not sure “Glee” realized the irony (the “10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife” variety) of having Kurt sing “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” No song in an episode centered around Barbara Streisand’s nose should be that on the nose in and of itself.
Until it learns that lesson, until it can actually come to that point of self-acceptance itself, well, I’m not sure the show can ever truly improve. That’s a pity, given how much excellent raw material they have with which to work. But simply throwing every idea onscreen isn’t the recipe for success. After all: the show wasn’t born this way. And there’s no reason for it to settle for being what it is now.
What did you think of “Born This Way”? Did you go Gaga for it? Did the show’s message come across too preachy, preaching to the choir, or actually did some good? How did they handle Kurt’s return? Leave your thoughts below!