How much reality can “Glee” actually handle?

It’s a legitimate question, and one the show has never really gotten a handle on. Remember way back when Terri was faking her pregnancy, and it was really freaking terrible and stupid and soapy, but then Will found out, and then sh$t got REALLY REAL for about thirty seconds? Those were thirty seconds of menace, with violence dripping in the air, and Matthew Morrison and Jessalyn Gilsig sold the living hell out of that half-minute. But it was a half-minute rolled up inside the greater context of “Glee,” which made that scene more problematic as a part of a whole. Ryan Murphy seems to not care about the whole so long as things work in the moment, but television isn’t a series of independent moments strung together sequentially. It works as the sum of its parts, and for three seasons, the various parts of “Glee” have been at war with each other.

Such a conflict is problematic but normally nothing to get actually truly mad about. The frustration that comes from a show which pinballs between characters, motives, motifs, and moods is fuel for Twitter snark and animated GIFs. We can laugh off Will desperately wanting his students to be at his wedding while Quinn simultaneously wonders if she can ever walk again as Teen Jesus sports an erection while helping her with physical therapy. Those things don’t really have a place in the same episode, season, or even universe, but the uneasily coexist all the same on a weekly basis on “Glee”. Still, the show creates pockets of unexpectedly powerful or funny moments on a semi-regular basis, with only the weakest episodes devoid of either. Honestly, the worst crime an episode of “Glee” can commit is being boring.

Or so I thought.

Look, who wants to be the a-hole coming down on a storyline about domestic abuse? Not me, that’s for sure. I had this whole thing planned out earlier today where I would forgo a normal review of tonight’s episode “Choke” in lieu of one written from the perspective of one of the techies at McKinley High that set up the fifteen performances a week that New Directions performs so effortlessly. I mean, wouldn’t you want to look at the events of “Glee” from the perspective of the student that had to light the 400 candles onstage for Kurt’s rehearsal of “Music of the Night”? I was even going to suggest that when “Glee” forgets about its characters, they actually assign them to the tech crew, invisibly setting the scene for the types of flawless performances that elude the Marilyn Monroe musical over on “Smash.” Heck, I thought by this point Beiste had been gone so long that she was leader of that crew, given how long she’s had to practice. She hasn’t been forgotten by the show, I thought: She’s been IN TECH.

Instead, we learn that during her absence, Cooter hit her after she forgot to do the dishes.

Yea, not so funny anymore.

The question isn’t about the validity of this storyline. The old adage of “if this helps one woman, it was worth it” more than holds up here. That’s not what we’re talking about her. The question is whether or not “Glee” can sustain such a storyline in a way that doesn’t sell that message short, or fundamentally alter the program’s “we can do anything we want because we’re ‘Glee’” mentality. This all comes down to the way that the show systematically takes the path of easiest resistance possible at all points, and how such a course actually becomes an enormous problem when it wants to move into the realm of something actually important. “Glee” wants to have its cake, eat it, and then sell slices on iTunes. It wants to be a sing-a-long party, a satire, and a heartfelt, meaningful, occasionally important show at the same time. But holy moly, it’s rarely the first, hardly ever the second, and sure as hell not the third in any way, shape or form.

By pairing up Beiste’s domestic problems with Puck’s potential failing grade and the NYADA auditions for Kurt/Rachel, the show actually conflated the three together in a way that suggested these were all three equally troubling times in the lives of these characters. COME ON. Just as the show went tone-deaf when Karofsky’s attempted suicide barely put a dent into Regionals, the show went on for the rest of McKinley High even though Beiste’s problems demanded that the show stop in its tracks and spend some time dealing with such an important issue. This isn’t about the students being terrible people. (If it were, that would be horrific, but potentially interesting.) it’s about the writers of “Glee” not understanding that when it comes to topics like suicide and domestic abuse, they owe the actors and audience the respect those topics deserve.

Honestly, I could have watched an hour of Dot Jones, Jane Lynch, and NeNe Leakes dealing with the aftermath of Beiste’s revelation. It wouldn’t have made the decision to give an underserved character this horrible storyline any better, but at least it might have given the out-of-left-field narrative some necessary weight once introduced. (Even if the Karofsky suicide attempt was botched in-show, at least there was some narrative grounding for it to occur in the first place.) Instead, the show brings up this narrative versus a bad joke by Santana, a self-serving performance of “Cell Block Tango” (which the teachers let conveniently unfold IN ITS ENTIRETY before noting how incorrectly the students interpreted the assignment), and a quick (albeit powerful) scene between the three teachers. After that? Nearly thirty minutes went by before we saw any of these women again! What an insult. It’s insulting to those performing it, those watching it, and those who are actually going through the type of scenario depicted in this storyline. Would a bottle episode involved three secondary/tertiary characters been a break from the norm? Absolutely. Was that break needed to address this topic in a remotely adequate manner? Absolutely.

Look, “Glee” can be as preachy as it wants, especially since there will be some people watching this show who are contemplating suicide, love to text while driving, or are in a relationship from which they need to escape. But preachy is only fine when the show actually commits to the topic at hand. The way this show addresses important issue is the small screen version of one of Emma’s pamphlets. They give the topic some cursory time, but then move on for things like Puck licking a teacher or Finn showing how bad he would be at “Draw Something.” It’s all surface, so why bother introducing it at all? Why should only five members of New Directions realize what is going on with Beiste? Is this actually privileged information or not? Should the men of the group not partake in this discussion? Isn’t this the perfect teaching moment for someone like Will to show that adult men are allies in the fight against domestic violence as well? (Well, maybe not, considering the Will/Terri scene I mentioned at the outset of this review. Jesus, “Glee,” you are just the worst sometimes.)

>Moreover, the student-centric plots in and of themselves were fairly important in terms of normal, everyday “Glee”, and depicted vital moments in their lives. And yet none of those stories really landed because Beiste’s storyline sucked all the oxygen out of the episode. It should matter that Rachel flubbed her audition, since we’ve followed her dream to go to New York since the pilot. The idea that this might not happen should be a big freakin’ deal. And yet little of it landed because the show couldn’t step on the narrative breaks long enough to give this audition the space it needed. If “Glee” wants to do A Very Special Episode every once in a while, fine. But it shouldn’t pretend like it can ram it into an already crowded hour and congratulate itself.

Puck’s failures are less important to us, but certainly vital to him. And yet, they are only important because the show trotted out his deadbeat dad just in time to wake him up from his academic stupor. This is the more forgivable form of a “Glee” shortcut, since we don’t expect any parents besides Burt Hummel to impact the show in a meaningful way. Rachel’s gay dads? Mike Chang’s disapproving father? Santana’s abuela? Eh, whatever. The show doesn’t always know how seriously to treat Puck, which means he’s exactly like every other character on this show. And that’s fine, even if it’s disappointing. But this is the type of disappointment we can handle, and the show can sustain, at this point in the show’s run.

What’s not fine is attempting to link the failures of Puck, Rachel, and Beiste and claim that you’ve written a thematically cohesive episode of television. You could write three medical stories that end with a hangnail, a sprained ankle, and a decapitation and be as thematically linked as those three stories tonight. It’s one thing to depict people for whom certain decisions SEEM like life and death in the moment. It’s another to juxtapose those with a story where the life and death stakes are actually REAL. The whole thing falls apart, and the failure of “Glee” to recognize that makes me unspeakably sad and angry. I’ll just say it: “Choke” is a morally reprehensible hour of television, one from which the show may never fully recover. “Glee” can’t have it every which way when the subject matter is this serious. It just can’t. The show did a serious disservice to an important cause, and absolutely no one stopped this from actually airing on television. Instead of patting itself on the back for daring to bring up the issue at all, “Glee” needed to think long and hard about what it wanted to accomplish long before it ever made it onscreen.

But when has “Glee” ever thought long and hard about what it wants to accomplish? It doesn’t think about the future. It exists in the moment. And while those moments can be powerful, they can also undo the entire endeavor. The show will move on from this. Whether or not those watching can is another story.

What did you think of “Choke”? Am I getting upset over nothing? Was this just a bad episode of television, or something more? Sound off below!