Jayma Mays' appearance in the last three seconds of “New York”, tonight’s “Glee” season finale, says everything you need to know about this season’s quality of continuity. It was the final, and perhaps ultimate, “oh yea, and also THIS” writing moment of a season chock full o’ them. Only had Coach Beiste walked by in the background using Artie’s Magical Legs could that moment have been more jarring. Look, some shows are five pounds of story in a ten-pound bag. “Glee” is twenty-five pounds of story in that same bag, spilling over the edges at all times in a chaotic frenzy. Or, put another way: if other shows write their stories based on an existing recipe book, “Glee” just throws a ton of stuff into a pot just to see what happens. Every once in a while they accidentally concoct a dish that would win an episode of “Top Chef”. But usually they produce a plate that would be better served with something even remotely approaching narrative discipline.
Let’s say this about “New York”: this episode looked GREAT. With the exception of the lavish production numbers that adorn part of each episode, no one would ever accuse “Glee” of being visually arresting. Even in the middle of a fantastic (if ill-conceived) number, the camera work is usually only serviceable at best. But not only did many of the big numbers in tonight’s finale feel cinematically different (ie, competent), but New York City itself looked fab in nearly every frame. The almost Technicolor way in which it was shot mirrored the way in which people like Will, Rachel, ad Kurt undoubtedly saw the city. I don’t ding “Glee” for looking relatively drab most of the time: the look fits the world of the show. But I did appreciate the difference that the Big Apple visually brought to the episode, both in terms of physical geography and in terms of lens work.
Other than that? There’s not a lot of “there” there to analyze, really. As per usual, the show pinballed through a series of potentially decent-to-great ideas, only to either abandon them, give them short shrift, or take a detour into WTF Land just to move on from the obstacles facing them. We had Will’s attempts to launch a Broadway career, Finn trying to win Rachel’s affections, Rachel getting seduced by the bright lights in the big city, Quinn’s anger over being alone, and oh yea, Nationals, reduced to an afterthought not only in this episode but the entire season. But know what? That’s OK! Because that’s not what the season was about anyways: so sayeth the epilogue. It said, “Forget about all that silly, inconsequential Nationals stuff: let’s re-pair off romantically and pretend like all the stakes we barely tried to establish anyways didn’t matter in the least.”
Now, that epilogue actually had what I felt to be the correct message of the season: namely, that learning to accept each other for their faults, quirks, sexualities, and idiosyncrasies is more important than a cold-blooding singing machine that wins Nationals year in and year out. But it got there in the final moments of the season, not unlike Emma’s “blink and you miss her” appearance in the final seconds of the episode. Upon first listen, I thought Rachel seemed to indicate to Finn that what we just saw was their one and only chance to ever get to New York City. If that were to be the new direction (see what I did there?) that the show wants to take in Season 3, then sign me up. I’d gladly watch a season about a group of small town kids that take solace in and derive strength from the glee club over a group of kids asymptotically approaching a national championship year after year. (Too bad I misheard it: she says they WILL make it next year, which means either the audio was bad or my psyche couldn’t handle a third round of this.)
But that’s all in the future, a hypothetical one that I can’t remotely trust will actually reach fruition. What I need to focus on now is that this is a show in which 1) April Rhodes somehow got people to fund a Broadway musical about her life, 2) New Directions writes, produces, and choreographs original numbers in the time it takes me to take a shower, and 3) kissing someone onstage in the heat of the moment isn’t a mark of actual human emotion but a sin that deserves punishment. (Not Finchel shippers, that crowd.) Since none of these things rang true to me, most of tonight’s finale rang falsely as well. Certain aspects definitely defied credulity, but were overpowered by onscreen sentiment.* However, most of the show didn’t remotely pass the smell test, which puts it in league with the majority of the show’s second season.
* I’m looking at you, Overly Kind “Wicked” Usher that let Rachel and Kurt perform the highlight of the show upon the “Wicked” set. But I’m not looking at you, Overly Delusional “Crossrhodes” Usher that didn’t make fun of Will’s song OR his hat.
The Kiss of the Spider Finn sealed the deal on just how much the show falters when seeking to achieve anything but modest moments for its cast. When I say “modest moments,” I don’t mean anything related to the emotions of these characters. I’m talking here about spectacle, about the show portraying anything other than day-to-day struggles in Lima, Ohio. Some shows derive continuity from a carefully laid out series of episodes that track a specific narrative on a weekly basis. Some derive continuity through consistent characterization while keeping its plot fairly procedural. “Glee” doesn’t do either of these things well, and doesn’t seem remotely interested in doing so. That’s theoretically OK, except the show still had to deal with Nationals as an eventual destination. That caused a massive amount of dissonance between the show’s strengths and its weaknesses throughout its sophomore season.
“Glee” doesn’t need to be serialized to be successful. Ask the writers of the show, and they would agree, pointing to the fact that they often can’t even keep a single episode focused on one story long enough to actually complete it. Much of tonight’s episode treated Nationals as a burden more than a blessing. The writers barely gave the competition anything other than lip service throughout the year, and rushed through every performance like it couldn’t wait to get off the stage.. Much like New Directions writing songs just before Nationals, the writers seemed to be lost as to what to do once there. IN the end, “New York” celebrated New York City, not the titular competition.
Again, let me emphasis: I think in theory this would have been a fine way to conduct a second season, had they actually gone through with it from the get go. “Glee” could have started with the promise and enthusiasm of “Empire State of Mind” and slowly chipped away New Directions’ focus on it, eventually making them contextualize the contest properly within their own lives. Had their performances in New York taken place with the group already deciding their unity outweighed their ultimate placement in the competition, then THAT could have forged a powerful coda to a season-long journey. In a sense, they would have won before even performing. Instead, they fully expected to win, fought for a bit in the aftermath, and within days posed with a tiny trophy like it was the absolute funniest thing in the world. A year’s worth of work, reduced to an ironic cheer! Yay?
So please, “Glee,” fulfill the prophecy I initially thought Rachel made in the library: don’t go anywhere near Nationals next year. Staying in a small town doesn’t mean your stories will be small. In fact, the biggest stories this season didn’t leave the town borders at all, except when Kurt had to transfer schools thanks to Karofsky. That storyline, paired with Santana’s own confusion/fear concerning her sexuality, forged the best material by a country mile this year. New Directions works best as a safe haven for difference, big and small. Its power lies not in its singing prowess per say but in the attitudes that the inclusive group fosters. That’s a totally cheesy way of putting it, but “Glee” is often quite cheesy, and quite often gets away with it.
It’s not 100% successful at getting away with it, but again, the rate of success often relates to the size of the story involved. Time and time again, “Glee” showed New Directions being their for both each other and those around them: performing at Burt/Carole’s wedding, the funeral of Sue’s sister, helping Sam upon discovering his living conditions, and several other instances. “Glee” also showed just how many ways in which this large group can produce interesting pairings, both romantic and platonic. (Looks like Sam/Mercedes have been dating since prom, for example.) These stories only seemed odd at times because it seemed like a weird thing to be focusing on while simultaneously prepping for what was supposedly the biggest moment of their lives in New York.
But the stories listed above are not unworthy of song. In fact, they may be the only things WORTH singing about. Stripping away the march towards Nationals need not strip away the necessity of the group. In fact, it only reinforces its true value, the one enunciated so well by Brittany in the aforementioned epilogue. On one hand, it’s odd to hear a girl that once thought a ballad was a male duck pontificate so wisely. On the other hand, one can intuit that she always could be this eloquent, but lacked the confidence to do so pre-New Directions. I’d rather watch Brittany’s continued maturation/evolution over another build-up to Regionals/Nationals eight days a week.
That’s not to say that “Glee” should establish that Lima is a death trap, a suicide rap from which these kids have to get out while they’re young. Some people will eventually leave, and some people will inevitably stay. There’s no need to assign a relative score to either eventuality. Rachel and Kurt seem destined for “greater” things, but I put greater in quotes since I want to emphasis how false an assumption it is for New York City to be inherently and objectively better than Lima. For Rachel and Kurt to achieve their dreams, that might be true. But I can’t imagine they would be any happier, even at their peaks of Broadway success, than Kurt and Carole currently are.
If the show recognizes this, then keeping things small in Season 3 they in fact will make the show’s cultural impact bigger. That move will magnify what really matters (ie, the characters) and reduce what doesn’t (a season-long drive towards a competition the show has never fully developed). This summer, “Glee” is bringing on new writers to augment the trio that has written every episode to date (Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuck). It’s possible this change in the writers’ room will make it onscreen, showing relatable characters in relatable settings confronting relatable problems. It’s also equally possible that next year will air a season finale presenting The Milky Way Show Choir Competition that takes place on the moon, with New Directions facing off against Saturn’s finest vocal group, “The Ring Off.”
Neither path precludes the existence of New Directions. Neither path precludes the ability to insert songs that will top the iTunes charts and keep summer stadiums packed with screaming fans. But only one path offers a way for “Glee” to grow past what it is and develop into the show it always could be. We’ve seen enough glimpses of its best, even in this troubled season. With Nationals now finally in the rearview mirror, it’s time to see it on a more regular basis.
What did you think of the season finale? Are we really past Nationals for next year, or will it be status quo come the Fall? Do you want New Directions to stay intact next year, or is new blood needed to take the show onwards and upwards? Sound off below!
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