I’ve never met a show more analysis-proof than “Glee.” That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to say about it, but I’m not exactly sure how much one says about it would actually go towards changing anyone’s mind about it. When the show works, it works so well that it bypasses the head and hits the heart, the land where criticism goes to die. When it doesn’t work, it fails so badly that you feel as if you’ve been literally hit in the head, wondering what in the world just happened. Throw in a more than occasionally odd mixture of satire, black comedy, earnestness, and musical theatre, and you have the modern-day equivalent of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays.
And this is the show that’s already secured a third season.
Let’s go over the rainbow and see what went down in the first season finale.
[Full recap of the June 8 "Glee" finale after the break...]
When I read online that “Faithfully” would be a number in tonight’s episode, I jokingly suggested to my wife that the episode itself be called “Journey,” in that it seemed like the type of obvious title than makes “Glee” giddy in the morning. Turns out that joke was a lot less funny when it turned out to be the ACTUAL title of the episode. But while one can play the world’s deadliest drinking game by taking a sip each time a character in the show utters the titular phrase of the week, one can justify the lackluster Regionals performances through the title: it was more important to watch these people on the road to their big performance than to actually see the performance itself.
After all, almost nothing truly impressed, from any group, at the supposedly show-stopping performances that represented the best of the Midwest region of the country. When Rachel told her mother Shelby that New Directions beat Vocal Adreneline, she was absolutely right. But that wasn’t exactly saying much. VA’s performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” may have been a physically impressive piece of musical theatre, but a subpar expression of group vocals. But New Direction’s Journey medley wasn’t exactly barn-burning, either. Watching the expanded group share “Don’t Stop Believing” vocal duties was nice, but I still prefer the yearning of the once-smaller group’s initial rendition from the pilot episode.
Watching these big production numbers points out one of the fundamental flaws of “Glee” in its first season: it keeps trying to sell us on how hard high school is, but never makes these big-scale performances look anything less than easy. I’m not suggesting Season 2 need be a realistic depiction of the rehearsal process, but it’s jarring to go from, say, Kurt’s complicated relationship with his father to a flawlessly choreographed number accompanied by a band that may or may not even have sheet music. The numbers are impressive without seeing the background work: they could be transcendent by showing the labor that went into making them.
Amongst the myriad of musical-themed episodes of television that have aired over the past decade or so, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode “Once More with Feeling” stands out from the pack. Why? Because it depicts a world in which people’s emotions sometimes get so damn big that they have literally no other choice to express themselves in song. It’s the only proper form by which they can accurately express themselves. The songs are born from within. On “Glee,” these characters find existing songs and wear them as outward expressions, trying them on like a pair of pants, finding an external representation of what they themselves cannot feel. That’s why the Journey medley worked far less than Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love” later in the episode: the former was imposed on them by Will, and the latter was chosen by them as a more honest form of self-expression.
When the musical selections on “Glee” truly work, they derive organically from character motivation as oppose to simple thematic relation imposed by the title of the episode. Watching the “Breakfast Club”-esque montage in which each member of New Directions let Will know how much the club changed their life gave context to a song that might otherwise seem like a trite tear-jerker. Had Will allowed them to learn songs that reflected their journey, instead of simply going for the easy montage, then I might have been behind their performance more. But “To Sir” ended up being one of my favorite performances all year. Anyone that had a teacher that inspired them welled up at that number. “Glee” does these types of moments very well. They can’t often sustain them for an hour of entertainment, but they do short, searing bursts of greatness that occasionally make it stand out from the television pack.
As mentioned before, “Glee” is already signed up for a 3rd season, which is pretty remarkable. But in some ways, that says more about “American Idol” than it does “Glee.” Both are centered around a viewing audience watching people performing cover versions of other artists’ material. This is fun to watch because nearly everyone watching these programs does that to one extent or another, and since it’s fun to mock the original performers, it’s often just as (if not more) fun to watch that performance once removed. In terms of hits versus misses, I think there are few that would argue that “Idol” outshone “Glee” this year. Simply by having the virtue of being able to pre-record and optimally stage these performances, “Glee” guarantees (as much as a show can) the type of performance that “Idol” used to feature on a consistent basis.
I’ve focused almost entirely on the musical aspect of this finale, and the show as a whole, because I’m not sure the drama holds up to any type of actual scrutiny. It’s hard to talk about “stakes” when the rules of the show’s universe twists and bends to whatever needs the show has that particular week. Why Sue Sylvester would be let within 50 feet of another singing competition is beyond me, but it’s just the type of question the show doesn’t even want us to be asking. I didn’t even blink an eye when she got New Directions another year, because even though her entire arc this year was about the destruction of the group, “Glee” consistently changes the game when it writes itself into a corner.
(I’d start a rant about Shelby’s apparent “I think I want to adopt a baby” turning into actually adopting Beth about fifteen minutes later, but I’m going to cut the show some slack and assume she’d learned about Quinn’s baby mid-year and planned this show as her last. Because the alternative makes me want to pull a Mercedes and bust the windows out ya car.)
Here’s hoping Seasons 2 and 3 aren’t what Will described tonight as “a whole lot of middle.” These are small town boys and girls, living in their lonely worlds, with the occasional song to puncture the monotony of everyday life. That life may not sparkle like the lights on Broadway, but they are lives equally, if not more, worth celebrating. See Sue finally find something in common with New Directions through the callous eyes of outsiders makes me wish for a little more geographical and sociological perspective to seep into the show’s DNA. I’m not asking for “Friday Night Lights,” here, but a little of that could go a long way.
In some ways, the finale set up next year to be…well, almost identical to this one. New Directions will get another chance at Nationals. Sue will get another chance to torment will. Madonna will get another chance to have her back catalog gainfully employed. Figgins will get another chance to be terrified of vampires. It will possibly feel familiar. Like an old song you used to sing. Hopefully, “Glee” can find a way to take that known melody and fashion it into something unexpected.
What did you think of the season finale? Does Season 2 offer something different or just the same ol’ song? Leave your thoughts below!
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