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Recap: 'Glee' - 'The Spanish Teacher'
Tenure fights, frozen embryos, and Ricky Martin. Just another week in Lima.
There’s a seriously dark, twisted, depressing, and nihilistic heart beating deep within “Glee.” It’s not as aspect of the show that I loath. In fact, I usually like it when it surfaces in the show. It’s weird and jarring when it does so, to be sure. But then again, so were those shoes tonight during the “Bamboleo”/”Hero” medley. A lot of readers here at HitFix have railed in reviews past of both “Glee” and “Fringe” that I apparently talk about what I want the show to be, rather than what it actually is. I wouldn’t keep bringing up “Glee”’s heart of darkness if it didn’t reveal itself every so often.
“The Spanish Teacher” returns to one of the show’s earliest ideas, one planted long before the show took off and became an Auto-Tuned machine that prints money. That idea? That Will Schuester is a fundamentally sad human being, a man that continually tries to recapture his past at the expense of his present. Such an idea occasionally pops up now and then, but usually Will serves to simply write cryptic messages on his white board that provide the episode’s overarching theme. But “The Spanish Teacher” confronts the idea that Will is, at heart, hurting those around him more than he’s helping. Here’s a guy who thinks he has a shot at tenure…but he doesn’t even know Spanish. All of this would be interesting stuff, were it not raised in order to simply provide some stakes for a single episode.
“Glee” has a hard time drawing the line between what’s real about its world and what is, for a lack of a better word, “magic.” There are times in which the show looks at Lima the way Bruce Springtseen would look at a New Jersey town that’s fallen on hard times. Then again, this supposedly downtrodden school has enough money for a synchronized swimming coach and LAZERS for a rehearsal performance of “La Isla Bonita.” The show throws around words like “tenure” without any desire to explore how such a thing would actually work within the context of high school. I’m not looking for the show to suddenly feature the educational veracity of the fourth season of “The Wire”. But I am looking for a show that doesn’t spit in my face while trying to extract some level of pathos from my “Glee”-addled brain.
Because here’s the thing: I agree 100% with Santana when she says that Will is a complete joke as a Spanish teacher. This guy doesn’t know a single word of Spanish, and simply fell into it since it was the easiest job he could get. He demands tenure despite having put apparently zero effort into bettering himself as a teacher. His performance of “A Little Less Conversation” was appalling in the right kind of way: the show knew it was terrible, and I give Matthew Morrison a ton of credit for such an unflattering performance. I’m on board with all of this. What I’m not on board is the show only playing this up now for the sake of drama within a single episode of television. Will has been a bad influence on these kids from an educational perspective for most of their high school careers. But Santana’s complaint to Figgins didn’t stem from years of onscreen educational malpractice. It didn’t even tie in with Mike Chang’s father insisting that New Directions took away from his son’s studies. It simply served to provide conflict for forty minutes.
All of this in service of a newly opened tenure position in McKinley High, a plot point that I’ve sure riveted “Glee” nation as it played out this week. Candidates for tenure included a Spanish teacher than doesn’t speak Spanish, a guidance counselor whose pamphlets should have landed in a spot in jail along should-be-there-as-well cellmate Quinn, and a physical education teacher who froze her own eggs before it was scientifically possible to even do so. (I’m wondering if “Glee” is actually a stealth sci-fi show, one in which aliens have been bodysnatching people since the pilot. I’VE SOLVED “GLEE,” YOU GUYS.)
Now, if all of this played as dark, if not outright black, comedy, then it would be fine. Danny DeVito or Ben Stiller could have made an “Election”-style comedy out of this situation in his sleep in the late 80’s/early 90’s. And I would have enjoyed that movie! But the problem is, we’re supposed to take all of this stuff seriously. All the while, LAZERS are going off left and right inside the gymnasium. See the problem here? If the show took the “Smash” approach to big spectacle numbers (ie, they are all taking place in someone’s imagination while being performed in mundane locations), none of this would matter. But “Glee” insists that actual LAZERS are helping to illuminate Santana as she grinds up on David Martinez.
Ostensibly, every song in this week’s episode was designed in order to help Will learn the language he’s supposed to be teaching his students. There’s a factoid in tonight’s hour about the majority of Americans will be speaking Spanish by the year 2030, which is just another example of the “Glee” writers taping up facts printed off of Wikipedia, affixing them to a wall, and then throwing a dart at them in order to come up with that week’s Painful Exposition. People don’t talk to each other in “Glee” anymore. They lecture in the general direction of one other. Emma’s pamphlets are a great example of the show’s tendency to feature unidirectional lecturing in lieu of discussion. And yet, these pamphlets landed her the coveted tenure position. A little less conversation, indeed.
I’m not sure any of this would ultimately be a problem if this show was still about Will. But I’m pretty sure it’s not. Then again, I’m not exactly sure WHO this show is supposed to be about at this point. I’m guessing it’s about Rachel and Kurt, if it comes down to it. But if that’s the case, this really isn’t a show about people that don’t make it out of Lima. I think there’s a lovely, albeit bittersweet, show that features Will as a man who learns to live with the limitations in his life. That’s not to call Emma a “limitation,” but he has to learn about pleasures of life that exist outside of New Directions. For the love of God, this guy asked a student to be his best man! He’s now an ex-Spanish teacher whose only exposure to his new profession, history, is from watching the History Channel! He’s the saddest human being on the planet!
But “Glee” isn’t about The Saddest Human On The Planet. That is, except when it is. Like tonight. Except when it isn’t, like tonight when the show decided to make it about Sue’s maternal instincts or Finn/Rachel’s terrible engagement or Sam/Mercedes’ semi-sweet relationship or those “Bamboleo” shoes. This isn’t about “Glee” fashioning funhouse mirror views of the same theme. This is just stuff happening inside the same rough chronological period. The film version of “Glee” could be about the teachers. But the televised version of “Glee” has to be about the kids. We need to follow people with somewhere to go. We can’t watch a show about people hitting the wall.
After all, even is Kurt is right, and Finn’s proposal to Rachel is essentially the latter waving the white flag on his own life…well, Finn still has somewhere to go. He’s young enough to figure something out, something that may not be perfect but is still a viable option. Kurt may not get into NYADA but his life won’t be over if he doesn’t. Quinn’s life SHOULD be over, chillin’ in the big house with Emma and her creepy pamphlets extolling the virtues of not dropping the soap. But instead, she’s going to Yale. So go her. No one seems to be particularly behind the 8-Ball because Will didn’t know the Spanish word for “conversation.” One could argue that Will’s ignorance might be symptomatic of a McKinley High that is ill-equipped to actually provide worthy entrants into the working pool. One could argue that letting New Directions fail in New York City after writing songs THE NIGHT BEFORE NATIONALS indicates the show’s awareness of how messed up their life chances really are, and how badly the adults in that town have let them down. But I would counter all of those arguments with a one-word retort: LAZERS.
And yes, I’ve intentionally misspelled “LAZERS” throughout this review to indicate how fundamentally silly it is for the show to try and drop reality into this scattershot world of theirs. It’s one thing to have your cast members suddenly break into song in the middle of a hallway. That’s odd, but part of the show’s conceit. So I roll with it. I wish to God they would eventually settle on what the “rules” are for such singing, but I know that’s a futile desire. An audience will buy into whatever world any show builds, so long as it’s consistent. If people fly in your world, that’s fine. If people sing? No problem. But the world in which people fly or burst into song needs to be consistent in order for the more unusual aspects to stick so audiences can suspend their disbelief. “Glee” fails the consistency metric on almost every conceivable level, which means almost nothing in the show sticks. It all flies off into the ether as soon as it happens, leaving nothing but the faint, disturbing memory of Will Schuester, Authentic Spanish Matador/Horrible Spanish Teacher/Theoretically Decent Glee Club Coach.
The choice for “Glee” isn’t between “crushing realism” and “vacant escapism.” The choice is to either abide by an internally consistent set of ground rules or to just make things up in order to get through a single scene. Will can be a terrible teacher who makes a nice, quiet life for himself with Emma as breadwinner. And Rachel can win five Tony Awards. Both can happen within the same show. But it’s how the show gets both characters to those vastly different places that matters. Cutting corners in order to make those end goals happen wouldn’t fly on any show, whether it featured singing or not. Hitting every note doesn’t make for a good song, and it usually doesn’t make for a good episode of television. It just provides dissonance.
What did you think of tonight’s “Glee”? Am I being too hard on “The Spanish Teacher”? Which would you say is currently the lead of this show? How much darkness do you actually want bubbling to the surface? Sound off below!