Recap: 'Glee' - Gwyneth Paltrow visits for 'The Substitute'
After careful consideration, I think I’m coming closer to understanding the perfect way to look at the weekly output of “Glee.” In the past, I’ve tried to liken it to the New England weather, ever-changing. Other times, I’ve chalked up the show to existing in whatever world in which that particular episode’s writer thinks the show exists. But there’s potentially another way to look at the show’s wildly erratic (albeit occasionally brilliant) existence.
Rather than look at what appears on a weekly basis as the carefully considered result of a fine-tuned process from initial idea to final presentation, what the “Glee” audience sees is the result of a first draft that got rushed into production so FOX had something to air on Tuesdays at 8 pm. Between last week’s “Never Been Kissed” and this week’s installment, “The Substitute,” I counted roughly ten plots all fighting for attention and coherence. And that’s without even really trying to keep score.
[Full recap of Tuesday's (Nov. 16) "Glee" after the break...]
Many of you seem tired with what you perceive to be my unmitigated rants on the show, but all I can say is that no show would frustrate me this much without having the essential building blocks for something as great as “Glee” could be if the creative staff had either the time or the inclination to make it better. I haven’t had an issue this past fortnight with any of the particular storylines individually (even while some have been more potent than others) so much as their incredibly poor execution. Many shows suffer from having no ideas. “Glee” has so many that it’s insane, but what’s even more insane is that the show doesn’t seem to know how to dramatize any of them in a sensible way.
Let’s start out with Big Idea #1) What would New Directions, and by proxy “Glee,” be without Will Schuester? About two-thirds of the way through the episode, I cried out, “Much, much better!” A good portion of this week tried to pose this question, all the while essentially undermining the theoretical “hero” of the show. (I put “hero” in quotes because I don’t buy that argument, but the show did introduce the show through his eyes and continues to keep him at the center even though the show’s approximately 50x stronger when it’s about the kids.) Through substitute Holly Holiday, the episode seemed quite content to recast the entire first season as the misplaced dreams of man using his students to relive his past.
Just as “Grilled Cheesus” sought to recontextualize Kurt’s actions towards Finn last year, “The Substitute” seemed to be a referendum on Will himself, calling to mind a lot of the darker edges to his character when the show first started. (Go back and watch him discover Finn singing in the shower. Go head, I’ll wait. Back yet? Oh, YOU need a shower now? My bad.) Between Holiday constantly pointing out that Will doesn’t listen to his students and flashbacks that repeatedly (and semi-hilariously) focused on his obsession with Journey, “Glee” sold me on a Will-less “Glee” being the way for both the group and “Glee” itself to move on.
Only, just as it did in “Never Been Kissed”, “Glee” pulled away from a potentially interesting set of circumstances to have the kids magically change their minds and save the day. Last week, it was the kids turning Coach Beiste from “She Who Stops Erections” to “She Whom We’ve Always Loved, Even Though There’s No Onscreen Context for That Assertion.” This time around, the students rally to Will’s side, even though they spent the episode (not incorrectly) pointing out all of his flaws. Had such diatribes been mixed with appreciation for his efforts, or had New Directions had a scene in which they realized Holiday wasn’t the be all and end all of the teaching world, such a turnaround would have made sense. But the episode didn’t have time for that, probably because it was dealing with the other six plots going on in the episode.
Don’t believe me? OK, here we go: 1) Kurt/Blaine’s increasing friendship, 2) Mercedes’ Tater Tot obsession, 3) Sue’s grab for power, 4) Will/Teri’s almost reconciliation, 5) the return of Kurt’s bully, and 6) Holiday’s need for a job in this economy. Kurt tried to link stories 1 and 2, which is all a way of saying tonight’s writer Ian Brennan tried to connect the stories at the last minute under my “First Draft” theory of “Glee.” Mercedes didn’t actually use the tater tot ban as a compensatory measure for her lack of love life. She didn’t go on a date with a fellow student because she was insulted Kurt set her up with one of the only other African-American students in the school. Tater Tots stood in with her lost friendship with Kurt, not the lack of a person with whom to go to Breadsticks.
As for Story 6…look, that’s “Glee” at its sheer laziest. I understand that at some point, you have to accept that the production numbers in this show defy all logic and reason. If they weren’t heightened in some way, they would be the equivalent of a Dogme 95 musical. But the show cannot rationalize Holiday’s grab for Will’s job as being part of a rough economy just minutes after performing a duet with Rachel that easily costs thousands of dollars to perform. I loved the number itself, and really enjoyed the spectacle of the “Umbrella”/”Singing in the Rain” medley. In fact, in microbursts, I enjoy quite a lot of “Glee.” It’s when you step back and see the whole thing that the whole endeavor falls apart. (It’s like pointillism, but with more track suits, that way.)
However, having a number like “Make ‘Em Laugh” shows how such numbers can be done correctly. The show can’t always go into fever dreams to produce such numbers, but it can always and ever go into the dreams of the people performing these numbers in order to produce them. The “Nowadays” duet from “Chicago” asks us to believe that what’s happening onstage in that auditorium actually exists in the real world of the show*, not the made up one from “Make ‘Em Laugh” or last year’s Artie-inspired “The Safety Dance.” Constructing such moments takes work, but so do musicals in general. It’s one thing to come up with new and varied takes on introducing music into the world of the show, but without some set of rules as to how these songs are introduced, the entire concept gets weakened.
* Sepinwall-esque Sidebar: What’s amusing is that a throwaway gag (Will sees the students as toddlers) actually points to a great example of how production numbers in the show COULD work: the seminal Saturday morning cartoon “Muppet Babies.” In that show, the babies used their imaginations to empower themselves and/or remove themselves from the mendacity of their nursery. So there: it’s not always about Lars von Trier. Sometimes it’s about Baby Gonzo.
I haven’t touched upon the return of Teri just yet, but in some ways, the less said about it the better. Clearly, the show’s setting her up to be a wild card to throw a monkey wrench into Will’s plans later on. (Then again, if she goes off her meds, maybe she’ll literally throw a wrench at him. Why not?) Having her reintroduced into his life in such an intimate way would have made sense if the show had built up to this moment, layering in a gradual breaking of the ice in the aftermath of the divorce that would have made the menthol rub booty call 1) make sense, and 2) seem like a logical, if ill-advised, step. But under the “First Draft” Theory, it’s simply impossible to expect the show to do that.
But having the entire precondition under which Will and Teri were put together be the rampant sneezing of a girl who by all accounts should be quarantined? That’s perfectly within the realm of the “First Draft” Theory, as is remembering at the last minute that when last we saw Kurt, he was getting bullied and was rather fearful for his life. I understand that his time with Blaine in what several people last week called “Tolerance Narnia” has boosted his mood somewhat, but tacking on last week’s ongoing storyline reeks of something that shows like “Burn Notice” does with its wafer-thin mythology. I appreciate that the show didn’t ENTIRELY forget about last week’s story, but in paying it the merest of lip service this week, it didn’t exactly do it justice, either.
Ultimately, the problem with pointillism productions such as “Glee” is that they can be so focused on the little things that they forget to nail the big picture. Individual moments get more attention than one-liners, which in turn get more attention than consistent characterization, which in turn get more attention than consistent storylines, which in turn finally get more attention than consistent weekly episodes. Holiday spent time tonight telling Will that students love nothing more than themselves, not being able to care about anything else around them. I think the writers of “Glee” sometimes feel the same way about individual ideas set forth each week. They aim for a type of mash-up all their own, but instead of standing under an umbrella of a well-constructed hour of television, they leave most of us standing in the rain.
Did tonight's episode hit all the right notes for you? Or did the multiple storylines merely provide dissonance? Leave your thoughts below!