I worry about the television show “Glee” way more than I should.
I function just fine without it in my life, I guess, but bring it up in conversation, and oh boy… stand back. I can talk myself into endless circles about its flaws and its strengths and what it should be and what it isn’t and what it is and what it could have been or could be still, which means, beneath the surface of this fully-functioning human being who likes to believe he thinks mostly about important things like picking out my clothes and doing my job and writing well and finding love, there must always be a secret, annoying dialogue running full-speed in my brain that I don’t even know about that goes something like this:
And it goes on like that.
It’s like rooting for your home team – Glee is my home team and I hate some of the trades it’s been making and I think the ownership is kind of dumb, but man do I want it to succeed and I’d be really sad if it left town tomorrow. And I put way more stock in it then one should probably put into something so trivial as sports or, in this case, battling show choirs.
Three weeks ago, when Glee premiered, I wrote a few paragraphs on the Glee premiere that I intended to post here, but I didn’t follow through because I didn’t know what I was saying. I hadn’t formulated an opinion on a show which had, in Season 2, lost me. I was writing words, saying what I’d thought of Glee in the past, but I couldn’t seem to formulate an opinion on how I feel about Glee now. I talked a lot about ambivalence in that post, but by virtue of my agonizing over my ambivalence, I realized that “ambivalence” was hardly the right word to characterize what’s going on in my head when it comes to Glee. See the cartoon above for reference. Perhaps regretful obsession bordering on analytic illness might be more appropriate. I am not ambivalent. So what am I?
Here’s my thing with Glee. Only two other shows have captured my imagination quite as much as this show has. One was Lost and the other was Heroes. Both of those shows found themselves in almost exactly the same place Glee finds itself in right now as they entered their respective third seasons. The quality of their second seasons had been spotty after brilliant freshman showings, and the third season premiere of each had seen a major turn-down in viewers because of it. Their futures were unsure. Some characters just seemed like wastes of space. The characters we had originally loved were the most trite, annoying people on the show and so the showrunners were giving too much of the spot-light to characters who had started on the fringes but who were more “delicious” to write for because they were less conventionally normal. Because of this, the shows both lacked a strong center of gravity and it became apparent they were spinning their wheels looking for a direction.
Lost came out of this tailspin brilliantly, coming back from a mid-season hiatus with a string of episode’s so brilliant that they convinced dedicated fans to begin defending the show again, even if their intricacy lost some of the not-so-dedicated viewers. Lost, because it did something totally different but completely inspired, would be allowed to finish its run on its own terms as not the hit for everyone and anyone that it had once been, but also not even close to the failure it was becoming in early Season 3.
Heroes, on the other hand, was television’s most humongous crash-and-burn. The problems of its third season built unassailable mountains on top of the problems of its second season, and everyone just stopped caring, even those for whom ambivalence hurt a little (count me among those who felt a distinct pain saying goodbye to this show when I realized it would never be what I wanted it to be).
And for all the time I have seen Glee walking this path – that of the brilliant phenom with the cult audience that grows so big in the second season that it begins to look like it’s eating for two – I have thought “Heroes, Heroes, Dammit! Heroes.” I have contended for a while now that the way Gleeks feel now about Finn, Rachel, Will and Sue (mostly outright derision), who were the show’s original focus and its most fully realized characters early on, is a perfect mirror of how Heroes fans began to feel about that show’s original breakout avengers — Hiro, Claire, Peter and Mohinder — when that show grew too big for its britches. Early on those characters were relatable, capturing people’s imaginations and drawing them into this new universe with such warmth and apparent depth. By Season 2, no one could stand them. Not even a little bit. They were dumb. Just outright dumb. Heroes became a waiting game to see when one of the periphery characters like Sylar or Angela Petrelli or Mr. Bennett would do something interesting. Now compare this to Season 2 of Glee, where Will became an openly scoffed at meme, the perfect-image of a gloriously botched character, and where side-players like Kurt and Santana not only got all the best stories, but, by season’s end, literally had all the stories. Rachel and Finn were not the heart of the show anymore, but with a show like Glee, when you try and find a new “heart of the show” because the old ones aren’t working, you’re just as likely to misplace the show’s heart altogether.
It takes a lot to come out of this deadly cycle. A show that starts eating its own tail (especially one with fans as rabid as Glee fans, who want to see these characters keep doing what they’ve been doing in the past as much if not more than they want to see a good show) is very unlikely to stop doing so. Straightening out is hard to do, and so it would have taken quite a gesture to make me stop my panicking and simply begin enjoying this show for what it can bring to the table again. “Asian F” is exactly that – it’s the gesture I needed.
The first two episodes of this season have been promising, but it takes three examples to discern a trend. Glee is a show averse to trends. It is wildly erratic, continuity-averse, tone-deaf and likely to lose focus if you dangle a shiny object in front of it. But after this third episode I am willing to say we have a trend. Because “Asian F,” Glee’s third episode this season and its best since Season 1, builds brilliantly on many positive changes we saw in the first two episodes, does a few things we’ve never seen this show do before, and seems to be acting as both a mission statement for a new and better show while also harkening back to the best moments of the little show it seemed like this behemoth called Glee had forgotten.
Five reasons I’m willing to put my neck on the line and say I think that Glee will not in fact be a Heroes and will instead become a Lost:
- This episode was actually a freaking musical!: I think most people would argue that every episode of Glee is a freaking musical. No! No… Glee has always, except in the rarest of instances, gone as far out of its way as possible to provide in-story motivations for its characters to suddenly break out in song. And that’s the thing — music on Glee is never sudden. It is never from the heart. The show goes through such pains, saying, before every performance, “We are going to sing this song.” “Why are we going to sing this song?” “Because we have this event coming up where this song might be required though it is ultimately unlikely we will perform it there or anywhere ever again.” “Have we practiced this song?” “We have, it was off-screen earlier, we are much better at it now. THERE IS A TOTALLY ORGANIC REASON TO BE SINGING THIS SONG! DON”T QUESTION IT!!!” That has always been the most painful aspect of the show for me as a musician. The characters can never simply sing their feelings as one would expect them to in a “musical” because that would be too surreal (musicals are inherently surreal), so a rationale has to be given for every performance, a logic which has in fact created the show’s most surreal element: that these kids, not to mention the instrumentalists who appear to be their slaves, could possibly learn all these completely expendable pop covers in minutes, write original songs the day before competitions, synchronize their dance moves, and still be functioning students and members of a succesful choir which wins competitions. So, in this show’s second episode ever, when Rachel wanted to sing about how sad she was, she couldn’t simply do it. She had to first ask permission to use the auditorium to rehearse for… something? And when Kurt wanted to sing about his father being ill, he had to do it as part of that week’s slate of performances Will enforces on the Glee kids as the world’s least mandatory homework ever. “Asian F” took a gun to this tradition and shot a fatal blow, hopefully a head shot, thank goodness. This episode of Glee was, in one word, surreal. It entered each character’s head not through the cheeky monologues we’ve become accustomed to but through bringing aspects of the character’s inner struggles onto the stage around them. They interacted with these struggles as physical presences, and they fought them through music. They dealt with them through singing and dancing not because the story demanded it through some contrivence but because the camera accepted the logic of each character’s inner world and created a place where it is logical that a young man would fight his father, who he only imagines is in the room, by dancing away from him and interpreting his frustration through free-form movement. (This was my favorite scene of the night.) Or where the world’s logic could handle and in fact make transcendent a character imagining all of her peers challenging her by replacing the words in a Dreamgirls song she knows by heart with words that addressed how she assumes they feel about her. There was no presumption that the character’s learned that routine. It happened because Mercedes needed it to. It happened in her musical head. It was weird, surreal, and it was utterly brilliant. It was the essence of musical theater. It’s nice to Glee realizes such a thing exists.
- Each song told a story: Along a similar vein, every song last night told its own story with a beginning, middle and end. Right now you’re either thinking “well doesn’t every song?” OR “why on earth would every song need to do that when that’s what the episode’s for?” Okay, here’s why you introduce a song into a story if you are responsibly using music to create emotional responses within your story: 1) The song is expressing a realization or culmination of emotion a character in a non-musical world would have likely come to internally — in other words it is a bridge between a conflict and a character’s reaction to that conflict, a dramatization of interior thought and interior life. Example: Ariel has seen a real human, but as she enters her alcove of human gadgets she realizes she will never be a part of “that” world if her current circumstances persist. It could have happened in her head in ten seconds, but we see it in a show-stopping ballad. 2) The song represents the communication of information or of signals between characters who might not have otherwise communicated, or who would have communicated through static exposition. Ex: Timon and Puumba see that Simba is depressed so they convey to him their motto and it transforms Simba’s point of view as he grows up. In “Hakuna Matata,” the story never stops: it merely continues through melody, lyrics, dance and a wonderful time dissolve that lets us know what exactly has transpired in the decade it has taken Simba to grow up. So those are two reasons to introduce a musical number in a good musical. Here’s the reason Glee introduces them: 1) Because people will like this song. 2) Because if people don’t already like this song enough, we can sell it to them after this episode is over. 3) Because we need songs in the show — this is Glee! And so, in most instances on this show, a song is introduced in this fashion: “We are now going to pause the story to sing a song you might enjoy. Don’t worry, any conflicts or new idea this song might introduce have already been worked through in dialogue or will be worked out in dialogue shortly.” Anyone whose watched the show closely, tell me I’m wrong, I dare you. You can’t. Sigh. It’s sloppy story-telling to the third degree. So imagine how suddenly impressed I was to see that not only did the show not feel the need to ground every song in some sort of performance reality but that it also allowed every song to be an original and emotional expression of a character’s inner feelings that went through a cycle of emotions and ended in realization. Each song was a moment of turmoil and ultimate resolution for a character (sometimes multiple characters, and in one instance, the entire student body!). So rather than pausing the story and ruining momentum and narrative tension, the songs in “Asian F” were each sung at the most dramatic moments, and served two functions: they informed us about a character’s state of mind (we know more about how Rachel feels about the corner she has been painted into by Mercedes during her performance alongside Mercedes then we do at any time prior to this duet; we may know more about Rachel in that moment then we have since the pilot) and they provided a pressure release as realizations were made and the audience was let in on important inner thoughts. All of which is to say that, as each performance became more fully-realized than the one that came before, I was shouting “Yes! Yes!” at the television, and people thought I was strange.
- I was never told what the theme was with a big, fat permanent marker: Who is your favorite author? Would that author still be your favorite if, at the outset of every chapter, that author announced, “Hi, this chapter will be about sex,” and then wrote SEX on the page in marker and then PUT A BIG CIRCLE AROUND IT? Probably not, right? Why Glee has persistently thought this was the best way to continue pushing its episodes in new and exciting directions will elude me forever. In the first few episodes of Glee, song choice and narrative momentum was dictated by something that happened in the story. In “Acafellas,” most of the songs were R&B songs from 90s boy bands, but Will never wrote on the board that this was all the show would be about. It was the case because Will joined a group that pretty much exclusively sang those songs. It was a fun narrative development that suited the characters, and I could interpret that retro vibe or those songs about sex however I wanted. Will never told me why those songs were chosen, and he never wrote his motivation or the motivation of others on the board with a Sharpie. At a certain point Glee got lazy and began telegraphing its intentions to viewers from ten miles off in big CAPITAL LETTERS. Telegraphing may be too subtle a term for what Glee was doing when it had Beiber episodes or episodes about being in a funk while writing BEIBER and FUNK on the board and discussing what those words mean — shouting at me may be more appropriate. Let’s put it this way: there is a board in the writers’ room where the Glee scribes list out their ideas for themes and narrative arcs; the dumbest thing the show could have done would have been to put that board in the middle of the choir room and have the character’s explain to us, using the stupid board, exactly what would be happening in every episode! That is exactly what most of Season 2 was about — it was a show about a bunch of people having conversations around a board filled with thematic ideas, disagreeing over which were good and which were really dumb (Rocky Horror, Rocky Horror, Rocky Horror!). So I was looking at the Glee wirter’s room. I don’t want to do that! The show conditioned me to hate permanent markers and Will Schuester. When Will wrote “BOOTY CAMP” on the board in the first scene of “I Am Unicorn,” I literally reacted this way: “Oh my God, this episode is going to be all about booties. They are going to sing a bunch of songs about butts and at the end there will be an uplifting message about the value of my bum. I should turn off the TV right now.” And then something magical happened: the episode had no theme. Or, more accurately, it had a theme I was allowed to interpret for myself. The songs in the episode were all Broadway numbers, but those songs all dealt with each character’s situations and came from their hearts. That was good, and, to top it all off, no one wrote “Broadway” on the board. I made that association all on my own. I came away from that episode with a feeling that I had not been lectured to by Will Schuester and that the show was mine again and not the writers’. “Asian F” built on this momentum, allowing me to finally follow a continuing plot thread that does not involve Kurt through more than one week. Nothing hurts continuing momentum like themed episodes that have nothing to do with last week’s themed episode. Glee has now strung together three episodes with no prescribed theme, and those three episodes followed continuing storylines that came up and were somewhat resolved when it made sense for the characters, and not at the end of the hour when it’s time to erase the board and write down a new idea.
- The characters all had memory of their past actions: Speaking of continuing story threads and characters on Glee, lets take a minute to talk about continuity. Glee is pretty unabashedly bad at it… which doesn’t have to be such a bad thing. Shows and comic books can survive just fine without continuity if continuity is not made out to be a big deal: in those stories where continuity is a peripheral thing at most, things happen because they’re the most interesting things that could happen and in this sort-of anthology, we’re only going to put things in front of you that are deserving of your attention. The characters are simply vehicles for that perpetual motion. That’s totally cool, I respect that so much, and I think if characters are interesting, they should be able to do whatever their writers darn well please when they want them to. But not if you make continuity a huge part of what you’re doing. Not if your obsessed with it and, alternately, you suck at it. This is Glee. It makes its characters do whatever it wants/needs them to do throughout the course of an episode or story arc even if it makes no sense, and then, when that’s over, it resets them back to default setting (blank-slate gay kid, blank-slate black girl, blank-slate diva) because it does not want to stray too far from its origins, yet it also wants desperately for us to believe in character growth. It’s that last one that’s a killer. So, if you’re scoring at home: Glee goes all over the map doing crazy nonsense, places these things in our characters’ memories, and then does not let them grow from these experiences whatsoever, but hopes we’ll take away from all of this an empowering image of kids growing up and learning. Ha! Mr. Schuester has been like ten different guys on this show while, simultaneously, Kurt has remained relatively consistent. I know what Kurt has learned, but I have no idea what Schu has learned, let alone who this guy is. Artie’s been on-screen for like twenty minutes the entire series, and even he’s been interpreted about four different ways. Sue has made peace with the glee club so many times she should probably check herself into some institution. And we’re supposed to believe the same things are going on in these characters’ shared universe, and they’re all reacting to them and learning from them in similar ways? If this is a show about finding yourself in high school, why can’t I seem to figure out who any of these people’s selves are? It’s too much to handle. This is never more apparent then when you look at this series’ horrible track record with relationships, both teenage and adult. I’ve watched every episode and I doubt I could list every relationship let alone explain how they made sense. They don’t. They made sense that week and then they were ret-conned like spoiled milk. The show, over the past three weeks, has, in its own way, told me it is aware of this. It is aware of the big-ol’ continuity mess it made, and it had two options. Say screw it or work to fix it. I would have accepted either, but I would not have accepted more of the same pile-up — that’s what killed Heroes and I’m not doing that again. Well, the show seems to have chosen to work to fix its problems by finding some motivations and giving these characters some sense of inner life and consistant nature. It is in the act of replacing some of the gaps in its overarching super-knowledge so it can create a group of characters that don’t feel like they should be dead four times over. (Let’s not even talk about the fact that every character has left the glee club about seven times in two years.) In “I Am Unicorn,” we saw Quinn’s extremely inconsistent behavior explained in a very simple and understandable way — having a baby at 16 really messed her up. Is this what the writer’s were thinking in Season 2? Heck no. But it makes sense now, and I, like the show, am okay pretending that everything that happened in Season 2 was a result of everyone being upset about something that happened in Season 1 and… moving on! All I ask is that, as we move on, you give my characters direction, memory, and some sense that I am watching natural growth and not some wildly different being who looks the same from week to week but can turn on a dime from kind to coocoo-pants for no clear reason.
- Sue Sylvester had almost no presence within the school halls: And then there is the irredeemable Sue, the very definition of coocoo-pants for no clear reason. What to do about Sue? Really there is nothing at this point. To keep her as a viable villain, the show should have sent her away for a lenghty stint a long time ago. The show has occasionally toyed with consequences for her actions, such as being stripped of her position at the school, but, in the end, the writers always seem to decide that this show is not Glee without Sue Sylvester doing insane things for no apperent reason. I don’t like nice Sue any more than mean Sue, by the way. I’ve grown angry at both. We just don’t need Sue. Sue was a good idea. She was The Riddler to the glee club’s Justice League, but could you imagine how ANNOYING comics would be if the Justice League only ever fought the Riddler? That would be gawd-awful! No, you send him away for a while — to prison or a presumed death or a reformed life as a civilian — and then, when he comes back, there is a freshness to his antics and a threat carried behind the returning presence he brings. This is all assuming Glee needed a villain in the first place. It probably didn’t, and the show’s always had too soft a heart to keep any other villain around for a long period of time. Villains help conflict, and with a concept as restricting as show choir, there are only so many conflicts (bad director, glee club is cancelled, person leaves glee club, glee club is not good) and we have seen them all so many times. But this show should have been able to wander from its initial conflict. It really hasn’t. No new conflicts could ever survive. Any time it seems like a new conflict might be working, the show realizes it loves Sue more than… sanity. And Sue becomes the big bad again. The way I listed this out, you might assume they cycle through this turmoil over weeks at a time. No, this is about every two episodes — a new conflict is introduced but, by one episode later, its really Sue thats the bad guy. Jane Lynch is a wonderful performer, truly. Anyone on the show could say the mean lines she says, but only she could imbue them with the menace and humor she does. But Sue has always been such a cartoon that even giving her some depth has seemed like a cheap trick. Will, though he is more hated, is redeemable because part of what makes him so despicable as a character now is that he was a character of great depth and compassion when we first met him, and now he is shallow, one-note and soft. Rachel, who can not make up her mind, at least has a complex interior life. The best thing the show could have done with Sue was have her run for office after her suspension and appear on the television only occasionally, promising good things for the arts, delivering a killer line every now and then. She would have pulled off the unlikely win and people would have been eager to see her in her new environment. People would have asked “What tricks is Sue Sylvester up to now that she is a politician?” And THEN, and only then, should she have threatened to cut out the arts. That would have been a legitamate and interesting threat. So the fifth reason I liked this episode is because it gave Sue a break. The show needed that break. It should be pointed out that I am willing to take all this kindness back because in the previews for next week, I see Sue yelling at people again, and my brain yells “Sue is Sylar! They could never let the villain go! This is Heroes all over again.” But, right now, I know how I feel about Glee. I have formed my opinion and I want to share it. I am on board. While I see no hope for Sue (she will never be a Ben Linus), I see hope for Glee, and after “Asian F” — which inspired me with its creativity, its artistry and its all-around competency — I am willing to hope aloud once again that, in this show which occupies so much of my television-knowledge brain-space, I have found a story that will recapture my imagine and live out the remainder of its days as an ambitious Lost — not that show exactly, but one like it, delivering for dedicated fans of musicals and teen soaps and raucous comedies alike. A Gleek can dream, right?