Filling in for our beloved Gleecapper Lindy is daunting enough, but covering one of the most incoherent, narrative-bankrupt episodes of this show makes me wonder if I’m being punished by the TV gods. There was a perfect episode of Glee buried inside the terrible episode of Glee that aired last night, which is what makes me stick with this show — and makes me feel like a dope for doing so. The black-and-white cornball sixties gayola song-and-dance segment was so perfect and dumb and joyous! But it was surrounded so much deadweight.
We open on Christmas at McKinley, where Mercedes is singing some of the words to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I get that the show is on a tight timeline (ha-ha, no, it isn’t), but why feature the intro to this song if you’re going to shave it down? Especially for a song this famous, as opposed to, say, the boring “original” song later in the episode? This is a bad sign of things to come, and is symptomatic of Glee’s seeming inability to identify and prioritize what’s good about the show. The somnambulant rendition includes Finn breaking through a piece of wrapping paper and Mercedes giving Sam sexy-eyes, despite her “get over it” speech from last week. Rachel and her too-perfect Heidi braids declare it the “best Christmas ever,” even though she is Jewish. Was Chrismukkah really so long ago? (Kinda. “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” aired eight years ago.)
Cut to insufferable plotline numero uno: Rachel wrote up a greedy, greedy gift list of things she wants Finn to buy her, which includes teeth whitening and tanning among other items. “Holy crap, I’m dating a Kardashian,” Finn says to himself. This is the unintentionally saddest line Glee has ever had because it shows how completely off track this character has become. Rachel is the anti-Kardashian. She is hugely talented, she seems to have healthy boundaries about privacy, and nothing about her is for sale — she started as the show’s unlikely heroine, unlikable sort of but still lovable. Particularly this season, she’s become intolerable, a shriller and less charming version of herself, because the show doesn’t know how to make anything matter for her character anymore. She might not get into the college she wants? Who cares? Are we even going to see her there? Probably not! Remember when she was constantly ridiculed and glee club was her one respite? Remember when her crush on Finn was so overwhelming that she felt like she was losing her mind? Remember when she seemed like an outcast? Oh, just barely.
Insufferable plotline numero dos: Sue wants to go to a homeless shelter because she hasn’t had a story line in a few episodes. Mostly this scene is about how Kurt’s terrifying, belted, wooly, nightmare top hat has a smiley face and a pinwheel for no discernible reason. At first, I thought this was just a very ugly sweater. But I was wrong. It’s a very ugly poncho. It is the Rick Perry of knitwear, loudly and absurdly wrong in every possible way, and also that poncho probably executes the mentally retarded.
Rory serenades the other members of New Directions with “Blue Christmas,” while Kurt and his headband sit patiently, and Mike Chang looks sternly toward the middle distance. Hey, it’s Mr. Schue! He’s never around anymore! Mr. Schue explains that the local PBS station won’t be airing the yule log this year, which shouldn’t mean anything because PBS doesn’t air the yule log. Come on, show. If you’re going to go to the trouble of naming the station (time that could have been spent singing the complete verse for “All I Want for Christmas Is You”), is a quick trip to Wikipedia so onerous? Anyway, Mr. Schue volunteered Artie’s services to direct a holiday special. Why not his own services, given that he is an adult and an ostensible professional? Because no reason.
Artie accepts the position, as long as he gets to make a useless Star Wars joke (a Fox PR department fave!) and shoot the special in black-and-white, as a tribute to the Judy Garland Christmas special that aired in 1963, which is probably before either of Artie’s parents were born. Why does Artie care about this special? Because no reason. Everyone wants to be in it, naturally, which leads to the episode and perhaps the series’ nadir: Rachel singing Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
This is unacceptable.
First, Rachel is not sad, and this is a sad song. Too bad the sad, sad Quinn couldn’t sing it, but she is too busy having zero interesting plotlines and doing nothing, I guess. Second, Rachel might be a baby Barbra Streisand, but she is not a baby Joni Mitchell, and “River” is an especially egregious overreach because part of the song’s fundamental beauty is the effortlessness in Mitchell’s voice. “I would teach my feet to fly” is not a line in a power ballad. She “lost” her baby on account of being “selfish and sad,” so she just wants to skate away, fly away, quit this crazy scene — the song is about worrying that she didn’t really try, which is the opposite of how Rachel Berry thinks and behaves. Third, this was a complete waste of “River” — surely there is a story or character whose internal life could be explored or explained with one of the most haunting and poignant songs in living memory. Fourth and finally, this was a blown opportunity to talk about how tragic Christmas music can be, and to acknowledge that both “River” and the Juliana Hatfield song from My So-Called Life use familiar carols to launch into sad, searching songs.
Anyway, Artie doesn’t like it, because he wants his special to be a hokey cheesefest. Based on this episode alone, I think I’m going to start a novelty Tumblr highlighting the many reaction shots of Mike Chang, because again, we get an overlong reaction shot from him here. Why can’t he have some lines? Rachel and Blaine sing a duet and try to out-smugface one another, but it doesn’t work; they both have the smuggest faces and we can’t pick a winner.
AT LAST, the Christmas special begins. The Glee set is actually a very faithful reproduction of the set for the Garland special (watch here if you want to get the creeps), but it just seems so weird to think that Artie of all people would give two craps about this Judy Garland special. Dubious origins aside, this black-and-white segment is nine kinds of adorable. It’s self-aware (I think?) and cheeky and the music arrangements are pretty bare-bones, and all I can imagine is how great it would be if the entire episode were this. No framing device, no explanation, just an hour-long cornball extravaganza with prim sixties gloves and slim-cut suits. I’ll even accept the go-go boots and the dumb Star Wars material, because it’s Glee, and there’s no such thing as enough being enough. Alas, the majesty of the segment is ruined when Rory comes in and reads from the Bible, because, you guessed it, no reason. We haven’t known Rory to be particularly religious, nor does Glee seem like a natural venue for a Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season lecture.
Worst of all, Rory’s homily prompts the New Directions to head to the soup kitchen, where Sam and Quinn are already slopping food onto people’s plates. As if having Sam and Quinn not make eye contact with you even though you’re standing a foot away from them wasn’t degrading enough, now the glee kids earnestly belt out “Do They Know It’s Christmastime?” which just makes everything feel worse. Somehow this Band Aid moralizing cures Rachel of her gimme-gimmes, so she and Finn return the gifts they got each other (earrings, an iPod) so they can donate that money to the charity Sam is raising money for. My notes here just say “WHAT,” and I’m sure how to expound on that. What the hell was that?