This week’s Glee is the first true tribute episode since September’s Britney Spears episode; truth be told, it rankles a bit. There are some artists that you can meet just as well via covers — Stevie Wonder isn’t one of them. He’s too important, too definitive. As sock-knocking as a Mercedes Jones cover of “Higher Ground” is, it’s damn near impossible to touch the original. That said, I couldn’t help but nod along when Mr. Schue talked about Stevie Wonder’s legacy of joy and optimism, and I couldn’t help but be enamored with this week’s episode as an example of old-school, season-one Glee.
Put another way: I’m just super stoked to get a Glee where no one’s getting shot at or molested.
Mr. Schue is inspired by a phone call from Rachel about her Funny Girl callback; it makes me wonder: Is this the first interaction Mr. Schue and Rachel have had all season? If that’s the case, it’s a testament to how far the series has come since its first season, in which every episode kicked off with a Rachel/Schue battle of wills.
At any rate, Stevie Wonder week gets going with Kitty singing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” She’s backed by Ryder and Jake, and the performance is squarely in “just fine” territory, but it makes me wonder why there’s been so little overlap between the newbies and the New Directions veterans this season. So much of the criticism I’ve read this season has taken issue with how difficult it’s been to connect with the new kids; wouldn’t it have been easier to make longtime viewers connect with Kitty, Marley, Ryder, and Jake by interweaving their stories with the characters we already had an investment in? Wouldn’t it have been easier to care about the “newbie love triangle” if, say, Artie or Tina had had a stake in it instead of Ryder or Marley?
Meanwhile, Artie’s been accepted to the Brooklyn Film Academy, which I like because it cements his place in an NYC-centric Glee and because it’s a realistic school for a small-town kid with his credentials to be accepted to (they can’t all end up at NYADA). While he claims that he’s turning down his acceptance because his mom (guest star Katey Sagal) can’t bear to let him go, he’s actually afraid. His mother praises his adaptability and encourages him to move on; it’s a lovely scene between the two of them, but it’s an underuse of Sagal, who’s a very talented singer in her own right and who’s been angling for a guest turn on the show for some time.
Incidentally, I do wonder if Glee is carving a niche for itself as a purveyor of wish-fulfillment parents for struggling millennials. First O’Malley, then Goldblum, then Estefan, and now Sagal … if we can’t have real moms and dads who tell us to chase down our pipe dreams, aren’t (misguidedly) supportive television parents the next best thing?
Kurt begins the episode nervously counting down the days until Burt’s final cancer treatment appointment. I’ve been opposed to this story line since its inception, simply because I don’t believe that it’s necessary to insert capital-D drama into Kurt and Burt’s relationship. Their interactions have always had high emotional stakes simply because of the chemistry between the actors who play them; while the cancer is maybe a means to, say, Kurt and Blaine holding hands again for the first time (after Blaine tells Kurt he looks “dirty-cute”), I’m not convinced that prostate cancer was the best way to get them there. After the school “shooting” episode, I’m hypersensitive to Glee’s cavalier emotional manipulation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that Burt’s not going to die, and I’ll never turn down a Burt/Kurt/Carole scene, but it’s clear that Ryan Murphy never intended to kill Burt off in the first place. Couldn’t Kurt and Burt (and Blaine) have hit some of the exact same emotional notes simply because they love each other and because they’ve missed each other while Kurt is away from home for the very first time? Kurt celebrates his father’s remission by singing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” and while I’ll reiterate that there are other ways to build in a tribute to the love these two share, it’s important to give a massive shout-out to Chis Colfer’s vocal range, and it’s great to have another Kurt solo. There have been, like, two this season, and that’s a crime.
Later in the episode, Blaine pulls Burt aside. Burt’s relieved that Blaine isn’t planning to sing to him (I love that four years around the New Directions has prepared him to brace for this inevitability at every turn), but it’s a short-lived relief; Blaine immediately asks for Burt’s permission to propose to Kurt. Burt’s immediate response is “Are you kidding, or are you nuts?” It’s a nice callback to Glee’s past for Burt to point out how opposed he was to Finn and Rachel’s now-aborted engagement, and Burt also points out that it’s a bad idea to propose to someone just because you’re afraid they’ll meet someone else. He convinces Blaine that everything will work out all right in the end. Sure, that’s a good stance for a television writer to take (the longer it takes to bring two characters together, the more storytelling opportunities there’ll be), but it’s also just plain good advice, and that’s something that Glee’s been short on this season.
(It’s a little jarring to follow a “please don’t propose” scene with a Kay Jeweler’s commercial, although I suppose that’s probably out of Glee’s hands.)
Back in New York, the bitchy gays of NYADA claim that Sutton Foster (inarguably too old) and Mamie Gummer are Rachel’s main competition for her role in Funny Girl, and that Rachel will need Cassandra July’s permission if she wants the part. Cassie puts up a good show of resistance, but ultimately, she’s proud of Rachel, and she and her NYADA classmates serenade Rachel with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” as inspiration for her callback. It’s an intricate, high-energy dance number, one that makes me wish that Glee would have taken advantage of the incredible New York dancers it had at its disposal this season.
While I’m glad Cassie got the arc she was promised, I wish she’d been a more consistent, nuanced presence, if only because Kate Hudson absolutely had the chops and the inclination for the role. I hope to see more of her next year, especially if more of the New Directions kids (cough cough BLAINE) are NYADA bound. Rachel thanks Cassie for her help and support, and Cassie simply replies, “You’re gonna get it.”
And Rachel should. I’ve been hard on Rachel as she’s written, and I’d imagine I’ll continue to be in coming seasons, but she’s perfect casting for Fanny Brice, and leaning on the scaffolding of a well-known Broadway musical would be a wise choice for Glee’s next season. I’m excited. Tentatively.
Instead of asking for Kurt’s hand in marriage, Blaine asks him to stick around until Regionals; if the assistance Mike and Mercedes have been lending the New Directions does the trick, they might just stand a fighting chance. Mike and Jake do a dance duet to “I Wish.” It’s been frustrating for Jacob Artist’s dance background to be so underutilized this season (homeboy got into Juilliard, for Pete’s sake), and seeing him side-by-side with Mike is pure joy. It’s also a huge relief to see Mercedes teaching Marley about breath control, even if it means making Marley the third wheel on Blaine and Mercedes’s “Superstition” duet. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time in four damn years that we’ve had an actual lesson about vocal technique on Glee.
The episode closes with Artie’s rendition of “For Once in My Life” and if nothing else, it’s a testament to how underused Kevin McHale has been this season — Motown numbers like these are squarely in his wheelhouse. It’s impossible to watch this closing number without hoping for good things for next week’s Regionals episode; sure, we’re 87 episodes into the series by now, and hope is illogical, but Glee, as ever, defies logic.