I try to avoid Glee spoilers, although it’s less of a hard-and-fast rule and more of a half-hearted effort to avoid letting the show consume my life (it is absolutely too late for that, but a girl can dream). Plus, I’ve found when I do have an idea of what songs will be sung and what stories will unfold, I go into an episode with either my expectations too high or my key-smash rage too preemptively engaged.
I’m wrong sometimes – I rolled my eyes about another “Don’t Stop Believin’” reprise and wound up loving it, and I thought I’d love New York City Glee unconditionally, but ended up with a case of accursed ennui. But I knew I’d hate the school shooting episode; I was right. I knew I’d hate Mr. Schue singing “Blurred Lines” — right again. And when I heard that this week’s episode would tackle the dicey territory of gay-bashing and the even more dicey territory of a slate of Stephen Sondheim songs, I was pretty sure I’d have issues with the episode.
Sometimes I hate being right about Glee.
Sondheim himself has been incredibly generous about Glee in general — he called it “a mix of contemporary songs and show tunes in the service of pure joy,” although that was way back in 2010, when the show remained committed to its original promise of escapist entertainment. And he’s also been generous about sharing his music — Kurt’s performed both “Rose’s Turn” (very strong, if oddly out of context) and “Being Alive” (one of Chris Colfer’s all-time greatest performances), and the very strong West Side Story episode featured multiple songs with Sondheim-penned lyrics. So it’s not as if I feel like Sondheim’s songs are, or should be, off-limits to Glee.
My core problem is that Sondheim’s songs are about life and joy and pain and grit. Sure, they’re beautiful, but there’s nothing clean about them. Their jagged edges are what make them compelling. “No One Is Alone” is a song that was meant to be lilting, but it sure as hell wasn’t written to be auto-tuned, and that’s what makes Glee’s version of it such a non-starter. I’m not sure why Glee continues to produce the hell out of singers who’ve proven they can sing without — for lack of a better term — in-studio crutches. Like, musical theater is the thing that Lea Michele does best. Why is Glee so reluctant to let her?
Long story short: This is a great song. This is, unfortunately, not a great performance. The Warbler-style oooh-ing is especially out of place to the point of being distracting. By the same token, Blaine and Rachel’s “Broadway Baby” was bombastic and flat at the same time, a feat I once thought impossible. It’s an especial bummer compared to how lovely they sounded when singing “One Hand, One Heart” a few years back. I get that the point of their performance was that they’d misunderstood the assignment, but still. Blaine’s “Not While I’m Around” is the only exception, really, both for the context (we’ll get do that) and for its rawer introduction. I remain confused as to why Darren Criss is the only performer who’s allowed those more intimate, immediate performances, but I’m sure as hell not complaining.
What I find compelling about the assault story line itself is that it furthers the “nobody puts Kurt Hummel in a corner” theme that’s been building all season. There was a time on Glee when Kurt was too frightened to even be, and seeing him run to someone else’s defense (even with tragic consequences) is very powerful. It might not get better, but he certainly has. Even when Burt bursts into his hospital room and asks him what he was thinking, Kurt doesn’t back down. He knows he did the right thing, and doesn’t promise to never do it again. As great as the Kurt/Burt chemistry is, there’s a lot in Burt’s anger toward Kurt and the situation that I’m not comfortable with. It sounds an awful lot like Burt is suggesting that only strong, straight men should beat up strong, straight gay-bashers (who are, according to Glee, exclusively men in pickup trucks), and that makes me extraordinarily uncomfortable.
I mean, I guess the idea is that no one should beat up anyone, but it’s a little icky. But we’re still best friends, Mike O’Malley. Nothing can keep us apart.
That’s not to say that I don’t respect the way the attack was handled within the context of the episode – it was far less exploitative than I’d feared, and the tight shots of everyone’s faces as they heard and responded to the news were both understated and devastating. Blaine curled around Kurt in his hospital bed was a perfect echo of the shot of the two of them entwined in “The First Time,” and Blaine singing to him was everything I love about their relationship. But in a broader sense: This is Glee, and I’m well-acquainted with the show’s habit of trotting out a dramatic event, milking it, and abandoning it.
The “school-shooting episode” — which was really just a gun going off — is a prime example. Dave Karofsky’s suicide attempt (new drinking game: Everyone gets to do a shot every time I bitch about Glee’s mishandling of Karofsky’s story line – guaranteed biweekly shots!) is another. I’m not saying I want an entire season of Kurt battling PTSD or anything, but I don’t want the issue dropped altogether, not when this initial handling of it has promise and when Chris Colfer could more than shoulder an extended story line that doesn’t stop at Kurt’s initial reaction to a traumatic event.
And then there’s the problem of “I’m Still Here.” Did Kurt survive something traumatic? Yes. Has he survived an unfair amount trauma before this attack? Hell, yes — easily ten percent of the 294 issues Glee has tackled were his alone to face. (Make that 295, I guess.) But “I’m Still Here” isn’t a song for a 19-year-old — or a 30-year-old, or even a 50-year-old. Elaine Stritch has a great bit about how you have to earn singing that song, and not for nothing, her performance of it is damn near definitive.
In the midst of this, there’s some Sam/Mercedes business that I don’t quite want to call nonsense, but it definitely feels like filler. Since Amber Riley is apparently only going to be an occasional presence on New Glee (NYGlee?), it seems less like actual relationship-building and more like, “Hey, here’s an easy story for two single people!” It’s nice to see the two of them have something to do — I think this is the most we’ve heard Mercedes speak in a single episode — but it feels a little forced. Still, I’ll take it if it gets us Facts of Life jokes and Amber Riley singing “Natural Woman” on a carousel — but is it too much to ask to see her really, truly dance at least once this season? (That said, I’m not touching the debate the two of them had about race, because holy minefield, Batman.)
Oh, also Rachel’s simultaneous Funny Girl and NYADA obligations are suddenly a problem, as it has become convenient for them to be problematic from a plot standpoint. Could the damn show just open already?
All of which is to say, when it comes to Glee: Good times and bum times; I’ve seen them all and my dear, I’m still here. And I’ll be here next week, too, when apparently Artie dresses up like chlamydia.