Last night’s Glee suffered from a touch of the Ruby Problem, a syndrome I invented while watching a particularly unfortunate story line unfold in the final season of Parenthood. Like Glee, Parenthood had a short final season with (presumably) a reduced budget. To compensate, Parenthood gave one of its secondary characters a troubled teenage daughter and a beleaguered ex-wife, and then spent an awful lot of the season exploring their story. It’s not that Ruby’s story was bad or that the performers involved in it weren’t talented (on the contrary, Ray Romano and Jeanne Tripplehorn were both incredible). It’s just not what Parenthood’s viewers had tuned in to its final season hoping or expecting to see.
I’d imagine that’s how Glee fans felt about last night’s newbie-centric episode — although as soon as I typed that sentence, I clicked over to Twitter and found at least three “Yay! Newbie stories!” tweets, so what do I know? Before last night’s episode aired, there were only 210 minutes of Glee left; seeing 42 of them dedicated to a bunch of new kids felt odd. I understand an episode like this was necessary, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Plot twist: After I set that semi-disappointment aside, I DID like a lot of the things about the episode. That’s due in part to how much more compelling this group of newbies is than the crop of newbies we met in season four. Those new kids were set up as little more than replacements for the graduating seniors — Marley was Rachel, Ryder was Finn, Jake was Puck. But the kids we’ve met this season are total weirdos, in the best possible sense; in that way, they’re much easier (and more fun) to connect with as a viewer. And there’s something particularly compelling about the “building up the glee club” episodes of Glee — it’s not quite the rounding up of the Avengers, but it’s fun to watch that sustained process of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” and the ensuing coltish performances.
This week, Sue offers to help the school district superintendent throw a bar mitzvah for his nephew Myron, a hypertalented kid whose tyranny and tantrum-throwing rival Sue’s. I’m not particularly fond of story lines where children behave terribly and it’s played for laughs, but it’s still pretty entertaining to see Sue meet her tiny little match. And Myron’s incredibly talented — he opens the show with Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” and holds his own with a squad of adult backup dancers. By the end of the episode, Myron’s transferred from his middle school to McKinley in order to join the glee club, which makes about as much sense as the time Finn kidnapped Sam from his male stripper job to shore up the New Directions’ chances at regionals.
The bulk of the episode is taken up with planning the bar mitzvah, and Rachel’s sort of at a loss for songs to suggest to the New Directions — she frets to Mr. Schue that the kids are all just so quiet, and he asks whether they’re quiet because she’s always talking, which is the most hypocritical question ever posed on Glee. In true Mr. Schue fashion, Rachel decides to leave the kids up to their own devices to plan their performances, and when she announces this, Kitty skeptically asks, “Are we actually going to sing, or are you going to announce an alumnus walking through the door??” Truth be told, I think when you lay out all of season six’s performances, you’re going to find a pretty equal balance of new kids and alumni, but I understand why Kitty asked, and her Greek-chorus-grade delivery was perfect.
The performances themselves are a weird little hodgepodge — Mason sings “I Want to Break Free,” mostly out of his desire to get away from his twincestuous sibling relationship so he can go on a date to Breadstix with Jane. (The things you make me type, Glee.) For reasons I can’t quite remember now, Sheldon and Sue get involved as backup singers/dancers as the whole gang sings Ariana Grande’s “Break Free,” which is one of the first numbers to really FEEL like an old-school New Directions performance all season long. Jane, Roderick, and Spencer sing “Uptown Funk” and make it feel fresh, which is kind of amazing after an NFL season that used its “don’t believe me, just watch!” lyric to kick to every single commercial break.
And Spencer sings “Friday I’m in Love” to new kid Alistair (gonna need you to disambiguate that spelling, Glee). I love their blossoming romance, especially because it’s not framed at all as a Special Gay Relationship — it’s just two boys who like each other and who kiss for the first time over a ukulele. Alistair joins Myron and the rest of the New Directions in the episode’s closing number, a traditional “We’re a real club now!” performance that feels an awful lot like “Don’t Stop Believin’” in season one or “Some Nights” in season four, although that might just be the denim and solid-color shirts talking. At any rate, it’s the first time I’ve looked at that particular configuration of performers and said, “Oh. The New Directions. I remember you guys.”
Meanwhile, Roderick and Spencer get into a shoving match because Spencer is mean to Roderick while teaching him how to climb a rope in the gymnasium. Later, Roderick is able to climb a rope backstage in the auditorium to save the bar mitzvah performance, and he and Spencer are, as a result, bros for life. Toward the end of the episode, Spencer encourages Roderick to eat more organic chicken after Roderick somberly admits to occasionally sneaking night Cheetos. Shockingly, nothing in this paragraph is a euphemism.
Because Sue has reopened her glee club hurt locker (again, not a euphemism), next week’s episode will likely be all about her. This season has induced pretty severe whiplash as Sue has gone from kind to indifferent to evil and back again so quickly, but still, she’s been an awful lot of fun to watch. Apparently she installs a massive pipe organ in the McKinley auditorium, so even by Glee standards, it’s shaping up to be a pretty epic send-off.