Ryan Murphy's (Nip/Tuck) sparkling new musical satire, Glee, is quickly becoming my new favorite show. Maybe it has something to do with the fact I grew up a crazy punk rock liberal theater geek in a tiny little conservative town with no drama department in their school. My few friends were all like-minded, lonely, and yes, we were all mercilessly mocked for our passions and our "alternative life choices," whatever that meant. Watching Glee is kind of like watching my life in high school, with more dance numbers and less profanity.
Glee is a highly ambitious series, with a massive ensemble cast, delightful yet over-produced musical numbers, and a healthy dose of Murphy's brand of surrealist melodrama. This is a world where the cheerleading team is nicknamed after a breakfast cereal, the school guidance councelor has OCD, and women have hysterical pregnancies in order to keep their husbands from leaving. I can tell you that some of these overly cutesy touches drive me insane, but the show always ends up drawing me back with emotional realism. All I know is that I find Spanish techer Will Schuster (Matthew Morrison) and his band of misfits highly entertaining.
Watching this week's Glee was at times emotionally wrenching. I clearly identify with the character of Kurt (Chris Colfer) in a profound way. Not the 'coming out as gay' part, but trying so desperately to maintain a relationship with a parent who disapproves of your passions. The fact that Kurt feels compelled to lie to his working class single father is heartbreaking, but it is like that across the world for gay teens. Ryan Murphy said in a recent L.A. Times article that a little of his own life made its way into his characterization of Kurt, and I can see it in the tender way Murphy laid out Kurt’s scenes with his father, played by a surprisingly good Mike O’Malley.
Chris Colfer was both hysterically funny, touchingly sad, and devastatingly true to life in this episode. More shocking and pure is his father’s reaction to the news — it’s kind of hard to deny your son may be gay when he asks for a pair of sensible heels when he’s three. Or has a hope chest. Which is full of tiaras. O’Malley plays it as a matter of fact, not deeply profound or overly emotional. It is what it is. He’s not overjoyed about it, but he certainly isn’t going to erupt into a homophobic screed.
The Quinn-Finn-Puck story line was a little more Degrassi conventional. First, this show does a great job playing off of Cory Monteith’s naive portrayal of Finn. He’s blank, he’s clueless, but he knows what he is and he is trying to figure out how to make it out without being enormously gifted at things that are more obvious paths of freedom. He plays on a losing football team, and he doesn’t have the grades to make it on academic scholarships. But he knows enough to realize he must get out of Lima.
By contrast, Quinn ( Dianna Agron) is pretty and perky and on a championship cheerleading squad, probably would score some sort of athletic scholarship at the very least, but the news of her pregnancy leaves her in the lurch. She can’t escape with a baby on her hip. Her telling of the “conception” to Finn was ludicrous to us in the TV audience, but would it really seem ludicrous to Finn? Think of all the guys you went to high school with who still insist you can’t get a girl pregnant if you have sex standing up. It turns out, though, Quinn has been naughty. She got drunk, and feeling particularly fat that day, she slept with Puck ( Mark Salling). He is the real father of her baby. Puck, never having a real dad, wants to do the right thing by Quinn, but Quinn also realizes that Puck, despite his good intentions, is never going to escape being a “Lima Loser.” She sees Finn as her way out of this hell, and even he isn’t a guarantee.
Meanwhile, we have the corresponding “pregnancy” of Terri Schuster (Jessalyn Gilsig), who now has her sister in on the scheme. Terri is a woman so obsessed with keeping her man that she’s not taking the more reasonable track in this sad situation, instead forcing herself to create an elaborate lie with padding and all. The news of Quinn and Finn’s little predicament gives Terri an idea, and she confronts Quinn after somehow breaking into her car. Terri is angling to get Quinn's unborn child, and quizzes the befuddled girl about her prenatal care. There is a sense of the illogical here (How did Terri get into Quinn’s car? Why don’t we ask the refs at that football game that didn’t hand out that delay of game penalty when the team does the "Single Ladies" dance?), but Murphy always brings in the more soapy elements with a dash of humor.
The "D" story of Sue Sylvester's continued revenge on Will was probably the most laugh out loud funny in the episode. That has a lot to do with Jane Lynch being a comedy genius. Sue’s minor celebrity gets her a slot on the local news, where she advocates caning and littering. But she’s told she is only as good as her last championship, and the affiliate boss knows her Cheerios are defecting to Glee Club. So Sue, in her own special Machiavellian way, gets accused pedophile Sandy Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) back on staff. He is in charge of all the arts programs, including Glee. They design a plan to steal away an increasingly frustrated Rachel (Lea Michele), who loses her shit over not getting the solo "Tonight."
Rachel's entitlement issues have been clear since the first moment we saw her put a gold star after her name, and Will is trying to teach her a valuable and much needed lesson — that Glee is a team, and all members of that team need a moment to shine. This is proven by Tina’s sweetly compelling performance of "Tonight," and Will pointing out that with greater confidence, her stuttering is diminishing. This allows Jenna Ushkowitz a moment to show off her voice for the first time since snarling her way through "I Kissed A Girl" in the pilot, and it turns out, she has a lovely voice.
Rachel, irate and increasingly dismissive and nasty, tries out for this version of Cabaret Ryerson is putting on. If there is one truly crushing moment in the episode, it’s the fact Lea Michele’s gorgeous version of "Taking Chances" is only given a mere 20 seconds of screen time. Rachel and Will later confront each other about their perceptions and their goals. When Will still refuses to hand over "Tonight," still giving Tina a moment to shine, Rachel impulsively quits Glee.
"Preggers" also has the football team turning to Will to help them find a way to score. Kurt joins as kicker, and his "Single Ladies" lead-up to the kick proves effective in scoring, something the team is sorely lacking. This turns into a hilarious but highly improbable last second team dance number which in turn leads to a touchdown. In the spirit of all sports movies, Kurt comes on to the field and scores the winning point, and is suddenly the hero. While entertaining, it does take a leap of faith the size of the Mariana Trench. Murphy's shows usually play on cliches, so this story line puzzles me. It seems atypical of a Ryan Murphy series.
This episode was the first truly great episode since the pilot, and I certainly hope it’s the blueprint for the rest of the series. Murphy’s previous high school show, Popular, had moments of complete camp and whimsy at first, but ended up becoming completely ridiculous a lot of the time (it’s still genius, but it’s massively flawed genius). This show could go off in a million different directions. But this is what I have noticed:
The show is a musical, but not every episode is going to be heavy on the musical numbers. I think this helps it from turning into a version of Fame — The Later Years. Or worse, Hull High.
It’s got a massive ensemble cast, and there are lesser characters, like the Cheerios and Footballers who help make up the show choir, that will get a bit of screen time without having much else to do. But if Murphy remembers to keep focus on one kid per show, it will get better.
The pacing was better in this episode, and it will continue to get better. Anyone familiar with Murphy’s previous shows knows he is a guy who fits a lot into every single episode, and sometimes the timelines don’t add up. But he does somehow make it work.
The cast is winning, but I am beginning to think where the writers are taking Rachel is dangerous territory. I know she’s supposed to be a self-absorbed, spoiled brat, but she was at least likable. I found her disturbingly unlikable this week. I know it was a setup for next week’s episode, but be careful, writing staff.
Quoteworthy: "All you need is some limed corpses beneath the floorboards." — Sue to Sandy at his very creepy house.