Hold on to Sixteen

Posted on December 07, 2011

Oh, Glee. You’re never going to let us quit you, are you?

Halfway through New Directions getting their Jackson on we realized with some surprise, “This is the most tightly scripted episode in the history of Glee.” The surprise came because, well, it wasn’t necessarily the most engaging episode of Glee.

Maybe “engaging” isn’t the right word because once Sectionals got underway, and straight through to the sappy reunion song at the end, we were totally into it. It’s just that what was happening before and between the songs was fairly by-the-numbers from a dramatic standpoint.

Mike’s dad did a total 180 and literally embraced his son and his dreams. Was this something that shocked anyone watching the show? Did we all not think this was exactly how it was going to play out? Dad sees son dancing up a storm and his heart grows ten sizes bigger right before our eyes. But much like New Directions winning Sectionals, it’s not about narrative tension. Of course ND would win; of course Mr. Chang would come around. Glee isn’t about twists and turns. If anything, it’s about taking the hoariest of old plot cliches from musical theater, blowing the dust off them, and plopping them down in the 21st Century to see if they still work. Was Mr. Chang’s slow clap and standing ovation anything but a cliche? No, but we did feel the emotion of the moment. That’s what made this episode work for us. Nothing really played out in any way other than how we knew it would, but all of the moments of payoff felt earned, and that has happened so few times with Glee that we’re hard-pressed to come up with an example of the last time it happened. There was a setup, people acted pretty much how people act, and then there was some form of resolution with accompanying growth. This is basic storytelling 101, but it’s not something the show has ever really managed to do well. Setups and payoffs are hard to make work and Ryan Murphy and his team were clearly more interested in crazy moments and downloadable songs prior to this season.

What surprised us was all the other narrative wrapups, because this episode was chock full of them; from Quinn rescuing herself from a bad downward spiral, to Shelby walking away from Puck, to Finn and Blaine burying the hatchet, to the integration of the Troubletones back into New Directions – it was all playing out exactly as one would expect all these stories to play out. In fact, so much was resolved and so many plot threads taken off the table that we’re left wondering what exactly the story’s going to be going forward.

Certainly the whole Kurt vs. Sebastian thing has real teeth to it. Their little bitchslap contest was easily one of the funniest scenes of the season and “You smell like Craigslist” is definitely entering the rotation of bitchy comebacks in the T Lo lexicon. We’re surprised to find ourselves smiling at the prospect of Sam (whose return was well-handled and strangely welcome to us, considering we never had strong thoughts about him either way) fighting to get Mercedes back. But aside from those two conflicts, nothing else is on the horizon. Sue has been sidelined; Santana’s out of the closet, Quinn has her head on straight; New Directions has a newfound unity and sense of camaraderie; Mike reconciled with his father; Rachel and Finn appear to be on solid ground. We’re almost frightened at the prospect of the writers finding new monkey poo to fling at the walls. Who knows what’s coming with that crew.

But for now, we’re pleased. What has us most optimistic was how the musical numbers were handled. It was a pretty bold move on the writers’ parts to take Rachel off the table for Sectionals. We thought her grief over that situation was a little underplayed but we admired them for going through with it. Rachel’s dominance has long been a fan complaint but this season it became a major plot point, the end result was that fantastic Jackson medley, where every single character got at least one (and in most cases, several) moments to shine without Rachel hogging the spotlight. Tina in particular had a banner episode, both from a story and a musical point of view. When the boys all lined up to sing “Man in the Mirror” it occured to us that this is the strongest male lineup the show’s ever had. Finn will never be a major performer, but with Blaine, Artie, and Sam all on the team, it’s never had so many talented male voices at one time.

One of the things that struck us about the performances was that everyone was seriously on their game. The arrangements were pretty much karaoke versions of the original songs (which means they weren’t very interesting) but the performances were some of the best of the show. Mercedes was ON FIRE on that stage, shaking her tailfeather like never before. Even Finn’s dancing has improved. Tina, Artie, Santana, Mercedes, Kurt and Blaine all managed to snag major onstage moments; something the show has never managed before. Our one disappointment: When Quinn opened her mouth and said “This is a story about control,” we squealed with delight, because Janet’s classic message of defiance and empowerment could not possibly be a more apt musical number for her. Instead it was passed off to the whole group. That’s fine; Dianna Agron isn’t the strongest performer musically and she might not have been able to handle the number on her own, but it was one of those moments where the song and the character were perfectly matched.

It wasn’t the type of episode that left us crying or sent tingles up our spine with some amazing musical interpretation, but we’ll quite happily sit and watch a highly entertaining, well-written hour of television and for once in its life, Glee managed to give us exactly that.

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