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Not-So New Directions: Glee Returns Tonight

While some viewers swoon for Glee, I've had more of a love-hate relationship with Ryan Murphy's crooner comedy.

There are times when Glee makes me roar with laughter at its often witty and risque dialogue. Laden with innuendo and pop culture savvy, these are volatile bon mots delivered with precision and a killer left hook.

But these moments often serve to remind me that Glee can and should be so much better, they're glimpses into the better series that's buried within Glee should they mine deeper territory, instead of offering a series of saccharine treats.

That's not to say that there aren't moments in the next three episodes of Glee, which returns tonight to the FOX lineup, that aren't genuinely entertaining, because there are. Next week's episode in particular, "The Power of Madonna," might be the best episode of the series to date, focusing as it does on Sue Sylvester and the empowering music of Madge herself.

As a whole, the next three episodes offer a series of high and low points. And when the series hits those high notes, it does so with a terrific sense of accomplishment and joy. There are moments within "The Power of Madonna" that are far funnier and stomach-clenching than most sitcoms these days; the--SPOILER!--shot-by-shot remake of Madonna's "Vogue" music video starring Sue Sylvester is meticulously shot, lovingly produced, and with a nice wink or two thrown in for good measure. The episode, while it has some small flaws, offers a look at how great the series can and should be: the heights that it should attempt to reach and the right mix of sweet and sour, light and dark.

After all, the series thrives when it embraces its own quirky humor. The same episode features a scene between Kurt, Mercedes, and Sue as Kurt offers to help the Cheerios coach with... Well, that would be telling. But suffice it to say that Kurt's line effortlessly sums up the sort of dynamic humor and storytelling that the series should be embracing: "I'm gay, she's black. We make culture." It's a throwaway line but one that should be held onto tightly. I'd rather see some depth and grit here than another iteration of will-they-or-won't they couple Finn and Rachel get it on or break up or get back together.

Which typically happens over the course of a single episode. I've taken the Glee writing staff to task in the past for accelerated storytelling, whereby they rush an entire story arc through a single installment, introducing a plot twist at the beginning and then resolving it by the end of the episode, never to be seen again. There's a fair amount of that going on here, though I do give them credit for bringing up the star-crossed romance between Artie and Tina. But having Kristin Chenoweth's April Rhodes show up out of nowhere in the third episode ("Home") as a roller rink owner, offer the glee club a place to rehearse (which, oddly, they never do), and then depart again by the end of the episode doesn't really serve any story needs.

It's that third episode, jam-packed as it with music (some would say over-stuffed), that really got under my skin. Glee tends to flag when it attempts broadly thematic storytelling, attempting to link everyone's struggles in a single episode to a single theme, here the need to belong, to have a home, a family. From Mercedes to Will, nearly every character in this episode either sings a song (or multiple ones), argues, cries (and, yes, there's a lot of crying here), or just generally waxes about the concept of home. (There's also a really shrill storyline that involves Kurt and Finn and their parents which seems to spring out of nowhere and which definitely rubbed me the wrong way.)

I think you can accomplish thematic-based episodes if you have the foundations for some solid characters, but many of Glee's faces are little more than just that. I don't feel like I know many of these characters better than I did when I first met them thirteen episodes ago. While Finn and Rachel seem to get a lot of air time (along with Will), the rest of the characters still seem to be mostly background players comprised of reductive stereotypes.

But there are some fun moments embedded within these episodes: a showdown between Emma and Terri, Finn and Rachel's mash-up of Madonna's "Borderline" and "Open Your Heart," every second of the "Vogue" video, anything with Sue (especially when she claims her parents were Nazi hunters), the awkwardness of a certain three-person date, the nicely staged "Like a Virgin" montage, the scenes with Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff's involvement, and most of "The Power of Madonna" as a whole, the strongest episode of the three.

And there's some new competition for Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester (who brings her A-game to every scene she's in) in the form of airheaded Cheerio Brittany, who is now getting some of the funniest lines in the entire show (look for the scene where Jonathan Groff's Jesse St. James is introduced by Will) and providing some much needed humor to some highly repetitive rehearsal scenes. These two, particularly together, could be a combustive force of comedy.

All in all, these next three episodes of Glee offer some fine moments and some not-so-fine ones. I had been hoping that the back nine episodes of Glee would have proven to be an improvement on the thirteen that came before but my ultimate feeling is this: you either love the series already or you don't. But if the writers want to built a long-term franchise rather than just a flash in the pan, they need to look towards constructing longer arcs, deepening the characters, and finding a tone that's consistent rather than all over the place. For a series that's meant to be as diverse and progressive as Glee, it still can feel awfully directionless.

Glee returns tonight at a special time of 9:28 pm ET/PT on FOX.


Katherine said…
Thank you for your honest review of Glee! I feel like everyone swoons over this show and I don't understand why. I keep trying to watch it and I agree that some of the dialogue is hysterical and some of the songs are fun but, overall, it just feels sappy, repetitive, and overly dramatic.
jmixont said…
I *don't* think everyone swoons over Glee. In my experience, when people talk about it or write about it, they say something like Jace did - that they love parts of Glee and are annoyed by others. This seems to be a universal reaction. I personally love the subject and the tone. I love Sue's and Brittany's comedy. I love many of the voices (particularly Rachel's and Will's). I don't love the fast-paced writing that gets away from itself. I don't love some of the flatter characters. And I absolutely HATE the over-produced and thoroughly processed and auto-tuned vocals. Love it and hate it - I think that's Glee's place. Many shows have people who "love it OR hate it", but Glee seems to be different, somehow.
snip.snap said…
Thanks for this review! I thought I was going insane!Everyone I know dies over this show. I thought it was lackluster from the start. I had such high hopes after the pilot. It really let me down.

Finn, Will and Rachel's story lines should be minimized or cut. They are the worst part story-wise about the show. I think Glee can really come down to two things. 1) Jane Lynch. Without Jane Lynch carrying this show on her back I doubt it would have made a splash at all. 2) It's a musical! Everyone and their mother has been dying for a musical!! This is another reason the show does so well.

This show is just popcorn. It has no deeper meaning than what you get at face value.
Ames said…
As I said on Twitter, I'm with you a billion percent. My biggest issue with the show is how inconsistent it is - quality, tone... even genre, right? Sometimes it's the campiest camp that ever camped, and sometimes it's heartfelt to the point where I'm kind of uncomfortable. Sometimes it's High School Musical: Rated Higher than G and sometimes it's realism-based with just some songs thrown in. And while I like ambitious shows, there is no possible way to be all of these things and succeed, as far as I'm concerned. Perhaps if that was the intent, but it just seems sloppy when it shifts, not for the sake of anything.

I also agree that the overall structuring's wonky. Arcs do seem to happen mostly in episodes, or all at once (like that a lot of the overarching stuff that kicked off in the pilot got wrapped up at the same time last year). If something won't matter by next week, why am I supposed to care now?

I also have a big issue with how the show seemingly wants to be down with diversity but still devotes most of its time to its young, white, hetero characters. I hate how most women on the show are shrews or harpies of some sort. If you're playing it for camp it's one thing, but when every pregnancy involves lies and then I'm supposed to actually feel EMOTION over it besides humor, I actually end up feeling angry. If I thought this was the show's intent, I would have stopped watching, but I think it's another sloppiness issue. Don't flesh out your characters enough, face the ramifications of the caricatures you've created. People aren't stereotypes.

Lastly: I am like the prime market for this show. I am a huge nerd for musical theatre and embarrassing pop music. I have a High School Musical calendar hung over my computer at work (I can see it right now!). I actually have a manuscript out on submission right as we speak... about kids at a performing arts high school. So, seriously. If I don't love this show, I feel something's off!

(Now you know what happens when you encourage me to talk more than 140 characters!)
cory said…
I definitely agree that the show goes through story arcs far too quickly. I disagree that the show should find a consistent tone, shows that can switch tones so frequently are some of the best...take Doctor Who for instance.
Jace Lacob said…

My issue with Glee isn't that it switches tone week to week, it's that its tone in inconsistent scene to scene within individual episodes. Doctor Who is able to change tone and genre on a weekly basis but Glee's problem is that it uses too many different tones within a single installment, creating tonal whiplash for the viewer.

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