Episode 2.04: “Duets”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Well, after the heaviness of last week, it was nice to get a much lighter episode that sticks closer to Glee‘s usual tone and style. Even nicer, it was an episode that actually worked.

One could argue that “Duets” lacked narrative coherence, but it was an episode much more about characters and relationships than about plot. Through the duets, we got to see characters interact who we haven’t seen interact much before: Santana and Mercedes, Brittany and Artie, Rachel and Kurt, Mike and Tina. That these interactions were interesting and at least somewhat nuanced shows that Glee has matured to a point where it can actually play around with established characters. In a way, it reminds me of why the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite” worked. To understand that episode, you had to understand the character of George, so it depended on work done by previous episodes of the series and the viewers’ familiarity with them. In the same way, to understand why it is weird to see Mercedes and Santana working together you have to have some familiarity with what has been established about the characters in the past season.

It was nice to see the character of Mike have any lines at all. He’s been a glee club member since very early in the first season, but has done essentially nothing in the series but show off his dance moves in performances. They hung a lampshade on that in this episode by portraying Mike as unconfident in his singing ability. Also, it turns out that Harry Shum, Jr. isn’t a bad actor at all. I hope we see more of his character later.

In this episode we also got to see some facets of certain relationships that we hadn’t really examined before. The primary one is probably Brittany and Santana’s sexual relationship, which has been referred to before, but primarily as a joke. (“Sex isn’t dating!” “If it was, Santana and I would be dating.”) Their relationship is clearly one of convenience, at least to Santana. “Duets” hints that Brittany may feel something deeper, despite the fact that sex is apparently completely meaningless to her. I get the feeling that this may never be developed, though it would be interesting if it ever was. At least Brittany moved somewhat past her status as just a background joke in this episode (much more so than in “Britney/Brittany”) with her relationship with Santana being explored a little and her relationship with Artie beginning and blowing up. I’m not sure if she really felt anything for Artie, but she clearly seemed sorry that she hurt him.

Seeing Rachel approach Kurt at the end was also a nice touch. He and Rachel are actually very similar characters. Both are selfish attention whores (and I mean that in the nicest way possible) who have always been outcasts. It would actually be nice to see their relationship fleshed out some.

Of course, it would also be nice to see Mercedes’s and Quinn’s friendship fleshed out some, but it’s been essentially ignored since this season began.

“Duets” also features another episode of the miniseries “Kurt and his Malfunctioning Gaydar.” It was nice to see Kurt finally called on his frankly creepy stalkerish behavior towards Finn last season. That said, I didn’t like the way the subplot with Sam and Kurt worked out. Yes, Kurt probably initiated the duet partnership to try to get in Sam’s pants, or at least prove that he was gay. That was wrong. But I think that having Kurt break it off entirely teaches the wrong lesson. Kurt could have realized that his motivations were wrong and simply approached his relationship with Sam differently. It would also have been nice to see Sam get some choice about whether or not to sing with Kurt. Yes, it might have earned him some ribbing by his classmates. But maybe he was okay with that. Kurt’s relationship with Sam was treated much more as just being about Kurt’s relationship with himself. Then again, maybe that was appropriate, given the theme of loneliness.

It was also nice to see Kurt’s dad suffering some repercussions from the heart attack. I get the feeling that if he had been at 100%, he might have handled advising his son on the Sam problem a bit better. He could have come off as cold-hearted just because he’s still recovering.

The relationship between Sam and Quinn was actually handled quite well. I’ve been waiting for an episode to feature Quinn, because I’ve grown quite fond on her character, probably going back to “Funk” and her rendition of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” I was worried in “Audition” when she went back to the Cheerios that they were reverting her character to the way she was in early season one. However, “Duets” showed that Quinn is quieter, more vulnerable, and much kinder and gentler than she used to be. The best part is that all that seems earned now. Character development in Glee? Shocking!

As to the duets themselves, most of them were quite good. The standout in terms of quality was probably “River Deep – Mountain High” by Mercedes and Santana. Not only was that a really cool song, but the two singers’ voices really do go together well and it was a very fun, energetic performance. However, I probably got the most personal enjoyment out of “Don’t Go Breaking my Heart” by Finn and Rachel. I love that song for a very mysterious reason. Whenever I hear it, I realize that I have some memory associated with it from very early in my childhood. Sometimes, it almost comes to the forefront so that I can recognize it, but it never quite makes it. I can never quite place what the memory is. The song makes me wistful and nostalgic, and I don’t know why. It’s a very strange feeling that I enjoy.

I thought that Kurt’s duet with himself fell flat, despite the high production values. I just didn’t feel it. Tina and Mike’s song was really fun, but I was kinda hoping to hear Shum sing for real, solo, at last. Maybe another time.

I feel like this has been a bit of a rambling review, but it was a bit of a rambling episode. However, it was also a very enjoyable episode. That’s two episodes in a row that I’d call at least good, and all three since “Audition” have been at least decent. Maybe there is hope for the future of Glee after all.

Episode 2.03: “Grilled Cheesus”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

I really didn’t know what to think at the start of this episode. What can you say about a kid praying to a grilled cheese sandwich and a kid in a wheelchair scoring a touchdown?

But after that, the show got almost unrelentingly dark, dramatic, and serious, and did it fast.

Did I say that the Glee writers can’t do drama? Oh yeah, I said it just two episodes ago. And I said it all last season. Well, we finally have a counterexample here. The drama in “Grilled Cheesus,” which is an almost entirely dramatic episode, not only works, it works very very well. The characters, their reactions, and their relationships not only function within the context of the drama, but they flow from what we previously know about the characters. In addition, what little comic relief there is really works too, perhaps surprisingly. That’s right, this week’s Glee worked dramatically, got the characterization right, and had good comedy. Is the world coming to an end?

The relationship between Kurt and his father has always been one of the strongest on the show. They’re so different, yet the writers and actors made us believe in the father/son dynamic from day one. It’s hard to say enough about Chris Colfer and Mike O’Malley (who I primarily remember from Nickelodeon’s GUTS) who manage to play such different characters and at the same time make us believe that they love each other, and that their relationship goes deeper than a lot of father/son relationships do not only because of the death of Kurt’s mother, but because the feeling that one has to take care of the other does not go only one way.

Kurt’s father’s heart attack and coma hit us hard, not only because it happened to a character we like, and affects a character we empathize with (it’s hard to like Kurt really; he’s kind of a jerk), but because what led into it was Puck’s very fun performance of “Only the Good Die Young” and Finn’s ludicrous religious experience with a sandwich. Yes, there was a reason within the episode that Finn thought he found Jesus in a sandwich. Finn’s meeting with Emma about it came late in the episode, and it came just at the right moment to let the viewer take a breath from the suffocatingly dark drama that preceded it. I think it was the first time I laughed during the episode, and I really needed it at that point. It’s silly, but that’s the point. It’s needed to counterbalance the seriousness of what Kurt is going through.

This episode also addresses another serious topic, and actually does it well. “Grilled Cheesus” introduces us to two atheists at William McKinley High: Sue and Kurt. Atheists are an underrepresented minority in TV shows, especially TV shows about high school life. I can identify with Kurt on this one, because I grew up an atheist, though I was actually too scared to talk to most people about it, even my friends. I was very worried that the spirituality that pervaded the episode would be allowed to infect Kurt, and that he would somehow find God at the end of it. But that didn’t happen. What did happen was that everyone learned the right lesson. The religious members of the glee club learned that they have to accept Kurt for what he believes, even if they don’t agree or even understand it. And Kurt learned that he also has to accept his friends and their religious beliefs. Again, even if he doesn’t understand it. He finds that it hurts not only himself, but also his friends when he pushes them away just because they want to share their beliefs with him and his father, or even just because they are trying to make use of their beliefs to help get them and their friend through this event.

It was weird seeing Sue as a moderating voice in this episode, even if I didn’t agree with her on a major point: when the kids are choosing their own religious songs, there is no violation of separation of church and state. Teachers just have to refrain from endorsing any view, which I think Will did very well. Sue speaks from an atheist viewpoint better than anyone on TV I can remember on this side of House. She says, “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn’t a moral thing to do. It’s cruel.” That’s not only an atheist sentiment, it is a skeptical sentiment, though this episode was otherwise fairly devoid of skepticism (Kurt tries acupuncture to help his father, though to be fair there is no evidence that it worked). What she says is also what I believe, though I do also follow Emma’s advice and keep it to myself for the most part, because there is no point to rudely attacking someone’s beliefs, even if you think they are false. As Sue says, that point goes both ways, and there is no point to theists attacking the beliefs of atheists.

As to the songs, they were all amazing. This was easily the strongest episode of the season musically so far. I’m about as far away from spiritual as you can get, seeing as how I don’t believe in spirits, but I do like spiritual music. The fact that the drama actually worked was a great service to the musical numbers of the episode, and I will tell anyone who might use the strategy of fast-forwarding past the story to get to the musical numbers that it isn’t a good idea this time. These songs work so well in context that it would be criminal to rob them of it. All the songs work thematically with what is going on in the episode at the time and what the character is feeling. It’s tough to pick a highlight, because they were all very good, but I’ll give it to Kurt’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Turning the Beatles song into a slow, brooding, mournful lament was very risky, but it worked so well. Kurt’s story beforehand to justify it easily could have come off as shoehorning the song in but Colfer sold it, not only through his acting but through his singing. I even forgive the visions of growing up with his father that played through the song because, well, they actually worked.

Also, who could have thought that someone eating half of a grilled cheese sandwich could be a poignant ending to a show?

I’ve said before about episodes of Glee that I’ve enjoyed that “It was a good episode, for Glee” but this time I’m not going to qualify it. This was just a good episode of television. It may be the best that Glee has managed to churn out since the pilot.