Episode 3.09: “Extraordinary Merry Christmas”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

This episode had a lot going for it: a strong theme, a wonderfully silly parody of classic Christmas specials, good character interaction, a brilliant use of Sue as the good guy, and it was even built on a lot of continuity from previous episodes. Despite all that, it was decidedly disappointing.

While most previous episodes this season have had a pretty big mishmash of plots and subplots, this one actually only had one overarching plot… there were just a whole lot of things going on with it. I like the conflict they set up between genuinely helping the needy at Christmastime by singing for the homeless versus seeking fame by “commercializing” their skills and producing a television special. What really allows Sue to be the good guy here (when it’s usually almost impossible to buy that) is that it’s somewhat believable that Sue would want to help the less fortunate because her sister was definitely among their number (we’ll try to ignore that Sue basically robbed the less fortunate last Christmas), and the glee kids are naturally really excited about the prospect of being on TV- excited enough that they forget what Christmas is really about.

This plotline starts strong, but begins breaking down very early. There’s no discussion among the club as a whole about whether they should perform at the homeless shelter or do the PBS special. In fact, there’s not even a scene where the club as a whole agrees to the homeless shelter performance. Sue hashes that out with only three of them: Wheels, Porcelain, and Other Gay (incidentally, I found Sue’s revolving nicknames for the club members pretty funny this time around, and I loved that Blaine actually seems happy with being called “Young Burt Reynolds”). Will, if no one else, should have insisted that they have a real discussion about what they want to do as soon as the conflict arose. This is doubly true since Will ought to be trying to mend fences with Sue as best as possible.

The plotline continues to break down as it introduces the individual character morals within the general theme. Rachel is portrayed as extremely materialistic, as she hands Finn a list of gift ideas for her, telling him to choose five. She mocks his attempt at giving her a “donation has been made in your name” type of gift, completely ignoring the fact that Finn simply doesn’t have a lot of money. This is early-first-season Rachel here in that she’s so completely blind to the feelings of others, but the materialism thing itself just came out of nowhere. Meanwhile, Sam tries to treat Rory to a real American Christmas by inviting him to spend it with his family, and feels betrayed when Rory doesn’t join him in ditching the TV special to do charity work (keep in mind that Rory and Sam just met). Quinn somehow also gets thrown in with the crowd that protests the TV special to do charity work, although I don’t remember her having a real defining moment in which she makes that decision. The problem here is the same one that Glee suffered with throughout season one: characters are acting out of character, in service of the plot. It’s funny, too, because so much of this episode is built on continuity. There are references to Sue’s sister, the previous Christmas episode, Artie’s directing ambitions, Rory’s loneliness, Sam’s poverty, Quinn’s insanity. Yet, the characters in this episode exist separately from the rest of the series, acting the way they act solely for the benefit of this plotline. The same kids who dropped their nationals preparation to help Sue deal with her sister’s death in “Funeral” would not so cavalierly blow her off. The same Rachel who cared enough about Quinn and Sam in “Duets” to throw a competition in favor of them would not be completely oblivious to her boyfriend’s problems. Sam and Rory have scarcely had enough time in the same series to be friends at all, let alone so close that Sam would feel offended and betrayed that Rory decides to go be on TV rather than go ring bells with him. I would actually be willing to believe the motivations of Sam and Quinn in protesting the TV special, if their concerns had had greater focus. I also don’t think that we needed the added drama of Rachel’s materialism and Rory’s betrayal of Sam. Both of those could have been dropped, and would have helped the episode a lot.

The theme of the episode has to do with commercialization versus genuine human kindness at Christmastime, the same theme as the far superior Charlie Brown Christmas (lampshaded as Rory reads the same Bible verses that Linus recites). That’s a fine theme, but it’s hamstrung in this episode by two things. One is that so little screen time is committed to it. It’s hard enough developing a plot in an episode of Glee when they usually have five or six musical numbers (which is why I argue that musical numbers should advance the plot), but this episode devotes two entire acts to the PBS Christmas special. There’s no way that the A plot could recover from that kind of theft of screen time. It just feels underdeveloped. The second thing that hurt the theme was the resolution. The glee kids are able to have their cake and eat it too, as they both do the TV special and show up at the homeless shelter just in time to do a song. That completely betrays the theme as there was no choice to make. Rory is apparently inspired by Sam to change his own lines from a recitation of “Frosty the Snowman” with a reading of some Bible verses. This, in turn, manages to convince Rachel that she should be satisfied with what she has and give to the poor. That’s just too easy a resolution.

That brings us to the kids’ TV special itself. It represents two acts during which the plot just stops cold, so it has to do a lot to justify itself. It starts out extremely strongly. The set is a gorgeous representation of a house set from the 50s-60s. The choice to have Blaine and Kurt as the “hosts” of the special was brilliant because it serves both as a throwback to the old TV specials that broke the fourth wall by having hosts of this sort, while at the same time it feels modern because our hosts are a gay couple. In the style of the parody, however, Kurt introduces Blaine as his “…friend,” and they describe their chalet as a “bachelor pad,” a descriptor that may have never been applied to a chalet before. Blaine and Kurt’s performance of “Let it Snow” was very entertaining and a great way to start, but it went on a little too long… which serves as a theme for the rest of the special. Most of the special consists of style parodies of TV from the 50s and 60s, mostly aimed at lame jokes, the studio audience laugh, and fourth wall breaks. This works for a while, but as the special goes on it loses its appeal. It’s essentially the same joke over and over again: “it’s the Glee kids but in a TV special from the 50s! Isn’t that funny!” Shortening this bit to a single act at most would have improved it a lot.

The references to the Star Wars Holiday Special were lazy. It’s like they thought it was enough to reference it without writing any jokes. That show has been referenced and made fun of so many times that you have to bring something new to the table if you’re going to use it, and I don’t think that shoehorning it into a 50s-60s-style Christmas special is enough. It actually hurt my enjoyment of the main parody.

All that said, this episode was meant to be kind of a fluffy, light interlude after all the heaviness of last week, which resolved a lot of ongoing plot points. That doesn’t mean its sins are forgiven, but I get the feeling that they weren’t trying as hard as they might have with this episode because of that attitude.

There was one really nice character moment here when Sam and Quinn are at the soup kitchen and briefly discuss what Quinn went through this season and how she’s recovering

The funniest joke of the episode was the callback to Artie’s gift last Christmas, as Tina refers to it as “magic legs that broke the next day,” which serves to lampshade the fact that we never saw the ReWalk again.

Question of the week: what happened to Shelby and the Troubletones? Neither was mentioned. For that matter, Sugar was not in this episode.

The music was average for the most part. The highlight was most likely the opening number, “All I Want for Christmas is You,” but I also loved it because it was good seeing the reunited glee club all having fun together. “Let it Snow,” despite going a little long, is a close second. I also enjoyed Rory’s performance of “Blue Christmas” (though he is no Elvis), and after this and his performance of “Bein’ Green” I wonder if maybe they’re going for a theme of “colors” with him. I would also like to note that “My Favorite Things” was previously sung by Lea Michele, though not in character as Rachel, as part of an advertising campaign for Dove shampoo… and it was done better there.

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Episode 3.08: “Hold on to Sixteen”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Why am I such a sucker for these competition episodes? Yeah, I liked this one quite a bit even though I’ll admit that there are a lot of reasons why I probably shouldn’t. I’d probably call this the second-best episode of the season, next to “Asian F,” though aside from those two episodes the bar has not been set all that high this season.

One thing that the competition format has going for it was that it gave the episode a self-contained feel, because of the way that sectionals had to be addressed and resolved. I’ve always preferred TV shows with episodes that can stand on their own.

The plot to bring Sam back raised a lot of questions like “Why haven’t they talked about him at all this season if they miss him so much?” and “Why are they just thinking of trying this now as opposed to last Tuesday?” The answer to those questions, of course, is that it took this long for the producers and Chord Overstreet to reach a contract, and that’s kinda what it felt like as they were setting it up. That said, Finn and Rachel’s trip to Kentucky to talk to him about coming back worked well enough, and Sam’s reaction to them and his confrontation with his parents set up the theme of the episode. Sam was forced to grow up too quickly, and he just wants a few more months as a teenager.

Sam’s return also gave us Santana’s “welcome back” speech to him, which was one of the funniest things ever in Glee. “I’ve missed you so much ever since your family packed their bags, loaded them in your mouth, and skipped town.”

The Finn/Blaine rivalry was resolved in this episode, and the resolution matched the plot arc: they were both completely half-ass. Blaine finally blows up at Finn about they way Finn has been treating him (despite the fact that we’ve gone a couple of episodes without Finn doing anything in that regard), and seemingly turns into Mr. Hyde, yelling at everybody and going to the gym to beat up a punching bag. We’ve never seen Blaine so angry before even when his boyfriend was made the butt of a cruel joke in front of the entire school. And yet, after one apology from Finn in which he fails to even justify why he was being a jackass in the first place, Blaine turns back into Dr. Jekyll and is willing to forgive and forget. I mean, literally seconds after Blaine was yelling at Finn for never listening to him, Blaine earnestly says, “Just tell me what you want me to do.” It works insofar as it reaffirms Finn’s status as a leader, but it doesn’t address Blaine’s actual issues and the whiplash from Blaine’s mood swing is pretty high.

Also resolved was Mike’s problem with this father, and this worked better. Tina actually played a significant role in a plotline for the first time that I remember since season one’s “Theatricality,” even if she is just playing the good girlfriend. Mike has decided to kowtow to his father’s wishes and go to med school, and he wants Tina to shut up and leave him alone about it. The fact that Tina goes behind Mike’s back to talk to his father is one thing. The fact that she does this after Mike essentially threatened to break up with her if she didn’t stay out of it is quite another. This is actually the greatest insight into Mike and Tina’s relationship that we’ve ever had. Tina does what she does because she loves Mike too much to watch him give up his dreams and live a life meant to make other people happy. She’s going to do everything she can to keep that from happening even if it means losing him in the process. That says a hell of a lot more about how much she loves him than her bizarre breakdown while singing “My Funny Valentine” in “Silly Love Songs.”

That the elder Chang finally saw the light came across as a bit unbelievable because it seemed like they set him up as unredeemable, but for Glee I’m willing to buy it, because we need the happy ending. I just wish that Mrs. Chang had made another appearance, especially since she was Mike’s sole supporter in the family in “Asian F.” It would have made a lot more sense for Mrs. Chang and Tina to have worked together.

Yet another plot arc apparently resolved was Quinn’s baby drama. As was foreshadowed from a mile away, Quinn decides to get Shelby fired by telling Figgins about her fling with Puck. She thinks this will kill two birds with one stone as she assures victory for the New Directions over the Troubletones and gets her baby back from the “unfit mother.” Bizarrely, she decides to tell this plan to Rachel before enacting it. Rachel, of course, tries to talk her out of it (and we get a rare subtle callback to what Rachel did to Sunshine back in season two). Here, we see Quinn facing her ultimate crisis of character, as she has the ability to utterly destroy another human being. The fact that she waffles, Hamlet-like, in her resolve to do it suggests throughout the episode that there is still a good person inside of her, despite all the mean and insane things that she’s done this season. Rachel isn’t good enough of a conscience to stop Quinn from turning Shelby in, but she does convince her to talk to Shelby first. There, we get a deeper insight into Quinn’s character than we’ve had in quite a while. Shelby wonders why Quinn wants to throw away her childhood, when all she will ever want one day is to have it back. Shelby, faced with having her life destroyed by Quinn, doesn’t rant or rave or threaten. She just talks to Quinn quietly and honestly, giving Quinn the information she needs to make a real choice about turning Shelby in, a choice not based in rage or revenge, but based in what she knows about Shelby, Beth, Puck, and herself. In making that choice, Quinn finds redemption.

Is that entirely believable? Not really. Quinn was so far off the deep end that it’s hard to believe that she came back up so easily and simply. That said, the mercurial nature of high school kids is one of the elements of this week’s theme, and Quinn has always been a woman of extremes.

The last thing resolved (thank God) was the split in the glee club, as the New Directions win sectionals and Mercedes, Santana, Brittany, and Sugar apparently decide to rejoin them. Why Sugar seems content to walk right in when Will didn’t even originally let her in I’m not sure. I’m also not sure what happened to all the rest of the Troubletones (or were they just schmucks they grabbed to fill out the roster, like the New Directions’ band nerds?). I’m also not really sure what’s happening to Shelby. Quinn didn’t turn her in, so she presumably still has a job at the school. Of course, she also is in a pretty awkward situation with Puck and might want to skip town before Quinn’s next mood swing.

Now let’s talk for a minute about the theme, because this is the first episode of Glee in quite a while to have a strong theme. It wasn’t a subtle theme, but it was a strong one. This episode was about holding on to youth, even while growing up. Sam has been forced to go out and hustle money for his financially-challenged family, but he just wants to be a kid for a little while longer. Quinn wants to live a normal life and hang out with her friends while she can. The tragedy, of course, is that youth is temporary. Sam will probably be back to supporting his family in any way he can as soon as he graduates. Quinn and her friends will grow apart, as she astutely observed. Adulthood will come, and there’s no way to stop it. But in the moment, right now, it’s okay to stop being so dramatic, so stubborn, so prideful, so vengeful, so mean. It’s okay to be a kid, and just enjoy the journey before it takes you away forever.

That may be what every high school story ever written has been about, on some level, but it’s also a powerful and true message.

This episode reintroduced Sebastian as a competitor for Blaine’s affections, and I just don’t get it. Sebastian is not an entertaining character and he’s so not Blaine’s type that it’s impossible to take him seriously as a threat to Kurt. Really, would anyone who would fall for Kurt really be interested in Sebastian’s bizarre millionaire-playboy-bad-boy-cosmopolitan routine?

I’m glad they skipped the judges’ deliberation this time, that gag had gotten far too old.

Looking at the plot and character elements alone, this episode really isn’t anything special. But like most competition episodes, this one is really all about the music. And boy, does it deliver. Every piece in this episode was strong, including Sam’s goofy rendition of “Red Solo Cup.” If I had to pick a highlight, I’d probably go with the Troubletones’ “Survivor/I Will Survive” for the powerful vocals (I love Santana and Mercedes together) and amazing choreography. The New Directions’ “ABC” was an odd choice to highlight at a competition, but it worked. It also had the very cool moment when Mike saw his father in the audience, which was directed perfectly. There was just enough of a hiccup in Mike’s performance that it was obvious to us what he’d seen and what a powerful effect it had had on him, but it was subtle enough that almost no one in the theater would have noticed. All the other songs were somewhere between good and great.

I enjoyed this episode a lot more than I probably should have, but I’m okay with that.