Glee season three overview; or, it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

(Spoilers lurk below.)

You can say a lot of things about Glee, but no one can say that it’s stagnant. Season one was a dark comedy that led to uncomfortably violent confrontations between loved ones and a barely-averted tragically loveless marriage. Season two was almost a soap opera, as characters played relationship musical chairs with each other, we faced the near death of a main character’s father, and the drama of Santana and Dave trying to get comfortable with their sexuality while refusing to leave the closet. Season three was, in many ways, a hybrid. It turned with wistful nostalgia to season one, as Beth and Shelby re-entered the picture and Quinn, Puck, and Rachel had to face their past, and we had the bizarre, farcical-yet-tragic spectacle of Quinn completely at rock bottom and doing anything and everything to try to get her baby back. At the same time, we had the soap-opera drama of Santana and Dave’s journey out of the closet, as well as the issues with Rachel/Finn and Kurt/Blaine trying to work out their long term relationship plans. Divorced from both those worlds, we had the theme of change and saying goodbye, as, for the first time, we establish who’s leaving the school when the end of the season rolls around, something that weaved in and out of storylines, growing in importance and finally taking center stage as the season wound to a close. And, next season, we have the promise of a series split between the students left as WMHS and the new graduates moving on with their lives.

No matter what you think about this show, you have to admit that, for a hit show, they have a lot of balls to screw around with their formula so much. If it’s annoying that they’re kowtowing to fan and network pressure to keep some of the graduates on the series, you have to admire that they let them graduate at all, and that they’re spreading them all over the nation in a way that will make their efforts to keep them on the show interesting at the very least. It may end up being an interesting failure, but it will not be is the same old stuff that many series give their audience season after season (see House).

As with last year, I will be using “the good, the bad, and the ugly” as my format for this overview. “The Good” section will include things that season three did well. “The Bad” section will include things that it did poorly. “The Ugly” will include the things it did that made me go “What the fuck?”

The Good

When Glee has focussed on the real feelings associated with being in high school and dealing with the requisite problems, it has always been at its best in terms of having that strong emotional core to it. Nowhere is that more true than in season three as they explored the reality of graduation. They took it from every angle, as couples try to figure out how to maintain their relationships, students try to figure out where the hell their future lies, friends deal with what they know will be the end of their friendships. The emotions the graduating seniors display range from joy to despair, from trepidation to terror, often within a short period of time. Even Rachel backs off from her life’s dream to stay in Lima when push comes to shove and she has to face the prospect of either leaving Finn behind or dealing with a fundamental change in the way they relate to each other. She goes from wanting the life beyond graduation more than anything to believing that she doesn’t need it.

This theme of change is best encapsulated to me in the scene between Rachel and Quinn in “Michael.” Quinn’s suggestion that, in a few scant months, Rachel might not even remember why she loved Finn might come across as cruel, but it would be even crueler to try to sell Rachel a lie. Quinn is right: the emotions that teenagers feel are incredibly powerful, and it’s wrong of adults to brush them aside or belittle them just because they seem silly or misguided, but they are also often transitory, and no one is better able to deliver that message than Quinn. She’s a woman of extremes whose passions have been all over the place the entire series. The most powerful feeling in the world today may end up being a vague memory tomorrow. That doesn’t mean that it meant anything less in the moment it was felt. In fact, it makes it all the more difficult to make decisions, as you have no idea if what you feel is one of the few high school experiences that is permanent rather than transient.

Speaking of Quinn, her messy story arc was one of my biggest complaints about season two. Well, they made up for that in spades with season three (with one major exception). Her journey from rock bottom to redemption was pretty well done, and it described an actual arc this time relative to how all over the map it was last season. When she found redemption by refusing to turn Shelby in for her mistake, it dovetailed nicely with the overall theme of the season. Quinn didn’t necessarily do it because she didn’t think that Shelby deserved it (I don’t think that consideration ever entered Quinn’s head) but because of two reasons: she realized that Shelby would be a better mother to Beth than Quinn could possibly be at the moment, and she decided that she didn’t want to give up her childhood just yet. Ironically, by embracing her childhood Quinn managed to make the most adult decision of her life and become more mature than she has ever been.

Her temporary paraplegia, while it came completely out of nowhere, did provide a nice subplot with Artie in “Big Brother,” and I really wish that they had done a little more with it.

When I closed season two’s overview, I said that I hoped the writers would let Finn and Rachel “be happy” for a while, so that we wouldn’t have as much of their drama in the series. Well, they stayed together as a couple the entire season, so, while there was a fair amount of Finn/Rachel drama, I guess that’s close enough. Their near marriage, oddly, almost parallels Emma’s near marriage to Ken in season one. Emma was settling for Ken because she never thought she would find anyone else. Finn and Rachel are settling for each other because they don’t care to look anywhere else, despite being so young. The fact that everything seems to be working out for them ignores the fact that they’re in high school, and there are so many major changes around the corner that it’s nearly impossible to predict what’s going to happen. Finn realizes this at the end of “Goodbye” when he sees that their interests are already drifting wide apart. Their tearful farewell was a perfect end to their relationship and well-earned.

Overall, I liked the attempt the season made at longer plot arcs because it shows evidence of planning, something that Glee has never been great at. I also liked the references to continuity, which were all over this season but quite rare in previous seasons (though it cropped up more in the second half of season two). If nothing else, it proves that the new writing staff respects the universe and wants to play by the already-established rules (which is more than can be said for even the big three from time to time).

The Bad

When a writing staff came on board for season three, I was hoping it would lend the series more coherence by giving them some breathing room to stop and plan. After all, having three different writers tag-teaming your series’s scripts doesn’t seem like the best path to consistent characters and a storyline that hangs together under scrutiny. Unfortunately, while the additional writers may have brought with them more consistent characterization and the ability to plan things out a little, they also brought with them a grab bag of subplots that apparently all had to be used before they hit their expiration date. In the podcast that my friend J. and I started, J. brought up the concept of the “pass the paper” writing technique sometimes used in English classes. One person starts the story, then passes the paper to the next person who continues writing the same story, etc. That really is what a lot of season three felt like, as they picked up, dropped, revisited, ignored, and resolved plot threads often apparently at random, without rhyme or reason as regards what else was going on in the episode either literally or thematically.

The most egregious example to me of an utterly pointless plot thread was the one that began with Santana being kicked out of the glee club in “The Purple Piano Project” for playing double agent with Sue. This had the potential to be a fantastic plot device, as it would force Santana to examine her dual loyalties at the same time that she’s struggling with coming out the closet. However, Santana just rejoined the club with minimal explanation two episodes later. It was as if one writer put the plot thread in, but none of the people he passed the paper to cared to take it up.

The most egregious example of a plot thread dropped unceremoniously for no good reason was the Mercedes/Rachel feud that began in “Asian F.” Unlike in season two’s “A Night of Neglect,” Mercedes had a real point here about Rachel always getting to be the star because she whines and moans until she gets her way. She also had a legitimate argument that the directors’ plan to let them share the starring role was a cheat. This split between the two strongest female characters on the show had every appearance of being deep and full of bad feelings, and it became so serious that it caused a split in the glee club itself. The clubs eventually merged back together with minimal, though acceptable, explanation, but the rift between Mercedes and Rachel was never healed. It’s absolutely unforgivable that they would build up something like that and then just ignore it instead of resolving it.

Dave’s attempted suicide was one of the most powerful scenes of the entire series, but his fate was dropped after “On My Way.” Even a single scene depicting how he was dealing with what he was going through and what his plans for the future were would have been welcome.

Then there are little things, like the West Side Story and election arcs feeling like they ended early and with little payoff, the fact that they tried to force Sam/Mercedes on us despite the fact that they never took the time to develop it enough to make it worthwhile, the fact that they did so little with Rachel/Shelby when they were such a big deal in season one, how Shelby vanished from the series without explanation, and the short shrift that Kurt and Rachel’s NYADA audition storyline got in “Choke” after leading up to it for an entire season.

Almost none of the individual episodes this season, aside from the competition episodes, had any focus at all, just leaping from subplot to subplot. Too often, it didn’t feel like I was watching a story. It felt like I was watching a bunch of stuff happening. When this was first done in “The Purple Piano Project” I thought that they were just setting up the season’s plot arcs and that by the second episode we would be back to traditional storytelling techniques with main stories and one or maybe two subplots related by theme or narrative. But, no. What we got were episodes that, for the most part, just consisted of several unrelated subplots. When they managed to find some kind of thematic focus, as in “Saturday Night Glee-ver,” “Dance With Somebody,” and “Asian F,” it really worked quite well. However, that kind of thing is hard to do, and they usually failed. That led to episodes where you could recognize what should be the main plot (as in “Big Brother,” which should have been about Quinn and Artie, or “Heart,” which should have been about Santana and Brittany), but were forced to sit through an unfocussed mess of subplots, some too long, some too short, and many completely unrelated to the situation at hand.

Quinn’s character arc for the season was ruined in “Prom-asaurus,” an episode that saw her backslide almost an entire season of development as a character. The payoff was weak and Quinn learned a lesson that she already learned, so it just showed that the writers of Glee are still capable of destroying a plot arc even after they’ve finished getting it right.

Though the season started pretty light on the Finn/Rachel stuff, it got pretty heavy in the mid to late season as their “wedding” subplot ramped up. I would have preferred it if they had left the two of them in the background more often and lent more focus to Santana and Brittany, for example, both of whom were criminally underused this season. There was not a single good scene with Santana and Brittany alone, despite the fact that their confrontation over the “Lebanese” shirt was one of the best scenes of season two and that very plot thread was continued in season three.

As the show has continued on, it’s felt like songs have been less naturally inserted into the story. This may have something to do with the fact that we had multiple episodes with nine musical numbers in them, which has to be pushing it no matter how you slice it. On the other hand we had “I am Unicorn,” which only had three songs, which I believe to be a record low. They need to learn, especially in tribute episodes, to insert songs where they work thematically and narratively, not just wherever it would look cool. Even a musical has to tell a story, and a musical has to use songs to tell it. If a song has no point in the story, it shouldn’t be there.

The Ugly

Roz. Roz, Roz, Roz, Roz. Why on earth did they feel like they needed to add a villain for the show’s already-unneeded existent villain? Roz is loud, she’s mean, she’s egocentric, she’s everything that Sue is except for the least bit humanized. She even makes up nicknames for the kids like Sue does, and is referred to as “Black Sue” by Sue herself. You’re not supposed to rip your own selves off, folks, especially when you’re ripping off a character that probably should have been dropped after season one.

Sue’s pregnancy plotline seemed to serve no particular purpose other than to give us a glimpse of the fact that she actually has some respect for Will. It also doesn’t jibe with her “career woman” attitude, and it just looks utterly ridiculous at her age. And I hate babies on television shows. They’re not characters, they’re props, which is what usually leads to Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, something that also really annoys me.

I probably said everything I wanted to say about “The Spanish Teacher” in my review, except perhaps for “What the holy mother of fuck?” To take a character and utterly rob him of all the dignity that you’ve imbued him with over the course of two and a half seasons is utterly and completely unforgivable, and also rage-inducing. There may be some possible universe where this story worked, but personally I would have chucked it in the garbage as soon as I saw the concept. What they did to Will here was worse than killing him. It killed all his previously established characterization, destroying all work that had been done up to that point. I just don’t understand it the least bit. Does Will possess moral ambiguity? Of course: see season one. Is he a fraud? Fuck, no.

Glee has always had something of a desire to teach moral lessons, but it became ridiculously overt in season three. Quinn’s paraplegia as a lesson against texting while driving was obvious, unnecessarily, and came out of nowhere, but at least they didn’t throw it in our faces aside from Quinn’s brief lecture to Finn against the evils of texting while walking. Shannon’s subplot in “Choke,” however, went against all logic. It had nothing to do with what came before, it had nothing to do with what was going on in the episode, none of the other characters involved had any reason to be involved, and the emotion they wanted the audience to feel wasn’t earned because the story wasn’t shown, just told and implied. I can think of absolutely no reason for the existence of this subplot except that the Glee people thought that they needed to teach a lesson that domestic violence is bad. If they want to legitimately develop a story arc that includes domestic violence, fine. But don’t trot this out suddenly in a single episode just because you want to feel good about teaching everyone something.

As always, Glee had problems with tonal inconsistency this season, as high drama occurred right on top of farcical comedy. I won’t bother to list all the times it miserably failed, but the lowlights are Will’s meeting with Emma’s parents in “Asian F” and Cooper’s acting master class in “Big Brother.”

The bottom line, I suppose, is that Glee was all over the map this season. It didn’t have the focus of season two, but it did have some strong elements working for it, and when it succeeded, as always, it did so in spectacular fashion. But, since it’s Glee, their failures are always of the same quality. Next season I have literally no idea what will happen, but it’s bound to be interesting either way.

I’ll be back in another week or so with my top ten musical numbers of the season.

Episode 3.22: “Goodbye”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

And so season three of Glee ends as it began: unfocussed, underplotted, and with a strange penchant for calling back to season one.

That’s not to say that the callbacks to season one were all bad. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much at Glee as I did when Burt started doing the “Single Ladies” dance with Tina and Brittany. But that callback served a purpose. Thematically, it gave us a chance to reflect on how far Kurt has come. In-universe, it gave Kurt a chance to experience the weirdness that his father experienced Kurt’s entire life. The “Rocking the Boat” bit was also nice, both because it called back to the first performance of the glee club and because it called back to how Will was saved at the end of the pilot, as he heard music calling to him while walking down the hall.

But a show can’t live on callbacks alone. You’ve got to have a little plot. And “Goodbye” has fairly little.

Much of the screen time is devoted to the seniors saying goodbye to the underclassmen and vice-versa. As thin as this is plotwise, it taps in to some of the most powerful of high school emotions: the feeling that everything is changing irrevocably, that relationships are ending forever, that adulthood is being thrust upon you before you’re ready or able to deal with it. Even the seniors who think they’ve got their future figured out don’t know what the future holds for certain, and even what you think you know can change at the drop of a hat.

Despite the fact that each of the seniors is at least touched upon during the course of the episode, this is basically Rachel’s story (again). She finds out that she has inexplicably been accepted to NYADA, but Kurt has been rejected, and Finn has also been rejected by the Actor’s Studio (incidentally, anyone want to explain how Finn got a personal audition with James Lipton?). Despite Rachel’s earlier promise to go to New York no matter what, she plans to defer her admission for a year to stay with Kurt and Finn in Lima. While this seems like an obvious way to keep the three of them in the show in season four, Finn decides to hell with that bullshit and basically breaks up with Rachel while ostensibly driving to their wedding. He reveals that he got Rachel train tickets to New York to go look at dorms with her dads while Finn has joined the Army to somehow redeem the name of his father.

The scene in which Finn breaks it off with Rachel was pretty well-done (and Lea Michele is a hell of a crier). This also feels like a real end for them. It makes sense that Finn, the realist, would realize that it’s time to part ways. Rachel, the dreamer, sees Finn in her life forever, but, no matter how they feel now, that simply isn’t necessarily going to be the case. Is this an emotionally satisfying ending for them? Well, it is in the same way that the series finale of The Wonder Years is. It deals head-on with the intense emotions associated with high school relationships, while at the same time admitting that they don’t have to be forever, and sometimes they shouldn’t.

However, since I know that Lea Michele and Cory Monteith aren’t actually leaving the series, I fear that this isn’t really an ending for Rachel and Finn. But, for now, it works.

I also found it hard to believe Rachel’s original intention to stay in Lima. Her explanation that going with Finn and Kurt to New York would remind them too much of their failures was a thinly-veiled excuse. The Rachel I know would have carried on and gone to New York, dragging her loved ones along, no matter what, even if none of them had been accepted to their dream schools. She feels like it’s her destiny, and I don’t see her deferring destiny. Remember, she’s a dreamer by nature.

Santana, meanwhile, is struggling with what she really wants to do. She has a full ride to the University of Louisville, but she’s really not sure she wants to go there. The scene in which she congratulates Rachel and Mike for getting into the colleges of their dreams was poignant because it put into stark relief the fact that Santana hasn’t really latched onto a firm dream of her own. However, her plan to go to New York came completely out of nowhere. That’s been other peoples’ dream for longer than a season, and Santana has never mentioned it. And what she actually plans to do there was never touched upon. She just wants to blow off college and go to New York. This feels like backsliding from the lesson she learned in “Saturday Night Glee-ver.” I don’t mind, in principle, the idea of Santana deciding that college is not for her right now, but I can’t buy it if she doesn’t actually have a plan or a motivation. What does New York mean to her? Why is it calling to her? What does she think will happen to her there? People who have just gotten full scholarships but have no life goal don’t blow off college and run away to the big city, they go to college and hope that something comes up.

There’s also the suggestion that she may stay in Lima to be with Brittany, since Brittany isn’t graduating (surprise, surprise). It will be interesting, at the very least, to see what they can do in season four with Brittany sans Santana.

Incidentally, Gloria Estefan was mostly wasted as Santana’s mother. She had very little to do. I would have preferred to see her in “I Kissed a Girl” when Santana came out to her.

Puck and Quinn get most of the rest of the plot time, as Puck crams for his geography final and Quinn helps him. After Rachel tells Quinn that she always thought that Quinn and Puck belonged together (?), Quinn admits her love to Puck and they end up kissing (??). This comes completely out of left field, as Puck and Quinn were “together” for only a few episodes of season one, it seemed to be a relationship of convenience more than anything because Quinn had been dumped by Finn, and they were being driven closer together by the fact that they were having a baby together, nothing else. There was the occasional hint that there was something else there, but hints are all they were, and in the end their relationship unceremoniously ended offscreen, without even a mention. Even at the beginning of season three when they were brought back together by the reappearance of Beth in their lives, there was not even a hint of romance. But now we’re meant to believe that Quinn is in love with Puck?

Actually, as changeable as Quinn is, maybe this really is just a narrative she made up for herself. There’s no suggestion of that, however, especially given Rachel’s strange pronouncement.

Quinn/Puck as a romantic pairing has never really worked for me. They are two so completely different people, and Puck is so far outside of Quinn’s universe. Quinn at one point berates Puck for wanting to give up on graduation, saying “That’s not the Puck I fell in love with.” No, the Puck she fell in love with drove a car through the wall of a store and stole an ATM. I think we should keep it very clear that no matter who Puck is now, he was a liar, a thief, a bully, and a felon, among other things, a mere season ago. I can’t possibly see Quinn falling in love with that person.

Anyway, Puck passes his test, filling the halls of the school with his jubilant celebratory cry: “C MINUS!”

The other seniors are given no more than passing mention. Mercedes got a recording contract with an indie label in LA based on her YouTube video, where she plans to attend college classes while pursuing her dream. Mike got a scholarship at a dancing academy. Brittany, as previously mentioned, will be repeating her senior year due to her 0.0 GPA.

This was a decent episode, but after the high of “Nationals,” anything was liable to be a bit disappointing, even aside from the other issues. My biggest problem here is that they made this story about Rachel once again, when I feel like the “goodbye” episode ought to feature meaningful scenes from more characters, as everyone prepares to move on.

(Before we move on to the songs, when I mentioned last week that this episode contained one of my favorite songs ever, I was referring to “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” Despite the fact that it’s included in the Graduation Album, it’s inexplicably not featured in the episode. So I have to dock a few points for that.)

The music was good, but not all that memorable. Will’s “Forever Young” actually felt like a heartfelt lament for the part of their lives that they’re leaving behind (and remember that high school was one of the happiest times in Will’s life). I liked the performance of “You Get What You Give” if only for the choreography that switched focus from the seniors to the underclassmen by the end of the song. “In My Life” was good, though dedicating it to Finn alone feels a little weird. Finn has been instrumental in the success of the glee club on many occasions, but no more so than Rachel. As much as I wish this episode had focussed less on Rachel, and as much as I dislike the inorganic inclusion of numbers, I have to admit that “Roots Before Branches” was probably the highlight of the episode. It was the perfect way for Rachel to admit to herself that she has to let go of her past and move on, that she has to build the life she always dreamed of before she can settle down and be happy.

So that’s it for season three of Glee. I’ll hopefully be back in a week or so with my season overview, and then again a week after that with my top ten musical numbers of the season.

Episode 3.21: “Nationals”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

The first rule of this blog is that I’m a sucker for competition episodes, so it almost goes without saying that I loved this. You can’t always eschew plot almost entirely and hit us with something akin to a 45-minute music video, but every now and then… it can be really amazing.

Anchoring what plot exists is Rachel, whose hopes and dreams are riding on Carmen Tibideaux showing up, being enthralled, and whisking her away to NYADA. It’s somewhat disappointing that an episode meant to represent the culmination of everything that the entire club has worked for during three years ended up being so much about Rachel, but at least it wasn’t about “so-called Finchel” the way season two’s “New York” was. And, if it has to be about anybody, Rachel is it. Her dreams have pushed the club forward from the very beginning. Her high standards were what made Will take the “any means necessary” approach in staffing his club. She may have bitched and moaned a lot, but (at least when written correctly) she has always had the best interests of her team at heart.

If she were actually being written out of the show, I might even say that she deserved this episode.

What was really dangerous for the kids here was that their hopes were so high. You’d think they would have learned a little bit about humility after last year’s debacle. But no, Finn placed a $500 bet with Rick, he promises Rachel that Carmen Tibideaux will show up and that everything will be happily ever after for them, and Will pretty much promises a victory, all despite the fact that Mercedes got sick and they had to relearn a lot of the choreography and that they were facing incredibly stiff competition.

Part of me wants to see the alternate universe version of this episode where they lost. I imagine it would be like “New York,” but better.

Speaking of last season’s finale, compare that team with the team in this episode. They may get into a fight about exactly how they’re going to practice, but, and Will’s right here, it actually means that they care. It also means that they’re practicing, something that was not in evidence in “New York.” You actually see signs of growth here, of a team that knows what it has to do to win. Thematically, they earned their victory in this episode, both for the work they put in within the episode and all the dues they paid throughout the series.

I do take exception to Will’s lament that the glee kids “never win.” They’ve essentially established themselves as a show choir powerhouse in Ohio within the last two years. That’s not exactly nothing.

Unique’s plotline ended on a high note, as she led her team to two amazing performances and got the MVP award. The scene in which Kurt and Mercedes convince her to go on felt a little forced, like they thought they needed some kind of mini-crisis to bring the three of them together, but I liked seeing them interact. Wade’s line that “Unique may need to transfer schools next year,” along with Harmony’s line in “Hold on to Sixteen” that she’s only a sophomore, suggests that we may not have seen the last of the two Glee Project runners-up. Since they had far more star power and screen presence than either of the actual winners, I say bring them back. Deport Rory and send Joe back to home school, for all I care.

Even better, don’t let a reality show do your casting for you.

One last thing about Unique: compare the relationship of Mercedes, Kurt, and Unique to the relationship of Rachel and Sunshine in “New York.” This one felt a lot more earned, since there was a lot less space in between appearances and Unique was a much better developed character.

Anyway, the New Directions win nationals, and they come back to WMHS as champions. Not only that, but they are finally welcomed as champions, as they are showered with confetti and cheered on by the whole school. I’ll admit that this entire scene was as cheesy as all hell, but God damn it, they’ve earned it. I’m going to go ahead and admit that I loved it.

The only thing I really had a problem with in this episode was Will winning teacher of the year. I mean, Rachel and Finn’s speeches were heartfelt, the performance of “We Are the Champions” was great (and I loved that they revisited Queen in the same episode that they mentioned the amazing “Bohemian Rhapsody” from season one’s “Journey to Regionals”), but come on, we can’t give Will the highest honor for teachers in his school in the same season that “The Spanish Teacher” happened. We’ve established that Will is a great teacher when it comes to the glee club, but I think that it’s pretty clear that as an all-around educator, he’s something of a flop. If “The Spanish Teacher” hadn’t happened (and believe me, I wish that it hadn’t), I’d have no problem with this. As it is, it comes across as one cloying plot element too many, because I don’t think it was earned by the character.

I was also disappointed that Tibideaux actually did show up at nationals, though I knew it had to happen. Rachel is a strong enough character to deal with the loss of that particular dream, so I really think that they should let it happen. Let’s have at least one unexpected thing come out of this incredibly predictable (yet also amazing) episode.

The judges’ deliberation gag came back for this episode, but I have to admit that it was actually pretty funny this time. Lindsay Lohan makes a great straight man for Perez Hilton.

Well, we’ve pretty much exhausted discussion of what plot there was, so let’s move on to the music.

The standard for competition numbers remains “Journey to Regionals,” with the terrific Journey medley and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but “Nationals” was pretty damn good in that respect too. Certainly worlds better than “New York.” Vocal Adrenaline’s two numbers were great, and showed us the flashiness and the props that Sue tried to introduce to the New Directions. “Pinball Wizard” was especially good, pinball machines and all. And Alex Newell continued to show absolute fearlessness in playing the transgender Wade/Unique. Rachel’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was certainly an iconic performance by her, and it gave just the right tone to the scene in which Tibideaux walks in. If that had to happen, at least they did it artfully. The highlight to me was “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” which I’d been looking forward to since they mentioned it in “Props.” I was expecting it to be more-or-less a Rachel and Finn duet, but they did a great job of working the entire cast into it. While Finn and Rachel lead the song, the choreography, costuming, and backup singing manage to make it about the female club members on Rachel’s side and the male club members on Finn’s side, making it a true ensemble number. It felt a little rushed, since they were trying to squeeze a truly epic song into the show’s time frame for a musical number, but I thought that what they managed to do with it was great. If they have an uncut version on iTunes, that’s one that I might actually consider buying.

While this episode felt like a decent season finale… it’s not! I have high hopes for “Goodbye,” partially since I know it’s going to feature one of my favorite songs ever. Let’s see how those hopes hold up.

Episode 3.20: “Props”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Note: I’m writing this before having seen “Nationals.”

The opening voiceover going on and on about how Tina has always been in background was funny, meta, and true. I also get the feeling that they included it partially to remind viewers of who Tina is. Yes, that’s how much of a background character she’s been ever since day one. The setup for Tina’s story was believable and worked very well. Her outburst in the choir room about how she never has the spotlight, though it could have been better timed, obviously came from a very real place. Tina has always been in the background, she’s always been extremely nice about it, and she’s never gotten any kind of real reward for her loyalty. Compare this with Mercedes’s similar outburst in season two’s “A Night of Neglect.” There, it didn’t feel real both because Mercedes was not acting like a real person and because Mercedes had had plenty of moments in the spotlight, at least compared to characters like Tina. In “Props,” Tina’s complaint feels real because it is. I wonder how much of Jenna Ushkowitz’s own feelings about how she’s been underused as a performer went into her portrayal of Tina in this episode.

The decision then to turn it into a body-swap bit was disappointing, because it took a storyline about Tina and then made it about Rachel. Never mind that Ushkowitz was playing her instead of Lea Michele: Rachel was mostly the subject of act two. What also hurt was that, in a sea of actors having a blast playing each other’s characters, Michele was given the thankless task of playing Tina… a character with no defining characteristics. They even had Michele dress in the goth style, despite the fact that even the voiceover pointed out that Tina hasn’t dressed that way for a while. However, it was a more distinctive look than Tina’s current style, and appearance was about the only way we were going to recognize the character.

What Tina (the real Tina, not the one played by Michele… fuck, this is confusing) learns during her dream sequence is that Rachel has a lot of pressure and that she works very hard for what she has… how she learns this when all Tina-as-Rachel does is take an entirely unprepared solo performance of “Because You Loved Me” and knock it out of the park, I don’t know. But somehow, the lesson Tina takes away is that she’s okay with Rachel hogging the spotlight for now. She always has next year.

Part of me feels like this entire storyline was just their way of allowing Lea Michele to pass the torch to Jenna Ushkowitz as the female lead of the high school half of Glee. While what they did is somewhat emotionally satisfying, what would have worked better would have been a storyline that was actually about Tina, to develop and prepare her for the role that’s going to be thrust upon her in season four.

So while the body-swap act was a hell of a lot of fun, it once again served to force Tina to the sidelines and remind us that it’s all about Rachel… at least for two more episodes.

Speaking of Rachel, I really was hoping that she would be thinking about moving on and making new plans now that NYADA has fallen through and she’s had time to deal with it, but she’s as determined as ever to somehow get another audition. Her new plan is to convince NYADA recruiter Carmen Tibideaux, who will coincidentally be in Chicago at the right time, to come see her perform at nationals. For as much as Glee has been all about teaching lessons this season, it seems a little dangerous to suggest that stalking a recruiter who rejected you might be a good way to get another shot. Okay so it’s really not as bad as all that, but Rachel, at Tina’s urging, does travel out to see Tibideaux and beg for a second chance. It was left ambiguous whether or not she will show up at nationals, but I can’t imagine they hired Whoopi Goldberg for two tiny roles in two episodes, so yeah. I did actually like that Tina made that connection with Rachel, and their conversation in the the car was some of the best real-sounding dialogue that Glee has ever done. Sometimes the show gets so bogged down in characters and the drama of their relationships that something as simple as two casual friends talking about the future can really stand out. As cheesy as it was, I also liked seeing Tina stand up for Rachel when they were talking to Tibideaux.

All in all, I actually believe that Jenna Ushkowitz is capable of taking Lea Michele’s place as the female lead of Glee. She showed in this episode and in “Asian F,” even while playing a supporting role, that she has the acting ability and the screen presence to carry it off. Now I only wish that were going to happen for real, since I know that Rachel isn’t actually being written out of the show.

And then there’s the followup on the domestic violence arc. I let out a little sigh when Santana, Brittany, and Mercedes barged into the teachers’ lounge to confront Shannon about not having left her husband. It didn’t particularly work in “Choke,” and I really didn’t think it was going to work here. The girls proclaimed that they care about Shannon, and I could only again ask, “Why?” They’ve barely had any interaction with each other aside from the episode that specifically forced them together to deal with this plot point. By all rights, this should be the domain of the football players, who have a lot of history with Shannon and who actually have been shown to care about her.

Well, my wish is Glee‘s command, apparently, because the girls quickly disappeared from this subplot and Puck of all people shambled in. Puck gets into a fight with Rick (aka the red-headed hockey kid) because he’s upset about being a loser and Rick taunts him about it. Puck’s dad is out of his life, his Mom neglects him, he’s flunking out of high school, and he’s not even popular anymore. Puck has been humiliated in this way before (see “Special Education“), but it hurts more here because even Puck thinks that his life is a joke. He pulls a (fake) switchblade on Rick, but the fight is broken up by Shannon before it can escalate.

Compare the Puck who risks assault charges here with the Puck of recent episodes who gives gifts of shot glasses and makes speeches about how his fellow glee club members made him a man. This feels like a real “Puck” reaction to what he’s going through. It adheres to the “Puck Standard” of dumb while still feeling like it comes from a real place.

Puck’s breakdown in front of Shannon makes her realize something: she’s heading down the same path with Cooter. One day, she knows she’ll look around and realize she’s trapped in an abusive relationship because she doesn’t care enough about herself to get out. By the same token, Puck is acting self-destructive because he doesn’t care enough about himself to dig himself up out of the hole he’s in. Everyone around him says that he’s a loser, so he begins to believe it. Cooter says that Shannon is a loser, so she believes it.

Glee doesn’t often draw a good, surprising parallel, but they pulled it off big-time here.

So Shannon leaves Cooter, and pulls some strings so that Puck can get a chance to retake his geography test and graduate. Oddly enough, what convinced the teacher that she should give him another chance was the knowledge that he’d cared enough about the glee club to dress in drag for a number. It proved that, at least for that moment, he cared about something other than himself. Well, I’ve heard worse reasons for getting a redo on a test.

All kidding aside, this subplot was surprisingly a big success. They chucked the overly didactic style of “Choke” that began this arc, and made it into a story with characters and a theme. And, it worked. Imagine that.

The only thing in this episode that really didn’t work for me were the scenes of Sue and Will trying to put together their nationals performance. Thematically, this was a rerun of Jesse St. James’s attempts to change the club in “Funeral.” Will is about substance, not empty style. Jesse and Sue are all about pandering to the judges. Guess who gets the last say in both cases?

I do appreciate the attempt to tie everything together under the theme of “props.” It’s how Tina feels, it’s how Puck and Shannon feel about their lives, it’s the concept for the nationals performance that Sue pushes. Not sure how Rachel’s story fits but hey, they tried.

This was a decent episode, even if it did feel like filler leading up to nationals to a certain extent.

The songs were all pretty good, with nothing really standing out as amazing. I liked Rachel’s performance of “I Won’t Give Up,” but it would have carried more weight with me if she had really decided to move on with her life rather than cling to a lost dream. Tina’s “Because You Loved Me” perfectly channeled Rachel. The highlight was probably Puck and Shannon’s “Mean,” which was an odd choice in more ways than one. I didn’t see the Puck/Shannon plotline coming, so I certainly didn’t see it ending in a duet. Shannon has done country before, but it’s a little outside of Puck’s comfort zone, especially since they played it so straight. But, it paid off. It was a good performance that carried the theme of forgetting about the people who think you’re a loser and moving on because you care about yourself.

See you in Chicago for nationals!

Episode 3.19: “Prom-asaurus”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Spiking the punch, election shenanigans, and Finn losing his shit on the dance floor. No, you haven’t tuned into a rerun of “Prom Queen,” it’s “Prom-asaurus,” an episode that rehashes old themes, treats new ones with little respect, and achieves the great honor of a title even stupider than “Saturday Night Glee-ver.”

We start in a promising enough way, with Rachel claiming in voiceover that she’s letting go of her dreams and feels like “a flightless bird… a penguin.” Rachel’s calm, stoic acceptance of the loss of eighteen years’ worth of dreaming is almost creepy, and we get the feeling that she’s holding a lot in. Meanwhile, Brittany reaffirms that “I no longer believe we should be drilling for babies” (makes sense in context… sorta), but since she needs to actually do something in order to have a legacy as senior class president, she takes over the prom committee and announces that the theme for the prom will be “dinosaurs.” Heather Morris has seriously been underused as a comic actress: her timing and deadpan delivery are far too good to waste on one-liners every week. As evidence, I offer this and “I am Unicorn.”

As the episode diverges into the mélange of subplots that have characterized this season, however, things start going downhill.

The nominees for prom king are Finn (somehow?), that hockey kid with the red hair (remember when it seemed like he was going to be a new villain?), and Brittany (…?). The prom queen nominees are Quinn (who clearly got the sympathy vote), Santana (would you believe she got the lesbian vote?), and some random third girl (who cares?). Since Finn feels as sorry for Quinn as anybody, he agrees to campaign with her, which causes Rachel to flip out. I actually think that this works as a plot point. Even if Finn and Quinn do have an ugly past, Quinn has changed a lot over the course of the year, Finn feels guilty because she got into her accident driving to his wedding, and Finn is generally just a nice guy. I also believe the motivations for Rachel’s flipout, as she is well aware of Finn and Quinn’s past, she’s never been the most confident woman when it comes to relationships, and she’s going through a tough time after choking at her audition while trying to hold all those emotions in. So as far as that goes, it works.

What starts to derail this plot for me is that it turns out that Quinn is back to being a manipulative bitch. Her physical therapy is actually working, but she’s hiding the fact that she is able to walk again because she wants the sympathy votes to carry her to prom queen (she claims that it’s because she wants to “surprise” everyone, but come on). She even delivers a masterfully manipulative speech in front of a potential voter bemoaning the “fact” that she may never walk again. Quinn already had a beautiful character arc this season, beginning with her fall from grace and retreat from society, going on to her misguided attempts to get her baby back, and ending when she made a personal choice to let Shelby and Beth go, stop blaming her failures on others, and take control of her own life. This is the Quinn that got into Yale, this is the Quinn that managed to stay so full of hope even after her accident. The Quinn in “Prom-asaurus,” however, is the schemer from earlier seasons reborn. It’s a given that this whole episode feels derivative of “Prom Queen,” even though it’s not really that similar in terms of story, but Quinn in both episodes is basically the same person, and after an intervening season and all the shit that she has gone through, it should definitely not feel that way.

Rachel, meanwhile, decides to protest prom by throwing an “anti-prom” party, which, as Santana points out, is only a way of refusing to deal with her problems. Santana’s speech at Rachel’s announcement of the party may beat us over the head with the theme a little bit, but it does a good job of attempting to give Rachel a reality check, and the writers did a brilliant job of putting it in Santana’s voice: it sounds bitchy, but it comes from a good place. Her point that Rachel is driving the glee club apart on one of the last nights they could all be together is an especially good one.

Since Finn has to show up for prom, being a prom king nominee, the only people who agree to go to her anti-prom are Blaine (because Brittany banned hair gel, for some reason), Kurt (because of Blaine), Puck (the eternal rebel), and Becky (because she’s miffed at losing out on a prom queen nomination). This is scarcely the personnel for a bash of the century, and indeed Rachel’s anti-prom is lamer than anyone could ever have imagined. The scenes of them hanging out all alone in a huge hotel room, with no music and nothing to do, just ooze awkwardness.

Finn’s freakout on the dance floor this time comes when he confronts Quinn about being able to walk. His anger about that at least feels real, since he really thought Quinn had changed (for that matter, so had I).

I did actually like that Finn got everyone to just come back to prom. Being anti-establishment is one thing, but sometimes it’s just as simple as high school kids wanting to hang out together.

Where this episode breaks down for good, after chugging along on fumes for quite a while, is in the last act. Quinn and Santana, who are somehow allowed to count the votes alone despite being nominees (to be fair, we can probably blame Brittany for that one) find that Finn has won prom king and Quinn (by one vote, over, presumably, Santana) has won prom queen. However, Quinn has a sudden realization about the emptiness of the prom queen accomplishment. She realizes that she has achieved “everything” she ever wanted, and does not feel any different.

Let’s pause here for one moment and discuss that. A year out from “Prom Queen,” Quinn still thought of “being prom queen” as one of her ultimate goals? Between those two times, she broke up with her boyfriend, planned and then abandoned the sabotage of her friends on a national stage, got a tattoo, stopped giving a shit about herself, pretended to clean up her act to try to get her baby back, tried to frame a loving mother for child abuse, realized the error of her ways and straightened up, got accepted to Yale, got into a car accident and lost the ability to walk, and slowly regained the use of her legs. And after all that, “be prom queen” is still that high up on her list of priorities. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it! The Quinn that thought that way was left behind in season two. We haven’t seen any evidence at all of that person until this episode. I mean, I’d love to give Dianna Agron props as an actress for recapturing Quinn as she was over a year ago, but I can’t help but think that it wasn’t really something that needed to happen.

Goddamn, you get me all ready to unequivocally compliment their treatment of Quinn this season and then they pull this shit.

However, Quinn does in fact realize the error of her ways and she and Santana decide to rig the election to make it appear that Rachel won prom queen due to write-in votes (ironic, given Rachel’s earlier suspension for rigging an election). I can’t think of a single soul who would believe that, but the student body seems supportive of it, and King Finn shares a dance with Queen Rachel.

This was supposed to feel like a big moment, but it just doesn’t. What undercuts it the most is that Quinn just explained how she realized that the title of prom queen means nothing. So what is her grand gesture to Rachel? She gives her the meaningless title, and in such a way that it would be pretty obvious that some shenanigans went on. Even Rachel seems more confused than flattered by this. She seems happier when dancing in Finn’s arms, but this did not in any way feel like a resolution of her storyline. She has a lot of stuff bottled up inside her that I was expecting to come out at some point. I’m sure this will be dealt with later, but I really don’t think that there was any reason not to deal with it now. Rachel is at a low point in her life, and obviously, from a storytelling perspective, something good is going to come her way in the next episode or two. For her low point to really feel low, I think we really needed a good sense of how all this is really affecting her, not a good sense of how she can put on a brave face and avoid facing the facts.

Also there was a subplot involving Becky and Puck, but it was just silly and awkward and I don’t want to talk about it.

So what did work in this episode? Just some little things. The dinosaur theme was actually cute. I just love seeing Santana’s total devotion to Brittany (“Sheer genius!”). Rachel and Santana both looked gorgeous in their dresses. As I mentioned before, I liked the comedic opening and Rachel’s early confrontation with Finn. I liked the references to continuity, even if they did just invite comparisons to “Prom Queen” that they probably would have been better off avoiding. Also, Blaine looked really funny sans hair gel. And that’s about it.

What I would like to have seen is Quinn struggling with her old feelings, but not acting on them. This would have been a great place to use Joe and flesh out his relationship with Quinn. It would have been a perfect place to show that Quinn has changed, rather than to change her back and then rechange her.

Then again, we all know that when something is inconvenient for the Glee writers, they just ignore it. I guess that after all these years, Glee hasn’t really changed either.

The music was mostly middling, though for the second week in a row I have a special mention for a song that didn’t work: “Dinosaur” had the word “dinosaur” in it, but that’s about all it had going for it. The lyrics and tone are just completely off-the-wall for a prom. Rachel’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” was good, and it’s the closest we came to seeing Rachel deal with her feelings. “Take my Breath Away” was cheesy, but appropriate for the milieu at least (hey, it could have been worse: last year we got “Friday”). The highlight was probably Santana’s “Love You Like a Love Song,” but to be fair, in a close race I’ll always give the tie to Santana.

How many characters are on Glee, anyway?

In the first episode of the TV podcast that my friend J. and I started (shameless plug), we spent some time talking about Glee. While discussing the pilot, we agreed that a major issue with it was “all the other characters,” and I got to thinking: how many characters does Glee have, anyway? There were a ton introduced in the pilot alone, and almost all of those are still with us, plus a lot more. An early first season episode made the mistake of establishing that to be competition-legal, a glee club has to have at least twelve members. Just consider that for a moment: there have to be twelve students in the cast. Imagine if there were twelve sweathogs in Welcome Back, Kotter, or twelve members of the study group on Community, or twelve doctors on House (well, there was the fourth season). Not all of them have to take the forefront obviously, but that is a lot of fucking characters. And that’s not even counting the adults or incidental characters. I think we accept this from Glee because it was sprung on us fairly slowly. After all, the show originally spent a lot more time on Will and his home life, and there were originally only six student members of the club who didn’t get a lot of focus. Then the show switched its focus to the kids just as the size of the club grew to a competition-legal size. And we were left with this multi-headed beast of a cast that can never be slain.

Seriously, I want to list all these characters. It’s been a while since I’ve done a list, so cut me some slack. This will be done from memory, in no particular order, and it refers to the current cast as of “Choke.”

Students:
1. Rachel
2. Finn
3. Kurt
4. Puck
5. Mercedes
6. Blaine
7. Sam
8. Quinn
9. Joe
10. Rory
11. Sugar
12. Santana
13. Brittany
14. Tina
15. Mike
16. Artie

Adults:
17. Will
18. Emma
19. Sue
20. Roz
21. Shannon

I could have stretched the list to include people like Burt, Becky, and Figgins, but I’m only including characters that had significant screen time in season three and are at least semi-regular.

So, good God. That’s over 20 characters. No wonder people just look at me quizzically when I try to talk about specific characters or relationships on the show (well, that, and I’m trying to talk to them about Glee). None of them are what you would call background characters either. Almost all of them have had at least one story. How can a show possibly expect to do justice to this huge a character list? I don’t think it’s possible, and I think it’s a big part of the reason that multi-episode arcs are coming, going, disappearing, and reappearing so randomly this season. They’re doing things with so many characters that you can’t keep up with all of them, especially when they spend so much time on Rachel and Finn alone and when so much of every episode has to be taken up by musical numbers.

Funniest of all is that Tina, a character who has been with the show ever since the very beginning, still isn’t fully established! In 62 episodes, she hasn’t had a single storyline of her own! Sure, she’s played relatively significant roles in episodes like “Wheels,” “Theatricality,” and, most recently, “Asian F,” but all those stories were about someone or something else, with her as a supporting character. We already know more about Wade than we know about Tina, for God’s sake. This show just has no idea how to handle this many characters. I don’t think any show would.

And you know what’s even worse? If season four really creates a show split between New York and the kids back in Lima, the cast will grow even more.

What they really should do is write the graduating seniors out of the show for real, and pare down the season four cast into one that has a core group of main characters that we can concentrate on. Unfortunately, that won’t happen because Glee is a runaway train at this point, and it’s going to stay on this track until it crashes.

(I keep predicting the demise of this show, despite the fact that I love it. I have a strange relationship with Glee.)

Episode 3.18: “Choke”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Sometimes, good intentions just aren’t enough. This is a truly awful episode, full of awkward character moments, artificial plot points, and emotional manipulation. It feels like the concept came first here: they wanted to do plots focussing on domestic violence and flunking out of high school, so they wrote this episode around those ideas. Glee has done “message” episodes before (ex. “Sexy,” “Blame it on the Alcohol,” “Born this Way,” “Laryngitis,” “Bad Reputation”), but such an episode only works if characters and plot are not overshadowed by the message. When the message becomes overpowering, as is the case in “Choke,” everything starts to feel didactic and artificial, as the lesson drives the story and characters.

And aside from all that, it’s hardly controversial to come out and say that domestic violence is bad and flunking out of high school is not a good idea

Should Glee even be doing “message” episodes? Let me put it this way: envisioning a work of fiction from conception as a vehicle for a message is a mistake. Stories have to come from characters and plot first. If a message arises, then fine. But to force it in there is to ruin the organic nature that fiction should strive for.

What’s truly bizarre here is that Kurt and Rachel’s NYADA audition, a plotline that they’ve been building up since the beginning of the season (and it’s also the reference in the title), is relegated to C plot territory. Frontlining this episode are dual plotlines that strangely split the glee club up right down the middle along gender lines. The girls get involved in a plot about domestic violence because Shannon walks into school with a black eye and Santana cracks a joke about it, and the guys try to help Puck pass the last test he needs to graduate from high school with his friends. In contrast to the long built-up NYADA audition plot, both of these came out of nowhere.

The domestic violence plot is especially weird. Shannon doesn’t even seem to hear Santana’s crack, but Roz does, and she and Sue, for no adequately-explained reason, become incredibly offended by it and try to force the girls to learn some kind of lesson by making them sing songs about female empowerment? (We last did “female empowerment” as a theme in “The Power of Madonna,” an episode that at least had great music.) It turns out that Shannon actually did get hit by her husband, and she’s having trouble dealing with it. So she moves out of the house and thanks the girls for saving her life? How? Because Santana made a dumb joke that she didn’t hear, and then they did a wholly inappropriate song from Chicago in their underwear? I’m so confused.

If I’m using a lot of question marks in describing this plot, it’s because I really do not get it.

Where the fucking hell did this come from? It would make some sense if the offense at Santana’s joke had come from Shannon, since she is actually in an abusive relationship. But Roz and Sue take all the offense and then basically force Shannon along for the ride, while she’s claiming that she got hit in the eye by a punching bag and everyone seems to believe her. After all, Sue knows Cooter, and he’s always come across as a harmless goof. Very few people would have believed he would be capable of hitting a woman until Shannon opened up about it. But Shannon was never an active player in this plot. It was just awfully convenient for her that Sue and Roz took offense for her.

I could imagine, in some alternate universe, a version of this plot that works, but Shannon has to be the main character. In forcing this to be about Sue, Roz, and the glee girls, it just never had a chance at working. The only glimpses we’ve even had of Shannon and Cooter’s home life is in the brief flashbacks in this episode. We just can’t feel what Shannon is going through.

Speaking of Roz, even Sue is referring to her as “Black Sue” now. And she makes up nicknames for the kids just like Sue does. And she has no purpose in this episode. Delete her and give her lines to Sue and it would have worked (or not worked) just as well. Someone get this character an identity!

Meanwhile, Puck’s plan to bone his history teacher in order to get the passing grade he needs doesn’t work out. He decides to drop out, until his father conveniently comes along for the first time in five years to borrow money from his son. Puck doesn’t want to be like his father, so he decides he wants to graduate. This pater ex machina (Latin joke; too much college) is such a lazy writing decision, especially since nothing has previously been established about Puck’s father. It’s easy to bring in a new character and fix things, because you can make that character be anything you want! Isn’t that handy! Anyway, the guys decide to help Puck study and we’re treated to a study montage set to “The Rain in Spain.”

Both of the above plots are characterized by awkwardness in establishing them, but Puck’s is the worse of the two. It’s never been mentioned before that Puck could be in danger of not graduating, and suddenly everything is riding on one test? For a season that has tried to establish multi-episode plot arcs, this is absolutely unforgivable. Making up something like this for the sake of one episode late in the season just doesn’t work. Not only that, but the way Puck accepts help from his fellow glee club members goes against character. Puck is a rebel by nature, virtually the definition of an individualist. Things like the shot glass speech last week and the “you guys taught me to be a man” speech this week just don’t jibe with the character that we’ve seen for the past three years. I mean, it’s fine if Puck has developed beyond the guy who drove a truck through the wall of a bank and stole an ATM, but I haven’t really seen any evidence of that character development. One visit from his deadbeat dad isn’t enough either.

Beyond all that, there’s the C plot, which thankfully actually does work. Kurt makes the gutsy move of singing something a little different and a little unrehearsed for his NYADA audition in “Not the Boy Next Door” (though his sudden change of plan seemed awfully well… planned), while Rachel decides to go with the tried-and-true “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” a song she’s been singing her entire life. In a cruel twist of fate, Kurt knocks his audition out of the park while Rachel chokes, faltering twice before the judge finally cuts her off and leaves.

Watching Rachel choke and fail on her audition is heart-rending. In terms of Rachel’s overall plotline, we’ve been building up to this ever since “Pilot,” a fact that is referenced in the opening voiceover of this episode, a scene that almost could have been directly lifted out of season one in terms of style and character. The moment is all the more tragic because “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” pulled off at the last second in “Sectionals,” was one of the absolute best songs of season one. We don’t even have to be told that Rachel knows this song inside-out, we know it. And… she just crashes and burns. There are no excuses, there are no second chances. There’s just the sorry sight of the ruins of Rachel’s life standing on stage, shocked beyond reason.

This really is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series, and I just wish it could have come in a better episode. In an ideal universe, this episode was actually about Kurt and Rachel, not Shannon and Puck.

This episode tries to redeem itself in the ending, as it tries to tie together all three plotlines under the umbrella theme of failure. Shannon goes back to Cooter. Puck fails his test. Rachel cries in Finn’s arms, in what is a better indicator of what Rachel is going through than anything she could have possibly said. This is a poignant ending, wallowing in the sadness of characters who tried their best and still failed. It’s an ending that is entirely undeserving of the episode that preceded it.

Incidentally, I don’t really see the big deal about Puck failing his test. It’s one class. Take it in summer school and bam, high school diploma.

(To see a much better take on the theme of trying your best and still failing, check out “Bart Gets an F,” my favorite episode of The Simpsons.)

The songs this episode were mostly underwhelming. Special mention goes to to both of Puck’s numbers, “School’s Out” and “The Rain in Spain,” for having the most awkward transitions and being the most inappropriate in tone of any other song on Glee in my recollection. They’re trying to do a serious Puck plotline here, and they punctuate his decision to drop out and his later decision to study and pass with these goofy songs? Anyway, Kurt’s audition was actually pretty good, but the highlight to me was Rachel’s “Cry,” which was a heartbreakingly emotional performance on top of giving atmosphere to an ending that was so much better than the rest of the episode.