Episode 4.03: “Makeover”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Let’s cut right to the heart of the matter: “Makeover” is a flop. But it’s an interesting flop. It doesn’t fail in quite the same way as most of the series’s previous flops failed. It has a lot of good ideas poorly executed, a lot of brilliant themes poorly explored, and a lot of interesting character moments wasted. Despite its many disparate plot elements, it manages to feel cohesive while at the same time feeling aimless. It rehashes old plot elements in an interesting way while forging ahead with new plot ideas that seem strangely awkward and dull. I have a strange feeling that in the end, unfortunately, “Makeover” may be remembered as the moment that defined the fourth season for the worse.

Thematically, as the title suggests, this episode wants to be about moving forward and forging a new identity in a new situation. Will doesn’t know what to do with himself after achieving his dream of leading a glee club to a national championship, so he decides to join a government campaign to improve funding for the arts. Kurt lands a job at Vogue.com, where he learns that he may have a gift and even a passion for fashion. Blaine runs for and wins senior class president, while realizing that not only are he and Kurt drifting apart, but his feelings for Kurt may even be fading. Rachel decides to embrace a new fashion sense in her continuing quest to assimilate in New York, and she may even be giving up on Finn.

There are a lot of things going on here, but there is a very strong theme holding it all together, which is exactly what I said this season needed to do to succeed. So what’s the problem? As usual with Glee, the answer lies much more in the execution than in the concept.

Kurt’s relationship with his boss Isabelle (Sarah Jessica Parker) is weird. Weird, man. I mean, what high-powered fashion executive spills her guts to her intern, much less the day after she hires him? And then later she catches Kurt and Rachel sneaking into the Vogue building after hours to try on clothes, and what does she do? Why, she joins them in a music montage that is ridiculous even for Glee, and those of you who have been following these reviews know that that really means something. And then she submits the music video they shot to her boss, whose one word e-mailed response (“Great”) is apparently the most praise that Isabelle has ever gotten. And it’s all thanks to Kurt.

I understand the point that Kurt may end up feeling at home in the fashion world, and it’s believable that he has designed his own clothes before even though I don’t think it’s ever really come up. I understand the point that Kurt is getting caught up in his new life and drifting away from Blaine. What I don’t understand is why they decided to present that point in this completely unbelievable and asinine way. We’re basically meant to believe that Kurt, fresh from the mean streets of Lima, Ohio, has better instincts in the industry than his fashion executive boss. Even the quite entertaining performances of Chris Colfer and Sarah Jessica Parker are not nearly enough to save this plotline. I like the relationship of their characters, but it’s just begging for a slower development curve. As it is, it’s coming off as forced and artificial.

While I get that Rachel may need to try harder to assimilate into her new environment in New York, pinning it to her fashion sense is a little weird. It isn’t anything that came up in the previous two episodes and I seriously didn’t notice a major difference in her post- and pre-makeover appearance. And what was up with the girls in her dance class making fun of Rachel’s outfit early on? They were wearing black leotards and she was wearing a red one, as far as I could tell. Either I just have a complete blind eye for fashion, or maybe the costume designer fell asleep at the wheel. Having Rachel’s turning point be that silly music video/outfit montage was lazy writing at its finest. The only “change” even readily apparent afterwards was more attention from Brody, who I believe had already been firmly established as wanting to jump her bones. So what’s the big deal?

I liked the bit at the very end a lot more, when she and Brody have that cute “first date” scene together (nice dialogue writing there), and then Finn of all people shows up right when they kiss. The man has the best timing. I wish that Brody were a better-established character, but that scene felt like Rachel starting to really change. The montage/duet with Brody, on the other hand, didn’t really do any real narrative or characterization work. Despite taking up so much screen time and having a decent thematic basis, Rachel’s plotline ended up feeling curtailed and pointless.

Blaine, meanwhile, decides to try to find meaning in his Kurtless senior year by trying everything, as the opening montage demonstrates by showing Blaine joining every ludicrous student organization on campus, culminating in his deciding to run for senior class president against Brittany. Now, we did a “substance versus Brittany” kind of bit with the senior class president plot arc from season three, and this bit bears a striking resemblance to that. However, it has several important differences. First, vice presidential nominees in the persons of Sam for Blaine and Artie for Brittany have been introduced. Second, Blaine is off message about as often as Brittany. Third, this time the election bit only lasts one episode and is not taken at all seriously. I mean, one of Sam’s answers during the vice presidential debates is to perform a striptease. Also, at one point Blaine goes off on a rant during the debate about how Brittany’s banning of hair gel could lead to fascism and book burning. Compare that to Kurt’s overwrought stand against bullying last season. This whole plotline was played mostly for comedy, and for that it works, largely because of Heather Morris and, to a lesser extent, Chord Overstreet.

I do question why Sam suddenly becomes an idiot just at the very moment when they need him to form a parallel with Brittany (“What’s a debate?”). Continuity! Who needs it?

The larger dramatic point of the election plotline comes at the end, when Blaine has a sudden realization that he only ever went to WMHS in the first place to be with Kurt, and now that Kurt is gone everything feels empty and pointless. He tries to call Kurt on the phone to share in the joy of being elected class president, but Kurt is busy and hits ignore. I like this plot point, but it sure was a long way to go to get to it, and I’m not sure that the silliness of the whole bit doesn’t overwhelm the drama of the final point.

So, yeah. This was a big fat flop, but a much more interesting one than “The Spanish Teacher” or even “Choke.”

Musically, this was the leanest episode since season three’s “I am Unicorn“: that episode had three songs while “Makeover” has four. Unfortunately, none of them were particularly good. Every single one was a montage! I like a good montage as much as the next guy, but that’s not really the kind of thing that Glee was built on. I prefer numbers that are organically inserted into the story and have some kind of slight basis in reality. I guess that Rachel and Brody’s “A Change Would Do You Good” would be my pick for the highlight, but lets not mistake that as any kind of big compliment in an episode like this. Meanwhile, “The Way You Look Tonight/You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” is probably the new record-holder for most awkwardly-set-up song. Even in a traditional musical, that would have earned a groan.

Other thoughts:

Kurt has blogged about Project Runway since season one. Man, what a loser. I’ve been blogging about Glee since season two, which is totally different, you see.

Speaking of callbacks to season one (were we speaking of that?), it was pretty surprising to see the director of the deaf glee club back. I’m not sure what the point of it was, really, but it was surprising.

I get the gag that Artie’s answer in the debate goes on for hours, but aren’t debates usually timed?

I almost feel like the whole election makeover subplot was worth it because of how cute Heather Morris looks in glasses.

I like what they’re doing with Sue this season. She’s retained her edge while staying out of supervillain territory. There’s not even much negativity underlying her insults anymore. She’s a much funnier character that way.

Sam and Brittany, in their final scene, actually have a lot more chemistry with each other than Rachel and Brody do. Considering that the next episode is called “The Break-Up,” I have to admit to feeling a little worried for the future of perfect couple Brittany and Santana. At the same time, I recently realized that I would love to hear Naya Rivera sing “He’s Got You,” so if by some weird chance they happen to use that, a breakup would totally be worth it.

Episode 4.02: “Britney 2.0”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

This is Glee‘s first direct sequel to a tribute episode, and one has to wonder why the hell they decided to revisit Britney Spears. I mean, Madonna or Michael Jackson would have made sense. They’re legends. You want to give them another episode, I might think it would be redundant, but at least I’d understand. But Britney Spears? On top of the fact that “Britney/Brittany” wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, I really don’t see the point.

“Britney/Brittany” also featured the adults fighting against using Spears’s music at all every step of the way and the climax of the episode was an incredibly negative experience involving a riot during a performance of “Toxic.” And yet, Will somehow remembers the whole thing as very cool and inspiring, so much so that he brings it back. I think that Will might need to see somebody about those memory problems. Early-onset Alzheimer’s can be an ugly thing.

I did like that they decided to address Brittany’s academic issues, since they’ve always been the elephant in the room with her that no one wants to talk about. Sue decides to show her some tough love by kicking her off the Cheerios until her grades improve (“Tough love feels a lot like mean”), which leads Brittany into an apparent spiral of depression. Will decides to try to snap her out of it by doing Britney Spears music (you ever notice that Will is really bad at this kind of thing?), and it takes them a while to realize that “the whole singing at her thing isn’t helping.” A much better idea is Will and Emma’s insistence that Brittany start receiving tutoring after school (though Emma really should have gotten on Brittany’s ass about that last year… seriously, this woman has tenure?), and by the end of the episode she manages a C minus on a test, even if her answers are still written in alternating-color crayon.

Brittany has always been pretty bad at expressing her emotions, what with her Bob-Newhart-like deadpan demeanor, and it actually makes sense that the other members of the club wouldn’t know how to help her or even realize to what extent she needs help. This is especially true now that Santana is gone (she had a short cameo during a hurried Skype call with Brittany), since she has an almost supernatural ability to understand Brittany and give her what she needs.

Sam, who based on this and his approach of Marley in “The New Rachel” is setting himself up as the wise senior of the group, realizes that Brittany is mostly pretending to spiral out of control in an attempt to imitate Britney Spears, who came out of her spiral to land a gig on X Factor. Brittany starts going to tutoring, her grades improve a little, and she gets back on the Cheerios. And everyone is totally happy.

Well, not quite. I said before that Brittany is hard to read even for her friends, and no one in this episode really picks up on the fact that to the extent that Brittany is truly depressed, it’s because she misses Santana so much. Everyone latches onto her dismissal from the Cheerios as what has to be affecting her, since that’s the tipping point, but no one realizes what her real problem is at the moment. I like that; it’s a little more subtle than Glee usually is.

Speaking of subtlety, one of the things I liked about “The New Rachel” was the subtle characterization of Cassie July as extremely insecure. Since Glee can’t leave well enough alone, they decide to just spill her whole story in this episode through Kurt’s sudden exposition. Kurt saw a video on YouTube of Cassie in her first Broadway play, during which she lost her shit when an audience member’s cell phone rang and climbed down off the stage to assault him. The incident made her unhirable in the business, so she had to leave the theater and go into teaching, where she is quite successful but not the superstar she always wanted to be.

I like this backstory, but I wish it had been revealed in more effective way. Let Cassie tell us about it when she’s ready, don’t just have Kurt vomit it out secondhand. It loses all its impact that way. I really liked Cassie’s final scene with Rachel in this episode, in which she explains that she is hard on her students because she knows that it’s tough out there in the world. If you can’t take a teacher poking fun at you and pushing you to your limits, how are you going to take being on Broadway? Well… probably about as well as Cassie did. That’s the tragic implication, that Cassie acts the way she does because she genuinely doesn’t want her students to turn out to be failures like her. I like this a lot, but they let it play out too quickly and in a way that divorced the drama from its proper place in the story, giving the reveal to Kurt instead of Cassie.

Rachel seems to learn the right lesson from her feud with Cassie, that she is there to learn and she’s not going to be a superstar right away. She didn’t have to deal with not being the best of the best at WMHS, but at NYADA she does, and it was probably a bitter pill to swallow, which is why she lashed out the way she did.

I liked the bits with Rachel and Kurt moving in together, and their chat in the dark of their cavernous studio apartment was the standout scene of the episode. Even though it would probably be a huge failure, I’d love to see these two get their own spinoff. I mean, I’d watch it.

Brody continues to be a fairly boring character, but I did like the implications that Rachel may actually be willing to move on from Finn. Despite the fact that Finn has yet to make an appearance this season, he is a huge presence in Rachel’s life. However, at the end of the episode, Rachel paints over the “Finn” in a heart that she had decorated their wall with. Finn has actually been all the more conspicuous for his absence, and I admire their restraint for keeping him offscreen for now.

Despite the fact that Will refused to let Jake into the glee club in “The New Rachel,” he spends most of this episode trying to convince him to join. Will handwaves this by saying that cutting Jake was a mistake, but I have to wonder why it happened in the first place if they were just going to have it mean nothing in this episode. Does Will think that violent emotional outbursts are a bar to entry to the club or not? Why have him decide one way in one episode and the exact opposite in the next episode? It makes me worried that this season will continue to feature the writing staff failing to work as a unit.

I’d like to say that I liked the bits with Marley and Jake, and I really did (despite, again, how quickly plot points seem to be moving this season) up until the end of the episode when Kitty steps into the picture to announce that she and Jake are dating. The Jake-Kitty-Marley triangle is virtually a carbon copy of the Finn-Quinn-Rachel triangle of the first two seasons, and dear God I really do not need to see the rerun of that. Find something new and different to do with these characters, please!

Puck even shows up in this episode to confront Jake about being a dumbass (apparently flying all the way from LA just to give Jake a five minute lecture in the choir room), which only serves to highlight the too-obvious similarities of the two characters. Apparently the Glee staff has only so many characters available to create, and they’re already having to start reusing old characters. It’s hard to imagine another reason for the appearance of Kitty (Quinn) and Jake (Puck) this season. They’d better figure out something else to do with them fast.

I will say that I liked the “loser montage” as Jake looks at the people he’s decided to associate with after finally joining the glee club.

It’s hard to summarize what I thought of this episode. It had a lot of good ideas, it failed at several levels in the execution for various reasons, and I really think that the Britney Spears connection held them back creatively. It’s episodes like this that make me glad I don’t assign star ratings, because it’s hard to pin one single badge of quality to something that is so all over the place.

The music was all okay, but for the second episode in a row nothing really stood out all that much. I was hoping for good things from “Oops!… I Did it Again,” but I really didn’t like their arrangement. The choreography was good (even if perhaps overly suggestive, even for college), but the arrangement was so slow and devoid of energy that the song just seemed to lie there more than push forward. Jake and Marley’s “U Drive Me Crazy/Crazy” was cute, even if I really don’t think their budding relationship paid off. “Womanizer” was okay, but it stuck out as a really awkward number to get into and an artificial and unnecessary way to lend characterization to Jake. The highlight for me was probably “3,” which, while not important to the plot, at least had a lot of energy and a great acoustic arrangement.

Other thoughts:

Brittany’s confusion about whether she was doing a voiceover or talking aloud reminded me of Community‘s Abed, but they steered clear enough of the full fourth wall break that it didn’t really bother me in that way.

Wade seems to be dressing as a woman full time now. I’m going to go ahead and use the female pronoun for her in the future anyway regardless, unless something major changes, since she’s made it clear that she identifies as a woman. How she dresses from scene to scene really shouldn’t affect that. Hopefully they don’t end up just turning her into a walking cross-dressing gag like Steve on The Drew Carey Show (who, to be fair, was explicitly not transgender).

I was glad to see that Puck cut his hair, so now his mohawk bears a much smaller resemblance to a dead squirrel.

I hope we see more of Santana soon, because I’m pretty sure I’m starting to show symptoms of Naya Rivera withdrawal.

Episode 4.01: “The New Rachel”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

To a large extent, the failures of season three had to do with an excess of ambition. Too many stories, too many characters, too many arcs for the show to possibly handle. So the very concept behind season four is worrisome, as it is even more ambitious. Not only are we going to be adding more characters, but the old characters who are still sticking around are spread all over the nation. Is it possible that a show that couldn’t even handle multiple competing arcs in a single setting might be able to bring it together when characters are separated by hundreds of miles? That’s why it’s surprising that this episode is, in many ways, less ambitious than last season’s opener, as it strives mainly to tell the story of a woman trying to find her place in a new environment, and a group of people trying to find their place without the woman.

“The New Rachel” may not be perfect, but it presents a good argument that Glee might be able to handle this after all.

Rachel’s struggles to adapt to life in college in New York are not only believable, but universal. Everyone who goes to college has to deal with that adjustment period, as they find out that privacy isn’t what it used to be, that there is a lot more competition than they ever saw in high school, that they’re far away from their friends and everything else familiar, and that this whole thing is actually going to be hard. Rachel has always been far more insecure than she tries to let on, and she’s exactly the kind of person who would have trouble fitting in at college, especially a college as competitive as NYADA. Remember when she burst into tears after seeing how good all the other potential applicants were in “The Purple Piano Project?” Well, now she’s living that. I actually wish that that had been emphasized more, but this is certainly not the last we’re going to see of this.

Kate Hudson as Rachel’s dance teacher Cassandra was great. She comes across as the standard mean teacher who will push you to your very limit while being a bitch about it, but she is softened considerably by a couple of scenes. First is when she congratulates a former student for getting a part in a Broadway play, a scene in which she expresses not one iota of negativity, not even ironically. Second is the scene in which Rachel confronts her about being drunk. It turns out that Cassandra may have a problem with the sauce, which is something that was introduced but not really wrapped up in this episode (one hopes that this season is better at picking up continuing plot threads than last season was). Cassandra’s attempt to show Rachel up through a song and dance number comes across more as pathetic than mean. What kind of teacher feels the need to prove that she’s better than her students? A debilitatingly insecure one, that’s what kind.

I liked Rachel’s budding relationship with Brody, even if he was a bit of a boring character. I actually feel a bit cheated of the development their relationship could have gotten now that Kurt is in New York as well, since Rachel will no longer be so alone. But, as he himself felt the need to state, Brody does have one thing going for him in the relationship-with-Rachel department that Kurt doesn’t: he’s straight.

Meanwhile, back at WMHS, the shake-up due to the graduations is pretty obvious. Even with Wade transferring and joining the club, the choir room definitely looks a lot emptier. In addition to the graduates being gone, Rory is also absent, apparently having been unceremoniously deported over the summer. Joe is still around, despite having absolutely nothing to do in this episode. I just wish Harmony had come in too. Hell, trade Joe for her.

Anyway, the lack of members appears to be no problem, as the national-champion glee club is now “cool,” and people are clamoring to audition, including the poor and insecure, yet lovable, Marley, and Puck’s very Puck-like half-brother Jake. (Puck does not know about Jake, yet Jake does know about Puck. Somehow, I believe this family situation when it comes to the Puckerman clan.)

Another new character is head cheerleader Kitty, who Sue describes as just like Quinn Fabray “except she’s not pregnant, manic-depressive, or in and out of a wheelchair.” Kitty really is almost exactly like Quinn in early season one, and one hopes she develops past that very soon, because shit’s boring. She can’t have the same arc as Quinn either, she’s got to find her own identity somehow.

Speaking of characters who need to find their own identity, there is virtually nothing to differentiate Jake from his half-brother. He’s an angry rebel who considers himself to be a lost cause. Didn’t we just see this?

Marley, meanwhile, is more of an enigma. I like that Sam is the one who first approaches her later to mend fences, and that he recognizes the trappings of a family that is trying to pretend not to be poor. She is sensitive and just a bit lost. She has ambitions, but her ambitions are not what she’s all about. Despite the parallels between Marley and Rachel that the episode draws up, they are two very different people, and I like that.

The glee club is adjusting to its newfound “coolness” by hanging out with the other cool kids and making fun of the new obese lunch lady, which is apparently what cool people do. They also try to lie a little low so that the cool kids won’t be able to find a reason to start soaking them with slushies again. This leads to one of the harshest moments of the episode, when Wade shows up to their lunch table wearing makeup and Blaine asks him to confine his “Unique” persona to the stage because they don’t want to rock the boat. How ironic that Blaine, who would fight to be allowed to be openly gay, would tell the transgender Wade that it’s not okay to be open about it.

Anyway, they all learn their lesson when they find out that the lunch lady is Marley’s very nice mother and apologize to Marley for making fun of her mom. This leads the cool kids to splash slushies in their faces, and the world is restored to order. This whole plot is right out of the high school drama/comedy playbook, but they pulled it off about as well as they could have. It would be asking a little much to escape an episode of Glee without some huge clichés anyway.

There’s also a subplot with Blaine, Tina, Wade, and Brittany each trying to fill the power vacuum left by Rachel. They are finally forced to understand, as a group, a lesson that Rachel had to learn many times: this is a group activity and you can’t obsess too much over who the “star” is. That can lead to a lot of negativity. Witness their cold reception to Wade and their reluctance to praise auditions, as they see everyone as competition.

Despite being mobbed with auditions, Will somehow only lets one person, Marley, into the club. (I know that “let everyone in” as a philosophy probably had to go by the wayside when dozens of people auditioned, but I do wish Will had mentioned the change.) He also wants to let Jake in, but since he throws a fit after being cut off during his audition, Will decides to cut him and give him a lecture instead. It doesn’t seem to take.

And if you counted the people on the club list at the end of the episode, you noticed that there were only nine people on it. They need at least twelve to be competition legal. There seriously weren’t at least three more warm bodies in the mob of auditions that could have filled it out? That makes no sense.

Finally, this episode had Kurt looking pathetic as he hangs around his old high school. He receives the kick in the pants he needs from Blaine and his father, and goes to join Rachel in New York, where he really doesn’t know what he is going to do. He does know that he needs to be there.

Thematically, this was an episode about moving forward. The title has a double meaning in Rachel trying to become a new person in her new surroundings and in the glee kids trying to find a “new Rachel” within their group. They each need to move forward and embrace the inevitable change that was thrust upon them. Likewise, Kurt is at first refusing to move on, hanging out with the glee kids and, as Sue puts it, “lurk[ing] the halls of high school after graduation.” He has to finally accept that things have changed, and he needs to change as well. In some cases, moving forward may mean rejecting change, as the kids find out when they discover they don’t want to be in the “cool” group after all. They have to find the maturity to reject this change and go back to the way things were.

Overall this was a decent episode that surprised me with its simplicity, and I hope this incredibly ambitious season continues to try not to overreach.

The music was decent, though not spectacular. “Call Me Maybe” was a hell of a lot of fun, even if it was an odd choice for a competitive piece. Blaine’s “It’s Time” was a nice way to convince Kurt of what he needed to do (and I like that with glee being cool, it was more believable that Blaine got a lot of people to play along), and of course I love the stairway location. Cassandra’s “Dance Again/Americano” was very cool, even if it did ooze pettiness for being used to show up Rachel. By a slim margin, I’ll call the highlight Marley and Rachel’s “New York State of Mind,” which may have been heavy-handed in the parallelism department, but still managed to pull it off. At the same time, the song is about Rachel trying to find her place in a new city and about Marley finding the courage to pursue a future that she almost can’t imagine.

Other thoughts:

Brittany mentions that Santana is busy with cheerleading practice. This, combined with the fact that Santana was never mentioned during Rachel’s segments, suggests that Santana changed her mind about ditching her cheerleading scholarship.

Sue was actually pretty funny in this episode, largely because she was confined to one-liners and not allowed to get involved in the story to a large degree.

Tina had to change her “Mike Chang forever” tattoo to “Make Change forever.” Remember kids, relationships may come and go, but ink is forever.

The Jacob Ben Israel season opening seems to be a tradition now. I somehow imagine they’ll manage to keep doing it even after the kid graduates.

Rachel seems to have forgotten that Finn broke up with her.

Other heavy-handed parallels in this episode include Rachel finding Brody singing in the shower (Will finding Finn in “Pilot”) and Jake overlooking the rehearsing glee club in the theater (Puck in “Pilot”). I can’t really complain, because a season as disjointed as this one is likely to be is going to need to find those connections wherever it can to keep things from feeling disjointed.

We didn’t see any graduates in this episode except for Kurt and Rachel, but I’m sure that more will be back, as guest stars if nothing else.