(Spoilers lurk below.)
To say that Glee has a spotty record with Christmas episodes would be generous. Season two’s “A Very Glee Christmas” and season three’s “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” both fell pretty flat. So when I say that “Glee, Actually” is the series’s best Christmas episode, that’s damning with faint praise. Still, it’s not bad, as it doesn’t aim for much except to show us how a few select characters spend their Christmas.
I am glad to see Glee still experimenting in its fourth season, since even when it fails it tends to be interesting. And this is not a failure, even if it isn’t an unqualified success. While both the title and Sue refer directly to the film Love Actually, my recollection of that movie (though it’s been a long time) is that its stories cut back and forth and are at least slightly intertwined. “Glee, Actually” instead presents a series of unrelated stories, and refuses to cut among them during the course of the episode. Each of the first five acts is devoted to a single story that focusses on one or two characters, and the sixth act is used to kinda tie everything together and wind down. Though each story shares the time period of mid-to-late December, there’s a pretty fair variation among them, both thematically and tonally.
Of course, Glee has done multi-story disjointed episodes before, as in season two’s “Duets” and nearly all of season three (most successfully in “Saturday Night Glee-ver” and “Dance with Somebody“), but it’s never been done quite this way before, with so many stories so disconnected. In many ways, this episode almost comes across as a deconstruction of season three, with the various unrelated storylines that characterized the season separated from the melange of subplots, put back together, and shown in a row. Imagine “Heart,” for example, torn apart and put back together this way. It would lend an entirely different view of the proceedings. Each “subplot” gets its own segment, nothing steps to the forefront and it doesn’t feel like anything has to. I don’t think that structuring season three this way would have particularly worked, but it would have been more honest.
Our first story features the requisite It’s a Wonderful Life parody, as Artie gets to see what life would have been like if he’d never gotten paralyzed, guided by Rory as an angel. Much of this feels like rehash from season one’s “Dream On,” both because of its revisiting of Artie’s issues with being in a wheelchair (which we haven’t seen in a long time) and its using a dream sequence to show off Kevin McHale’s usually neglected dancing skills (when Glee first started filming, the choreographer was quite annoyed to learn that his best dancer was the guy playing a paraplegic). I also unashamedly hate It’s a Wonderful Life (though that’s a rant for another day) and I always wonder why these scenarios always involve things being way worse than they are in the prime universe. The implication is that we are apparently living in the best possible universe, and even the slightest change to anything would bring about total devastation, The Butterfly Effect style. Sure, things would be different if Artie had never gotten paralyzed, but it’s dishonest and a bit offensive to suggest that he had to get paralyzed so that life wouldn’t suck for his friends. I don’t think that’s the intended lesson, but it’s the one that comes across.
The second story is probably the strongest, showing Kurt and his father hanging around New York City. Mike O’Malley and Chris Colfer have always had a lot of chemistry together, and they really make you believe in the reunion of father and newly-moved-out son. I don’t know what the purpose of Burt telling Kurt that he has cancer was — it comes out of nowhere and smacks of artificially adding emotion to the story, especially annoying because it didn’t really need it. Kurt’s reunion with Blaine was suitably awkward, and resolved nothing while at least allowing the two of them to communicate civilly again. It was also great to see Blaine confident and sure of himself again, as opposed to the whiny sad sack he’s been since “The Break-Up.” Blaine’s suggestion that he may apply for NYADA suggests fodder for season five.
The third story sees Puck and Jake hanging out together, which is good since they were pretty much glossed over in “Thanksgiving.” Jacob Artist and Mark Salling may not be the best acting duo ever, but they are believable as brothers. That makes Jake’s quick turnaround from lost rebel to nice guy a bit more believable, since it took Puck a good three seasons to make the same transition, making him unusually suited to help Jake avoid the pitfalls. It’s pretty weird how much time Jake and Puck spend hopping back and forth between Lima and Los Angeles (a 32-hour drive according to Google Maps), and their entire adventure in LA is pretty silly, but the payoff when Jake and Puck’s mothers meet each other makes the whole segment worth it. They find common ground because their sons feel like brothers and they all have a lot of deserved hatred for the absent Mr. Puckerman. This segment contrasts the newly-forming traditions of the Puckerman brothers with the old Hummel family traditions that Burt continuously refers to in the prior segment.
It seems that Sam has been grievously beaten with the Stupid Stick, since he’s back down at Brittany’s IQ level for our fourth segment. Sam and Brittany are the only kids in school who believe that the “Mayan apocalypse” is ending the world on December 21, and they decide to make the most of their time together by getting married. Shannon performs their wedding ceremony on the 18th, but when the 22nd rolls around and the world still exists, they’re a bit taken aback… and they also think they’re really married. Relevant question: what did they do for the four days they were waiting for the world to end? Because “fucking without protection” is the only theory I can come up with. Shannon reveals in the final segment that she was only pretending to be an ordained minister so that they could get some enjoyment out of their “final” days without really doing anything stupid, but I think that it sometimes might not be a good idea to think the world is ending, because that’s exactly when you’d be likeliest to do something stupid? Shannon also decides to give them a little more by telling them that the end of the world has been pushed back to 2014. I can’t wait to see the followup on that, if Glee by some miracle is still on the air in 2014. At least Shannon’s excessive sentimentality here hearkens back to her role in “A Very Glee Christmas,” and is in character in general. Still, it’s pretty irresponsible.
Lastly, Sue gets to play Grinch again, although she doesn’t try to steal Christmas this time. Instead, after drawing Marley’s mom’s name out of the hat for faculty secret Santa, she decides to give the Roses the Christmas they deserve. She comes to this idea when she overhears Mrs. Rose telling Marley about how they’re spending all their Christmas money on Marley’s therapy for her eating disorder (though telling her this seems like something that could just give her another complex). This segment unavoidably feels reminiscent of “A Very Glee Christmas,” what with Sue’s heart growing three sizes, but Marley and her mother always make for a good scene, and I’m glad to see some followup on Marley’s issues.
The final segment brings everything together, as Marley and the glee kids thank Sue for what she did for the Roses, Sam and Brittany figure out where to go from here, Kurt and Blaine set the table for Christmas dinner, and Puck decides to move back to Lima to be close to his brother. Also, Artie is there.
This was a clearly flawed episode, but I appreciate the experimentation. We had quite a few scenes that worked, and as a whole it was a nice experience, but a lot of things failed to deliver as well. Sam and Brittany’s segment was especially disappointing, largely because it continued the stupidification of Sam that has characterized his fourth season ever since “Makeover.” It was also particularly aimless.
The music wasn’t spectacular, but I would like to say I’m glad they went with a lot of Christmas standards this year rather than contemporary music. “Feliz Navidad” and “Jingle Bell Rock” were uninspired, but everything else was pretty good. “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” despite being the most awkwardly set up number of the bunch, was both a nice way to see Puck and Jake interacting and to remind people that, you know, some of the people on this show are Jewish, which “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” kinda forgot. The highlight of the episode was the final “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which, while it included montage elements, really felt like it brought all the disparate plotlines together.
I hate to harp on this, but Sam and Brittany started dating one episode ago. Give us a little more lead time before a marriage proposal happens. Even Nashville‘s Juliette waited three episodes before proposing to Sean.
Artie’s dream sequence was fun for the dark references to season one. Will is a drunk because he can’t stand living with Terri, and Emma is trapped in a relationship with Ken Tanaka.
I also liked that Artie’s musical number did nothing to convince the alternate universe kids of the power of music. “That was so gay!”
As of this episode, Puck has been back to Lima a total of four times (assuming he went back to LA after Thanksgiving), once crossing three time zones for the sole purpose of giving a lecture to Jake.
Marley and her mom hug with joy after finding that someone had broken into their house and left them gifts and much-needed money, but Marley suddenly realizes “We should probably still call the police.”
“I wanted to thank you for what you did for Marley and me.” “I had nothing to do with the making of that movie.”
Shannon says that the Mayans were “wiped out” by the Spanish and smallpox. There are actually around seven million Mayans alive today, and a dozen or so Mayan languages are still spoken. They also don’t think the world is going to end in 2012.