Glee season 5 overview; or, a tale of two series

(Spoilers lurk below.)

One of the few consistencies in Glee has been its changeability. For those of you keeping score at home, talking about that has been a running theme in this blog, because one of my consistencies is belaboring an obvious point. Anyway, season 5 manages to both avert and go with that changeability. On the one hand, it makes one of the bravest and best choices in the run of the series when it decides to jettison the Ohio half and move entirely to NYC. On the other hand, it didn’t get that show on the road until the halfway point, and prior to that we had to endure the laborious continuation of what they started in season 4, utilizing a style and tone that virtually matched the prior season beat for beat. That’s literally never happened before in Glee, every season has felt distinct from the others until season 5 came along.

And that’s the way they drew it up, which is what is so strange. Season 4 ended with a regionals win for the McKinley kids and an ambiguous Broadway audition for Rachel. A cliffhanger and the middle part of an ongoing story. That seems designed to lead into a new season much like the old one.

However (and yes it’s time to talk about this again), Glee was dealt a bad hand shortly before season 5 even started filming when Cory Monteith tragically died. Glee obviously had big plans for Monteith in season 5, as he was supposed to be Will’s TA, working under his mentor and continuing to help the newbies. I’ve seen it suggested that season 4’s conflict between Wade and Ryder was dropped because Finn had been meant to mediate it in season 5, and I can believe that. If season 4 was about Finn flailing around and failing to find himself multiple times, season 5 was meant to show him finally finding success: the culmination of a character arc that started in season 3.

Monteith’s death, in addition to robbing the world of a heck of a nice guy, also robbed Glee of what I’m sure was intended to be the glue that held season 5 together.

Unfortunately, I can only review what I was given, so let’s dive in. As always, this overview will use a format I call “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The “Good” section will talk about things that the show did well this season. The “Bad” section will talk about things the show did badly. The “Ugly” section will talk about things that just made me go “What the fuck?”

The Good

Let’s start with how the show directly dealt with Monteith’s and Finn’s death. Their treatment of the deceased actor and character, both in “The Quarterback” and in other episodes, was respectful, poignant, and it allowed the show to connect with the audience. This would have been one of the easiest things to fuck up, especially considering how close in time Monteith’s death was to the beginning of the season, and how close everyone in the show was with Monteith, especially Lea Michele, about whom I can’t say enough good things.

Finally pulling the trigger on NYC was a great move, even if I’m unsure of the scorched earth approach in disbanding the WMHS glee club. I guess it takes away the temptation to backslide and go back. Letting go of the newbies had to be difficult too, but it was the best thing to do. They had their moments, but there simply wasn’t enough room in the show while the focus was split, and nothing to do with them afterwards. The show now has something to grab ahold of moving forward, giving me hope (scant though it may be) for season 6.

While one could easily argue that Rachel achieved success too fast, it’s hard to argue with the way they handled what they decided to do. Her opening night was a pleasure marred only by Sue (see below), and her quick dissatisfaction with the life of a star and her almost ruining everything by trying to deceive her producer and seek something else spoke volumes about her youth and inexperience, and Carmen Tibideaux’s parting words to her, though not referenced directly, have a lot of relevance to Rachel’s mistakes.

Uh… what else. I like that they finally allowed themselves to blatantly portray Will as an idiot, while at the same time not undoing his status as a good choir teacher and role model. That’s actually not easy.

Is that really it for the good stuff? … Moving on.

The Bad

Season 3 may have lacked focus, but at least it had (misplaced) confidence. Season 5 had neither focus nor confidence, timidly stepping from storyline to storyline and character to character, always looking for something strong enough to replace what they lost in Cory Monteith, and yet apparently even more afraid that they would find it. I will warn that I’m going to say some things regarding the show’s treatment of this that could be considered insensitive. I feel like I have to judge Glee as art outside of what happens off the set, and outside of the personal feelings of the people who made it. That’s not to say that those things will not figure into my analysis, just that I can’t accept them as excuses for subpar work. This isn’t scruples or journalistic ethics or anything: this is just the only way I know to analyze something. By being rational and unemotional.

Rachel’s struggles to move beyond are touching but scarce outside of “The Quarterback.” Aside from the tattoo and a brief chat with Mercedes about moving on, they didn’t really touch on it. I originally thought when Rachel was being such a jerk to Santana over the understudy thing that they were going for that as a treatment of Rachel’s loss of Finn, a sign that she was losing it without her anchor. But they never went there. Rachel chatting that out with Santana would have added a sense of closure to Rachel’s mourning of Finn and helped mend Rachel and Santana’s relationship by giving us a good reason that Rachel lost her shit. As it was, this plotline resolved only slightly more artfully that Rachel and Mercedes’s feud in season 3. Which is to say, it wasn’t really resolved at all.

Speaking of Santana, her continuing search for what she wanted to Do With Her Life mirrored Finn’s arc in season 4, and I wish they had drawn that parallel a little more sharply. Hell, draw a line between Santana’s loss of Finn and her going off the deep end with Rachel. Give us that parallel between her and Rachel. Santana more or less admits in “The Quarterback” that she saw Finn as a role model, even if not a close friend. Maybe if he had been there making good for himself after struggling so much, Santana would have had something to latch onto, something to give her hope.

I’m already imaging such a great end-of-feud conversation between Rachel and Santana that never ever happened, one in which they both admit that losing Finn was hard on both of them in very different ways. I’m treading pretty close here to criticizing the show for not being what I wanted it to be, but my main point here is that Rachel and Santana’s story arc felt like it was missing something, and I think this was it.

The whole first half of the season leading up to nationals was a mess. The way the competition season straddled TV seasons reminds me of the way movie studios are splitting movies in two/three so that they will have more blockbusters (eg Kill Bill, Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, The Hobbit). Essentially drawing season 4 out from one season to a season and a half may have given us more use of the leadup to nationals, more use of characters who would otherwise have graduated and left, etc, but it also caused the larger story arcs to drag considerably, and the climaxes to fall flatter than they should have because we had been waiting so long for them. Breaking Bad dragged one year out into four season, but that show was dense enough to merit it. Glee is a lot of things, but dense it ain’t. Ending the school year in season 4 would have improved both that season and this one.

Their treatment of Kurt and Blaine’s relationship was far too facile. They got back together too easily, and Kurt forgave Blaine too easily for everything instead of directly addressing his insanity. I like that they can portray a couple as remaining together despite major problems, but they failed to make it realistic.

The Ugly

I just don’t understand Sue anymore. I didn’t like her character in previous seasons, and I didn’t understand her use in the show, but at least I understood her. Her atrocious treatment of Wade doesn’t jibe with her prior anti-bullying stance. Her firing of Will after a second-place nationals win made no sense. Her entire stint as principal has been defined by a lack of direction, as if she wanted nothing more out of the office than prestige and power… which, even if it did match her characterization, is boring. Finally, her entire NYC plotline at the end of the season was insulting. I’m tired of putting Sue under this heading every season. Get rid of her (sorry, Jane).

The series’s bizarre didactic tendencies were back with a vengeance with “Bash” and “Tested.” They need to shut that mess down on the quickfast; it does not fit the show.

I just don’t get this whole TV series thing. Uh, I don’t mean the Glee TV series, though I often don’t get that either, as you may have noticed. I mean the TV series being created in-universe centered on Rachel… which actually may end up being Glee after all. I’m… confused. But we’ll have to see how that plays out in season 6.

Speaking of which, I’m totally going to try to catch up with the current season. I haven’t seen any of it yet. I intend to do that, and then go back to do the season 5 top ten musical numbers. We’ll see if I can follow through on that. See you soonish.


Episode 5.10: “Trio”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

What do I even say about this mess? Combined with last week’s “Frenemies,” and with nationals suddenly only a week away, Glee since the hiatus feels like it’s trying to just waste time until it can dispense with the Ohio half of the show gracefully. “Trio” gives us the last hurrah of inseparable threesome (?) Tina, Blaine, and Sam; Will and Emma trying to have a baby (a plot point that carries little weight when you remember that Jayma Mays and Matthew Morrison are leaving the series at the end of the season); and Rachel and Santana attempting to fast forward their relationship with Elliot, since the show forgot to develop it. This is an episode comprised of relationships and plotlines pulled completely out of the writer’s ass: nothing follows from anything else. Add to that a side of shit no one cares about, and you have what has become the essence of season five: something that wanders, wastes time, and fails to make a point. Glee has become a series that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do.

To be fair to the Sam/Blaine/Tina plotline, the three of them do have connections. Sam and Blaine became friends in season four (most obviously in “Dynamic Duets“) and Blaine and Tina also had a kind of awkward friendship, which introduced the world to the term “vapor rape.” As for Sam and Tina, Sam agreed to be Tina’s prom date earlier in season five, only to be unceremoniously dumped when Tina thought she could improve her chances of being elected prom queen. So to say that their friendship comes out of nowhere isn’t entirely accurate. However, it is mostly accurate. So, we established that they were friends(ish), but they’ve never come across as the inseparable BFFs forever that “Trio” portrays them as. They just made that up for this episode. It’s particularly egregious as this apes the emotions that the graduates of season three had to deal with, but, with no friendships with anywhere near the strength of Puck/Finn, Rachel/Kurt, or even Santana/Quinn, it just rings hollow. Add to it the distractions of Sam and Tina making out (for no reason, apparently, as they seem to have no desire to follow up on it), Blaine losing his shit over it for no good reason, and Becky crashing their party (which, when you remember that she once brought a gun to school, becomes much more frightening than awkward), and you get a plotline that just isn’t entertaining and doesn’t accomplish anything.

They’ll miss each other. Big deal. You’ve got to give me something more than that, since that’s not exactly an interesting or deep observation about people graduating from high school.

Glee also really needs to reconsider how it’s using Becky. As I alluded to earlier, she is becoming an almost sinister character. Her crashing of the Blaine, Tina, and Sam’s lock-in has a hostage-situation feel to it, not helped by Becky’s prior history as a gun-toter and (let’s face it) a sexual predator.

Santana and Rachel’s feud seems stuck in stasis. Elliot has had very little to do with characters other than Kurt prior to this episode, and now suddenly Rachel is living with him and Santana is calling him a traitor for letting her (though even Elliot lampshades this by pointing out that he “barely knows” Santana). Kurt would have been a much better fit for the role of a friend caught in the middle: placing Elliot there was a strange choice, especially as it doesn’t really seem to establish much if anything about his character. He allows himself to be used as a doormat by Rachel and Santana with apparent goodwill until the very end, when he finally blows up at them. Kurt’s decision to break up the band was a better story decision than anything involving Elliot (especially as it included a character who felt like he ought to be there). Rachel and Santana’s brief scene watching Dani, Elliot, and Kurt singing in harmony and having fun together was one of the two best scenes in the episode, alongside Santana and Rachel’s confrontation when Rachel came back to the apartment for her scented candle. The reason these scenes worked so well is that they featured Rachel and Santana, which was something remarkably rare in a plotline supposedly about Rachel and Santana.

We learn here that Santana has moved past simply being ambitious and catty to actually wanting to destroy Rachel to take her part, and justifies her stance by claiming that Rachel would do the same in her position. Well, maybe she would. Post-Broadway Rachel is a Rachel who has regressed terribly, and is not the person I remember from seasons three and four. Now Santana is regressing right along with her, ditching the personal growth she achieved thanks to Brittany and the glee club in order to become the calculating manipulator we remember from seasons one and two. I don’t think that this is unrealistic in the least, I think they’ve sold it well, and it’s a very tragic turn for both characters.

I just wish they’d focus on it more.

Speaking of stuff they’re focussing on that I don’t care about, Will and Emma are trying to conceive, as we find out when Becky catches them fucking in the faculty bathroom (here’s a tip: if you’re ever having sex in a public or semi-public restroom, lock the door). There was nothing of any value in this subplot. Will and Emma haven’t been interesting since season four’s “I Do,” and babies on TV shows have never been interesting. Part of me thinks that this is meant to be used as a way of saying goodbye to Will and Emma, a way of suggesting that they’re living happily ever after. If so, I’ll suspend judgment on that and wait to see what they do with it. Here, though, it didn’t work.

The music was, once again, okay. “Jumpin’ Jumpin’” might have carried more weight if I had given a shit about the trio of Blaine, Sam, and Tina. But it wasn’t bad. “Barracuda,” aside from giving me Guitar Hero III flashbacks, was okay, but again suffered from a lack of context, since the Rachel/Elliot friendship wasn’t really previously established. “Don’t You Forget About Me” was a number that I had a hard time believing that Glee had never done in the previous four seasons. I just wished they had used it in a better context. Still, it was good. “Danny’s Song” tried to sell the emotion of Will and Emma’s married relationship, but it just didn’t work, since nothing had been done to previously establish it. Songs can’t do the work of narrative. “Gloria,” which on its merits purely as a musical number (and I don’t have a lot more to go on here) was the highlight of the episode, was quite good, but, once again, suffered from a lack of background among Santana, Rachel, and Elliot. Still, it was good to see Santana and Rachel competing at this level, anyway. By that metric, Elliot just got in the way. “The Happening” was good, and at least the second best number of the episode. It was better more for Rachel and Santana’s reactions than for the number itself, mainly because of who were the main characters of the story. “Hold On” was a decent way to end things… and at least they finally included Artie. I actually liked the switches among the various singers here.

Other thoughts:

Really, what the hell was up with all the hate for Artie? “You don’t fit in this episode, begone!”

Boobs. That’s apparently what’s important about Tina.

Santana implies that Rachel was fat during her sophomore year. Um… what?

Why did the cheerios have a female cheerleader uniform that fit Sam, for God’s sake?

Will says that they’re all ready for nationals, but do they even have their songs picked out?

Remember when there were newbies? Me neither.

Episode 5.04: “A Katy or a Gaga”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

The Quarterback” contained a lot of references to Glee‘s first season, something treated almost as sacred by the legions of Glee fans. Back then, it was the little show that could, despite being so bizarre that even the producers were sure it would be canceled after thirteen episodes (seriously, try to watch “Sectionals” and tell me that wasn’t meant as a series finale). It was dark and edgy and it was sometimes downright cruel. The references to that season in “The Quarterback” were well-chosen and they were appropriate, both because Finn’s tribute episode revived the darkness that permeated season one and because a lot of the defining moments in Finn’s life happened back there. However, when you get right down to it, a lot of season one just seems misguided and lost next to the later successes of season two and even the better episodes of seasons three and four, when the show finally found its voice. This means that going back to season one for source material is problematic, because it can create a disconnect. Sometimes it works, as with Shelby’s reappearance in season three and the aforementioned “Quarterback.” And sometimes… well, that brings us to this week’s episode: “Theatricality 2: Electric Boogaloo” … er, I mean “A Katy or a Gaga.”

“Theatricality,” for those who may have forgotten, was an episode in the back nine of season one that served as a Lady Gaga tribute. It featured outright adulation of Lady Gaga, outlandish costumes bizarrely worn in public, identity crises, and performances so overproduced that even Kurt was probably thinking “tone it down!” Sounds familiar? “Theatricality” remains perhaps my least favorite episode of the series, so to see an episode blatantly lifting plot and style elements from it here in season five is not at all amusing. One could argue that the similarities between the two episodes are superficial: I’d argue that that’s part of the problem. Both episodes are largely superficial, despite thinking that they have something important to say and saying it with a bludgeon.

The titular dichotomy between Katy Perry and Lady Gaga arises from the club’s terror at having to face the latest double-entendre-named force to be reckoned with on the show choir circuit: Throat Explosion. This is one of the groups the club will have to face at nationals (and what’s with the list of three clubs at nationals? Both prior nationals episodes implied more like dozens of competitors), and, unlike the workmanlike robots of Vocal Adenaline, they are creative, theatrical, and viewed as outsiders — something that the New Directions prefer to view as their niche. They are compared to well-known music goddess and possible savior of mankind Lady Gaga, with the “opposite” of Lady Gaga being established as Katy Perry. Will asks which students view themselves as being “Gagas,” and takes for granted that the ones who don’t raise their hands are therefore “Katies.” Ryder’s legitimate question about whether or not there is a third option is ignored. Will then assigns the Katies to do a Gaga number and the Gagas to do a Katy number, in order to… I don’t know.

As I look over this whole plot, I struggle not just get invested in it, but to find the point of it. I’m reminded of the moment in “Theatricality” when, near the end of the episode, the kids ask Will what the lesson was, and he says that he doesn’t know (though in reality, “Theatricality” actually does have a pretty clear message). I get a similar vibe here, with Will pulling a lesson out of his ass without really knowing why he’s doing it. Is the message to be yourself? Is it to expand your interests? Is it to challenge your limitations? Is it that weird inappropriate costumes really seem to piss Sue off? Let’s review the actual results of this whole fiasco:

  1. Sam tries to appeal to Penny’s “edgy” taste in music by inviting her to his Gaga number, and she doesn’t like it. They both realize that they are actually Katies and start making out. The lesson seems to be to be yourself.

  2. Marley refuses to go along with her part in the Gaga number because she isn’t comfortable with it. Instead of wearing the “seashell bikini” that Sam assigned her, she dresses up like Katy Perry with a pink wig. Will, intent on retaining his title as biggest dick on TV, suspends her for a week, on the spot and in front of everyone, for daring to not put her body on display as a part of a stupid competition despite knowing about her struggle with bulimia and ongoing body image problems. In the meantime, Jake cheats on Marley with Bree because Marley isn’t willing to let him touch her boobs. The lesson seems to be to challenge your limitations, because being yourself just gets you shat on by life — or at least by your shitty boyfriend and asshole teacher.

  3. Sue suspends the entire club for a week for wearing those costumes to school, because the area of cracking down on dress code violations was clearly where Figgins failed as an administrator. The kids respond defiantly by performing “Roar,” a slap at Sue and statement of strength that comes across as a pale imitation of season two’s “Loser Like Me,” by far their best original song. I don’t even know what the lesson here is, except that Sue is back to being firmly established as the villain. Whoop-de-doo.

This was a lost, confused plot for the most part, a tired take on the interclub competition bit that has been done better so many times before and a blatant self-cannibalism of their style in “Theatricality,” with as muddled a message as the series has ever had. The best bits were the arguments among the Gagas about their Katy number, which were honestly pretty funny. “I tried breaking into the zoo to get us live tigers. Plot twist: Lima doesn’t have a zoo! Why’d we think it does?”

Meanwhile, in the B plot, Kurt has decided to start a band, and the first thing he apparently needs is as many singers as possible (you’re not a band if you don’t play instruments, Kurt). He gets Santana and Dani on board (and Dani actually does play guitar, as previously established), and Rachel is convinced to join later after she suggests the band name Pamela Lansbury, which Kurt immediately latches onto (despite the objective best choice being Santana’s first suggestion: the Apocalypsticks). He holds open auditions for the rest of the group, but the only person to show up is Elliott “Starchild” Gilbert (Adam Lambert), whose amazing costume and somehow overproduced performance feel threatening to Kurt, who takes a while to decide to accept him into the group. I had trouble identifying with Kurt’s feelings of failure, though I did understand his fourth-wall-tapping concern about being the funny gay sidekick instead of a main character in his own life. It was also hard to fathom why Elliot was so keen on getting into Kurt’s loser four-singer one-guitarist/singer band considering his obvious talents, but it’s true that New York is a tough town.

This subplot was entertaining mainly for Adam Lambert’s performance, though he got limited screen time. I’m sure we’ll see more of Elliot in the future, though. He certainly has much more promise than Adam (the character) did as a new addition to Kurt’s circle of friends and a possible love interest.

All things considered, this was not a great way to end the hiatus.

Musically, this episode was surprisingly lean, as well as surprisingly dull. You can say what you want about “Theatricality,” but it had “Bad Romance,” and the performances in “A Katy or a Gaga” were not up to that level. The highlight was most likely Elliot’s “Marry the Night,” which was fun and had enough energy to power Pittsburgh for a week. It was also at least as entertaining for Santana’s mesmerized reaction as it was for the performance. “Applause” was also fun in the same way that season one’s “Run Joey Run” was: it was just so self-consciously terrible and pretentious. And watching Will’s reaction was also really amusing. All the shit he’s seen, and he’s never been more disgusted by anything than Marley’s costume. “Wide Awake” was okay, but seeing Tina singing a mellow song while sitting on a stool brought to mind season one’s “True Colors,” which was superior in every way, especially thematically. “Roar” was good, but, like much of the episode, felt like rehash of stuff they’ve done before.

Other thoughts:

I know I mentioned this twice already, but I can’t get over what a giant douchebag Will was to Marley in this episode. He should be suspended for that shit.

I agree with Sue and Becky about how annoying the whole “Katy/Gaga” thing was. That’s just what high school kids need, more labels.

Jake and Marley seem to have become the old married couple of the group. Their relationship here, with Jake seemingly feeling bored and trapped, reminds me of Finn and Rachel in season one’s “Hell-O,” right before Finn broke up with her. And then Jake has sex with Bree, much like Finn had sex with Santana in season one’s “The Power of Madonna.” And neither of those things were all that original back then either. Somebody send the Glee writers some ideas quick, or I’m just going to start slightly-rewriting my old reviews for publication too.

Penny and Sam don’t really have any chemistry together, and it was just horrible writing when Penny just flat-out started explaining who she is right before she and Sam started locking lips.

Sue makes a crack about the glee club doing a lot of Journey songs… a reuse of a gag they made in season two’s “The Substitute,” where it was much funnier.

Penny’s assessment of the Gaga performance: “I really liked the part where the girl got suspended.”

I apologize for not posting that thing I said I’d post during the hiatus. I got distracted. I’ll get to it eventually, though maybe not until the offseason at this rate.

The top 10 musical performances of Glee’s fourth season

You know what really surprised me the most when I went back over this season’s songs to put together my top 10? The sheer volume of fantastic numbers that there were. It doesn’t really feel like it in retrospect, perhaps because of how weakly the season ended and how slow it was to start, but this was a musically very strong season. While it had pretty low lows, it had higher highs than I think we’ve seen since season one, and there were plenty of them. So the below is just a sampling of how great the music was on Glee in its forth year: all songs that give me hope for the future of this show, something that wasn’t always easy to hold onto.
Click to continue reading.