Episode 5.19: “Old Dog New Tricks”

(Spoiler lurk below.)

This episode was written by Chis Colfer, who inspired the creation of the character of Kurt and has declared himself to be Lea Michele’s biggest fan. Maybe that’s why “Old Dogs New Tricks” feels like a bad fanfic. I’d be the last to deny Colfer’s skills at acting: he’s arguably Glee‘s greatest asset in that regard. But as a writer, I’m afraid he’s a flop. The plot is by the numbers, the guest characters are cardboard, and Kurt, already often accused of being a Mary Sue for Ryan Murphy, seems like a Mary Sue for Colfer himself. Kurt manages to come across not only as the hero in his own story, but as the hero of Rachel’s story and the hero of several tertiary characters’ stories. Sam and Mercedes manage to escape his gravity well, but their story, while easily the best of the lot, is not all that strong either.

We start with Rachel trying to find some way of repairing her reputation, as the rumor that she is considering leaving Broadway for Hollywood has somehow gotten out. What she comes up with is sponsoring a dog rescue, a plan that she gets help with from Santana, who decides for some reason to act as Rachel’s publicist. Despite the fact that the genesis of this plotline is Rachel’s possible TV career, it feels oddly disconnected from the story arc that began in the prior episode. We don’t hear anything about her pilot at all after the first scene, and nothing in that plotline advances. In the second-to-last episode of the season, we’re suddenly just largely fucking around instead of advancing the story. I get the feeling this would have been better placed beforeBack-Up Plan.” That way, the last two episodes of the season could drive the story all the way to the end.

Anyway, there are some funny shenanigans involving Rachel walking six dogs for a photo op and getting dragged a few blocks, and then Rachel refuses to allow a kid to adopt a three-legged dog because she needs it to pose with in order to give her reputation the biggest possible boost, and finally she learns not to be so self centered and to be more Kurt-centered, as she supports Kurt by going to his show. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers Rachel story, and doesn’t offer anything that we haven’t seen a dozen times before.

Arguably more interesting is Santana’s story, as she seems to find her niche working as Rachel’s publicist, something she really seems to enjoy. I say “arguably” because, while the story is good, Santana herself feels… off. She comes across as mechanical and lifeless, like she’s just reciting lines, doing her best to pretend to be Santana but not quite succeeding. I don’t feel any subtext in Rachel and Santana’s relationship, despite their long and interesting past. I don’t get any sense of satisfaction from Santana for getting a lead on a career after so much wandering. She seems to exist just to serve Rachel, her reward being the one bizarre moment when Rachel gives publicity to her publicist while giving an interview to a TV reporter.

Again, these are elements of a bad fanfic.

Kurt, meanwhile, decides to throw himself a pity party since nobody likes him and everybody hates him and he guesses he’ll go eat worms. Actually never mind the worms. He just gets himself an old lady for a friend just like Blaine did. Maggie, from a “home for retired performers,” wanders into the diner one day, and Kurt ends up telling her everything about his life, then later drops into her retirement home to watch them rehearse their production of Peter Pan. When their Peter loses the part due to missing her cue and also dying, Kurt volunteers to fill in for some reason, and also expects his friends to be excited for him for some reason. This whole plotline, top to bottom, feels engineered to make Kurt seem both pitiful and honorable. Pitiful because none of his friends care about what he’s doing, honorable because he’s helping old people. Kurt sure is a saint, you guys. And on top of all that, he even reunites Maggie with her daughter Clara, by showing up at Clara’s office and telling her about how much Maggie misses her, and about how Kurt lost his own mother when he was eight, and shouldn’t Clara be glad that she even has a mother? Clara tells the typical story about how Maggie used to forget her birthdays and neglect her, but she still shows up at the play just in time for maximum dramatic effect. Speaking of which, all Kurt’s friends show up for the play too. And after the play, Rachel invites all the old people to perform at her dog rescue event.

There’s so much feel-good in this story, it makes me ill.

Meanwhile, Sam adopts a dog and proceeds to allow it to run wild all over the house and chew up Mercedes’s shoes and hair. He adopts the dog, which he names McConaughey, because Mercedes mocked the idea of getting a pet because she has her hands full taking care of Sam. He wants to prove that he can take care of a dog, as part of his attempt to prove himself husband material to Mercedes. It doesn’t go so well at first, obviously, but he finally buckles down and trains the dog via the magic of a musical montage. Mercedes then tells Sam that she’s impressed, but that keeping a dog wouldn’t be fair to the dog, as she is about to go on tour and Sam works odd hours. I liked Sam’s explanation of how he wants to prove that he can be responsible and he doesn’t want to be seen as a joke. It almost comes across as Sam rebelling against his status as the resident idiot, a role not thrust upon him until season four. He even references season three, when he took care of his family after his dad lost his job (hey, whatever happened to his family anyway?). Sam and Mercedes’s conversation also felt like a real, adult conversation, and it definitely helped sell their relationship as a real one with ups and downs.

If nothing else, the tail end of this season has done more with “Samcedes” than the entire rest of the series has.

To sum up: Mercedes and Sam’s plotline was decent, but everything else was cloying, clichéd, predictable, and melodramatic, with characters that rang false and, to be blunt, writing that is amateurish in the extreme. Sorry, Chris.

Musically, things were decent. “I Melt With You” suffered from a really artificial setup, and I think it undermined the harsh realities of running a dog shelter a bit (for instance, not all the animals are liable to be nearly that friendly), but it was okay. “Memory” I’m going to call the highlight of the episode mainly because I actually really missed Kurt’s high-falsetto “girly” singing voice, and this was a good use of it. In context, it was pretty ridiculous though. “Werewolves of London” was quite good, but I’m really not sure what it had to do with training a dog. Except that werewolves are like wolves, and wolves are like dogs, I guess. It’s as if they picked the song by playing word association. “Lucky Star” was awful: painfully faux-cool and “modern,” so hip it felt like I was in the 90’s again. It actually would have been about 50% better without the shades, a cliché so painful I can only imagine the entire crew needed ibuprofen during shooting just to get through it. “Take Me Home Tonight” was nice, and actually a good choice for a dog adoption event.

Other thoughts:

What the fuck happened to Santana’s hair?

“Pillsbury” was an odd choice of a nickname for Kurt, considering it’s already the last name of another major character.

Good thing that the rest of Kurt’s band left town so that he was free to throw his pity party.

What did that doggie obstacle course have to do with keeping McConaughey from chewing on shoes and pooping on the rug?

What was with the nurse at the retirement home just telling Kurt all Maggie’s business?

How did a freshman at a film school get the school to lend him a bus?

Despite Rachel learning a lesson from the kid and mom’s reaction when she doesn’t let them adopt the three-legged dog, she still poses with the same dog at her event.

Rachel and Santana probably should have researched marketability before they chose the name “Broadway Bitches” for their rescue.

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Episode 5.15: “Bash”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

“Bash” has a strong “Very Special Episode” vibe to it, something that, remarkably, Glee has heretofore mostly managed to avoid, saving the odd exception like “Choke.” We begin with a song, vigil, and street memorial for Russ, a neighbor of Rachel and Kurt who has suffered a homophobic assault and ended up hospitalized. Those of your playing along at home may be wondering: who the fuck is Russ? I don’t know. We’ve never seen him before this episode. In fact, we don’t actually see him in this episode either outside of his dorky-looking photograph. It brings to mind the quintessentially bad exemplar of the Very Special Episode genre, the Family Ties episode “‘A’ My Name is Alex,” in which Alex mourns the death of his best friend in the world, who had never before been seen. “Bash” doesn’t quite reach that level of misguided pretentiousness, but it comes close. It gives us a near-death scare for a never-before-seen character, a near-death scare for a main character, and a, um, racism scare from a main character.

The one “normal” storyline here is Rachel’s struggles with her conflicting NYADA and Broadway schedules, something that probably should have been addressed long ago. I wasn’t even sure she was still at NYADA. She only barely manages to get permission from Sidney, her producer, to get time off from the show to perform her “mid-winter critque,” only to blow it when she performs a duet with Blaine instead of the required solo. Carmen Tibideaux threatens to flunk both of them, but finally agrees to allow them to reschedule and try again. That’s fine for Blaine, but Rachel doesn’t think she can get the time off from Funny Girl again. She confronts Carmen about this, in a scene that finally comes close to justifying the show’s casting of Whoopi Goldberg. Rachel says that she is already living out her dream and she doesn’t need NYADA anymore, Carmen says that Rachel is too cocky and reluctant to take direction, and needs the structure that NYADA can provide if she is to be successful throughout her career. Rachel and Carmen both make great arguments and sell their points well, but in the end Rachel decides to withdraw from NYADA… and that decision sticks to the end of the episode.

I like this because it’s another big step for Rachel and because it’s still framed as a questionable decision. I had been asking myself for a while why Rachel would still be enrolled at NYADA while starring in a Broadway show, but Carmen’s arguments suggest that Rachel is going to face issues in her Broadway career that a NYADA education could smooth out. It will be interesting to see how she navigates her career without the smoothing effect that NYADA could have had… and how long she does so.

Meanwhile, Kurt sees some assholes beating up a gay guy in an alley and he runs in to defend him. The prior victim hightails it while Kurt gets beaten into unconsciousness. This leads into the other standout scene of the episode when Burt visits his son in the hospital. Mike O’Malley and Chris Colfer elevate any scene that they share, and this one was very good. Burt asks all the obvious questions. Why didn’t Kurt just call the cops? Why did he run in and try to help at all? Does he care that the prior victim just ran away and was never heard from again? Kurt answers that he did was he had to do. “You would have done the same,” Kurt says. “I played football!” Burt responds. “So did I.” “As a kicker!”

Burt’s anger is justified: Kurt acted like an idiot. And yet, despite the fact that Kurt is not really an idiot, it’s all totally in character. Kurt is ruled much more by his heart than his head — he is, after all, the man who accepted a marriage proposal from someone still in high school. He has also fought against homophobic bullying for the entirety of the series, going so far as to switch schools to get away from a bully in season two. His immediate visceral reaction to the assault in the alley was exactly the kind of thing I would expect from him.

What hurts this plotline is not the character bits, which are spot-on, but the setup and execution of the story. The attack on Russ, who the audience has never heard of before (let alone seen), with the ultra-dramatic phone calls to Kurt’s friends to let them know about his hospitalization, the coma and faux death scare, and the bedside song from Blaine all mean that melodrama runs a little too thick throughout. It’s just too slick, too obviously designed to pull at the heartstrings. It would have been more powerful if it had just been told as a story, without being designed to manipulate.

Meanwhile, Sam and Mercedes get back together, despite the fact that they still don’t have a lot of chemistry together. Their “cute” date while walking along the river was more awkward than anything else, to say nothing of the bizarreness of them French kissing in front of their friends in a vain attempt to convince them (and the audience) that “Samcedes” is a thing. There’s just nothing there, and it’s all the more obvious in bits like this where they try to build on the idea that there has been something there for a long time.

But let’s move on to the elephant in the room. Despite the fact that Sam makes a complete ass of himself in front of Mercedes’s friends/backup singers when he joins them for dinner, they only have one objection to him as a boyfriend for Mercedes: he’s white. Their argument is that, as a black female artist, dating a white man would be bad for her image and could turn potential fans off. There may be some truth to this, and I kinda believe that Mercedes’s backup singers would place a chance of success above a relationship or even human decency (Hollywood is a tough town). However, when Mercedes buys it and blows off Sam in favor of her career, it’s much less easy to buy. Nothing about her character, from season one’s “Home” all the way to season four’s “Wonder-ful,” has suggested that she would compromise her principles in this way, much less betray a friend to the degree of telling him that he’s the wrong race to date her. Everything about this plotline screams artificiality. Mercedes acts the way she does just for the sake of the lesson. This is a perfect example of exactly what’s wrong with the “Very Special Episode” sensibilities of the 80s. The focus isn’t on characters or even story: it’s on moralizing.

They try to save Mercedes’s character by having her reluctance to date a white man stem from concerns about her career rather than a genuine feeling that a black woman dating a white man is wrong, but she doesn’t really come out looking like anything but a racist in either scenario.

This wasn’t a bad episode by any means, but it was a definite misstep.

Musically, there wasn’t much to complain about, but nothing was really spectacular. “No One is Alone” was very good on its own merits, but in context it’s hard to get behind such a display of emotion for a character of the week who ended up in the hospital before the episode started. Mercedes’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman“… Well, it’s a nice number, and it’s always good to hear Mercedes belt it out, but it again suffers from context. Sam and Mercedes never earned this much ado as a couple before, much less within two episodes of becoming a thing again in season five. Rachel and Blaine’s “Broadway Baby” was excellent, and didn’t try to be anything more than a great number. In fact, that was kinda part of Carmen’s point in berating them, since they were showing off rather than trying to improve themselves. The surprise highlight of the episode was Blaine’s remarkably earnest, simple, and heartfelt “Not While I’m Around” (Fox’s video cuts off the intro for some reason, which is a big shame). Darren Criss’s a capella performance sells every emotion that Blaine is going through, and almost manages to elevate the episode above its manipulative soul. Mercedes’s “Colorblind” was a good performance, but a shallow song. She might as well have sung “I’m not really racist” over and over again. Kurt’s “I’m Still Here” was quite good, and an excellent statement of strength from a character who’s earned it since day one, not just in this half-baked episode.

Other thoughts:

What was up with that lady who scolded Sam for throwing things in the river?

I have to ask again: everything wrong with Sam, and the only problem Mercedes’s friends have with him is that he’s white?

Sam on the diverse members of the glee club: “gay, straight, black, white, Tina…”

Note to Burt: neither “Die Hard” nor “Braveheart” is a person.

I hereby dedicate this review to Russ. Whoever the fuck he is.

Episode 5.14: “New New York”

(Spoilers lurk below.)

Last time, I complimented Glee on a funny Friends parody. This week, they’ve apparently taken it a step further and just… become Friends. And the result, as it’s drawn out to an hour and played completely straight, is not nearly as funny or entertaining. As Glee makes its transition to being based entirely in New York, it will be trying to find its new identity and break away from its clear influences. However, it simply hasn’t succeeded at that yet. Everything feels new and different, but not fresh.

It seems like a long time since Rachel and Kurt were out in the big city on their own, and it sure is crowded now. We’ve skipped forward in time a bit, and Sam, Blaine, and Artie are fully integrated into the New York experience, and though Santana is AWOL with Brittany, Mercedes suddenly moves to New York for no good reason. Sam and Blaine play Joey and Chandler (no points for guessing which is which), while Rachel Berry makes like Rachel Green and Artie… well, I guess he’s most like Monica in his attempts to ground Rachel.

Offscreen, Funny Girl has apparently become a reasonably big success, to the point that her producer provides Rachel with a chauffeur and limo (er, town car) on call 24 hours a day. Artie, who has been taking the subway everywhere and is bitter about having been robbed there, angrily accuses Rachel of not being a “real New Yorker” because she’s enjoying her success by going around in a limo (“town car!”) instead of taking public transit. Eventually Rachel gives in, telling her producer she doesn’t want the town car anymore, and joining Artie on his subway commutes as his protection, since he’s scared of muggers.

Artie’s snobbery over what constitutes a “real” New Yorker seems weird at first blush, especially considering this is the guy who, only a short time ago (in universe) was making up stories about how much his mom needed him to try to avoid going to NYC. However, now that he’s jumped in with both feet, it’s actually realistic that he would go a little overboard in embracing his new home. What’s annoying is that he is never called on it. While Rachel did find remarkably quick success in NYC, she spent more time paying dues than Artie did. She lived in that loft and commuted using public transit for months, while working (two jobs at times) and going to school. She has, to some degree, earned her success, and Artie is asking her to let it go because it’s not “authentic,” apparently, to be successful in NYC. Artie, who can’t have been in the city more than a couple of months and who seems to have no job outside of school, is awfully high and mighty and acts like a huge jerk, but is portrayed as being right.

Meanwhile, Sam is struggling with his modeling career, ironically (considering the message of “Movin Out“) because he refuses to change or adapt, just expecting success to fall into his lap while he’s busy being himself playing video games all day. This plotline is intertwined with Kurt and Blaine’s annoyance that Sam is still living with them in the loft, being useless, and Blaine’s attempts to get Sam to move on and out. Sam finally gives in to his agent’s advice and gets a haircut, after which he finally scores a gig. Sam initially moves out at this point and into a dormitory provided by his employer for models. He’s perfectly happy with this until he finds out that his hot blond roommate is on all kinds of drugs, at which point he does the right thing by abandoning her to her fate and moving out again.

Related to this, Kurt feels like Blaine is smothering him, as they’re living together for the first time and have a lot of classes together at NYADA. At least, he suddenly feels that way the very instant that Blaine asks him if he feels that way: they didn’t really lead into that very well at all. It’s realistic, it just feels sudden and underdeveloped, much like a lot of this episode, which attempted unsuccessfully to make up for a significant time skip with a song and expository dialogue.

Blaine has fallen far from the cool, collected kid he was in season two, as he acts like a lunatic here, bursting into Elliot’s apartment to accuse him of going after Kurt. I did like that scene, however, and Elliot’s careful disarming of Blaine was the best character moment he’s had yet.

Anyway, Blaine and Kurt decide that it would be best for their relationship for Blaine to move out, and Blaine and Sam end up rooming with Mercedes in a fancy apartment supplied by her studio.

Speaking of which, Mercedes is in town now, joining Rachel in the club of people who paid dues for a few months and then became successful beyond their wildest dreams. She’s working on songs for her album, and made up a bullshit reason for her studio to send her to NYC to live. This also apparently gives us a chance to pick up on Sam and Mercedes’s relationship, which keeps beginning and ending for very vague reasons. Whoop-de-doo. I suppose that any Friends knockoff needs a good “will they or won’t they” relationship. It’s just that this relationship has existed since the end of season two, and I’ve never cared if they do or don’t. Also, they already did.

You know, they never did explain why Sam and Mercedes were originally keeping their relationship a secret. Sometimes I think that Glee has more unanswered questions than Lost.

This wasn’t a good episode, but it wasn’t without promise. For the first time in a long time, Glee has focus on a single setting and a relatively small cast of characters. “New New York” established a lot of things, and we can only hope they follow through with some fresher writing.

The music was good, but not great. The highlight, by a hair, was opening number “Downtown.” It was great seeing all the NYC characters doing a number together, it established a lot about the new setting and what everyone is doing, and it was a good song choice. It didn’t quite do enough narrative work to justify the time skip, but it was a valiant effort. “You Make Me Feel so Young,” while a good number on its own merits, was an odd choice both because it seemed like a strange genre for Kurt and Blaine, and because it failed to foreshadow Kurt and Blaine’s later plot-dominating problems — it just made their relationship appear idyllic. “Best Day of my Life” was quite good (and I love the location NYC shooting), but it seemed way too easy a way to get Sam moving the right direction. As far as big musical numbers set in Times Square, I prefer Smash‘s “Cheers (Drink to That).” “Rockstar” was fun, but pointless. “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” was… weird. But man, the denizens of the NYC subway system are the friendliest, happiest people ever. “People” was good, but I’m not quite sure that the deadly solemness of the number fit the end of the episode. Also, “People” always reminds me of a bit from The Bob Newhart Show when Bob inadvertently starts reciting the lyrics while trying to give advice to a patient.

Other thoughts:

Having Lea Michele hang her head out the car window like a dog during “Downtown” was a pretty awkward way of getting that shot.

Mime jokes! … This does not make an argument for the freshness of the show’s writing.

I like how Mercedes pretty much just explains how she wrote herself into the spinoff.

I entirely reviewed an episode entitled “New New York” without making a single Futurama reference. That’s willpower.