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.

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