Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Glee, including the most recent, “Funeral.”
Glee used to be my favorite show on TV. Those of you who have only started reading my site lately might be surprised to go back to my reviews of the first season–hell, even earlier in this season–to discover my original, effusive love for the show. I used to think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and for a brief time, it was. A weekly musical series with pop and Broadway numbers was literally my dream come true. But along the way, something went wrong. The writing got sloppy, any modicum of plot or character consistency completely went out the window, and the music that used to be so crucial to the story more often than not simply began to feel shoehorned in to sell more iTunes downloads.
Now, tonight’s episode is a very interesting situation, because in one area, I feel it has managed to recapture the heart that the show has been so seriously lacking lately. Jane Lynch’s performance in “Funeral” is absolutely devastating, and if she isn’t nominated for an Emmy for it, there is simply no justice in the world. Her grief at her sister’s death is heartbreaking, and all the more so because of how subtly she plays it. Unlike other times Sue has expressed humanity, Murphy wisely stays true to Sue’s character here. To wit, she continues to act like herself, even while mourning, hiding behind her facade, continuing to spout off insults and anger up until the funeral itself, during which she quietly breaks down. Her material with Becky alone is superb and deeply affecting. And while I had worried when I first heard that New Directions would be singing “Pure Imagination,” that they might turn this light, whimsical song into a melodramatic, overproduced weep fest, it is actually an extremely touching, pure moment. I haven’t felt such genuine emotion in a Glee episode in a long time. There is no calculation here. No message or sermon, as happened last week with Kurt. Just people coming together to celebrate the life of a wonderful woman.
But there is a problem here, and that is that it is hard to believe that the reformation Sue seems to have achieved by the end of the episode will actually stick this time. After all, Sue has softened in the past and acted more kindly towards the Glee club, only to bounce back as if nothing had happened. I would hope that this time would be different, as the writers actually chose to kill off her beloved sister to force this plot point, but I have lost my faith and my trust in Glee when it comes to that. While I’m not expecting Sue to go all evil again next week, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she came back in the third season as if nothing had changed. I’m also not thrilled that the writers felt the need to sacrifice the lovely Jean in order to give Sue Sylvester a heart again. Although as it is presented, I found the death refreshingly not presented in an overly manipulative manner, the death itself as a plot point is manipulative. For this episode, I would have loved to have forgotten what a mess the writers have made of Sue’s emotional arc, among others. Jane Lynch is just so amazing, it is easy to be mesmerized by her performance. But from a writing standpoint, it doesn’t excuse the fact that her character has swung from completely, irredeemably evil to secretly soft and kind, from a bully to a defender-of-those-who-are-bullied so many times, it’s amazing Sue doesn’t simply collapse due to a lack of structural integrity.
But if that were the case, a stiff wind could scatter characters like Quinn and Jesse St. James into a swirling mass of dust particles. All I could think of during Quinn and Finn’s big break-up scene was, “Who the hell is this girl? What are these words that Ryan Murphy is putting into her mouth? How can he even decide what to have her say when she makes so little sense as a character? Do Brad, Ian, and he just draw random attributes out of a hat and assign them to her each week?” And don’t even get me started on Jesse, the totally sweet, no I mean totally sort of evil and shallow tool. What was his purpose in this episode? I mean, seriously, what use did his plot contribute to the story? Why would Will ever consider taking his advice, especially when he instantly goes about undermining everything that New Directions is about? Was it really a surprise at the end, when Will announced that there would be no solos, and that they would focus on the whole group? Was this ever in doubt? Has he not had this “epiphany” at least five times over the course of the series?
The episode’s very structure betrays how little time and effort was put into the crafting of it. I have complained since the show returned from its winter break this season that there have been too many songs that don’t seem to serve a purpose in the plot, but this has to be the most egregious example of that, for not only do the songs add very little–besides most of them being excellent performances, though I must admit that Chris Colfer’s “Some People” failed to impress me, which might be a first–but they are almost all presented in a row. Any forward motion the episode might have had just stops dead in its tracks for four back-to-back production numbers that drag because of how inexpertly they are just dropped there, again for no reason, as the outcome of the “contest” is a foregone conclusion. It’s not that the numbers themselves aren’t mostly excellent. I particularly love Naya Rivera’s “Back to Black” and Amber Riley’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” but I would have been equally happy just hearing them on iTunes. The only purpose these songs serve is as filler, to pad out an episode that was clearly not conceived as strongly as it should have been. Also, Lea Michele, I love you, but you can express emotion without over-emoting to the point that you look like you’re in physical pain while singing. I know we are supposed to think her performance is the best, because the characters tell us it is, but to me, it seems to be all desperation and strain, whereas Naya and Amber’s seem more comfortable and effortless.
Maybe I’m just tired of the show telling us, as viewers, how to feel. Even in the funeral scene, which is mostly excellent (the eulogy is even surprisingly restrained, naturalistic, and genuinely moving), Murphy had to give Kurt that line in which he explains exactly what their intentions are with the Willy Wonka set, as if that wouldn’t have been completely obvious to the audience without it. Last week, I complained about the preachiness of Kurt’s lines in “Prom Queen,” and later on, I was reminded by others of the fact that Ugly Betty had done the same plot–the gay boy is named prom queen–or homecoming, rather–by bullies. But, on Ugly Betty, the gay character, Justin, doesn’t run off crying before giving a long speech describing his emotions and the precise reasons behind them. Instead, we simply see a shot of him looking terribly hurt–which speaks volumes more than a speech would have–before he instantly brushes himself off, marches right to the stage, and accepts the award, to show the bullies they haven’t gotten to him, even though we know that he is laughing through his pain.
It’s not only about being a bit more subtle. It’s also about respecting your audience and their intelligence, and about taking pride in your writing, and that is something that Glee has lost lately.