Created by Ryan Murphy. Starring Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele, Cory Monteith
22) E21, “Funk” – written by Ian Brennan
As much as any show I’ve ever watched, I think I remember where I was for my first viewings of Glee episodes. I know where I was when I watched “Funk” for the first time. It was a friend’s house. He didn’t watch Glee, though the other people there with us were avid viewers. At the end of “Funk,” I found myself practically apologizing to our host. The phrases “It’s not usually this bad” and “This is definitely the worst episode they’ve done” both crossed my lips. And while Glee had a chance to pile on plenty more bad episodes over its run, “Funk” was the first one I watched that I really felt had no redeeming qualities. “Show choir funk numbers” is a hellish, hellish idea in the best of times, and it doesn’t work at all for Glee, which processes its performances so heavily that you half expect a teenage Joel Embiid to pop up in the background. This is the episode which features Quinn singing “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” with a group of equally pregnant backup dancers. This is the episode where Will tries to seduce Sue (seven and a half years later this somehow makes even less sense than it did then) by singing “Tell Me Something Good” in a dark choir room. This is the episode where the kids sing “Give Up the Funk,” which was as bad a number as they ever did at the end of an episode in this season. This is the episode where people sing a ninety second cover of Beck’s “Loser” in the cut-rate Bed, Bath, and Beyond of the Glee universe. As a younger man I cared much more about the musical content of each episode, but even now I’m just totally nonplussed by every song they did. If your choices are an in-one-ear-out-the-other “Good Vibrations” or a toothless “Another One Bites the Dust,” it’s going to be a bad week.
“Funk” is responsible for closing off what is simply a bad plot arc, and the execution isn’t any more satisfying than the tortured road we take to get there. I don’t think Glee does itself any favors in bringing rival glee clubs into the mix (evidenced by “Hairography”), but I don’t know that I mind them turning Vocal Adrenaline into the New York Yankees of Midwestern show choir. As obviously superior performers in “Pilot” and “Acafellas,” and as a plot point that gets Will’s wheels turning in “The Rhodes Not Taken,” I think they’re actually useful. But as people with faces, they are at best awkward fits. Jesse St. James, aside from having a name that is pure Abercrombie porn, is simply too successful for McKinley High. He is the star of the best high school show choir in the country, destined at least for UCLA and who knows what glory beyond that. He’s not like Rachel with her self-imploding ambition, or Finn with his comically absurd sense of destiny, or even Will using the glee club as a sad, past-tense ventriloquism. So when Jesse is alternately a Vocal Adrenaline mole, a tool to reveal Rachel’s birth mother, a source of jealousy for every guy in New Directions or, finally, fulfilling his fate as a short order cook for Rachel’s head, it’s all pretty lame. Part of the problem is Jonathan Groff, who has no switch between “searching and scowling” and “preening and smirking” to flip. More of it is the emptiness of Jesse’s character. He’s always a prop and never a person who lets us in. “Funk” opens with what should be a major reveal—he’s back onstage with Vocal Adrenaline, aieee!—but it’s completely anticlimactic. There was never any question that he was always going to return to Vocal Adrenaline.
21) E18, “Laryngitis” – written by Ryan Murphy
“Laryngitis” is a way better episode of television than I remember it being. At this point in the season, the show had decided to end with a group number just about every week (compare that to the relatively intimate “Take a Bow” at the end of “Showmance” or the stretch of episodes in the first half which, in fact, didn’t end with a song at all), and their “One” is a relatively inoffensive cover. “Laryngitis” is ham-fisted about Kurt, Burt, and Finn (ugh), but I appreciate Kurt’s anger at the way his plan backfired. By setting up Carol and Burt, Kurt meant to give himself more time with Finn. (The show, a fireworks display of “Be yourself!” in most times, never does know how to treat Kurt as he tries to cajole Finn: “Be who I want you to be!”) What he did not bargain for was the easy way that Burt and Finn would connect with one another, freezing him out. Finn has longed for a father figure, a role that Will fills but never commits to full-time in the way that Burt seems capable of doing; Burt, a stereotypical straight guy, is glad of having someone with similar interests. Kurt’s cover of “Rose’s Turn” is strong, though it’s the dialogue afterwards that keeps a potentially insufferable scene from ever boiling over; honestly, I think it succeeds more than it fails, emphasizing as it does, above all else, Burt’s love for his son. This is also the episode which features Puck’s haircut, surprisingly enjoyable covers of “The Lady is a Tramp” and “Jessie’s Girl,” and most importantly, the loveliest joke setup in the show’s history:
Puck: I feel like the guy who lost all his hair and then lost all his strength.
(I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t give a shoutout to what might be my absolute favorite Sue zinger, which she delivers to Kurt: “So you like showtunes! That doesn’t make you gay – it just makes you awful.”)
What brings this episode down is its enormously offensive usage of a person with disabilities to teach an able-bodied person a life lesson before disappearing forever. Although I don’t love Becky Jackson or Sue’s sister, Jean, I do think that their repeated appearances on the show prove that Glee is at least a little interested in them as people and not merely using them as props. Becky is enthusiastic and hard-working; Jean is kind and unselfish. More than that, they get multiple chances to prove it. Sean, Finn’s paralyzed friend, is given just this one episode to exist. He shows Rachel that there are worse things to lose than your voice—which wasn’t really ever in danger of going full Julie Andrews anyway—and quickly recedes into the mist, having served the only purpose that Ryan Murphy can imagine for somebody whose paralysis is too severe to allow him to dance in a wheelchair. Of course, if Ryan Murphy could have imagined a normal way for Rachel to get over her fear (like, I dunno, letting her accept that she gets sick, like every other human being in the world accepts), then he would not be Ryan Murphy. All the same, this is a tired, tired episode. Puck has already gone outside of his regular dating zone for a girl and seen it end in the same episode. Finn has already expressed his regret about losing Rachel. Kurt and his dad have already had it out. Rachel learning a lesson isn’t new either, but never before (and rarely again) would it be so obnoxious.
20) E14, “Hell-O” – written by Ian Brennan
“Sectionals” ends on a high note. Will, after leaving Terri, kisses Emma in the hallway at school after the kids serenade him one last time. They, of course, just won Sectionals without him. Finn and Rachel seem poised to give themselves a real shot now that Finn knows Puck is the father of Quinn’s baby. Sue has been suspended for attempting to sabotage the glee club. Naturally, within thirty-five minutes, the following happens: Will takes Shelby Corcoran, the director of Vocal Adrenaline, home with him and makes out with her for a while. Finn dumps Rachel, who is unsurprisingly clingy, but who lands on her feet with surprising celerity. Sue is back, having found, you guessed it, another means of blackmailing poor susceptible Principal Figgins. The first thirteen episodes of Glee felt so much like their own season, and in the midseason premiere Glee emphasizes the new day in Lima. Unfortunately, it’s more like Jenga than anything else, and we meet the new day, same as the old day. Glee had put out about 600 minutes of television; in five percent of that time, everything it had spent constructing was totally dashed. In one earlier episode, Sue demands that “these students be hobbled.” How incredible that the showrunners decided to hobble their own show. “Hell-O” also demonstrated the show’s worrying capacity to seize in on a single theme to work songs around. Other episodes (“Ballad,” “Mash-Up”) tried to work with entire genres. The narrow-mindedness of choosing only songs with “Hello” or “Hell” in the title was echoed in the song choices for four of the next five episodes, and from then on became something of a Glee trope. In short: I can never forgive this episode for ruining the show I loved. (Did I do it right? Was that dramatic enough?)
Sue coming back makes sense. (“The point of ‘suspension’ is ‘reinstatement,'” Figgins mumbles when Will accosts him about letting Sue return to work.) To some extent, I even understand Finn dumping Rachel. He had never seriously conceived of Rachel as his main squeeze; she was an alluring distraction from the all-too-serious situation he was mired in with Quinn. Actually dating Rachel is a chore. It comes with strings and knots and tangles, and he cuts out of it at the first opportunity. What I don’t understand is Will’s totally unprecedented bolt into Shelby’s arms. Sure, he’s more or less stopped having sex, and finding out that Emma is a virgin is a buzzkill for him. But the show, more than it does with Finn on Rachel, makes it seem like Will is genuinely interested in Emma as a person. He’s also an adult: doesn’t he think that there will be consequences for bringing Shelby home with him? The show relies on that moment and a later one in “Home” to prolong a “will-they-won’t-they” with Will and Emma, but in doing so it mistakes the happy tension of wanting people to end up together with its ability to build coherent characters. Consummate good guy Will Schuester, who spent the first half of the season crying at a sonogram and stomaching a thousand indignities for the sake of his marriage, is a heel in a single cut. There’s a real fear that you can smell in Brennan’s writing: what if Will and Emma aren’t interesting enough to follow?
19) E17, “Bad Reputation” – written by Ian Brennan
“Bad Reputation” has all the worst elements of what Glee got sucked into in its first season. It devotes a subplot to developing Sue’s character, which would be interesting if Jane Lynch had more to do than fire off sarcastic one-liners in all the other episodes where her character isn’t being actively developed. It whiffs on its theme for the week and thus buries itself under performances of “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This.” The “Glist” storyline, heaven help us all, essentially boils down to the kids in glee club feeling unpopular again, which was never as compelling as the showrunners seemed to believe it was. (Kurt, who masterminds a disruption in the library in order to seem bad and dangerous, is probably the worst offender here. When people pick on him for being gay, he imagines a future in which those people will do some blue-collar job beneath him. When he’s not noticed, Kurt fails to take the long view that no one else in New Directions ever seems capable of taking, and engages in the same kind of silly attention-seeking sprees that everyone else does. It’s just inconsistent writing.) The show also did its second music video remake in three weeks, reimagining “Physical” with Sue the way they’d reimagined “Vogue” with Sue in “The Power of Madonna.” It falls as flat as anything else in the episode, proving that Glee‘s wheelhouse is not recreating ’80s pop culture standbys. To add insult to injury, here’s a nifty piece of trivia: Community aired “Modern Warfare,” its magnificent action pastiche better known as “the paintball episode,” two days after “Bad Reputation” did.
What works is “Run Joey Run,” a song which is just as bad as promised but which is equal parts character development and glorious teasing camp. Rachel’s music video has all the hallmarks of bad student filmmaking, given to too few takes and too many iMovie effects. It’s also a new insight into Rachel’s character that we hadn’t had before. Rachel between Jesse and Finn is eh, less because of her and more because her choices are unbearably dull. Rachel between Jesse, Finn, and Puck at least adds a little spice to her music video’s goal: make her look like the most desirable girl in school. As the season progresses, her focus moves away from her Broadway aspirations and more generally to celebrity. Talent only gets her so far—after singlehandedly winning Sectionals and receiving a slushie in “Hell-O” all the same, that must be obvious to her—and so she sets her sights on a more attainable, more profitable goal. The fact that it blows up in her face is only right…no one could ever accuse Rachel of getting her way.
18) E11, “Hairography” – written by Ian Brennan
Aside from choosing “Imagine,” which did for The Killing Fields what Will’s night with Shelby did for “Hell-O,” this episode represents another failure in consideration of people with disabilities. As irresistible as it must have been to make one of New Directions’ opponents at Sectionals a deaf show choir, it proved to be more irresistible to put a Glee cover of “Imagine” on iTunes. As the students from Haverbrook School perform, Mercedes and the gang start to sing along, standing alongside the deaf students and trying to learn the sign language that the Haverbrook kids are using. Aside from being emotionally empty—what does this prove, exactly?—it’s also nearly as bad as the Sean situation in “Laryngitis.” Why Will doesn’t stop his students from interrupting another group’s performance is utterly beyond me. The fact that they didn’t interrupt the Jane Addams performance is further proof that they feel entitled to disrupt the Haverbrook performance because the kids are deaf, and obviously Brennan and company feel similarly. It’s just an absolute mess, as if the show meant to give us warm milk or hot chocolate and instead passed over a grapefruit-toothpaste cocktail. There are few more difficult beams to balance on than “this performer is bad, but we still have to let him/her perform.” Andrew Lloyd Webber is, naturally, a fan of this particular gambit, as both Phantom of the Opera and Evita give a couple of their songs to “bad” singers. Glee has no idea how to thread this needle. Hairography is, by definition, an attempt to cover up the weaknesses of performers through overstated choreography. “Bootylicious” and “Hair/Crazy in Love” are both joyless, real drags where they should be exciting and fun.
Rachel and Kurt are the peanut butter and blue cheese of Glee, and this is the rare time when that combination actually manages to work. I like their scene together in which Rachel is swayed by Kurt’s argument that musical theater teaches women that they have to be slutty to snare a man. Both of them are victims of wanting things too much; they can’t stop themselves from being rapturously in love with Finn, even when everyone knows that Finn couldn’t leave Quinn even if he wanted to. Quinn is one of the show’s least consistent characters in the first season, but in “Hairography” we get a sense of how she could genuinely manipulate her way to the top of the McKinley pile. Deciding that she wants to give Puck a shot, she deftly enlists Kurt to give Rachel a makeover that will pique Finn’s curiosity. The fact that it ends with the status quo antebellissimo isn’t a flaw, at least as far as character building goes. Quinn has always assumed too much goodwill from Puck, and we get to see Kurt showcase his manipulative side without collecting casualties.
17) E15, “The Power of Madonna” – written by Ryan Murphy
“The Power of Madonna,” dare I say it, has a fairly cinematic sequence about halfway through. Will and Emma, Jesse and Rachel, and Finn and Santana are planning to have sex on the same night. Each of those pairs has a virgin in it, and the next morning two still do. Only Finn has gone through with it, although the cheeseburger Santana intends to procure at the end of the night is presumably more memorable for her. Neither Emma nor Rachel can muster up the will. However, the scene where each of the three virgins imagine themselves committing to some level of foreplay while staring in the mirror, trying to get up the nerve, is occasion for “Like a Virgin.” It’s a marvelously choreographed scene. An action in one bedroom bleeds into another. Jesse lifts one of Rachel’s arms up onto his shoulder, and we cut to Santana’s arms, already on Finn’s, running down his torso. Will picks up Emma and spins her around, and then Jesse is already spinning Rachel. It’s frenetic and smart and, best of all, actually fits the song they’re singing. A close second for me (though I like the song better) in this episode is the “Borderline/Open Your Heart” mash-up that Rachel and Finn have. Aside from it being super fun, in the last chorus we return to one of the school’s hallways. There are half a dozen different Madonnas, each dressed in an instantly recognizable style from her past, chatting at lockers and collecting notebooks. It’s a loud moment, but it’s absolutely spot-on, the kind of clever visual tribute that Glee ought to have played with more.
This is also the episode that spends time doing an interminable shot-for-shot remake of the “Vogue” music video, which fills a need that I’m not sure anybody had. It does a good job of credibly preparing us for the time Mercedes and Kurt will spend with the Cheerios later in the season, which is something, but as part of an episode of TV it’s just boring. Glee gave itself a difficult job when it decided to run with covers rather than original songs; anything they made would have to be more interesting or better for its viewers than the original. The Sue Sylvester “Vogue” music video isn’t better than Madonna’s or significantly different. Why would anyone prefer it to the actual music video is a question that the show has no answer for. Nor can it answer the question of what makes Madonna the avatar of feminism that the guys in glee club need to turn their misogynistic thinking around. Nor can it answer the question of how her music changes Finn and Puck and Artie and Will and the rest; it’s too busy cramming Madonna’s greatest hits into forty-five minutes that it can’t function as a real episode.
16) E7, “Throwdown” – written by Brad Falchuk
The plot of “Throwdown” is at least a little titillating—Sue manages to make herself co-director of New Directions and acts just as badly as you’d expect—but in practice it’s disappointing. The numbers everyone does are forgettable at best. The one standout might be “Hate on Me,” but it’s pretty much up the middle as far as Season 1 numbers go. The surrounding drama is all pregnancy, all the time. Quinn and Rachel kvetch about Quinn’s role as Sue’s spy before Sue, finally learning about her captain’s pregnancy, kicks her off the team. Meanwhile, Will is desperate to feel more involved in his wife’s pregnancy, and so he demands that Terri bring him along for her next appointment. It’s a showcase for the show’s three villains through six episodes: two-timing Quinn, lying Terri, and the inimitable Sue. Only one of them comes off as even remotely interesting. Quinn, of course, no longer pulls off “villainous” after this episode. Beginning to show and robbed of the only thing maintaining her social status, Quinn is forced to abdicate her throne; it’s a turning point for her that Rachel told her was coming for the entirety of the episode, thus robbing it of any kind of power. (Welcome to Glee, where “I told you so” functions as drama.) Sue by and large fails to intrigue, although her argument with Will is also a sad culminating event for someone who’s supposed to have hitherto unbeknownst power to destroy this roach of an extracurricular. What this episode proves, if it proves anything, is that Terri was this show’s best villain.
When I was watching this show as a college freshman, I remember making the argument that this show would be improved without Sue Sylvester on the basis that the show’s best episodes more or less excluded her. I don’t think I was entirely wrong about that, but I do know my solution was wrong. It’s not that the show would have been better without Sue, but that it couldn’t possibly lean on her to be its biggest joke machine as well as its most menacing character. How much better this show could have been if they had really embraced Terri as its heel. In this episode, she has one of the most memorable lines of the first season. Having managed to cajole and threaten the OB/GYN into showing Quinn’s sonogram to Will during the appointment, she sees Will tear up. At first, she thinks he’s disappointed that the baby is a girl, not a boy. I don’t care what she is, Will says. She’s ours. Terri is nearly as weepy as Will, and seizes the opportunity she must have prayed for. Whatever happens, she says, remember this moment. Remember we love each other. Sue could never have had that scene, could never have thrown herself into a moment that fully and been prepared to take on hurt herself. Sue is not a Lima Loser, but Terri is. It doesn’t matter that she was the head cheerleader and had perfect grades and was super popular and that she married a soloist from a national champion show choir team. She’s over 30 now and she’s an assistant manager at a box store. Terri should be on her husband’s side. She should be more or less like Emma. But this show, which is so good when it embraces the disappointment that comes to people after ravishing small potatoes success, doesn’t seem to realize what it has in Terri. Alas that she is relegated to secondary duty in this episode while Sue has a voiceover about being like Ajax, mighty Greek warrior.
15) E22, “Journey to Regionals” – written by Brad Falchuk
…ironically, when Sue gets called a Lima Loser by her celebrity co-judges, it gets her to vote for New Directions. But that was one time! And it’s not the same if it’s spite compared to years of being crushed on the wheel. I don’t know that that it’s not the best moment of the entire episode, really. How many times have we seen Sue write in that inscrutable scrawl to defame Will or his club? Seeing it here, placing New Directions above the not-at-all-stupidly-named Aural Intensity and Vocal Adrenaline, is a surprisingly strong moment.
“Sectionals” and “Journey to Regional” are both unusual episodes among this season, less because of the competitive aspect and more because they run music at you for six to eight minutes at a stretch. There’s no longer stretch of music in the entire season than the Journey medley that New Directions performs at Regionals, and it presents its own set of challenges. Personally, I like that they went for it, and I even like the songs they chose even if none of those four are among my favorite Journey songs. “Faithfully” is the song that perfectly describes the distance between Rachel and Finn, emphasizing the consistency of their apartness as much as their feeling for one another. There’s a nice callback to the pilot episode with “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” which is of course the song that the lawn painting guy sang with Finn when he was a kid. And I can’t help but like the Regionals version of “Don’t Stop Believing,” pulling about half of New Directions in for short solos. Too bad that it’s not the last song that the glee club sings in the first season—that would be “To Sir, With Love,” for reasons which I’m not sure can be adequately explained. There’s also a pleasant symmetry in Will’s final song of the season compared to his first. In the pilot, he sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” just him and his guitar. “Over the Rainbow” has the same flavor of escapism to it, even though he has Puck backing him up on guitar and his adoring students facing him. Glee calls on the feeling of within and without in both numbers, the sadness of leaving the place you’re in and the pleasure in knowing that there’s something more magical awaiting you. The finale as a whole entity is not one of the strongest episodes of the season. (There is a stretch of the episode in which Quinn gives birth while Vocal Adrenaline performs “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This would be fine, even interesting, I guess, if they didn’t try to connect the lyrics of the song to what Quinn screams. Really, “Let me go!” is something women in labor yell?) But that last song of the season, clichéd as it is, works.
14) E9, “Wheels” – written by Ryan Murphy
This is it. The big one. The one that changed Glee for good. In the first eight episodes, the series flirted with sexuality, homosexuality, single-parent households, teen pregnancy, bullying, racism, and diminishing arts education programs (which, admittedly, is not like the others). But aside from “Preggers,” which obviously went full bore into teen pregnancy, “Wheels” is the first episode to take an after-school special issue and turn it into the A-plot. Unlike “Preggers,” “Wheels” doesn’t exist to launch a season-long plot arc. It’s a character study into Artie, one of New Directions’ five charter members and by far the trickiest one to base a story around. “Wheels” approaches Artie through the lens of his disability, which I can take or leave, but at least it leaves Artie some dignity. Everyone else in the glee club is willing to throw Artie under the bus so they don’t have to pay for a special one to take the club to Sectionals. Will is aghast and adds a wheelchair number to their setlist as well as mandating wheelchair time for each member of New Directions. Everyone learns a lesson about empathy. It remains the best of Glee’s social issues episodes because it follows through in future episodes—Artie doesn’t go anywhere, and the show finds ways to make him a person, both good and bad, in future episodes. “Wheels” is not an exploitative episode, and it never feels like it’s using Artie’s disability as cheap fodder. He has a genuinely touching rendition of “Dancing with Myself,” emphasizing the loneliness that he feels even when he’s part of this group of misfits. And when it turns out that there’s a rare surplus for glee club, he decides the money would be best spent on a handicap-accessible ramp in the auditorium. Both moments work, which is almost weird to type about this show.
Almost hidden behind Artie’s plot is Kurt’s; Kurt wants to sing “Defying Gravity” and is rebuffed by Will, who gives the part to New Directions’ Little Idina instead so that it’ll be more palatable for the Ohio judges at Sectionals. Burt, in what must still be the most effective shocker in Glee history, was extremely okay with Kurt coming out to him in “Preggers.” In “Wheels,” he doubles down. He gets an anonymous phone call which uses a gay slur; Kurt is ready to make some concessions to try to save his dad the ugliness, but Burt doesn’t budge. “No one pushes the Hummels around,” he says forcefully, “especially cowards on the phone.” Later on, Kurt blows the high F in “Defying Gravity” to make sure Rachel wins the solo and, more importantly, to prove his gratefulness. “I love you more than I love being the star,” he tells his dad. It’s not a perfect scenario, but there’s something really honest and simple about this plot that I can’t help but like. Through the first half of the season, the Hummels get by making mutual concessions. The second half of the season is not so simple, but here in this first part Kurt and his dad are still feeling out the new way of doing things. Burt wants to do the right thing for his son as much as he can; Kurt wants to avoid stepping on his dad’s heterosexual toes. Down to the fact that Kurt doesn’t sing outside normal contexts, I think it’s realistic for the time and place; when everything else on this show is so far-fetched, that makes the realistic things so much more true.
This is also the episode in which Puck puts enough weed into bake sale cupcakes to get his classmates munchy, which is a great Puck subplot that must be accounted for.
13) E10, “Ballad” – written by Brad Falchuk
“Ballad” is two episodes crammed together in one. In one, which would stands as one of the best single-episode plots of the season Rachel develops a devastating crush on Will which is so funny that it should be illegal. In the other, which remains one of the worst things to ever happen to me, Kurt advises Finn to sing about Quinn’s pregnancy in front of Quinn’s parents. (This is the episode where Finn sings to a sonogram, and like, the characters actually get stupider from that point on.) Pulling “You’re Having My Baby” out for any reason is darn near unforgivable, and we’re really in the weeds of Kurt’s crush on Finn, but I thought Quinn’s mom and dad were somehow the worst part of that episode. As I’ve written above, the show never really manages to get a handle on Quinn, and this episode is no different. There’s too much “Captain of the Cheerios, President of the Celibacy Club” in her this episode, which is the most boring and least thought out Quinn of them all. “I’m Mercedes’ new mom” Quinn is at least totally bewildering, and “I’m Quinn, but from Heathers” Quinn is interesting but sadly one-note. She does little more than gape at Finn as he sings “You’re Having My Baby” and drop tearful “I needed my mom!” bombs. Falchuk, typically the most balanced writer of the bunch, veers badly to an Ian Brennan-esque style during that scene where Quinn’s mom and dad confront her about the pregnancy she’s been hiding. Heaven knows he should have left Mr. Fabray’s monologue about taking his daughters to a baseball game in whatever high school one-act he found it in. At any rate, if Quinn, one of the ten most important characters in the first season, can’t get some kind of serious characterization, then it’s too much to hope that her parents will get any. Quinn’s mom is a weasel and her dad is summed up beautifully when his voice announces him from the other room: “Honey? Glenn Beck is on!” But the show can’t imagine a context in which her parents are not entirely obsessed with Quinn’s virginity—there wasn’t any other dress in the world for Quinn to try on in that scene? is revealing your teenage pregnancy to your fundamentalist parents somehow more dramatic if you preface it with the words “Chastity Ball?”—which squeezes most of the drama out of what should be an incredibly powerful reveal.
No matter. Rachel’s crush on Will is mined for every ounce of gold they can screw out of it, and there are some great moments. I like the Saga of Suzy Pepper, which is a perfect tonal fit for this show. (God bless Sarah Drew, and while we’re invoking him, please give us all an Everwood reunion.) I like Terri moving back from that vile ledge she was hanging off of and returning to the venality which is more in her wheelhouse. I like that Will is so clueless that he thinks singing a mash-up from on top of a piano is a good way to get this talent-obsessed girl to lose interest in him; incidentally, his ill-fated “Don’t Stand So Close to Me/Young Girl” combo is the best musical performance of the week and a standout of the first half of the season generall. I like how he tells Rachel that he doesn’t care about her safety because he’s afraid she’ll think it’s a turn-on. And above all, I like Rachel doing what should be a sexy little wave wearing those yellow rubber gloves; conceptually, that’s one of the funniest shots (as opposed to zingers) of the entire season. Rachel’s crush does not last out the episode, which is a relief on a bunch of different levels, but it gives us a different way to look at Will and Rachel. In the previous episode, she told Will off for his propensity to teach lessons at her expense, and in the ones before that she has fought with him over the smallest solos. The two of them never really become convivial, but in a weird way the events of “Ballad” break the ice a little bit. Will seems more gentle with her, and Rachel is less annoyed by him.
12) E2, “Showmance” – written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan
When “Showmance” aired, it had been almost four months since the pilot, and so this is a fairly busy episode. Terri finds out that the baby she thought she was having was a figment of her body’s imagination while Will is playing house with Emma, who opens up to him about the genesis of her OCD. Sue begins to actively harass the glee club for existing. New Directions has their first performance, which gets the kids in no small amount of trouble. Rachel and Finn connect after she condemns teen celibacy during a meeting of the Celibacy Club. Bricklaying is not typically a very interesting exercise, and “Showmance” definitely putters a little between its marquee moments, like a pitcher throwing a couple breaking balls off the plate when he’s got an 0-2 count. The episode is interested in the “Push It” performance, Will’s home life, and a certain messy picnic in the theater in which Rachel plays the picnicker and Finn’s lack of self-control plays the ants. What fills in the gaps—Sue, really, but to some extent Quinn’s increasing sense that Rachel is encroaching on her turf—feels almost as if it needs its own episode. So much time is spent on an increasingly explicit dance routine for “Push It” and so little is spent on Quinn’s audition, which has ramifications which last much longer. The show forgets about that church-imposed setlist during the commercial break after Figgins tells Will about it, but Quinn is in the glee club with Santana and Brittany for the rest of the season. More than that, the appearance of three cheerleaders in New Directions for relationship reasons does far more to stabilize the club than the assembly which Will assumed would flood the club with new applicants.
Glee always struggled to balance its adult characters with its teenagers, and the show that started out about Will eventually turned into a show that revolved around him but is no more focused on him than a person’s day-to-day life is focused on the Sun. “Gold Digger,” which was the first entry of the usually middling rap songs that Will headlined (of that genre, only “Bust a Move” is fun), is immediately connected to Terri’s desire for a bigger house. Will says that if they’re going to shift up, they ought to do it in a house that’s been foreclosed on (it is, after all, 2009), but Terri has no interest in a “used house.” The conflict between them, largely sublimated because Will is still in “I want to make Terri happy” mode, is intelligently done. It’s also the kind of plot which is just annihilated once the show moves on to a new ethos for adults: only the Will/Ken/Emma triangle, Terri’s fake pregnancy, and Will’s feud with Sue are allowed in after the first four episodes or so. For that reason “Showmance” is fundamentally different from so much of the rest of the season, representing a possibility for the show that it eschewed in favor of more teenage drama. It proved that the show could work on an adult wavelength (starting a family, finances, the push-pull of marital dynamics, the allure of workplace romance) and still maintain a juicy teen storyline. Rachel and Finn get hot and heavy together over their virgin Cosmos and their stampeding hormones in a storyline which actively and intelligently compares Finn to Will. In both subplots, the nice guy is tempted by the nice girl (even if she’s carrying as much baggage as a transcontinental flight) but can’t leave the cold woman he feels an obligation to; it makes sense to address the adult line with real estate and the youth line with premature ejaculation.
11) E13, “Sectionals” – written by Brad Falchuk
“Sectionals” is so rich with good moments that it very nearly made my top 10. And then I remembered that phone call Emma makes from Sectionals. She’s panicking. The kids are melting down. Jane Addams used “And I Am Telling You,” which was supposed to be Mercedes’ star turn at Sectionals. Then they did “Proud Mary” in wheelchairs, which cannot be explained away by simple coincidence. With that context, Haverbrook School’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is pretty clearly another stolen song from the New Directions catalog. As the glee club panics, Emma says one of those things that only a man writing for a woman would say: “These kids need a leader right now.” No moment in the first season more loudly proclaims this show’s politics about women in power. Emma wilts when placed in positions of responsibility. Rachel is incapable of mustering the popular will, and she’s the only girl who tries to do so. Sue is a highly successful leader, as is Shelby, but the show makes it impossible for either one to be a real human being. Sue leads the Cheerios to great success, and her secret is that teenagers should live in a perpetual state of terror. (I’d be willing to at least follow this leadership pathway to see where it went if Glee was even remotely serious about it’s viability.) Shelby is a paper-thin imitation of Faye Dunaway’s character from Network, and in a movie full of just plain old bad people, there’s a special place in Hell for Diana. No, this problem gets solved when Will and Finn meet up in the boys’ locker room. Will took the kids to the edge of the promised land; Finn pushes them into their strange new world with a Rolling Stones number they’d never done before; Emma and Rachel and Mercedes and Quinn, each of whom might have been trusted to rally the troops to some extent, are silent. A lot of the feel-good moments from “Sectionals,” even that pleasingly nostalgic “My Life Would Suck Without You” performance that closes out the first half of the season, are damaged by the fallout from the chauvinistic attitudes that Glee would happily decry two episodes later.
There are two standout moments from this episode. The first is, like “My Life Would Suck Without You,” largely nostalgic. Artie is slowly loaded onto the bus that’ll take them to Regionals. Back in “Wheels,” Will had been his strongest advocate to ensure he’d get a place alongside his teammates instead of a few car lengths behind them, and as Artie stonily rises up and Will looks on sadly, the sky is overcast and the metallic hum of the lift provide all the atmosphere you need. It’s Glee-subtle, which is to say nobody has to voice how sad and ironic this is. The other is “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” In the first thirteen episodes, Rachel is featured in no fewer than seventeen songs; that doesn’t count numbers which last thirty seconds or less or are done purely as silliness: “Cabaret,” “When You’re Smiling,” “You’re the One That I Want” twice, etc. No one else comes close to that level of production, and at that point in the season I confess to being a little bored with Lea Michele. (I know, heresy.) I’d watched her squeeze her eyes shut a few too many times. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is nothing like that. It is a stunning performance. She looks right, walks right, sounds right. Her breathing is exquisite; the end of the song before the final “parade” is a great place to stop and take a breath, but Michele, probably not having taken one since the “gonna” in “Nobody is gonna rain, etc.” It’s not quite Adam Pascal in Chess, but there’s unmistakable virtuosity here that the showrunners and Michele appear to have been saving for the big plunge.
10) E16, “Home” – written by Brad Falchuk
As he does in “Ballad,” Falchuk has a really hard time maintaining an interesting plot for Will and a plot for the kids. As badly done as Quinn’s family is, at least that scene where Finn lets the Fabrays in on their daughter’s secret mattered for a season-long plot arc. Mercedes trying to handle Sue’s expectations for her weight is an enormous clunker, although the subplot doesn’t splatter on the sidewalk until its conclusion. Mercedes is not as bad as Rachel when it comes to self-delusion, but this is the same girl who wanted a boyfriend so badly earlier in the season that she was willing to pretend that Kurt wasn’t, as she later calls him, “the Mayor of Gaytown.” It makes sense that if anyone is willing to do something radical over the course of a week to lose weight to remain on the Cheerios, it would be her. I even like the scene where she starts imagining Tina and Artie as food before she passes out. I am less enthused about the scene where Quinn comes into the nurse’s office to talk through Mercedes’ troubles. It’s too far outside of who Quinn is to be anything more than weird, even if the effect is meant to be much more warming than that; all the same, it’s not unforgivable writing or anything like that. But as long as I live I will never understand why Glee thought it could use “Beautiful” after Mean Girls absolutely obliterated that song for any future high school context. It’s like trying to find a meaning for “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” or “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” or any number of other ’80s teen movie hits with parentheses which doesn’t reference its antecedent. (I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Glee actually does a fair job with the latter by making it a Sectionals number for Quinn and Sam in Season 2; on the other hand, performances like that don’t need to seriously consider context.) Mercedes sings a perfectly fine, inexorably clichéd rendition of “Beautiful,” but all I can see is Daniel Franzese throwing a shoe into the audience while Lacey Chabert and Lindsay Lohan primp in their Santa getup backstage.
The reason “Home” is a top-ten episode for me is in a single stretch of the episode less than ten minutes long. Kurt sings “A House is Not a Home” to Finn, which is a really good solo and a key moment in their relationship. Kurt, who can practically taste an opportunity to seduce Finn, pointedly eyes his new roommate to hammer home his thesis: where you live matters less than who you live with. In the next scene, April shows up at Will’s apartment, as promised, presumably to work out a real estate opportunity. They very rapidly fall into a duet of “One Less Bell to Answer,” which is a criminally underrated song, but April turns the bridge into something new. “Well, I’m not meant to live alone/Turn this house into a home/When I climb the stair, and turn the key/Oh, please be there/Still in love with me,” she sings, pulling “A House is Not a Home” into “One Less Bell to Answer,” which Will begins to sing again after her brief solo. This is what musicals do. They find a musical theme and reuse it over and over again, layering emotion into the performance through our own simple recall. The sequence itself is sort of dumb. April comes over and the two of them immediately start getting ready for bed, essentially so we can have the shot of April crawling into bed with Will and holding his hand at the end of the song. I can forgive the mediocre TV for the song, though, which is stellar. I think that one sequence, or at least the promise of its possibility, kept me around longer than any other single element of the show.
9) E8, “Mash-Up” – written by Ian Brennan
“Mash-Up” is the reason I find “Wheels” so haunting. It’s not just that “Wheels” opened us up to a surprising, slightly exploitative backstory for Sue, but that “Mash-Up” proved something we’d never known before and could have made hay with for seasons on end. Sue’s lonely! Sue can be hurt! There was no evidence in the seven episodes preceding this one that Sue was capable of those feelings, but here we are, watching Sue get excited about a date, watching Sue dance a really passable “Swing, Swing, Swing” routine with Will, watching Sue’s crestfallen reaction when she realizes that Rod won’t be exclusive with her, and, of course:
Sue: I will go to the animal shelter and get you a kitty cat. I will let you fall in love with that kitty cat. And then on some dark, cold night, I will steal away into your home—and punch you in the face.”
One of the reasons I’m so out on superhero movies is that their villains are impenetrable. Nothing is able to hurt them besides deep-seated resentment, as if that’s the only thing that makes people turn bad. But Sue can be hurt, in normal ways, and for a moment it seemed as if we might get a worthy archrival for the glee club simply because they could fight back against her. “Wheels” changed that; it moved her too far in the other direction, made it strange that someone who could be so kind could also harbor such an irrational, hair-trigger volatility. (I can hear someone in the back saying, “That’s what people are like!” and boy howdy, are you wrong.) All the same, this is that rarest of Glee episodes: a Sue episode that isn’t bad.
Things come to a head with Will, Ken, and Emma in “Sectionals,” but “Mash-Up” is arguably the most important episode of them all in that arc. Ken and Emma, in the weeds of their strange engagement, ask Will to put together a mash-up of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “The Thong Song” for their first dance. Will attaches dance lessons to the bargain as a wedding gift, and immediately proceeds to spend a lot of time with Emma in wedding dresses, mostly dancing around her and raising her up in the air. Ken takes it badly and then takes it out on Will’s club, which is the only vulnerability that Will has that Ken is able to exploit; he can undercut Will’s program (and force Will to see what it’s like to be someone else’s second choice) while Will continues to bask in the glow of another man’s fiancee. I love the scene where Ken, sick to death of being insurance against dying alone, shellacks Will for fanning the flame of another man’s fiancee. (Ken is even a little merciful, or maybe just self-concerned and forgetful: he does not mention Will’s “pregnant” wife.) If Will has a good quality, it’s that he’s willing to admit when he screws up. He starts screwing up a little too much for that to be meaningful in the back half of this season, but in the first half, when he still only has a couple of glaring flaws, his admission that he’s acted badly is one of the show’s more thoughtful lines.
8) E4, “Preggers” – written by Brad Falchuk
They didn’t have to get Quinn pregnant. They just didn’t. Teen pregnancy, especially for a girl in Quinn’s position, is a surefire way to ruin her reputation and turn her family against her. But it’s not the only way. The closest I’ve ever gotten to writing fanfiction about Glee was a time when I tried to compile a list of ways for Quinn to ruin herself without having the consequence of a baby around, or the consequence of having to deal with this particular idea for the rest of the season. There’s no way to back off from a baby plot, nor is there a way to supersede it. Once you’ve introduced the baby, it becomes all-consuming, and Glee took on the challenge of making the pregnancy unplanned and the conception adulterous. It’s not that Quinn’s baby is so horrible…it’s that I can imagine more interesting plots than this one with a cast this big and with only three episodes down. I am verklempt.
This was the first episode of Glee I ever watched from start to finish, and I was not prepared for the way it ended. It’s about as good an introduction to Kurt as the show could have done, I think, one that made it clear in a single sequence that he is gay, more or less out, but definitely not in front of his dad. Brittany tries to help when Kurt’s dad comes downstairs in the middle of Kurt filming a “Single Ladies” homage: Kurt’s the kicker on the football team, she says. (Smallest guy on the field, right? she says when Kurt gives her a look that suggests she’s insane.) Happily, Kurt turns out to be a good kicker, even making the winning kick during one game. (The less said about football on Glee, the better. I want to apologize to Friday Night Lights for ever criticizing the propensity of that team to win every game in the last two minutes. Somehow Glee makes football look less realistic than people stopping to sing elaborately choreographed musical numbers in the middle of the hallway.) It still prompts a conversation with his dad which couldn’t have gone better. Burt says he’ll support his son, that he’s known since Kurt asked for a sensible pair of heels as a little kid. That scene is so wonderful because it pretends to be anticlimactic when of course it’s just the opposite. We expect fireworks, drama, and there’s nothing of the sort. In the fall of 2009, it’s possible that it’s the calmest and most accepting coming out scene ever put on American television. While the world is on fire where Quinn is, with Finn and Puck both circling her, Kurt gets a happy ending for the moment. Ironically, Kurt and Burt’s relationship gets its biggest jolt not in “Preggers,” but in…
7) E20, “Theatricality” – written by Ryan Murphy
The most difficult scene in the first season of Glee, the one that has the greatest animosity and the most volume and the knottiest puzzle, is in “Theatricality.” Finn finally has it out with Kurt: you have a crush on me and you’re trying to manipulate events so we can be together, which will never happen. That part of the conversation has shades of what Rachel’s rejoinder to Kurt a few episodes back, when she said it didn’t matter where she was on Finn’s list because she would always be higher than Kurt. The show never depicts a scene where Kurt so much as ogles Finn; Finn’s fear of coming out of the shower in a towel or nude as opposed to his underwear is his own and quite possibly based on his own prejudices. (I find that last more convincing now than I ever have, but at the same time, despite Kurt’s protest that “It’s just a moist towelette!”, I’m not really sure that’s true.) Even if Kurt hasn’t done anything, it’s equally possible that Finn, who has never been good at handling outside pressure or change, has too much on his plate and lashes out at the person he blames for this latest bout of shifting. This is a scene where it’s likely that both players are wrong. Finn has some homophobic tendencies he needs to get rid of, and Kurt needs to accept that Finn is not interested in him as a sexual partner. What Finn does to escalate the conflict is genuinely wrong, though, and it leads to an all-too-real assessment of the situation by Burt. Finn calls Kurt’s new decorations “faggy,” which crosses a line that one does not merely tiptoe back over. Maybe it’s a little much to find any serious line of Glee dialogue moving, but something about Burt’s pain as he dresses down Finn, moving past yelling and into disappointment, feels more real than the vast majority of scripted TV dialogue. “I thought you were a new generation of dude,” Burt said, the kind of young man who knows that men don’t have to come in a shrink-wrapped, pre-made package, that they can play football and join the glee club. “I guess I was wrong.” Burt, who is one of the show’s only realists, is that much more compelling to watch as a great deal of his hope melts away. We’ve watched him hang out with Finn and enjoy that company, but it’s not until this scene that we realize that he sets some store by the kid. It’s also a slap in the face for anyone who believed that in real life a “new generation of dude” was on the way. Certainly events of the past couple years have proven that the new generation has at least as many bad eggs as the ones from the past.
In terms of volume, no charter member of New Directions gets less time to shine than Tina, and it’s not even close. The stutter and the goofy outfits were the entire character for nine episodes until she confessed that she didn’t, in fact, have a stutter, reducing the character down to the outfits alone. So it is that Tina’s outfit in “Theatricality” gets the glee club on a Lady Gaga trip when Figgins threatens to suspend her for wearing “goth” clothes. (Figgins is pretty sure that vampires are real and that Tina is a vampire. This sounds stupid on its face, but it’s one of those shining moments of Glee logic that work solely within the context of the show and that if you weren’t already willing to handle, you would have given up on it fifteen episodes ago.) It’s not the most important element of the episode, but I liked seeing Tina get to kick off a storyline rather than following behind. She was also a welcome distraction from Idina Menzel singing “Funny Girl” and that abhominable (it deserves the “h”) acoustic “Poker Face.” I usually criticize Glee for forgetting about arcs just as soon as something’s begun to happen with them, but I’m not sure I could have handled a third episode of the “Rachel’s mom” storyline.
6) E19, “Dream On” – written by Brad Falchuk
I hate the “Rachel’s mom” storyline. I find the slew of guest stars less irksome now than I did back in the day—this despite the pretty fair criticism of the show for throwing famous people into the mix when they didn’t have enough time to cover the people in their ensemble—and “Dream On,” which is mostly a nightmare of Idina Menzel being distant and less so of Neil Patrick Harris being shrill, still kind of annoys me. There was never a better reason to reveal Rachel’s birth mother than “Oh, hey, Idina Menzel can sing and also has brown hair and a non-standard nose,” but it appears that was good enough for the people behind the scenes. This is how it’s revealed in the episode:
Jesse: When you lie awake at night, what’s missing?
Rachel: My mom.
Jesse: Your mom?
Me, breaking the fourth wall and shouting from down the hallway at Rachel and Jesse’s retreating backs: Wait, seriously?
I suppose one finds things out about oneself this way, through pointed and specific questions, but this is so big and it’s treated so casually. For eighteen episodes, Rachel was perfectly content to be with her two dads and use them as a cocked trigger for sentences involving “local branch of the ACLU,” but suddenly, in episode nineteen, just out of the blue, the guy trying to reconnect his show choir director to her long-lost daughter just happens to find that the long-lost daughter has been secretly missing her mother? If so, it is the first secret Rachel has ever kept longer than thirty seconds, and somewhere Charles Dickens thinks this is a little too cute. There is no scene with Jesse in it which works in this episode. Either Shelby is using him to work on her daughter who she immediately sours on in the next episode or Jesse is involved in Broadway fanfic that must have felt funnier to Falchuk than it does to us watching. This particular plot winds down in “Dream On” with a solid “I Dreamed a Dream” duet between the two of them which sounds nice on my iPod but fails to move us anywhere as viewers.
There was a time, apparently, when a little high school show choir program in Ohio had at least two of Kristin Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris, and Matthew Morrison. The fact that the most well-adjusted one of the bunch is a soon-t0-be-divorced Spanish teacher says a lot about them. Then again, Will never did attack his musical theater dreams with much gusto, and compared to April and Bryan he seems to have almost ignored them. April and her boyfriend dropped out of high school to give Broadway a try, which ended badly. Bryan did a little performing, did the “cruise ship circuit,” and then got hooked on drugs himself. (Given the ravages of the opioid epidemic in the Rust Belt, Glee deserves a little credit for being slightly prescient.) Bryan, recently elected to the school board, intends to cut the funding for the glee club based entirely based on the buildup of an adult lifetime of spite. In his head, he’s living a life somewhere between “alcoholic” and “closeted gay man,” squirreling playbills in his basement and running a self-help group for those afflicted by their love for showtunes. His scenes with Will are better than that one scene with Sue (if they wanted everyone to know those facts, they should have done the full Ross Perot, charts and all, to talk about how education is more than core classes and testing, because it would have been cheaper). Just as April rapidly gets back into the swing of being a star once she comes back to high school, Bryan’s old cockiness is restored. His “Dream On” duet with Will is sparkling karaoke and comes about because he intends to sing whatever song Will has in mind. Unlike April, who always seemed like a natural fit to come back once or twice, Bryan feels like a ghost the whole way through the episode, as if Will is the only person who actually sees him with any regularity and everyone else is merely haunted by his negative (and accurate) spirit, hearing spooky noises about “You’ll live a 9-to-5 life like everyone elsssssssssse” around corners at McKinley.
If I had Glee to recast, I would have found the slightly older version of Blake Jenner in 2009 rather than Cory Monteith, Then I would have found a different person to put in a wheelchair besides Kevin McHale, because in hindsight that seems like a tremendous oversight. He is probably the third-best dancer on the show after Morris and Shum, so naturally they paralyzed his character. A little more distance from “The Safety Dance” flashmob they did has helped me like it more; it’s funny how “shameless pandering” turns into “reflection of cultural trends” a few years out. What also helped me is just how fun McHale’s dancing is in that scene, effortless in a way that nobody else in the cast seems effortless while dancing. His plot with Tina, in which she encourages him to think about walking again someday, gives Emma her only chance to be a guidance counselor without stammering madly through her advice. Artie knows he can’t walk again, but the illimitable fantasy of dancing or running or any number of other leggy things haunts him the way Bryan Ryan haunts Will and his club. Glee has always recognized the audacity of the disappointment its characters can feel, but even if “Dream On” is occasionally weird about the dark longings of New Directions bunch, it does more work to showcase those subconscious cravings than any other Season 1 episode.
5) E3, “Acafellas” – written by Ryan Murphy
Glee frequently chooses a single word to repeat over and over again throughout an episode, and in “Acafellas” it’s “confidence.” This is different from “pride” or “believing in yourself” or any of those other words which seem to pop up like pimples throughout this first season. Confidence is less about performativity than those other concepts; Will’s dad says that “being a man is about one thing: guts.” It’s tremendously hokey, and he seems to confuse confidence with hubris a little bit. But for him there’s something to the notion because he lacks confidence, and he feels that lack strongly enough to bring it up as his first piece of parenting advice for his son. That feeling that something is missing shifts the spotlight away from Finn and Rachel after the events of “Showmance” and begins to liven up Mercedes and Kurt a little bit. The former lacks the confidence in herself to look for a boyfriend who might be able to reciprocate her feelings, and the latter lacks the confidence to come out to anyone even though it’s abundantly clear that he’s gay. Puck, who has previously been something of a glee club bane, turns into a person in this episode as well thanks to a pool-cleaning business and an unquenchable appetite for moms. “Acafellas” is a little after-school special about Kurt and Mercedes, but it also sets the stage for one of New Directions’ only consistent, non-exploitative friendships. Confidence may not be the word that I’d use to describe the Acafellas—somehow “shamelessness” comes to mind first—but there’s a joyfulness to their sets which I can’t help but like. John Lloyd Young, who was fresh off of starring in Jersey Boys, is special to me because he’s the first really talented guest star Glee had who they proceeded to just totally ignore. He sings backup to Will for a surprisingly listenable “Poison” before disappearing later in the episode thanks to his cough medicine addiction. Howard Bamboo, who is my absolute favorite fifth-tier Glee character, may not get any love from the newspapers but is hysterical nonetheless in his little time singing. To borrow a phrase from Puck, I don’t groove on Color Me Badd…all the same, Acafellas’ unusual choice of song for the PTA is a pretty enjoyable number in its own right.
I confess that I might overrate “Acafellas” a little bit. It has a killer Josh Groban cameo. It gave Cory Monteith his Twitter handle. It has the line about plates of “I’m sorry” cookies. And it’s the last episode before Quinn gets pregnant and throws the entire world of the show out of joint. Glee was already moving too fast before it reached “Preggers.” In this episode, less than an hour of screentime after Will decides to remain a teacher because of how inspired he is by the glee club, he is willing to toss the glee club aside for this boy band he’s leading. But the show was starting to expand its universe here in “Acafellas,” bringing in characters who would matter in the long run. Aside from Kurt, Mercedes, and Puck, this is also a a key episode for Quinn, who is at once the Ice Queen and someone who believes that confidence comes from within. Back when Ken seemed like he was going to be an interesting character for the entire season instead of a placeholder in the first thirteen episodes, this appeared to be an important piece of the puzzle for him as well. Glee was showing an ability already to pick up and put down different members of its ensemble in “Acafellas,” anchoring the show around Will and the life that he wears like a straitjacket. “Preggers” changed that dynamic for good, which is a shame. “Acafellas” isn’t perfect, but it validated Will Schuester as a central character who had the depth to be a part of any and every plot.
4) E12, “Mattress” – written by Ryan Murphy
There’s not a single standout song in “Mattress,” which maybe dampens the ceiling of the episode a little bit. It’s a problem that a lot of musicals have, where they’ve come up with many memorable songs and dances to do in the first act and then realize there’s a plot that needs to be managed in the second, much to the detriment of performances and plot alike. However, I like how the episode’s two plots unite into a third so smoothly in the last fifteen minutes because of three everyday objects. On the kids’ side, it’s a school picture. On Will’s, it’s a pocket square. They unite with a mattress. All three of those items come to carry incredible weight, sliding into the disappointment that the show does so well with. The kids recognize that the school picture that Mr. Schuester has bought for them is a great way to volunteer to be bullied. The show takes a little time before it comes up with Azimio and Karofsky, making the latter a hockey player in his first appearance, but once it does we finally get a sense of the personal nature of the bullying the New Directions kids face. The show had been using nameless, faceless people to throw slushies, which I guess was kind of effective but also didn’t seem to matter as much because everyone showed up cleaned off and in the same clean clothes later on in the episode. What Azimio and Karofsky brought to the table was actual menace; seeing them comes to mean unkindness or cruelty or fear, and siccing them on Finn in the locker room just when it seems like Finn is ready to accede to a leadership role by being in the picture with Rachel is a deft choice for the show to make. The show’s final shot, in which we see that the glee club photo has, once again, been defaced, is one of the rare times that Glee really dives deeper into its own filth. All of the drama in this episode for the kids ends up exactly the way they expected it to, but it’s compounded with them losing their coach for their first real competition.
Will is looking for his pocket square when he discovers that his wife has been deceiving him about her pregnancy for months. The corollary in terms of plot, if not incisiveness about Orientalism and postcolonialism, is M. Butterfly. The running joke throughout the play—for everyone else but Gallimard—is that Gallimard carried on a sexual relationship with a man for many years without ever realizing that Song was a man. Will’s not quite as bad as Gallimard, but his marriage ended long before the night where he found Terri’s costume. Not every line in that scene works. Morrison is accidentally doing a Chris Crocker impression when he drops “I should be allowed to feel good about myself!” and no person on the planet would say the words “This marriage works because you don’t feel good about yourself” in return. But there are elements to that drag-it-up fight Will and Terri have which make sense. Terri is the one who knows that Will’s crippling addiction to the living in the past is what keeps him with her; she also is the one who says that they’re not stars anymore and that they’ve changed since high school. Glee is antithetical to verisimilitude, but this is a very real scene. How often couples are willing to subduct their troubles and their true feelings towards one another only to turn those subducted feelings into shuddering earthquakes later on, at which point there’s no ability to learn from each other or work the problem.
3) E1, “Pilot” – written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan
I’ve written a full length review of the pilot, which you can read here.
Glee said some cornball stuff over the years, but there may not be a cheesier and more addictive idea casually thrown out there than “Being part of something special makes you special.” Rachel, whose overweening desire to be the star makes her this toxic, difficult personality, wants to be at the forefront of that feeling. Self-sacrifice has never been at the top of her list of virtues; she thrills at the idea of stardom and adoration, fame and success. Her introductory monologue is a therapist’s goldmine of braggadocio hiding a pathological need to be popular. It features her singing “On My Own,” a Broadway standard about loneliness and abnegation, and yet Rachel doesn’t think about the context of the song; it never occurs to her that she might be as unlucky and unwanted as Eponine. Of all the introductions this show does, of all its voiceovers, this one is particularly moving. If we learned in “Acafellas” that Will could be the centerpiece of a TV show, we knew since the pilot that Rachel could be just a little off-center. The best of Glee is reminiscent of Freaks and Geeks, and while Lindsay Weir would have been absolutely horrified by the idea that she and Rachel have something in common, we can see one in the other. They have tremendous potential without any guarantees for it. Neither one is content with the idea of staying in their Midwestern setting forever, waiting for something to find them. Maybe most importantly, both of them want things a little naively. Lindsay has no plan for what will happen once she joins the freaks, but seems to think something good will happen; Rachel is sure that she’s the next Patti LuPone or Bernadette Peters and has no contingency otherwise. Even if you just want to shake her a little, there’s something enthralling about watching Rachel do her tap routines on the edge of a knife.
2) E5, “The Rhodes Not Taken” – written by Ian Brennan
There are four musical numbers in “The Rhodes Not Taken,” assuming that you’re willing to leave out the rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” which is curtailed early when Quinn’s morning sickness overtakes her and Rachel’s zesty “Cabaret.” Of those four, three feature Kristin Chenoweth and two feature Lea Michele, which is a late 2000s fever dream. “Maybe This Time,” performed as a duet of sorts, remains one of the best performances that Glee ever did. Not only does it give Rachel a reason to sing the song, seeing as she’s moonlighting as the lead in the school musical, but it’s deeply appropriate for perpetual loser April. This is a woman who is introduced to us squatting in a foreclosed home and drinking box wine in the morning; the possibility that “Maybe this time, I’ll win” surely means something to her. “Last Name” is loaded with meaning, given her drunkenness. Even another duet, “Alone,” has multiple meanings to it. April, singing a duet with a guy who had a crush on her in high school, has come to recognize Will’s stability and his genuine feeling for his students. It lasted only about a minute of show time but deserved to be much longer because all ’80s power ballads are good. Chenoweth is the best guest star Glee ever had, the only one who seemed to be inside the show rather than visiting it temporarily from a different planet. April is still in the Lima area, having been forced to return home after her catastrophic experience trying to make it big. She is a little short of the credits necessary to graduate high school. (Bringing an adult back to high school after an absence of ten years and more is one of those things which is so insane that you kind of just go with it.) She can still get a high off of hearing the applause for her performance…at a high school glee club invitational. April is as chipper as they come and so the sadness that other characters wear doesn’t apply to her. What she is instead is someone has been thoroughly tenderized and pounded flat. The dazzling person is still there, able to emerge in spurts, but the past has wrecked her beyond her ability to reasonably bounce back.
We learn more about Rachel from this episode than we’d learned about her since “Pilot.” For one thing, there’s a model for her now. April believed she was so talented and so sure to hit it big that she was willing to drop out of high school to make her dreams come true immediately; Rachel believes that she has the kind of skill and theater background that will make her irresistible on Broadway someday. Rachel reacts to April with a little disgust, but that’s to be expected: Scrooge is downright horrified by his own future. Once removed from the glee club, we can also see the way that Rachel maneuvers for what she wants and how empty that maneuvering feels when she realizes she’s not getting any praise or validation for it. Being the unquestioned lead of the school play—after throwing a tantrum every time she doesn’t get a solo for New Directions—means less to her than returning to a primary but not necessarily pivotal role in an ensemble. “Somebody to Love” is a great show choir number, and part of the reason it’s so wonderful here at the end of this episode is because of the high of seeing Rachel being part of something again; it’s an insulation against a future like the one April has laid out.
1) E6, “Vitamin D” – written by Ryan Murphy
One of the constants of the first season was that Terri sucked all of the fun out of the show, which first of all isn’t true and second of all is sort of a necessity. Glee had a tendency to explode raucously like a well-shaken bottle of soda; Terri is the person who opens the soda slowly so we don’t end up with a giant mess. Gilsig’s performance in this episodes comes in two flavors. She is sometimes fearful and mousy, as when Sue comes to the apartment to suggest that Terri take a more active role in supervising her husband’s potential affair. Then when she comes to school and finds Will with Emma, she goes full Disney villain, scheming and plotting and using sarcasm, sex appeal, and shamelessness to try to undermine a person she’s never met before. I think it’s a great episode for her. Like Sue, she has no desire to apologize for anything, not even for getting Howard Bamboo arrested. Unlike Sue, she can be frightened by Will; her plan to rein him in backfires enormously, layering in another instance of deception for her husband to be resentful about on the Night of the Pocket Square. The fact that she manages to really get her hooks into a couple of troubled glee club members—Finn, who is having whatever the teenage version of midlife crisis is, and Quinn, who is pregnant and starting to lose her nerve—is the icing on the cake.
A long time ago, when I thought about Glee through the prism of its musical numbers, I would never have said that an episode with just two short performances would be the best one of its season. Obviously my focus has shifted a little since then; Glee, as a general rule, just worked better when its musical performances were done in the context of the club performing. There’s no hint of a singing life outside the choir room, no last song with a big name to toss in at the end for the entire ensemble to do. It’s an episode about Terri’s maniacal fear that her husband is leaving her. It’s about Will falling in love with another woman and never admitting it to himself. It’s about Rachel’s perfectionism, Finn’s need to be the winner all the time, Quinn’s anxiety growing as quickly as her waistline, and Sue’s idiolect. (Choose your fighter: “Let me be frank: your husband is hiding his kielbasa in a Hickory Farms gift basket that doesn’t belong to you,” or, “…unless you want to lose your man to a mentally ill ginger pygmy with eyes like a bush baby.”) In short, it’s a major moment for most of the arcs in this season, and by cutting the number of musical performances they give real time to the characters themselves. It’s not that Glee doesn’t need its music, but that the music should have always been a secondary function, a way to express what the kids at McKinley and their woebegone adults were trying to manage.