I’ve had my issues with Glee since it returned from hiatus, but last night, Glee was back—it was not just good compared with recent episodes, but entertaining, arresting and moving in an unqualified sense. “Dream On” would have gotten a lot of attention regardless for its reunion of director Joss Whedon and guest star Neil Patrick Harris from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and they deserve some credit. As Maureen Ryan already noted, Whedon kept the episode nicely paced and gave its emotional moments time to play out, and NPH—well, dog bites man, right? It would have been news if he had guested on a musical and not killed.
But “Dream On” was exceptional in ways that went beyond guest appearances. It worked because it showed that Glee’s exuberance and its sadness come from the same place, and are inseparable. Glee is a wish-fulfillment show. And wish-fulfillment shows only work because we know that most people’s wishes do not, in fact, come true.
Sometimes Glee seems to take place in a colorful, fanciful Everyhighschool, but its best episodes are usually rooted in a sense of place. Not just geographical place—Lima, Ohio, which I know from having grown up nearby—but the social and economic place of most of the students. As Finn told us in the pilot when he said he didn’t want to become a “Lima loser,” it’s a town where most of the students will grow up, live and die without ever getting far from home.
And there’s not anything wrong with that, inherently. But Glee is about students who want to do something else. And in real life, most of them would not be able to, a fact that Harris’ Bryan Ryan reminds them of, cruelly, in the beginning of the episode. Because, we learn, he’s one of them; a Midwestern kid whose dreams took him to sing the amusement-park circuit for a while, until he cratered, sobered up, and came back home embittered.
It’s a story that Glee, of course, tells in a funny way (“You can’t feed a child sheet music, Will. Well, I suppose you could, but they’d be dead in a month”). But it’s inherently a pretty dark truth, and one that Glee couldn’t hammer on without becoming a downer. On the other hand, when Glee gets too far removed from those realities, its music loses its power and catharsis. “Dream On” balanced this perfectly, advancing the story while not cramming in too much, and connecting with the elements that give its musical fantasies such relevance at home.
(That’s one reason it was such a brilliant move for Whedon to shoot part of Artie’s dream sequence in handheld video. It recalled those YouTube videos of Glee flash mobs, which themselves demonstrate what it is about Glee that seizes so many fans’ imaginations: the idea of a few minutes of ecstasy bursting out of a scene of humdrum reality. And to boot, it recalled Whedon’s own musicals—both Dr. Horrible and the “Once More With Feeling” episode of Buffy—which featured moments of ordinary people breaking into song and dance in the middle of the street, or in laundromats. They got the mustard out!)
The song selections in this episode worked perfectly with the theme as well—though that’s a little bit of a gimme since dreaming and wishing are the stuff of so much pop music and musical theater. But that didn’t make Matthew Morrison and Harris’ aggressive duel on “Dream On” less of a charge, or Idina Menzel and Lea Michele’s duet on “I Dreamed a Dream” (which Glee’s audience may know mainly through Susan Boyle) less affecting. (Incidentally, damned if Menzel does not look like Michele, and in retrospect I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.)
I might have a nit pick here and there—Artie’s collapse on his crutches veered a little close to afterschool-special melodrama—but overall, it was nice to see that, this time, a heavily hyped episode of Glee lived up to my hopes. Dreams really can come true.