Spoilers for last night’s Glee coming up:
There’s been a lot of talk lately among critics, including ones I respect and admire, about how terrible Glee is. And I can totally understand it. Glee is not consistent; at times it is not even coherent. It can be an awful show or a great one, often at the same time. It doesn’t follow the rules of musical theater, or drama, or of consistent character action. It wants to be every kind of entertainment at once. It’s like a giant Dagwood sandwich of emotions and tones, layered with sardines and pickles and jellybeans.
And yet if anyone asks me how I can possibly watch the show, I have to point to an episode like “Grilled Cheesus,” which tries something absurdly ambitious—a teen musical comedy-drama about religion and atheism that’s respectful to and understanding of both—and largely pulls it off.
Not entirely pulls it off, though. The first time I watched the screener of “Grilled Cheesus,” for various boring reasons I had to stop halfway through—around Rachel’s Barbra number—and at that point I did not care for “Grilled Cheesus” at all, mainly because up to that point it showed how, too often, Glee the soundtrack does not always serve Glee the show, and even actively fights against it.
Puck’s “Only the Good Die Young” (though basically a duet with the AutoTune software) was enjoyable enough; if it served no real purpose but to put another song on iTunes, I could at least accept that he had another Jewish Male Singer classic in his back pocket. Once Kurt’s dad had a heart attack, however, and the episode’s stakes were raised, shoehorning in big spotlight solos for their own sake was not just distracting but off-putting. Rachel’s solo and Mercedes’ first song actually made me actively annoyed with the characters, because it played as if they were basically using Kurt’s grief to have diva moments.
Mercedes’ “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” on the other hand, worked because it grew out of story; she and Kurt are one of the closest pairs of friends in glee club, and in that moment she’s trying to draw him into a community while accepting their differences. And though Kurt’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was probably the oddest musically, yet it worked completely in the episode because of how effectively it used he and his father’s history. (About Finn’s goofily literal “Losing My Religion,” the less said, the better.)
But the episode’s core was strong, largely because it was based on one of the show’s strongest and most nuanced relationships, that between Kurt and his dad. The Kurt-Burt dynamic has always been about defeating expectations—how you would expect a guy’s-guy mechanic to take the news of a gay son, how you would expect that gay son to relate to his father. And this made it the logical basis for an episode that was about challenging expectations about religion—the religious characters in the episode were not Bible-thumping zealots and the atheists were not callous nihilists, yet each was to some extent blinded by their beliefs.
Glee is about tolerance, but it’s never felt obligated to make Kurt a saint because of it—he can be as selfish and flawed as anyone. Likewise, the episode shows that he’s within his rights to disbelieve as he wants, but it doesn’t sugar-coat the way he lashes out at his friends. Nor the fact that his friends are, especially at first, trying to force on him the kind of help they would want. But in neither case is it zealotry; they’re just people, and it’s pretty natural for teenagers to be a little over-the-top in asserting their independent identity. (As anybody who was ever a teenager passionate about anything—religion, music, politics—can remember.)
As for the Grilled Cheesus itself—that’s probably an instance where you’re either on board with Glee’s attempt to be absurd and sincere at the same time, or you’re not. To me it worked: Finn is Glee’s resident naif, which makes him the one to learn the hard lesson that faith does not have to mean believing in a literal, tangible God—say one from a George Foreman grill—who directly responds to prayers. I bought it, and I found the closing moments to be TV’s second-most moving eating of a grilled cheese sandwich behind this one:
Did the show play fair by both atheists and believers? We all bring some bias to this one (me: secular atheist Jew who went to Catholic Church until I was a teenager). I wasn’t crazy about Sue’s explanation of her atheism, because it’s too reductive to see atheists as the jilted lovers of the spiritual world, giving up on God because we didn’t get our prayers answered. But did it make sense for Sue? It probably did.
Of course, I’d rather see Sue as a complex, multidimensional character every episode, not just when it serves the story to show that side of her. But I also accept a certain amount of inconsistency as the price for what Glee tries to do, and sometimes succeeds at: mashing up tones and genres, getting us to see the face of God in a grilled cheese sandwich or a Billy Joel song. Glee may well disappoint me again next week, though. This show moves in mysterious ways.
Now the hail of bullets:
* Artie playing wheelchair football: No. Just No. It bothered me enough when the premiere episode made a subplot of it, but even I was surprised that Glee is actually making this a running storyline. I get that the show involves the suspension of disbelief (you have to accept that there is a string quartet of students ready to arrange Beatles’ songs on a moment’s notice). But to ignore the rules of physics and sport to give Artie a wish-fulfillment storyline trivializes his disability, which the show has handled better in the past.
* Thankfully, re-humanizing Sue did not mean she couldn’t be funny: “I suggest they enroll in Sweet Mother of God Academy on I Love Jesus Street.”
* “Last week we’re too sexy, this week we’re too religious. We can’t win.” We get it, Glee—you’re meta-aware of your own criticism.
* Even as moving as I found the home-movie interludes with the Hummels, I was also impressed how well Glee created a mini-Kurt. Meet him here.
* Favorite Brittany-ism of the evening? Heart attack book report? “Is God an evil dwarf?”
* Update: Oh, one more musical gripe: Ew, “One of Us”? Glee closes the episode with the worst song that has ever been written about God, possibly including hymns used in Satanic masses. But I respect those whose faith tells them differently.
* Finally, since I’ve already referenced one Freaks and Geeks scene, and because I’ve had the song in my head since I came up with the title for this post, I leave you with this: