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Glee Watch: It Takes Two

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Spoilers for last night’s Glee following:

One criticism I’ve heard from non-fans of Glee is that the show is essentially American Idol with a script. And I could see how an episode with the title and theme “Duets” could reinforce this view. On its face, the episode’s structure was little more than an Idol challenge, “OK, finalists, this week we’re going to pair you up and see how you handle the challenge—go!” But beyond that, “Duets”—easily the strongest character episode so far this season—made itself into an story about how teenagers explore their identities by pairing off; and the episode both explored some new combinations within New Directions and re-examined the dynamics of some old ones.

One of the most fruitful character combinations in the episode was actually a non-duet pair, as Kurt and Finn re-visited the fallout from their fight last season, in which Finn lashed out at Kurt’s “faggy” redesign of his room. Finn’s outburst wasn’t excusable—however much he was provoked and reacting in the heat of the moment, he was still using a social power imbalance between the two of them to his advantage. But Kurt wasn’t innocent, either—he was coming on way too strong to a boy who clearly had no interest—and “Duets” pointed that out, through Kurt’s budding interest in Sam.

Kurt’s argument with his father about this did a good job of drawing the complexity of Kurt’s situation. Yes, he’s gay in a not-always-tolerant community; yes, it’s unfair. And yet Kurt is not just an icon of social injustice. He’s a teenager, who is capable of being self-centered and acting out just like any other teenager, and Burt points out that the fact that Kurt is discriminated against doesn’t excuse behavior that, if Finn were a girl and Kurt a straight boy, most people would see straight off as creepy.

And then the episode further complicates that through Finn and Kurt’s conflict over Sam. Finn is very likely right that Sam—even if Sam doesn’t himself see a problem—stands to become a social target if he duets with Kurt. But does that mean he’s right to decide, “I don’t have a problem with gay dudes. Everybody else does, and we’re living in their world.” (Is it right for him, that is, to concede the world to the bigots?)

On the flip side, Kurt is right to say that he should be as free as anyone to choose any duet partner; but is he really making a neutral choice, or is he again picking Sam out of unreciprocated interest, or using him to prove a point? In the end, Kurt decides to take the high road, freeing up Sam to duet (and start dating) Quinn, but the episode leaves to us to decide whether they all made the right decisions for the right reasons.

Speaking of which, have we gotten to the point as a society where it’s unremarkable that the most popular scripted TV show in the 18 to 49 demographic is also—almost without comment or controversy—the gayest show on broadcast TV? I don’t just mean Kurt’s story or the musical-theater component of the show; I mean that so much of Glee is dedicated to questioning gender and sexual identity and norms.

“Duets,” for instance, returned to the bisexual-friends-with-benefits relationship of Brittany and Santana, in a way that actually seriously explored Brittany’s character—her sleeping around, her apparently needing Santana more than Santana needs her, her basic loneliness. (The last scene of her pushing the meatball with her nose, alone, Lady and the Tramp-style, was a classic Brittany joke, but also really poignant.) Her hooking up with Artie at first seemed like one of those random big-events-for-the-hell-of-it that Glee sometimes does for excitement and laughs (“For a while I thought you were a robot”). But in context, her notching up another football player—maybe to make Santana jealous, but also because she doesn’t know how to be otherwise—makes sense in context.

There was so much going on in this episode that you could almost forget all that wasn’t there. There were essentially no adult storylines (probably a plus, as it was in the season opener). There was no Puck (his absence jarringly and unnecessarily explained by a juvie stint for stealing an ATM[!] that I fear Glee will never mention again). And there was thankfully no wheelchair football.

But the last and probably strongest pairing for me was Rachel and Kurt, as Rachel made the obvious-in-retrospect point that the two of them really are a lot alike: they’re strong-willed, competitive and sometimes have a hard time seeing past themselves. And the last number made the point in a lovely way by recreating a moment between two real-life divas so appropriate that, had it not existed, Glee probably would have had to invent it:

One thing I like about Glee is that it operates on a different level of reality than other network dramas, and different sets of rules (or none at all). I’ve always been OK, with that, just as I can accept that in a musical characters break into song with backup dancers—it’s a heightened, nonliteral representation of that character’s inner reality. Not only does this make the show simply more interesting, at times it allows for effects that straight realism can’t achieve. But the show does need emotional realism, and on that level, “Duets” was, thankfully, in harmony.

Now the hail of bullets:

* Speaking of Glee and sexuality, I’m hardly a prude TV-wise, and I’m of the opinion that producers should use the content they believe necessary to tell the story. But I will say that this is one of those episodes that made me glad I’m not watching the show with a tween or teen kid. The losing-virginity conversation I could probably handle. “Scissoring” I’m not sure I want to explain.

* Update: Among the other duet parings, I don’t know if Tina and Mike will set iTunes on fire among the kids with a tune from “A Chorus Line,” but I liked how the subplot dealt with the idea of what makes a “perfect” pairing, and whether surface (and even cultural) similarities are enough of a basis for a strong relationship. Also: good to know that Mike can talk!

* When the season premiere introduced Sam, I wasn’t really sure whether New Directions needed yet another guy, nor could I see exactly what spot he filled in the ensemble. I’m still not sure I do (the blond guy spot?) but Sam’s dorky charm is growing on me. Dude’s got a Matthew McConaughey impression!

* I was impressed when I checked my watch and saw we were 18 minutes into the episode before we got the second song, but “Duets” still had a couple of performances that seemed to be there more for iTunes than for the story. But given that “River Deep, Mountain High” was so strong, I can accept that—likewise Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” though Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips’ version from One Day at a Time will always be the definitive TV cover of the song to me.

* Speaking as a Great Lakes state native, some episodes of Glee really get the details of Midwestern small-town life right and others less so. But having the duet-competition prize be dinner for two at a restaurant called Breadsticks? Perfect. (“Have you been to Breadsticks? They are legally forbidden to stop bringing you breadsticks!”)

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