Spoilers for last night’s Glee coming up:
In the world of Glee, having Gwyneth Paltrow come on as a guest star and dance on a flooded stage to a mash-up of “Singing in the Rain” and “Umbrella” is actually how the show steps back and takes a breather. “The Substitute” was relatively a more subdued episode of the show, without the dramatic stunts (other than the casting) or outrageous new story developments we’ve seen in recent episodes. It was, to the extent that such a thing exists, simply a middle-of-the-road Glee episode. So for this one I’m just going to list a few things I liked and a few I didn’t, and let you take it from there:
* Will Schuester becomes an identifiable human again. The erratic behavior and unreliable characterization of the person who was supposed to be the anchor of the show has been a problem this season. But this episode brought him back to Earth, by having him deal with some unfinished business with Terri. Will had tried to move on rather quickly after the end of their marriage, and brought low by the monkey flu, he was forced to confront whether he was really ready to end things, for good, or go back to the comfort of a relationship where—for all their dysfunction—Terri really did understand him on a level that few people do. And I had to enjoy the show’s acknowledging and making fun of Will’s dated musical tastes.
* Kurt and Mercedes’ storyline. For some reason, both Kurt’s budding relationship with Blaine and his continued bullying actually played more organically as a subplot in this show than they did foregrounded in a Very Special Episode. Blaine seemed less like a deus ex machina and more like a person, and the scene with Mercedes as third wheel was handled brilliantly. (“Oh my gosh, I open my mouth and a little purse falls out!”) As for the bullying, this episode made me wonder whether it would have worked better had the show taken the reverse approach: gradually showing the bullying getting progressively more conspicuous and egregious and building to an episode in which Kurt finally deals with it.
* Paltrow’s performance. I’m surprised too! But while the casting was a little distracting, I actually thought she brought sympathy to Holly’s needy-yet-unable-to-commit character without overdoing it. And I had to dig her crazy-eyed portrayal of bipolar Mary Todd Lincoln.
* Show tunes! This is not necessarily my musical genre of choice, but Glee is, after all, a show not just about pop music but about kids who are choir geeks, and I do like when it indulges its Broadway side. (Another nice touch: when we saw that, in the audience reaction shot, Kurt was the one kid who was transported by Rachel’s number from Chicago; as much as they clash, they also have a lot in common.)
* Sue trying to destroy glee club, again again again. I had hoped against hope that, after Sue showed sympathy with New Directions during the voting at regionals last season, the show would be forced to move on from plots in which she hatches some plan to eliminate the club. Instead, the show fell right back into that pattern, with an exchange that acknowledged the abrupt shift back without really justifying it: “Destroy the glee club.” “I thought we were friends.” “Yeah, that got boring.”
* “Forget You.” Actually, I did not despise Gwyneth’s cleaned-up version of the Cee-lo Green song the way I thought I would, and the performance itself was actually pretty sweet and joyous. But pretty much by definition it couldn’t touch the original, and it would have been better to acknowledge that the song was being PG-ified than to pretend that, in the Glee universe, the song is actually called “Forget You.” (Also, why exactly is it surprising that Holly, who’s around 40, would know Cee-lo, who is 36?) Update: A follower on Twitter notes that “Forget You” is indeed the unfortunate radio edit of the song, so there’s that. I still have a hard time buying that Puck, of all people, would know it from its bowdlerized version, or refer to it thus with a straight face.
* Update: Also, That Mash-Up of “Singing in the Rain” and “Umbrella.” Probably seemed great on paper. Paper does not sing.
Not a Glee for the record books by any means, but a change of pace that had a collection of good small moments. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go listen to my Schoolhouse Rock soundtrack.