Spoilers for last night’s Glee coming up.
This week’s episode of Glee was the one about sex, because apparently the other ones weren’t. Like many first awkward adolescent sexual experience, this one began clumsily, lacked subtlety, involved some embarrassing moments and included too many unwelcome visions of Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow. But toward the end—and here your early sexual encounters may vary—it also managed to achieve a few moments of delight and honest emotion amid the fumblings.
“Sexy”—that was the title, and you know it was the theme because Will helpfully wrote it on a dry-erase board—was one of those Glee episodes that forced a theme on too many subplots at once and thus ended up running two episodes in parallel: one of them moving and genuine, another labored and ridiculous. (It reminded me, in a way, of “Blame It on the Alcohol,” another heavily theme-focused Glee, which began ludicrously and managed to weave itself into a cogent second half.) The first, good “Sexy” consisted of the Brittany/Santana and Kurt/Burt subplots (and about half of the Emma subplot, including the needless but inspired “Afternoon Delight”). The second consisted of everything else (a sex tape? The Warblers with a bubble machine?), especially any moment involving Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow. (I repeat the formulation because I kept reminding myself incredulously, “This woman won an Academy Award.”)
The last first. I recognize that some of my issues with Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow extend beyond the show itself. Since becoming Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow, she’s been on a quest to prove that she can do anything she sets her mind to and that the world has to let her. She can become our lifestyle coach! She can sing—real singing, with a real recording contract! She can do a guest spot on that wacky singing show, because she’s still down with the kids! It’s as if she’s a relative’s precocious child, putting on shows in her living room, and we, all of us, are the house guests who have to politely cheer.
All of which would be fine if she were contributing to the show instead of distracting from it. But her hammy Holly Holiday is just a purposeless and implausible excuse for Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow to be out-ray-geous and show that she can do comedy too! Even Glee’s most outlandish characters are generally anchored in some real conflict that keeps them from utterly floating off into the crazysphere, and gives their dramatic moments some heft. Holly, though, simply has some kind of generic “damage” in her past that’s an excuse for her to act out and give some veneer of humanity to her quickly engineered romance with Will.
Certainly some of this is the fault of the writing, but it’s incumbent on Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow to find the kernel of reality in this character. Instead, every moment of Holly’s time on screen suggests that the reason for her existence—like, evidently, that of the entire world—is to make sure that guest star Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow has a good time.
That said, I was seriously impressed with how the high-concept episode managed to find the pathos and heartbreak in a relationship that I never expected the show to take seriously: Santana and Brittany’s friendship with benefits. When we first found them fooling around in the first season, it seemed like just another example of Glee showing it could be outré and subversive in a primetime teen show. (The idea that the two would just conveniently use each other for pleasure also fit the show’s early characterization of both as rapacious mean girls.)
Yet, as Mr. Hummel says, sex does something to you even when you think it isn’t—this being the message that, as Glee meta-acknolwedged, it was hiding in the viewer’s dessert—and good on Glee for facing up to it. You could argue that Santana’s emotional turn was too sudden, but I don’t think it was: rather, it was the revelation that a relationship she (and the show) had treated casually was anything but all along. Naya Rivera, who’s had a strong run of episodes this season, did good work not just revealing Santana’s feelings but showing how difficult it was for her, while Brittany demonstrated that she may lack understanding of the basics of biology (and reality) but is emotionally more intelligent than she looks. And their separate-but-together performance on “Landslide”—look away from Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow making goo-goo eyes at Matthew Morrison! It’s not all about her!—was surprisingly poignant.
Also moving, but not surprisingly so, was Burt Hummel’s sit-down with son Kurt. Whenever Mike O’Malley and Chris Colfer have a scene together, it’s as if someone flipped the channel and we’re suddenly watching an alternate-universe version of Glee where the show treats every moment genuinely, even the comedic ones. Here too, the storyline picked up on an earlier one that I wondered if the show might simply drop: Kurt’s complaint to his father that he needs man-to-man advice from his dad as much (maybe more) than a straight son would.
That Kurt is uncomfortable hearing the advice when it actually comes is ironic but true to life. Partly because of his circumstances, partly because of his personality, Kurt is a relative sexual innocent—and yet he’s mature enough to know that he is, and to know why he is afraid of changing. (This also ties into the episode’s larger theme, which is that kids can at the same time be highly sexualized and yet sexually naive—even, or especially, very sexually active ones.) And O’Malley, who really seems to exist in a different emotional dimension from most of Glee’s adults, sells both Burt’s determination and awkwardness in helping his son, without turning it into an afterschool special.
Either of these storylines would have made an excellent note for “Sexy” to close on. Instead, we went out with Mr. Schu and America’s most famous substitute teacher locking lips, which suggests that Glee is not yet done with Holly Holiday. At least not until Academy Award® Winner Gwyneth Paltrow decides that she wants to be an astronaut.