Tuned In

Glee Watch: Four Wheels Good

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Spoilers for last night’s Glee coming up after the jump:

Good Lord, watching Glee is like watching a bungee jump, isn’t it? One week it’s way, way up, then a disjointed episode like the previous “Mash-Up” brings it down, then—bwaaaaaang!—an episode like last night’s “Wheels” sends it rocketing skyward again.

There have been episodes of Glee with better musical numbers. (I know others will disagree, but I thought “Dancin’ with Myself” was like one of those American Idol re-arrangements of a song that didn’t need to be re-arranged, while the closing wheelchair number was a little too much like an Idol group sing for me.) But all around, this played like an episode of a show that was confident, that knows its characters, a show in which people with actual human motivations do things that come out of their character and not out of the show’s need for something crazy to happen.

There was one standout song: the Kurt-and-Rachel showdown on “Defying Gravity,” which was an example of how Glee functions best as a musical: with performances that not only fit organically into the plot but actually work to advance the story and develop character.

The way Chris Colfer not only delivered the song but played his character in doing it—showing us Kurt’s pride, his pleasure and his heartbreak in what turns out to be throwing the contest—just piled emotion on emotion, and it brought the waterworks every time I watched the scene. If you haven’t yet, try watching the scene a second time, knowing that Kurt is blowing the song on purpose; his expression and manner are heartbreaking, while the lyrics take on an ironic meaning:

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(One nitpick, I suppose, is that you can’t literally imagine anyone in the show choir actually outsinging Rachel: realistically, Lea Michele simply blows the doors off anyone in the cast. But if the scene is played well enough, I can accept, for instance, that Colfer is playing someone who could conceivably beat her out.)

The A plot, meanwhile, showed Glee starting to draw more on its bench strength. This show should be the kind of series where any player can, as it were, take a solo, and Kevin McHale showed he could be much more than a sight gag in this episode. What worked especially well was the inversion of expectations with Artie and Tina: first we learn that her stutter has been a put-on all along, then—after she makes herself vulnerable confessing why she kept up the defensive ruse all these years—he doesn’t let her off the hook for pretending to have a disability. The scene is nicely played on both sides, in that it allows more than one take on the situation; you could see Artie’s reaction as being entirely justified or see him as a little harsh, precisely because there are no saints in Glee.

And speaking of no saints: Jane Lynch—holy crap. I suppose some fans might see the softer side of Sue Sylvester as a jump-the-shark moment for the show—threatening to take the fun out of her hard-assed mercilessness—but Lynch absolutely killed in the subplot, and I think it has the potential to make Sue not a different character, but an actual person. Having a special-needs sister and showing some actual empathy doesn’t undercut her toughness; as she tells Will, being tough on her Down Syndrome student isn’t cruel—it’s treating her like anyone else.

“You don’t know the first thing about me,” Sue told Will in one of their confrontations. And that, in a way, is the kernel of Glee, the thing that can get this show from entertaining to great if it chooses to go that way.

Glee is obviously a show about characters who fit into broad types, which can be an advantage starting out—you quickly get a grasp of who’s who—but can lead to stereotyping and lazy writing. You can take a show like that and make it into an easy parade of caricatures. Or you can make it a show about taking apart those caricatures, showing that—whether you’re looking at the alpha jock or the misfit—you really don’t know the first thing about a person just by looking at them. If only they can do the same with Terri some episode soon.

Ryan Murphy recently told the L.A. Times that this episode—which he considers a “game-changer”—will be more representative of the show going forward. I hope so (though there’s still the challenge of the fake-pregnancy albatross, not dealt with in this episode). Glee’s always been a pleasure, but if it raises its storytelling ambitions this way, it can really defy gravity.