Tuned In

Glee Watch: Hold On to the Feelin'

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SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for the season finale of Glee coming up.

The first season finale of Glee was called “Journey” for a reason. At regionals, New Directions retraced their steps back to their roots, performing “Don’t Stop Believin'” as they did in the show’s pilot, as part of a Journey medley. Likewise, the show Glee itself returned to its roots, balancing its weirdness, snark and bombast with intimate stories of small-town high school life. And it, too, by showing what it can be at its best, made its case for staying around another year. (Or actually two, considering Fox has already picked up a third season.)

The episode started off shakily, by which I mean that it started off the same way that seemingly two-thirds of Glee episodes do: Will discovers a plot by Sue, Will charges into Figgins’ office, Figgins answers, “William, my hands are tied!” or something to that effect. In this case, the setup is that New Directions, by previous arrangement, must win or finish second or lose their space in the school. Setting them up to finish… third.

But rather than build to a climactic performance as in “Sectionals,” “Journey” refreshingly, and effectively, dispenses with New Directions’ Journey medley early on. This sets up one of Glee’s best and audacious musical numbers yet, and to the show’s credit, it’s in a performance by Vocal Adrenaline. The full-length “Bohemian Rhapsody,” its bombast cut with the operatics of Quinn’s delivery, was one of those examples of the weird, multivalent collision that is Glee working in every way: it was entertaining, over-the-top, risk-taking and simultanously utterly artificial and very real. Over its back nine episodes, Glee has often let the crowd-pleasing theatrical elements overwhelm the more mundane real-problems stories, but here Glee gave us both at once, making each element stronger in the process.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” raises the interesting question: who actually was better at regionals? From where I was sitting, the Journey medley was far from New Directions at its best. The Vocal Adrenaline performance was tight, inventive and well-choreographed. Watching New Directions reprise “Don’t Stop,” on the other hand—fist-pumping and jumping around on stage—felt less like watching New Directions try to win regionals and more like watching the Glee cast do a stage show: that is, it was a performance that you’re more likely to enjoy because it’s impressive (as, say, a judge would) but because you already know and like the singers (as a Glee fan would).

I don’t mean this as a criticism of the episode, by the way; just the opposite. It was important that “Journey” set the ending up so that New Directions did not seem to have been clearly cheated, but instead presented a situation where you credibly argue either group the winner. You could argue, as Rachel did, that New Directions was clearly better because they had “heart” (in which case the more “professional” Vocal Adrenaline looks, the colder and worse they are), or you could argue that this was just not New Directions’ best moment. In the end, New Directions wasn’t cheated; they just weren’t good enough to unambiguously win.

That’s important for two reasons. The first, of course, is just structurally setting up the second season: Rocky has to lose the first movie. Second, it set up the point that the show maturely made as the choir faced disbanding: that what each kid gained over the course of the season had nothing to do with winning and losing. That’s thematically important to Glee, because there’s a poignant reality at the show’s core. These kids are probably not actually going on to stardom. Most of them will go on to do other things, many of them right here in Lima, and what they can hope for is that they’ll be better, more rounded, teachers or pool cleaners or whatever else because of their experience in glee. In the end, this is just show choir, not American Idol.

Which ties into the third thing that the regionals performance set up: Sue’s about-face. We’ve spent the season seeing her as a terror wielding outsized influence at McKinley High, but that situation is funny partly because of what is brought home to her here: she’s really just a big (or tall) fish in a little Ohio pond. She lets herself write down New Directions in first place because she sees that—from the perspective of the wider world—they’re largely in the same situation. (Also because, as the entire season has gradually established, for all her arrogance and competitiveness, Sue takes being an educator very seriously.)

That doesn’t mean Sue is going to start liking Will any better, but it (hopefully) sets her up to be less of a cartoon villain in season two. You woul have to imagine that, after this, it’s going to be hard to write yet another string of “Sue has a plan that will destroy New Directions once and for all” plots. And that’s good, because Glee has gotten all the mileage out of it that it can.

An episode like “Journey” shows that Glee can move on and mature while still keeping what makes it entertaining. And even though it sets up a second season structurally like the first—another school year, another competition—in terms of characters and writing, it challenges the show to become more complex and potentially richer.

After a wildly erratic first season—including some of the TV season’s most transcendent moments and some of its most painfully wrong-headed ones—Glee is very much in the position that New Directions is in. It’s shown that it’s very good. And it’s shown that it’s capable of being better. What will make or break its next season is whether it accepts the responsibility of potential greatness, or if it decides that replaying the hits that got it where it is now is good enough.

“Journey,” like “Wheels” and “Dream On” earlier this season, was good enough that it means Glee’s makers have a high-class problem: they have to accept that they are making an actual good show, and hold themselves to the standards of one. In a year of writing about “Glee,” I’ve found that some of the people most defensive about criticism of the show—as is the case with much TV—are those who expect less of it: “It’s just entertainment, lighten up,” &c.

I disagree. “Journey” makes me want to tell Glee what a coach might tell a team. That was an excellent effort. And it was a good year. Now it’s time to take it to the next level.

Time for the hail of bullets:

* How fitting that the season should end with Sue Sylvester’s best Will’s-hair-insult of all time: “It looks like a briar patch. I expect racist animated Disney characters to pop out up and start singing songs about livin’ on the bayou.”

* Oh, and: “From Fort Wayne, Indiana, the not at all stupidly named Aural Intensity!”

* New Directions returned to the beginning with “Don’t Stop,” but with an important difference. The new version included solos for members like Puck and Santana, in the process showing that Glee, like New Directions, is much more of an ensemble now.

* Shelby’s adoption of baby Beth: Fastest TV adoption of all time? I think it takes longer to get a Congratulations card in the hospital gift shop.

* I don’t want to belabor the awesomeness of the cross-cutting in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but one brilliant moment was its contrasting a dancer dropping backwards to Quinn falling back on the hospital bed. Gorgeous, and deserves a re-watching.

* It can be uncomfortable when a show references its own zeitgeisty status, but Olivia Newton-John’s diss of New Directions was brilliant: “That whole ‘We’re inspiring! We’re a ragtag bunch of misfits!’ thing is so 2009.” Here’s to fall 2010.