Tuned In

Glee Watch: The Big Dance

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Spoilers for last night’s Glee follow:

Prom night, typically, is about failure to live up to expectations, the disparity between an impossible fantasy and an unattainable reality. It’s long stretches of mundanity, redeemed, if you’re lucky, by a few memorable moments.

(So I’m told. That, or your date comes down with mono like two days before prom, and you’ve already rented your tux and paid for the corsage, and now what are you going to do? But I digress.)

It was much the same with last night’s Glee, “Prom Queen.” The first 45 minutes or so was fairly unremarkable, structured around the sort of stories you’d expect on a high school TV drama about prom (plus the reappearance of Jesse St. James, world’s oldest recent high school graduate). I suppose the episode was an improvement for viewers who have complained about Glee’s being unfocused and random: it was a prom episode, entirely composed of prom stories about prom.

But I’m going to disregard most of that to focus on the last quarter or so of the episode, which effectively and surprisingly returned to the bullying arc of much of the season and to the show’s themes of outsiders finding strength in numbers. Maybe other viewers saw it coming, but focusing Kurt’s story on his father’s (and Blaine’s) worries about literal gay-bashing made it that much more of a surprise when he was blindsided by a nonphysical but equally cruel attack, delivered with crushing understatement. (Glee is such a frenetic and busy show that when the scene goes entirely silent for any reason, it’s that much more effective.)

One difficulty any show will have with presenting an issue like anti-gay bullying is balancing hope against realism: Glee’s viewers don’t want to see Kurt utterly defeated, but it would be an equal or greater disservice to gay fans (all fans, really) to have him suddenly solve his problems completely. To borrow a phrase, it gets better, but it doesn’t get better suddenly, in five minutes at prom.

So we see Kurt first getting comfortable with the idea that maybe he really has reached the point where the rest of the students accept, if not embrace, his being gay. (Even as Burt, and Blaine too, suggest that—with his kilt as an example—he’s not just hoping his classmates accept him but defying them not to.) The sucker punch in the prom-couple vote reveals, with just the right, slight touch of pathos, that silent contempt can be as hurtful as overt confrontation.

This kind of material can always come close to afterschool special territory, which is why it’s important to have it in the hands of an actor as good as Chris Colfer, who is able to show that (1) Kurt is wounded and scared, (2) Kurt is determined and not beaten and (3) that all of this is hard for him—he’s not just an example from a positive-image pamphlet, but a kid who wants above all to have a great prom.

His solution is, as he says, to own the label of “prom queen.” The difference between a compliment and an insult here, after all, is about intent and tone: if Kurt had been called a prom queen by his own friends, affectionately, it would have been entirely different—he has no problem, for instance, playing the role of gay-friend-makeover consultant when the girls pick out their prom dresses. (“Go with God, Satan!”) So he decides not to run, nor to make an angry speech, but to act as if the write-in campaign was meant as an honor.

Here too Glee is in tricky territory, but what I liked about Kurt’s response and the resolution was that it didn’t suggest that Kurt had vanquished homophobia—he just made a gesture that got him some laughs and some respect and the ability to hold his crown high and dance with his friends. (The positive response from the students, presumably including those who had wrote in his name, seemed entirely plausible to me, by the way: the whole prank seemed like the kind of passive-aggressive, anonymous act that could as easily be redirected by a ballsy one-liner. Put another way, I would not be surprised that some of the kids who laughed at Kurt as prom queen, when their friends were doing it too, would be willing to laugh with a character like “Kurt Hummel” in a TV show.)

Kurt’s story in that last act, meanwhile, was framed by a cutting between stories—Santana’s, Quinn and Rachel’s, Finn’s—which reminded me of the cross-cutting Glee has done in some of its competition episodes. All of which returns to its theme of community—that is, that not all these characters’ problems may be equal, but that they’re best able to handle them when they recognize what they have in common. Everyone—even, as Karofsky shows, the prom king—can feel like an outsider on prom night.

Ahem, again, so I’m told. Quick hail of bullets:

* Seriously, was anyone out there saying, “God, I wish Glee could find a way to write that incongruously old-looking guy from Broadway back into the show as Rachel’s ex-boyfriend”? (I realize Jonathan Groff is only 26—not ancient in Glee-actor years—but when Jesse made the refernce to Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, I figured he must have bought the album on vinyl, his sophomore year of high school.)

* You’re the worst POW ever! John McCain is rolling over in his grave!”

* I’ll defer to the young people out there: do high schools still offer Home Ec anymore? (Or is that reference as anachronistic as “afterschool special”?)

* “They must have sensed that I’m a lesbian. Do I smell like a golf course?”

* I don’t always find Glee’s self-referential meta-humor as funny as its writers seem to, but I had to laugh at Sam’s response to Will’s writing “PROM” on the whiteboard: “Please tell me we’re not doing songs about prom.”