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Glee Watch: Back to Basics?

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Preparing for Glee‘s season 3, the producers stressed repeatedly that they would be easing up on the stunts (musical and casting) and getting back to the basics of their show. Which raises a couple of questions: what are the “basics” of Glee anyway, and how can a show have gotten so far from them in the course of a mere two seasons?

The season premiere, “The Purple Piano Project,” was not a particularly good episode of Glee. But it did at least suggest where the third season of the show could find its strong core stories, and also—Vegas bookmakers should start laying odds on this—the numerous ways in which it could get sidetracked into tangential ridiculousness.

I’ve said it before, but at its heart Glee is a story that’s affecting and almost too painfully real: kids in a small town who have various dreams and fantasies of escape, but who sometimes, cruelly, have to see how those dreams smash up against reality. When the show focuses on a core of characters—Rachel, Kurt, Finn, to an extent Quinn—and takes them seriously without piling on insane plot twists, it gives the show stakes and grounding. And that’s the difference between making a show that’s a musical—where music is the natural way to express the characters’ confused emotions—and making a show that’s a random jukebox.

So, Finn being paralyzed by the thought of leaving the cocoon of McKinley, glee and football: that’s a story that can carry the season. Rachel and Kurt confronting the possibility that they may not be big enough fish to leave their little pond: that’s a story. Quinn reacting to impending graduation and all that she’s been through by acting out with The Skanks: that’s a story (one of the advantages of writing about teenagers is that sudden dramatic shifts in behavior aren’t unrealistic, they’re a part of finding identity).

But Glee’s big problem is that it has developed a gigantic number of characters to service, each with their rooting sections among the audience, and it’s not willing to say no to any of them. So to give characters something to do, it sends them on ridiculous detours that can be reversed or forgotten quickly whenever the show decides to take them seriously again. Thus Sue runs for Congress—God help us—and attacks arts education (using goofy logic that undercuts how the show has established her, whatever else she is, as a serious, well-informed educator). Why? Because Sue is popular and the job of Sue is to attack Glee club and say, “I will destroy you.” (The episode even highlighted the 180 she’s doing following her sister’s funeral, as if being self-aware about negating character developments justifies it.)

We have Will, again, oversharing about his personal life in the middle of a professional argument. We have Santana expelled from Glee because of an arbitrary, cartoonish mission from Sue, because someone decided to have a “Santana is split from the club” arc and this was the quickest way to do it. And after a season in which Kurt very seriously made the decision to leave for Dalton because of bullying, Blaine suddenly transfers to McKinley because Blaine needs to be at McKinley. (With no evidence of being conflicted over his loyalty to the Warblers or of issues with his parents over his switching to what we are given to understand is a much crappier school in senior year, for a boyfriend. But hey, he sang “It’s Not Unusual” and those were cool red pants!)

I don’t plan to review Glee weekly this season, though I’ll keep watching and I’ll post when there’s something especially postworthy. If Glee actually does manages to find its emotional core and turns itself around, I’ll be happy. If not, I can see still watching for the Brittanyisms. (“What are your plans for the future?” “Wait. Are you working on a time machine too?”) As for Glee’s back-to-basics turn, though, “The Purple Piano Project” mostly left me wondering what Glee thinks its basics are.