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Glee Watch: The Birds and the Beiste

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Last American virgins: Rachel and Blaine contemplate some, er, character research in "The First Time."

Spoilers for last night’s Glee below:

Right up front, let me say that “The First Time” was the best episode, overall, of Glee season three. Before we get to the good stuff, though, we had to get through about fifteen minutes of complete contrivance. So let me gripe about those first, because I’m kind of a jerk that way.

“The First Time” is about sex and virginity, hence the name. And lest we miss that theme, it begins by morphing Artie into an overconfident, pushy director who questions Rachel and Blaine’s ability to play Maria and Tony without having become Jets all the way, as it were. (Later, he decides to counsel Coach Beiste, diagnosing her problem with intimacy. Artie, it seems, is now Dr. Drew Pinsky.)

The scene screams of a forced conflict designed to drive the plot: it’s as if Artie has become Will, assigning Rachel and Blaine the loss of their virginity by writing SEX on a whiteboard as their weekly project. I don’t buy it: I don’t buy [1] that Artie would become fixed on this idea (despite the intro about his trying to fake his way through directing by having strong opinions) [2] that Rachel and Blaine would take it to heart (“How are we, as virgins, supposed to follow that?”) and [3] two faculty members, however uncomfortable with the topic for their own reasons, would step back while a school musical director urged his stars to have sex for the good of the performance.

The thing is, you don’t need a contrived reason to make an episode of Glee about sex and sexual pressure. Here’s a perfectly good reason: the show takes place in a high school. Sex as a topic is kind of a given. And once we got past that setup—and that unfortunate Warblers Billy Joel video—this was a really fine episode with some genuine, believable character moments.

Lots of them too, and yet probably the best thing I can say for “First Time” is that it serviced a good half-dozen storylines but did not feel at all crowded. (Though her story got third billing, Dot Jones continued stunning work as Coach Beiste, one of Glee’s few characters who can be over-the-top funny and moving at the same time, rather than in alternation.) Kurt and Rachel’s respective virginity stories, for instance, were rooted in very real, existing relationship dynamics that needed no dues-ex-Artie to prod them.

In Kurt’s case, it was about his wanting to assert his identity as an out gay teen, but also his autonomy to be the kind of gay teen he wants to be: in his case, a sweet, even corny romantic–which itself is a rebellion against highly sexualized teen culture in general (manifest in many things, Glee among them) and against a specific sexualized subculture within the gay community (here represented by seeming Gossip-Girl outtake Sebastian, and the saddest gay bar in Ohio).

This, not any “Will they do it?” debate, was was made his storyline for me: in its own way, his fight with Blaine in the parking lot was as much a statement as his coming out itself. It’s his way of asserting that to him, being gay is not simply defined by sex, it’s defined by love. And his tete-a-tete with newly-minted bear Karofsky, a nice epilogue to that storyline from last season, built on that: it underscored the point that being gay does not in itself settle your identity, it’s simply one more step in figuring out what your identity is ultimately going to be, where you fit in.

Rachel and Finn’s will-they-won’t-they, meanwhile, hung on Rachel’s insecurity as a performer—it is a Rachel story, after all—but also on their often-unspoken realization that there are forces that may push them apart after graduation. This got brought to a head for Finn in his disappointment with the Ohio State recruiter; hearing that he’s reached his “ceiling” was a harsh and very real moment, and Cory Monteith really sold Finn’s feeling of being helpless and overmatched, unable to keep up with Rachel as she moves on to bigger things. I’m not sure how romantic it is to see them end up in bed essentially as pity sex (I half-expected Rachel to say, “Now I’m doing this for the right reason: Because I feel sorry for you”). But it rooted the decision in their larger story: it’s one way they can be together that’s still in their control.

Oh, yeah: I guess I should say something about the whole plot-about-teens-having-sex business. Um, it’s high school? I know some people hold stories set in school to a different standard, but I have a hard time with the idea that a TV show should (or can) try to influence teenagers’ sexual behavior–much less influence it toward never, ever having sex until marriage (or at least graduation).

The episode said a lot of things about sex, negative and positive, but the bottom line was that it made out first-time sex to be a big deal. That seems about right.

Now a quick hail of bullets:

* I hadn’t thought there was much Glee could do to switch up its musical format, but I very much liked the device of using rehearsal performances of West Side songs to comment on the action. I don’t know that the series can repeat the device once the musical is over, but I do hope it continues to mix things up.

* Likewise, while there was a certain TV level of production in the musical itself, it was a good move to make the effort to have it sound like an actual high school production in an auditorium, rather than a highly-produced iTunes download.

* “Poison Arrow” is easily my favorite ABC song—from back when I was a young person, before the Great War—so it was a little sad to see it now used as an auditory shorthand for “seedy Ohio nightclub.” But I cannot say it was entirely inappropriate.

* I’m not sure if the musical scenes are meant to convey the sense that Santana is currently blowing everyone else in New Directions away, but that’s how it looks to me.

* Will and Sue? Did not miss them one bit.