After a long slide into mediocrity, the show proved it's back to greatness with this week's show
"It's not about doing your best any more. It's about doing better." In Tuesday night's brillaint episode of Glee, "Asian F," Mr. Schuster says that to Mercedes, to inspire her. But it's a line that applies to the hit Fox show itself.
Glee set the standard for "best" back in its first episode. It was irreverent and upbeat. The writing was sharp, the characterization of high school archetypes was fresh, and the storyline was equal parts outlandish and poignant. By the time the a capella intro to "Don't Stop Believing," that episode's rousing finale, began, the audience was rapt, ready to cheer. Over the next two seasons, Glee would sporadically achieve parts of that "best"—Brittany's funniest one-liners, Kurt's most inspiring character arcs, the most emotional music numbers. But for the most part, the show's potential was time and again thwarted. Season three's first trio of episodes has been a return to form for the series, with last night's outing, "Asian F," its best ever. And boy is that satisfying to say.
When it comes to TV, viewer satisfaction usually comes in the form of plot points, when a "will they or won't they" couple finally gets together (like Jim and Pam on The Office), a mystery is revealed (who shot J.R. Ewing on Dallas?), or a season-long goal gets its payoff (the East Dillon Lions win States on Friday Night Lights). But over the past two years, Glee burned through romantic pairings so flippantly and introduced (and then resolved) storylines so manically that viewer reward from singular plot points is now almost out of the question.
Similarly, most TV shows that make headlines for surprise spikes in quality begin with a lackluster series premiere and then improve creatively episode after episode (recent examples of this include Cougar Town or the current critics' darling, ABC's Happy Endings). The satisfaction comes when the series reaches the pinnacle of what it showed potential of becoming. The strange case of Glee, however, is that its launch was so high-profile, so heralded, and so different, that the world marvelled at how it managed to subvert the formula of what was expected from a hit show. "It portrays Christians as hypocrites while subtly pushing values that are pretty Christian," wrote Alex Pappademas in GQ. "It's as anachronistically sweet as Bye, Bye Birdie but gayer than Hedwig." The show was placed on a pedestal, the new benchmark for inventiveness, boldness, and the zeitgeist-seizing "it" factor when it came to television.
Whereas most shows spend their first season or two climbing to that height of critical praise, Glee actually started at that summit and has slowly been avalanching down. So the measure of satisfaction at Glee's return to success is different. It's the feeling that sticking through that downslide of quality was worth it, a combination of relief (no Heroes curse here) and relishment that the show is living up to its initial promise—and then some. What was it about "Asian F" that led to this?