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?
The elements from those early, "best" episodes were back, for starters. Brittany's performance of "Run the World (Girls)" was thrilling. It was the most adrenaline-pumping musical number the series has produced: intricately choreographed, expertly shot and edited, perfectly woven into the story, and performed exquisitely by Heather Morris. It was witty, too—Kurt is told he looks like "Jimmy Fallon's butch daughter"; Emma is embarrassed by her parents because they are "ginger supremacists." And, as with the most memorable episodes of Glee, it packed an emotional punch that left viewers, as Coach Beiste says, "emotionally pancaked." In other words, Kleenexes were necessary, but, unlike last season, no patronizing, ripped-from-an-after-school-special story line was used to require them. Instead, with the aching finale of "Fix You," the tears came from empathy.
But above all, there were stakes. Glee began as a story of a small group of high school underdogs desperate to make a mark. Anyone's who's been through high school knows the importance of feeling accepted, making Glee relatable. But thanks to its permeating sarcasm and wink at cliches, the show is still escapist. "Asian F" delivered on both counts. A stellar student, football player, devoted boyfriend, and the dancing star of New Directions, Mike Chang gets in trouble with his father for failing to live up to expectations: He earns an A- in chemistry. An Asian F. His father threatens to take away everything in order to get Mike's grade back up: His sense of belonging (by forcing him to quit glee club) and his passion (by making him stop dancing).
In a standout scene, Mike, and Glee, pay homage to a classic movie musical moment that's been used in everything from Footloose to A Chorus Line—the performer dances out his life frustrations, pirouetting-as-catharsis until he realizes that the only place he feels happy is on stage. It's a trademark Glee moment. A traditional, well-recognized scene or device is recreated on the show, but, in an episode that played the Tiger Mom stereotype for laughs alongside a subplot about red-headed racism, the moment becomes cutting edge and anything but cliched.
When I would complain last year that Glee had become disappointing, the response I was so often met with was, "So what?" It's just a silly TV show that's not as good as it used to be, they'd say. In many respects, I was having the same reaction that Mike Chang's father was having. The show was not living up to expectations or potential, and when you love something, there is simply nothing as frustrating and egregious. An insecure musical theater nerd who loved rooting for the underdog, I was still a fan of the Glee, its unabashed belting of Stephen Sondheim, its skewering of high school cliches, and its shameless tear-jerking. But where it used to be getting an A+, it was at best just earning an A-, a "TV Critic F." Glee began by making television that could only be described as remarkable, and began getting by on episodes that could most generously be described as mindless entertainment.
That the series is back to producing episodes like "Asian F," and is the rare show willing to push itself out of a creative slump and challenge itself not to skate by, well that's not just satisfying—it fills me with glee.