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Like "A Midsummer Night's Dream"...For Better or Worse.
on May 31, 2011
There's been quite a bit of truly justified criticism of "Glee"'s second season. I myself had to force myself to wait a few weeks after the airing of the "New York" finale to actually try to write a coherent review on this sophomore season. Bearing that in mind, let's take the route of this season's first episode and recap what was the first season of "Glee":
"Glee" tells the story of a tiny, bullied glee club (a show choir where the participants sing and dance to either pop or showtunes or both without actually performing a musical) and how both the power of music and a kind mentor who believes in them helps twelve misfits forge a family and strive to share how special they are with the world, no matter how much is stacked against them. Although it sounds like a strangely cheesy premise and an unlikely TV show, "Glee"'s madcap formula, amazing music performances, terrific acting, intriguing characters, and potently quotable one-line zingers launched it into the stratosphere and it quickly became an international sensation and success. Within these plot lines, "Glee" tackled the sensitive issue of teen pregnancy (and how religion can impact that issue) wonderfully, along with showcasing the struggles of teenagers with body issues, the confusing adolescent world of sexuality, popularity, friendship, family, loyalty, bullying and peer pressure. Although there were a few misses in the first season, overall the season itself was one of the brightest and freshest new shows around, and it won several awards for it as well.
There's the rub, however: "Glee" is handled by three showrunners (Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan), all of whom apparently decided that they could do no wrong. They flatly refused to bring in other writers or directors for season two, and since they were still selling massive amounts of music from the show and getting millions of views from their devoted audience of "gleeks", every single thing that was wrong about season one got blown out of proportion in season two, while everything that was right fairly faded to the background. The result? Season two of "Glee" started off strongly but by the second half meandered into sloppily handled plotlines that were often began and concluded in the space of one episode, characters acting severely out of character just for the sake of an episode's "theme", "theme of the week" episodes that were no longer touching or interesting but instead cheesy PSA-type episodes, bloated importance of guest stars, and a season finale that failed in every way that season one's finale succeeded.
Where on earth did "Glee" go so wrong? Season two's worst mistake was the characters acting out of character as "Glee" committed the worst mistake that any sophomore effort of a creative work, be it a film, television show or novel, can make: it completely erased any and all character development from the first season and started the characters off fresh. Rachel Berry, the club's star, who learnt the mistakes of her selfishness and made friends and learned how to lead a team in season one? Back to being a self-centered and often downright mean diva who stepped on each of her teammates to get what she wanted. Finn Hudson, the loveable popular dummy with a heart of gold who learned how to be a star and effectively lead the glee club and also learned that popularity was meaningless because he liked the glee club losers better than the popular football jerks? Right back to being a selfish, obsessed-with-being popular jerk to all of his friends.
However, the two characters this affected the worst? Firstly, Mr. Schuester. Mr. Schue was once the teacher everyone wished they could have: he put his students above everything, he pushed them, he motivated them, he guided them to being the best that they could be. Season two saw our once-beloved Schue essentially hitting a midlife crisis, using his glee club as an excuse to try to get closer to his now-unavailable crush Emma Pillsbury the guidance counselor, acting like a spoiled brat, and continually believing himself better than what he was. The second character was, of course, Quinn Fabray. Quinn began as the pretty and mean popular girl who became pregnant and became part of the heart of season one as she made true friends amongst the glee club, learned the value of family, and overcame her own meanness when the club rallied around her during the pregnancy issue. Season two saw absolutely no mention of her being pregnant anywhere ever. She inexplicably broke up with Puck (no explanation was ever given) and rejoined the Cheerios because she suddenly (like Finn) needed to be popular again. Although some of this damage was repaired by her new boyfriend Sam (newcomer Chord Overstreet), that repair was itself destroyed even worse later on. I won't even mention the destruction of Sue Sylvester, who transformed into a meaningless, cartoonish villain who was rarely even funny by the end and required a brutal character death just to reign her back in.
Despite all of this, however, season two began on a strong note (with the exception of the hot mess that was the "Britney/Brittany" Britney Spears tribute episode; despite some truly hilarious one-liners courtesy of Brittany (Heather Morris), this was likely one of the worst episodes of "Glee" to ever air) as it took a central theme: bullying and its impacts. Openly gay Kurt (masterfully played by Chris Colfer) took center stage as the school's relentlessly homophobic popular crowd was highlighted, leading to the explosive "Never Been Kissed" episode. Rachel's newfound (or oldfound, as the case may be) selfishness led to other glee club members to fight for their chance to shine and wounded the glee club badly when her bullying led to new student Sunshine Corozon (a criminally underused Charice) defecting to New Directions' mortal enemies Vocal Adrenaline, and Schuester's selfish and out of character behavior led to his kids whole-heartedly choosing hilarious new substitute Holly Holiday (wonderfully played by Gwenyth Paltrow) over him, and Santana's mean insistence on hiding from her feelings by attacking other people blew up spectacularly in her face.
In fact, despite two truly terrible episodes ("Britney/Brittany" and the wretchedly badly done "Rocky Horror Glee Show"), season two was off to a wonderful note, until the hiatus. When "Glee" returned after its touching Christmas episode, however, to the spectacularly overwrought Superbowl episode, things began going downhill fast, and they stayed that way for the rest of the season with a few notable exceptions. The biggest mistakes?
1) Rachel and Finn's Story: While I myself am not a "Finnchel" shipper (in "Glee", the portmanteaus of the couples are so important an episode was named after one), what was done to their relationship was criminally bad writing. Rachel wanted revenge on Finn for something he had done and so kissed his friend Puck. Finn broke up with Rachel and refused to forgive her for cheating on him...while he convinced Quinn to cheat on her boyfriend with him. Finn then went on to string both Rachel and Quinn along by emotionally cheating on Quinn with Rachel, then dumping Quinn out of the blue to return to Rachel. None of it made sense.
2) Quinn's further character murder. See above.
3) Kurt's storyline. What began as a heartwrenching display of how bullying gone too far can have devastating consequences quickly turned mind-numbing. While not to give away too many spoilers, Kurt was physically, emotionally, and verbally abused, which escalated into something like sexual assault and physical intimidation, before his life was threatened, causing him to leave the school for a different school with a no-bullying policy. Despite the wonderful plotline of Blaine Anderson (newcomer Darren Criss), Kurt rapidly reverts back to his selfish season one "bitch" persona from the first few episodes, then under one flimsy excuse switches right back to McKinley and goes back to being bullied, essentially rendering his entire plotline meaningless, and then goes on to remark "It's been a good year for Kurt Hummel" at the end of the season. Did I mention his father randomly had a heart attack and almost died in one of the season's better episodes? Really, writers?
4) The finale. The finale (it bears repeating). As I've said, season one's finale was wonderful. Season two's finale was essentially one giant episode centered around Finn and Rachel -- which in itself wouldn't have been so bad, except for it was wrapped up very badly -- while giving us some bad music, a wasted appearance by Jonathan Groff as Jesse St. James, and absolutely no resolution for any of the characters, particularly Kurt or his chief tormentor Karofsky. The ending was predictable and somewhat dim, and was generally an uneven end to an uneven season.
5) The self-contained episodes: NO MORE PSA episodes, please. Deal with an issue for teenagers over a two-episode arc where the lesson is meaningful, like season one did. Also, the plotlines such as Blaine's sort-of-maybe bisexuality that were introduced in one episode and wrapped up a half an hour later were just sloppy and useless.
But what did season two do right?
1) When it was handled well, season two's episodes were wonderful. From the good parts of Kurt's storyline to the heartwrenching religion episode centered around Burt Hummel's heart attack, to a surprisingly impactful episode centered around sexuality, season two's good moments shone like diamonds.
2) New characters. The initial cast of "Glee" will graduate by the end of next season (or some of them at least). Rather than do something terrible like getting rid of all the old cast members and introducing new ones in one fell swoop, the integration of Sam and Lauren into the existing was well done. The introduction of Kurt's new boyfriend(!) Blaine was wonderfully well-handled and the a capella Warbler's group was a fresh voice to the music; in fact, Kurt and Blaine's relationship was the only one really handled well this season.
3) Original songs! "Glee" took a chance and came up with original songs, ranging from the silly ("Trouty Mouth", "My Cup") to the downright good and fun ("Hell to the No", "Loser Like Me", and the epic "Light Up the World"), to the emotional power ballads ("Get It Right"), to the very bad attempts at emotional power ballads ("Pretending").
4) Character journeys. While I have been disgruntled at some character developments, Santana and Brittany were heartbreaking to watch; when left alone from Finn Rachel became a truly sympathetic character; Sam and Blaine and Lauren were all wonderfully well-done; and despite its flaws the episode "Born This Way" dealt masterfully with the characters confronting their flaws and fears.
In the end, what can be said of season two? It failed to live up to season one, that much is obvious. But the writers are actually hiring a new team of staff writers, so clearly they are learning something. Ultimately, it was still an enjoyable season despite its flaws. If anything, season two was a lesson in itself -- no one and nothing is perfect. "Glee" has succeeded despite this to show that in its imperfections some of the characters became even more interesting. What's in store for season three? None of us are demanding a perfect show. But if some of the problems of this season can be learned from and the first season can be used as an example, we might get something truly remarkable.
One thing is certain: "Glee" certainly isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and despite all of its flaws we just can't stop believin'.