Look, anytime you have an episode in which the most dramatic event involved a rock-salt laced Slushie potentially blinding one of your leads, you know you’re in for a special hour on your hands. And so it was with “Michael,” just the latest in “Glee”’s attempts to not even bother trying to make sense on a basic level. There’s little to really review. The show’s review-proof, and consciously so. There’s absolutely no way to logically analyze what just beamed into our brains for an hour.
Let’s take the central conceit of Michael Jackson being at the heart of a new war between New Directions and The Warblers. One could, and probably should, argue for Jackson’s place in the pop pantheon. But I’ve not said that one is currently a teenager, which makes the obsession with him this week slightly odd. On Twitter tonight, it was clear that there was a schism between people my age, who remember “Billie Jean” when it first aired on MTV, and people a lot younger than me, who are surprised to learn that MTV used to play videos. Had this hour been an exploration of how Jackson paved the way for artists currently on the charts, then maybe the students could have gone through Jackson’s extensive back catalog in order to discover songs that were personal to them. But no. When Will writes, “WWMJD?” on his White Board of Doom, everyone already knows.
It’s a silly thing to quibble over, I know. “Glee” did a Michael Jackson episode because, well, “Glee” wanted to do a Michael Jackson episode. But “Glee” also thinks just throwing that idea up on its own version of Will’s White Board of Doom is good enough as an episode of television. Sometimes, the songs managed to coincide with something actually happening with a character’s arc*. Other times, characters just recreated Jackson’s original videos with remarkable fidelity. And yet other times, they sang “Black and White” and made me wonder if the entire episode was somehow about racism without me knowing about it.
* I have to asterisk this, because I managed to use the word “arc” when applied to characters on “Glee.” I promise this won’t happen again.
Look at the way Blaine kicked things off, before getting a rock-salted Slushie to the cornea. (I have to keep typing that out, because I’m semi-convinced it couldn’t have possibly happened.) He is psyched about Michael week, and knows the perfect song to start the week. That song? “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” THAT is how much effort goes into the writing of a typical episode. It’s whatever is easiest at that moment to achieve, and if getting into a song is organic, then awesome. If it comes screaming out of left field like an auto-tuned banshee, then so it goes.
All of this depresses me to no end, because every once in a while the show connects music to emotion in ways that justify the program’s existence. Rachel agreeing to marry Finn is beyond thunderdome levels of dumb, but there’s something really powerful about the way he set up “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” He tells her, “I always feel like you hear me better when I’m not talking.” Well, that’s pretty much musical theatre in a nutshell, no? Singing what you can’t say? It’s a throwaway line, one that I’m far from sure the writers of the show ever take to heart. But watching Finn/Rachel sing, or Sam/Mercedes in a sweet, pared down version of “Human Nature,” is to watch the show at its best. It’s really small, really intimate, and uses pop songs in order to sell emotions, not records.
It’s a lot better than the college drama interspersed throughout the hour. “Glee” theoretically shows a lot of people who will never leave Lima. That’s not a bad thing, to be sure. But there’s always a sense lurking on the edges that while everything inside the practice room is hunky dory, the world can be a benignly cruel place. (Except when you’re restaging “Bad” in an abandoned parking lot. Then life gets REAL, and REAL FAST.) But no: both Rachel and Kurt get into the finalist rounds of NYADA. Not surprising, but not exactly dramatic. Quinn, though? Here’s what I wrote a few months ago: “Quinn should be going to jail. Instead? She’s probably going to Yale. Kill me in the face.” Or, in light of tonight’s episode, throw a rock-salted Slushie in my face. So of course she gets into Yale, because why not? It’s not like we’ve heard a lick about this plot since it was ludicrously introduced.
Everything in her speech to New Directions about overcoming obstacles rang false. Not because the details in them were inherently impossible, although that had something to do with it. No, it rang false because it detailed events we hadn’t actually seen for ourselves. Getting Quinn from “planting evidence in order to have an adult woman framed for child abuse” to “into an Ivy League school” should have taken more than eleven minutes of screen time. I’m guessing. I’m not a professional television writer. But I’m willing to wager my assessment here is correct. It’s a symptomatic problem for the show: rather than painstakingly lay out a character’s trajectory, they just skip to what they perceive are the cool, important, or emotional moments. But without the groundwork, none of the moments themselves register as they should.
After all this, New Directions won’t even perform Michael Jackson at Regionals. Santana manages to record Sebastian detailing his evil plot, in which he’s the Gus Fring to Santana’s Walter White. (“I’m the one with underboob!” she bellows, or should have.) So it’s no MJ for anyone, apparently, when it comes to the upcoming competition. That makes sense, in that the show hates to repeat musical numbers. It’s harder to sell iTunes singles if you keep reusing the same ones, after all. I understand the show not wanting to pull a “That Thing You Do!” and drive a specific tune into our brain until we cry uncle. And that’s fine, so long as each episode contributes to their understanding of what makes them work as a group. I just don’t know what they learned this week, aside from what can be concealed inside Santana’s bra.
If “Glee” worked in ways related to Finn’s earlier description, a lot of these complaints would go away. I really don’t watch a musical for its book. A smart book helps, but strong songs with strong emotional content go a long way towards covering that up. Only about 15% of tonight’s musical content actually connected, which made the remaining 85% frustrating rather than transporting. (Blaine had to be sitting there in bed thinking, “They know my name isn’t Ben, right?”) Given that The King of Pop was one of the all-time best in transporting people through his music, that’s a disappointing percentage. Then again, it’s been a disappointing season. So who should be surprised that this was the outcome?
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Were you a Michael Jackson fan going into this episode? Did you leave as one? What are the odds that Rachel leaves for NYC still engaged? What would you put in a Slushie in order to wound your mortal enemies? Sound off below!