For my birthday last week, my husband gave me a red-and-white classic Firebird Adidas tracksuit like the one favored by the scene-chewing, deliciously Machiavellian Sue Sylvester on “Glee.” It’s harder to find the full Firebird than you might imagine, and Chris earned major brownie points for laboring to indulge my Sue fantasies. After all, his tastes lean more toward the Cheerios, Coach Sylvester’s championship squad of pony-tailed, pom-pom toting hotties, than to Sylvester herself. (Let me tell you how hard it was to find high-heeled platform sneakers like the ones the girls sport in the“I Bust Your Windows” number.) And, truth be told, at only 5-foot-4, I lack the proper stature to carry off the ensemble with anything approaching Sue’s authority. (I also, as she would point out, lack her bone structure.) Nonetheless, I love my shiny new Firebird and plan on wearing it to future editorial meetings whenever I am feeling aggrieved. First, of course, I’ll need to get me a good bullhorn.
I share this by way of acknowledging than I am an unabashed Gleek. Really my entire household is. My husband and I watch—and rewatch—the Tuesday night show religiously. Monday evenings, Chris cruises the web for previews of the upcoming episode; Wednesday mornings, our 4- and 6-year-olds are allowed to watch the musical numbers from the previous night’s episode. (Except for “Like a Virgin.” I didn’t feel up to explaining that one.) Our son goes to bed listening to “Glee” songs on his iPod, and his sister is growing her hair out so she can have a ponytail just like Santana’s. This, admittedly, suggests some questionable parenting on our part. You never realize how explicit Paul Anka can be until you hear your first-grader belting out “You’re Having My Baby.”
And yet … as the season finale looms, I find myself more relieved than disappointed. For all its charms—including the impressive gamble of turning Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” into a surprisingly touching ballad—“Glee,” in the second half of its first season, seems already to have lost some of the magic. I’m hoping a summer off will give everyone involved an opportunity to regroup.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the frenetic energy that defines the show would quickly wear thin. Real-life high school is emotionally exhausting enough. Experiencing it through the eyes of a bunch of show-choir drama queens calls for serious stamina.
That said, I generally like the speed with which the show barrels along. If anything, I was ecstatic to see the parallel Quinn and Terri pregnancy-deception plotlines resolved before the first part of the season ended last December. But the season’s back nine episodes seem to have abandoned story arcs altogether. We know the New Directions gang is kind of rambling its way toward regionals, but they are doing so without any narrative threads pulling us along with them. Unlike the road to sectionals, there has been less tension in the run-up to regionals than in a sprung girdle. Nothing has been brought in to replace the pregnancy plots. The Rachel-Finn romance has been abandoned, as has the Ms. Pillsbury-Mr. Schue romance that bubbled along for the entire first part of the season. (How long has it been since we’ve even seen sweet, crazy little Emma?) After the first episode of the back nine, evil wife Terri has been disappeared as well, only to pop up suddenly last week to sign some divorce papers and ostensibly help Finn prepare his funk number—though she never actually did that.
Meanwhile, the path of Jesse St. James, the star of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline, has been enough to give a girl whiplash. When Jesse first appeared on the scene to woo Rachel, we were supposed to think he was out to sabotage New Directions. But he and Rachel got cuddly for—what?—two episodes before Jesse got his knickers in a bunch over some absurd music video Rachel made that hurt his feelings. He vanished for a couple of weeks; returned for one episode (in which he and Rachel seemed to reconcile and we learned he’d really been sent to tell her that the coach of Vocal Adrenaline was her biological mom); skedaddled again for another week; then resurfaced in the penultimate episode and was so miffed at Rachel that he smashed an egg on her face in front of his Vocal Adrenaline pals, whom he had at some point rejoined. He wore a look of pained ambivalence as he did it, however, so who knows what the next twist will bring.
But, increasingly, who cares? The show has taken on a herky-jerky, scatter-shot feel, as if the creators are dashing from one set piece to another without much thought to where they’re headed (if anywhere). Clearly, the desire to have musical themes—like the Madonna episode or the GaGa-inspired Theatricality episode—is driving the action more than any actual plot line. The result can be summed up in three words: “Sloppy, freakshow babies!”
I know. I know. Screw the plot. It’s all about the musical numbers. And, believe me, no one loves a good song-and-dance more than I. (OK, maybe Chris.) But even those are starting to slip, perhaps in the frenzy to cram more songs into each hour. (The lure of iTunes revenues is strong.) But that whole quantity over quality cliché is hard at work here. Was there any number from last week’s “Funk” that was remotely inspired or even memorable? Puck, Finn, and Mercedes’s Marky Mark? Eh. The grand funk-nale supposedly so awe-inspiring it blew Vocal Adrenaline’s mind? Yawn. And during Mr. Schue’s gyrating, extremely misguided seduction of Sue, I found myself tossed between WTF confusion and low-grade nausea. That bit of weirdness—in addition to not really fitting either character—didn’t even qualify as high-quality camp. Matthew Morrison looked constipated, for God’s sake.
But here’s what really worries me. This show dances along that extremely tricky line between winking, ironic cheese and earnest, gooey cheese. When done well, the result can be irresistible. (“The Simpsons” adroitly navigated a similar sweet-and-snarky mix for years.) But the balance is hard to maintain, and, when it is off even a little, “Glee” resembles less a quick-witted, fast-footed post-post-modern confection than an ABC Afterschool Special. Mercedes’s up-with-people speech about feeling fat and unloved as she turned the Cheerios assembly into a group hug was something you’d have expected young Nicholas to come out with on “Eight is Enough” in 1978. Ditto Finn’s moving observation that the Glee clubbers “are all freaks--but we’re freaks together, and we shouldn’t have to hide it.” Not even the fact that the boy was dressed in a floor-length red rubber dress when he delivered this pabulum could make it palatable.
And, Lord, please spare us another heavy-handed life lesson ala Finn’s dragging Rachel to see a quadriplegic ex-football star as a way to help her understand she is more than her voice. Far from inspiring, the gimmick bordered on the offensive. (As, for that matter, does Quinn’s growing self-identification as a mistreated minority. I’m sorry, pregnancy is a temporary condition, not a census category.) I realize people don’t tune in to “Glee” for subtlety, but come on! The series is supposed to be about high schoolers, not written by them.
None of which is to say that I am not still hopelessly devoted to McKinley High’s melodious misfits. (Puck as Sammy Davis Jr.? Heaven.) But from the beginning, this show smelled like it had a short shelf life, and I am more than a little nervous that slippage like this during freshman year presages a potentially devastating sophomore slump. That would break my heart. “Glee” is not great television, but it is often great entertainment. And who doesn’t need a dose of that these days?
Besides, I hate the thought of retiring the Firebird so soon.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.