Glee, “Grilled Cheesus”

With a sensitive subject that deserves subtly, “Grilled Cheesus” could have been much, much worse. Glee and religion seems like such an awful pairing considering the series’ desire to tell stories without an ounce of subtly or nuance, but this episode is surprisingly solid, with a clear direction and message without getting too bogged down in the things that usually derail episodes of the series.

Despite the fact that Glee doing religion is a terrible idea in theory, Finn is made out to be even more stupid that he usually is and a number of the musical numbers don’t really work in the way the series thinks they do, I actually really, really love “Grilled Cheesus.” It’s less pushy and preachy than I ever expected it to be, the character beats are mostly well-executed and the series’ best two actors (Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch) do some tremendous work. Is there any question now that when the series really wants to go for the jugular, it should always put Kurt in the middle of the action?

One of the series’ biggest problems (in my eyes) is that anytime they handle “big” issues fairly well — like Kurt’s sexuality in the first half of season one — they tend to overwrite it with problematic representations later — Kurt in the second half of S1 — so there’s a lack of consistency or natural character development. But oddly, because the series has never really focused on religion as a major issue aside from the Judiasm-powered relationship of Puck and Rachel, “Cheesus” can exist as a standalone exploration of the issue and what it means to the characters without seeming too ridiculous or complicated in relationship to past developments.

In that sense, it’s nice to learn that Mercedes goes to church every week, Finn’s generally ambivalent (or ignorant?) towards religion in general and that Kurt is an atheist. These are all beats that we could have easily guessed based on the type of character/people they are, but the episode presents these varying viewpoints without slamming into the audience’s face, and really don’t slam them into the disbelieving Kurt’s face either. Sure, various members of New Directions want to pray with/for Kurt’s father when he has health issues and falls into a coma and Mercedes really wants to Kurt to come to her church, but none of it is done with the intent to convince or convert the club’s most doubting member.

Instead, their religious views are only brought up after Finn’s stupidity-fueled development and only when Kurt comes forward with his true views does anyone really question anyone else. And even when most of the episode followed in this pattern, I absolutely suspected that the end of the episode would see Kurt and the also doubting Sue see the errors of their ways, but for the most part, it didn’t happen. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for Glee it is. Characters are usually supposed to see the error of their ways at the end of the episode, but here, distinctive viewpoints are allowed to exist without much disagreement or angry retorts. People believe what they believe, and even if they don’t agree, that’s okay. Glee doesn’t like to stick to that view often.

Even with a moment that should exist as a “crisis of faith” for Kurt, the series doesn’t let that happen. He is a complete mess with his father in a coma and for good reason, but just because he’s vulnerable doesn’t mean he should make excuses for a religion that does ostracize those he shares a lifestyle with. However, I do think that he realizes that his friends are really what he needs in this time of crisis. He might not like their praying or prying, but ultimately, Kurt will realize that his friends were just trying to help him in any way they can.

While Kurt’s views are treated with a fair amount of respect by both his friends and the series, I am most impressed with how Sue fits into the episode’s dynamics. As usual, she’s the antagonist. She wants New Directions to cease from singing religious-themed music and rightfully suggests the laws separating church and state. But instead of her issues with ND stealing Madonna or her attempts to stop Britney Spears-inspired sex riots, her reasons for derailing religion week make complete sense.

As Sue sees it, God gave her sister the mental disabilities and then sat idly by while the world made fun of her, pushed her aside, etc. I have to be honest: As the son of someone with a physical disability that totally dampens the way my mother is able to live her life and how people react to that, I can totally buy in to what Sue’s beef with God. Now I haven’t ever really gotten to that point, mostly because I’m generally ambivalent towards matters of religion, but it’s a frustrating experience to hear that “there’s a plan,” or “God works in mysterious ways” when you or someone you really care about is suffering or having to deal with awful circumstances.

Add all that to Sue’s generally pushy, controlling personality and I’m completely sold on her opinion and actions. Moreover, she doesn’t really exist as an antagonist in the ways that she normally does. Sure, she gets Kurt to rat out New Directions, but there’s little manipulation and after that conversation in the principal’s office, she goes on something of her own journey instead of continuing to butt in on what the students are really experiencing and that’s important distinction.

Just like Kurt, Sue’s views are respected and not made light of at the episode’s end. She’s been swayed a little bit by her sister’s generally positive outlook on life, and certainly moved by New Directions’ performance, but she is neither more or less convinced or angry than she was at the beginning of the episode. And that’s a good place to stop, because unlike the usual themes and “lessons” of Glee, I’m not sure convincing someone of a religious viewpoint can logically happen across 43 minutes. Doing that would extend the aura of believability, even for Glee.

One final thing in reference to how religion is portrayed in the episode: Will’s lack of involvement in what the songs will be, who gets to say what, etc. is another crucial thing to point out. Will is usually guiding the conversation, giving feedback on the feelings of his students and sometimes making dumber choices than they are. However, here, he has little to do and instead sits back and let the kids learn for themselves and that’s a smart thing both for him and the episode. Sometimes Will can be too pushy, too involved and with an already sensitive subject, we didn’t need a classic Schuster mishap. The series always makes a big deal out of how great a teacher and mentor Will is, but this is one of the first times I really actually buy that suggestion. He doesn’t let the kids get carried away, but he lets them explore what it means to be religious teens in the 21st century and that’s important.

Of course, with all that goodness, it’s hard not mention how the discussion of religion even gets going with Finn’s goofy, wish-fulfillment Grilled Cheesus. Even for the character, this is a fairly stupid portrayal, particularly after things start going his way. I know that perhaps for Finn, it’s easy to get caught up in the power of the Cheesus when he’s completely unfamiliar with religion in the first place and happens to stumble upon things he really wants and prays for, but wow, is he acting dumb.

In that sense, it’s unfortunate that the character is brought down to such a shallow level because even though we know Finn really wants to be popular again or get to second base with Rachel, he’d never wish ill will on Sam or want to manipulate Rachel into something she doesn’t want to do. Or so we think. Thus, those beats are particularly problematic and feel like typical Glee characterization, even if they’re saved a little bit when he sees the error of his ways thanks to Emma’s sound advice (Oh yeah, that’s how she could be used as a normal character).

There’s been a lot of discussion about the music choices, which all feel like someone in the music department Googled “Popular songs about religion” and went from there, but I think I’m willing to buy Finn’s choice of “Losing My Religion,” even if the song doesn’t have anything to do with religion because well, Finn’s an idiot. He just spent the previous week praying to a halved grilled cheese, so I suspect he doesn’t know what the great R.E.M. song means and I actually like that because it ties into his whole (if not stupid) journey in the episode. He’s looking for something to explain why his life has gone the way it has, and if singing a song that seems to be about religion but really isn’t is the best way for him to express that, I’m okay with it.

However, like Finn’s effort, most of this episode’s musical choices are lifeless and stagnant. “Only the Good Die Young” is fine, but feels tacked on because the writers realized they needed to give something to Mark Salling. “Papa Can You Hear Me” ends in a ridiculous way because Rachel would probably never stand over Burt Hummel and belt it out. “One of Us” is another it’s-about-religion-but-not-really efforts. The two Mercedes-led songs (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “I Look To You”) are fine, but still don’t have a whole lot of life. The only really standout is Kurt’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” which is only so because Chris Colfer raises the material past the initial awkwardness of a son singing that to his father.

On a positive note, “Cheesus” doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on the music and thus, the characters and story are serviced with a higher level of care than in the past episodes. It doesn’t feel like this episode’s message is that music can fix things or at least make these people feel better about their crappy situations, or at least not as much so as most Glee efforts do, and that’s another nice change.

Finally, what are we to make of how wildly different in tone the series has decided to be? Is this something we just have to deal with? For me, the ultimate impact of this episode, which is actually quite poignant and one of my favorite episodes the series has done, is dampened by the fact that it falls in between a chaotic and completely odd Britney Spears tribute and next week’s goofy-in-Glee‘s-normal-way “Duets” episode. Because I know that the lessons learned or stories explored here won’t be brought up for a while (or ever again), should I really even care about them? I’m not sure what to think yet, but perhaps we should just accept Glee for what it is and just enjoy the wild ride.

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