The show about nothing — The problem with Glee’s second season

A few of the series I regularly cover here at TVS are on hiatus this week. In lieu of writing reviews of new episodes, I thought this would be a good time to take stock of where we’ve been this season and where we’re headed in the final string of episodes. In these posts I’ll be discussing my biggest problems and most favorite things about the current seasons moving forward in the run towards finale week in May. Up first is everyone’s favorite television series, Glee.

Glee is the series that spurred on this idea to begin with because I’ve been thinking about the series a lot over the past few weeks, trying to come to grips with my qualms and crystalize them in an intelligent way. And even as I write this post, I’m not sure I really know where I stand with the series and what that means in terms of my weekly reviews and such. I definitely don’t hate the series by any means and it’s certainly not my most favorite thing of all time, but it never was. And yet, over the past half-dozen episodes, I’ve found myself losing interest in Glee. This is particularly weird because most of the 2011 episodes have been pretty good, especially compared to some of the drivel the series was churning out during the fall run.

So what the hell is wrong with me and/or Glee? Well, let me answer that by discussing what I don’t think is wrong or at least is not bothering me about the series. Things like the character inconsistency, the rock-hard place circumstances with Sue, Will Scheuster’s death and the obnoxious music selection don’t really bother me because those things have been so inherent in the series’ fabric that it seems dumb that I’d let them get to me now. Glee is probably always going to be those things and have those problems.

What I think bothers me most about Glee at this point in season two is that it’s not about anything anymore. That might sound insane so let me clarify just a bit. Obviously, on a week-to-week basis, there are things “happening” on Glee and recent episodes have been very obvious in their intentions for subject matter, whether we’re talking about the teen drinking/sex episodes or the comebacks in, well, “Comeback.” In the isolated, macro worlds of each episode, Glee is about something, and something very obvious and digestible. And I guess someone might make an argument for the fact that the last few episodes have been “about” trying to do the best for Regionals and thus make it to Nationals.* But those people would probably be wrong, insane, drunk or a combination of all three.

*I have to be honest, it feels weird that there is a sectional and then a regional competition, but then nothing else in between that and Nationals. I understand that more than three competition episodes would be overkill in one season, but I don’t mind taking time to poke holes in Glee logic. It’s just too fun.

I’m not saying that Glee has to be about larger issues, in fact I’d probably prefer that it wasn’t. When it tries those little “special episode” moments, they usually end up muddled somewhere between parody and straightforward after-school special and it’s just too awkwardly executed and isolated to work. But as much as I hate Sue’s meddling and desire to KILL THE GLEE CLUB FOREVER, at least that provided an ongoing framework for the series to operate within. It’s one of the loosest frameworks ever, but at least it serves as one.

We all know that Glee worked best when it was made in a vacuum, which meant the first 13 episodes had a direct narrative that built up loads of momentum. I also know that the series will never be as consistently good as it was in those episodes again. It’s just not going to happen. Yet, even the uneven back-nine of season one did a good job of presenting us with the heroes (New Directions), the villains (Sue, Vocal Adrenaline), the overall stakes (NO MORE GLEE CLUB) and then padded things out with individual stakes (Finn getting Rachel back, Quinn having her baby, Rachel meeting her mother, Will becoming an awful human being).

Season two has really none of that. People liked to say that the season one finale was the conclusion to something of a phantom back-half of a season that had more consistency, but the series has produced two competition episodes this year and both have lacked much any build-up or emotional pay-off and I’d argue they barely even tried to do so. I’d also argue that this season basically stripped away the stakes the moment Will mentioned Nationals in New York in the premiere episode. From that moment onward, we knew that’s where the season would end, so any sense of dramatic stakes the series could have would always be undercut by the fact that we knew the New Directions were going to win at Sectionals and at Regionals.

Worse, the series’ writers presumably recognized that we’d know this and so they wrote the episodes accordingly. There was very little to the build-up of Sectionals before “Special Education” (especially compared to last season) and as hard as that episode worked to make us really care about Will letting those not Rachel and Finn sing solos, that was a totally isolated incident meant to manipulate those 43 minutes, nothing more. And the build-up to Regionals, a competition which the group did not win last year and thus should be seriously worried about, was even worse. There were some conversations about doing better and obviously Rachel’s songwriting played a part in that, but those little beats came in the middle of episodes about Trout Mouth becoming Justin Bieber or Holly teaching the group about sex. Again, on an isolated episodic level, those “plots” weren’t bad and in some cases, were really fun. But after a string of them right in a row and such a pat handling of Regionals and what it meant to the group, it’s easy to feel disconnected and beaten down by the series’ lack of overall momentum. Glee is always going to work best as a series of fantastic moments loosely connected, but this season feels so much more loosely connected than I ever could have imagined.

I know the group isn’t in the same place now as they were in the first half or even second part of season one, but there was never a second where we were made to believe that New Directions wouldn’t make it through Sectionals or Regionals and that’s just stupid. Taking away Vocal Adrenaline from Regionals without really making anything of it was unbelievably dumb and totally undercut any chance that the ND’ers wouldn’t win that competition. Sure, the audience is smart enough to assume that the group will win, but that doesn’t mean the writers shouldn’t try to throw us off the scent and convince us otherwise. This season, Murphy, Brennan and Falchuk apparently stopped caring about creating any stakes. Similarly, the competitions are built-in ways to structure and frame a season of stories, but the writers have mostly forgone that as well, and for what really? To retread the same love triangle that wasn’t totally interesting in season one? To make the adult characters as terrible as possible? I just don’t understand.

Maybe now that we’re headed towards that obvious endgame in Nationals, the writers will once again realize that they can still make the New Directions kids underdogs. In fact, it’s almost set up for the writers to comment on their stupidity by noting that the kids have had almost too easy of a road thus far, but now it’s about to get REAL. Not only will Vocal Adrenaline be at Nationals (I’m assuming), but so will surely dozens of other groups. Letting Trout Mouth was cute at Sectionals was cute, but that crap won’t fly when it’s Nationals. But seriously, that slight tinkering to the narrative, one that adds just an inkling of fear, doubt and hesitation, will make every little thing these kids or Will do seem more important or desperate. And even if I prefer the series to be sad and depressing, it doesn’t have to get that far into the depths of the darkness to work. It just needs to take advantage of its built-in framework and make that framework have an impact on the characters and the narrative. This is an extremely simple solution to my problems with Glee – which is probably why it won’t happen at all.

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One thought on “The show about nothing — The problem with Glee’s second season

  1. In response to your points: Whether the show makes nationals is assumed, but whether they win, place somewhere in the middle, or wind up last is up in the air. They could be disqualified by some Sue-Sylvester-led escapade of revenge.

    I also don’t think that much of the suspense is specifically tied to glee making regionals and nationals but about the relationships within the group, Will’s position in the school, the Glee Club’s status in the school, whether they’d recruit Sam and find a replacement for Kurt, etc..

    As for their attempts to do “after-school” specials:
    I think the show connects to young viewers because it’s ironic and saavvy of genre conventions,

    This is off-topic, but I vaguely remember a campaign by Sprite in the mid-to-late 90’s that went 180 degrees. First, they insinuated that being like you needed to drink Sprite to be like Grant Hill. Then, years later, they showed Grant Hill drinking Sprite and failing all over the place. And the slogan was “Obey your thirst.” Some analysis of that advertising campaign said that Sprite was being smart because when viewers catch onto something’s conventions they identify it as old.

    I think in order to understand you have to imagine yourself as a cynic high schooler or pre-teen prepared to write off shows as lame. Glee ingratiates themselves to that demographic by approaching those themes ironically.

    It reminds me a lot of a sitcom I loved that only lasted half a season called Clone High. They’d mock special episodes by beginning the episode “On a very special Clone High” and mock the special themed episodes.

    I think Glee isn’t aiming strongly enough for sharp-hitting parody so some reviewers aren’t catching on.

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