Glee has never been a consistent series. Even in the now-halcyon days of the first 13 episodes, the series stumbled on a fairly consistent basis, it just happened to get the raw, emotionally wrenching moments right more often. One of the biggest problems with season two was its wild inconsistency, not across episodes, but within one episode, across a string of scenes. Last season’s batch of episodes failed to register very many big emotional moments and delivered way too many tonally dissonant efforts, most of which that tried to simultaneously parody and preach. The tonal balance was completely out of whack.
But thus far in season three, the series has done a fairly solid job of balancing each of its aims. I’d argue that much of that success comes from dialing back the wackiness and the attempts to be overly funny, but no matter what the reason, four of the first five season three episodes have been tonally closer to early season one than season two. And the season’s one all-out failure thus far, “Pot O’Gold,” missed because it turned the wackiness up to 13 or 14 and really didn’t try anything else. That was just a bad episode.
Unfortunately, “Mash Off” plays like an episode straight out of the “bad Glee” playbook with its countless stories and generally awful tonal switches between them. Sue starts running campaign commercials that are beyond asinine that even as parody, they’re completely unbelievable and stupid; Will is revealed to be Burt’s campaign manager; Kurt hopelessly and earnestly pitches for the banishment of dodgeball as his primary campaign promise; Shelby discovers Quinn’s criminal plans to get back Beth, mostly with the help of the now love-sick Puck and Finn and Santana have a war of the words that randomly ends up outing Santana to the whole community. Also: there were mash-ups, in case the title of the episode didn’t give it away fast enough.
It’s not just that this episode included too many plot-threads to really give any of them much full time to develop, it’s that they’re all on completely different tonal planes. Sue’s campaign ads were used as a weird, somewhat uncomfortable runner to the episode and they only served to express that Glee think it can be very “current” with its political commentary by going as broad and as outrageous with said commentary as possible. Sue running for office was a pretty bad idea. Sue quickly gaining the lead in the polls because she chose to signal in on arts programs was even worse. But Sue airing successful ads that suggest Burt has a monkey heart and married a donkey is most certainly the dumbest thing Glee has ever done and that’s a tough bar to cross. Again, I think the writers are trying to make some ridiculous point about the political machine in the 21st century, but I’d have to say that this is not the way to accomplish that goal.
In true Glee fashion, the worst part of the episode somehow dovetailed with the best part of the episode, confusing the hell out of me. Santana bullying Finn has been a running plot throughout this short season, but one that I didn’t think had any real purpose other than to remind the audience that Santana is a bad-ass when she wants to be. However, “Mash Off” actually did something with the tension between the two, playing up the fact that they are the de-factor leaders of their respective musical groups right when Will and Shelby wanted them to compete with one another. Of course, this smart writing choice was backed up with a dodgeball game that turned into a tepid musical performance that, by the way, completely disregarded typical rules of the game.
And then, that stupid dodgeball performance led to Kurt deciding that his major push for student council president would be to ban dodgeball. I honestly thought that the series was making fun of Kurt for a second because his plea was so obvious and hyper-earnest, but then I remembered that Glee doesn’t make fun of Kurt because that would be bullying. You can only bully the straight kids in Glee.
Back to the Santana/Finn stuff though: I thought that the last three scenes in the story did their best to save the episode. Finn standing up to Santana and more or less outing her was well-written and well-performed by both Cory Monteith and Naya Rivera. I liked that the series didn’t suggest that Finn was being a bully for calling Santana out, because frankly, he wasn’t. He might have been aggressively deconstructing her identify and her façade, but he wasn’t running around calling her a lezbo, so I appreciate the series’ restraint when I expected it to have none.
The next scene in the principal’s office pretty much sums up how Glee can fail and fail again with a story and then somehow make it sort of work at the last second. As I’ve expressed, Sue’s campaign ads were atrocious, just the worst. And to make matters worse, the episode asks us to believe that there was some random person in the hallway filming Finn and Santana’s confrontation and that person was the child of another political candidate who is now using that information about Santana to destroy Sue for A.) letting Santana be Cheerios captain and B.) for maybe being a lesbian herself. So of course, we have to get the moment where Sue recognizes the error of her ways and makes the impassioned speech about right and wrong. THIS IS ALL HORRIBLE.
But, Naya Rivera. Her performance as Santana reacts to this admittedly horrible, outrageous situation grounds all of it in the kind of raw emotion that Glee does best. Even though the whole school had an idea about her sexuality, now Santana has to deal with the whole world knowing and having the power to come out taken away from you, particularly when you’re unsure of your identity to begin with, has to be the worst thing in the world and Rivera played it so well that I actually believed that it was the worst thing in the world.
And of course, that lovely performance continued in the episode’s final musical performance. Sometimes the series tries to make a musical beat evoke character emotions but doesn’t get a performance to line up with said emotions, but that’s not the case here: Rivera is a powerhouse during the Adele mash-up. She’s conflicted, she’s broken, she’s staring at Brittany (all of which is backed up nicely by some solid direction, I might add) and when she sees Finn whispering to Rachel, she automatically assumes the worst. That final confrontation leading to the slap is one of the best things Glee has ever done, no question about it. It was so intense and uncomfortable.
However, a great seven minutes doesn’t make a great episode. In fact, those final few moments only work to point out how problematic and frankly, stupid, the rest of the episode tended to be. Sue’s political goals are just so awful that no matter how the series tries to make them relevant to the students and their emotions (and really, this was the best manifestation of that), the whole thing still isn’t going to work. Glee wants us to think that a storyline that’s mostly played for “laughs” can randomly become the impetus for stirring emotional pay-offs and while I’m not entirely against that approach in theory, it doesn’t necessarily work in this instance. Naya Rivera basically makes it work with the sheer power of her work, but even she can’t take away the stupidity and irrationality of everything that led to that moment in the principal’s office.
There’s been a lot talk this year about how much better Glee is without Sue around and I think this episode only goes to prove that point more. She might have been part of a great moment and her character might have backhandedly caused something important, but the series would have been better off exploring Santana’s sexuality and identity in a slightly different way. Making Santana collateral damage in an awful storyline diminishes the overall impact of her struggles too much for me. Now we have to wait two weeks to see how subtle and complex the series wants to be when dealing with the aftermath of the slap and unfortunately, the title “I Kissed A Girl” doesn’t fill me with too much hope.
- I gave the state senate campaign guff, but let’s not forget how dumb the student council campaign has become as well. What started off as a somewhat complicated character piece has become a place for broad Brittany humor, aforementioned bad Kurt earnestness and sweeping shortcuts for Rachel’s character. Thank goodness for Rick the Stick. He’s got my vote.
- The less said about Quinn and her crusade to get Beth back, the better. However, I did like the scenes between Shelby and Puck. The series as re-committed to giving Puck quality things to do this season and Mark Salling seems up to the challenge. The teacher-student relationship is unoriginal and somewhat rote, but Salling and Idina Menzel have solid chemistry together so I’m willing to go with it.
- The music in this episode was quite good. The Hall and Oates mash-up was ridiculous, but I more or less loved it. And as I said, the Adele performance was tremendous.
- Rory’s still Irish.