Thursday, November 18, 2010

Glee: "The Substitute"

Stunt-casting is a time-honored TV tradition: bring in a celebrity to boost ratings, create buzz, and potentially land a Guest Acting Emmy nod (maybe not explicitly that last one, but hey, it happens all the time). And so it should come as no surprise that Gwyneth Paltrow appears in this week’s episode, as free-spirited substitute with a ridiculous name, Holly Holliday (seriously, I agree with Terri: “Are you a stripper or a drag queen?”). But here’s something to wonder: why Paltrow? Is it because she has a new movie, Country Strong, in which she does all of her own country singing, to promote? Or maybe it’s a show of goodwill for Coldplay recently opening its catalog to the Glee producers (Paltrow is married to lead singer Chris Martin)? Or maybe Julia Roberts, whom Glee creator Ryan Murphy directed in Eat, Pray, Love, just wasn’t available?
Whatever the reasons, Paltrow was clearly having a blast. The episode’s plot was as follows: with Principal Figgins and Will out sick thanks to a virulent monkey virus, Sue gets to be principal pro tempore and Holliday gets to fill in for Will, at first only as Spanish teacher (I had completely forgotten that Will had a job at the school outside of glee club director). But when Kurt reaches out to her after Rachel takes over, she gets the opportunity to lead the club with her laissez-faire methods. Meanwhile, Mercedes loses her tater tots and her best friend Kurt, and Will is being taken care of by his ex-wife Terri.
This episode was written by Ian Brennan, which I correctly guessed in the show’s opening moments (I was proud – let me brag). Story-wise, there were only light narrative connections to previous episodes, namely a few brief moments between Kurt and the football player from last week. And this episode was much lighter in tone, going-for-broke with a rapid cascade of jokes, saving most of the best ones for Paltrow – and she made them work well, particularly toward the end when she assumes the role of Mary Todd Lincoln while subbing for a history class. However, some of the other jokes didn’t land as well; a sight gag involving Kurt and his bully was almost insulting considering what happened in the previous episode. (As an aside: this episode seemed to make quite a few aggressive gay jokes, which is upsetting in its own right but even more so considering the previous episode’s content.)
I’m still not crazy about Will’s love life. In all honesty, he’s not an incredibly interesting character, even though he certainly promised to be back in the pilot. However, his subplot here wasn’t mind-blowingly stupid, though it was still a little hard to care about or believe. Was having Will sleep with Terri again really necessary? And he’s sick, so why would she even try, much less accomplish it? It just didn’t feel natural, and I’m waiting for the show to realize its Will problem and fix it one of two ways: develop him as a character, or focus much less on him.
I also have a bone to pick with Ryan Murphy’s direction. In the early episodes that he directed, he brought some fresh staging to the musical numbers. However, take a look at the episodes he’s helmed recently, particularly this one and “Britney/Brittany.” He now seems interested only in recreating music videos and movie scenes, as seen in all of the Britney Spears numbers and in tonight’s “Umbrella/Singin’ in the Rain” mashup, which was a virtual remake of the Rihanna video. It’s almost as if Murphy is trying to live out his dreams, like he wishes he could have directed those videos and is using the show as a medium to do so. The problem is that the numbers feel stale, because we’ve seen this already; it’s ok for the show to resell us music that’s still on Top 40 radio, but that doesn’t mean we want to see a regurgitated version of the video too. If Murphy’s trying to live his dreams, he’s not succeeding in a way that’s interesting to the rest of us (though how fitting is that? I’ve mentioned several times the show’s theme of losers who, despite their dreams and optimistic attitude, most likely won’t succeed, and here’s Murphy doing just that. He’s the Rachel Berry of the creative team.).
But let’s talk about those performances. Paltrow was given a lot of opportunities to sing tonight, starting with Cee-Lo Green’s radio-sanitized “Forget You.” The highly-explicit and superior original, “Fuck You,” is a giddily-profane masterpiece of a kiss-off, and part of what makes it work is the profanity: it’s angry lyrically but infectiously fun musically. By taking that away and replacing in with radio-friendly lyrics, a lot of that effect is lost, neutering the song in a way that is detrimental to what makes it so great in the first place. And as a Glee performance, it’s not a very good one: there’s no real sense of importance, and it’s one of those numbers that have no purpose other than “it’s ten minutes into the show and we haven’t sang yet, so let’s do something!” And as Paltrow proved in Duets and at the CMAs earlier this month, she has the chops to sing pretty well, but this song didn’t do her any favors.
The other performances were somewhat better. Matthew Morrison is a stage veteran, having appeared in several Broadway musicals including The Light in the Piazza, so I’m glad he finally got a chance to show his musical training on the show rather than awkwardly rapping for once. Performing with Mike Chang, Will does Singin’ in the Rain’s “Make ‘em Laugh” great service, though it should be noted that neither man is Donald O’Connor (and by the way, if any of you have never seen Singin’ in the Rain, do it right now. I cannot recommend that movie enough.). Elsewhere, Holliday and Rachel team up to perform “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag” from Chicago, though the two of them don’t live up to the 2002 movie version’s Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, played respectively by Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones (another great movie to go check out).
Overall, it was a pretty good episode of Glee. It was funny, light, and frothy, and was just plain enjoyable. It may not have been particularly memorable or really terrific, but it wasn’t terrible. We’ll see where they go from here.
- Those children were pretty dead-ringers for the older actors.
- I know the tater tots were supposed to be a stand-in for Mercedes’ relationship with Kurt, but come on. There were better ways of approaching that, I’m sure.
- You know what musical performance was pretty great? “Conjunction Junction.” One of my all-time personal favorite songs, and I know what that says about me, don’t judge.
- There were a lot of jokes at the expense of Lindsay Lohan tonight. That poor girl.
- I was hoping for a scene where Holliday would convince tightly-wound Rachel to get loose for once, and I’m disappointed that it never happened.
- I really liked the fact that Sue’s role model is Richard Milhouse Nixon.
- Are we FINALLY done with Terri? Please say yes.
- “That teapot is talking to me! That can't be my baby, I don't love it!”
- Wit ‘n’ Wisdom of Sue Sylvester: “[holding a piece of broccoli] When I showed this to Brittany, she whimpered and thought I cut down a small tree where a family of gummy people lived.”
- I actually wrote this post in MS Word outside of Cookout in Cary, and I’m proud to say that I’ve written over 1300 words about one episode of Glee. Most of the papers I write for school are under 1000. Make of that what you will.

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