"Extraordinary Merry Christmas," written by Marti Noxon, directed by Matthew Morrison
Glee tends to do better with smaller concepts for their episodes (duets! rumors! prom!) - and this episode wasn't much different. "It's Christmas; let's sing!" was the basic premise of the whole shebang, settled easily on the shoulders of a few simple constructs. The larger of the two was the conflict between New Directions' opportunity to put on their own Christmas special for local television, and the charity performance they promised Sue Sylvester and the homeless shelter - inconveniently occupying the same time slot. It's not anything revolutionary - the struggle to choose between your own gifts and giving back to others is not new to any holiday narrative. But, at the same time, Glee made it work, with the individual choices made for the characters involved.
Sue Sylvester's best episodes are the ones where she shows a little bit of her vulnerability and her heart, but without becoming a charity case or a punished villain. "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" found this delicate angle, and presented us with a Sue who had completely legitimate reasons for wanting to volunteer at the homeless shelter, and was downright endearing in that she wanted the glee kids to sing for them. Sure, Sue's had her moments of derision towards "urban campers," but maybe she realized that it's not so easy to just trying to not be so homeless, for a change. In any case, it was nice to see a Sue who cares, but isn't out of character in doing so.
Double points as well for extending this courtesy to Quinn, who opted to not participate in Artie's campy TV special in favor of serving food to the homeless with Sam and Sue. They gave her dialogue that acknowledged her struggles, with Quinn finally coughing up the words we've been waiting to hear her say for almost two seasons now: she's finally stopped focusing on what she doesn't have, and is instead concentrating on what's good. Hey, that fits in nicely with wanting to help out people who really don't have much for the holidays! The character work for Quinn was subtle, but on point this episode. Finally!
Sam got more of the front-and-center, as he reached out to Rory, who expressed his loneliness over being away from his family at the holidays. This was excellent! After two weeks of bewilderedly watching Finn helping Santana come out of the closet and wondering if Glee chooses its meaningful character assists via blind lottery, it was refreshing to see that the show really does pay attention to its characters and what they actually have in common. In this case, Sam is also living away from his family, and realized Rory must be having a tough time. So, he offered to be Rory's "Christmas sponsor," and help make the holiday special for him. Sweet, right?
One of the more interesting conflicts came from this interaction, after Artie derided Rachel's mournful performance of "River," and declared that holiday specials needed to be upbeat and happy. Sam protested, with a valid argument that melancholy isn't necessarily bad, when it can remind you of all the good things you have in life. But apparently he's the only one who thinks so, because Rory opted instead to take the onscreen role of a lifetime (Itchy the Holiday Elf!) and participate in sugared-up Christmas joy.
Honestly, this conflict resolved itself a little too easily, and it would have been nice to have a little more discussion devoted to it - simply because both Artie and Sam had reasonable points. Not only that, but Rory makes two large choices that have sizeable consequences, and we didn't really see what went into those decisions - especially the second one. Rory's choice to honor Sam's intent and return to the "true meaning of Christmas" felt a little schmaltzy, and while it was (thankfully) not overplayed, it still felt a little bit like a stock answer to every question about what the holiday season's really about. (It also echoed a lot of Linus' speech in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and frankly that wasn't helping sell the originality factor.) Thirdly, the Sam and Rory friendship is one of the more successful dynamics that Glee has naturally developed in recent memory, and it would have been nice to honor that with some more interaction between them in the middle of the story.
Perhaps more time could have been taken out of the Finn-and-Rachel storyline, which seemed like it might have worked better in a smaller package. "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" presented a Finchel dynamic that worked better than many previous ones, but that still seemed to strike slightly left of center. Rachel, in the never-ending portrayal as high-maintenance shrew, gave Finn a list of 15 things she wants for Christmas, despite the fact that he doesn't have a lot of money. She steamrollered over his every protest, and pressured him to bedazzle her with spray tans and bling. Why is it that Rachel always has to be manifested like this, in her relationships? It constantly dances into the "bitches be crazy!" territory of TV relationship comedy, and I for one am tired of the narrative actively commenting on how exhausting it must be to date someone as manically self-absorbed as Rachel.
"Extraordinary Merry Christmas" did a few things correctly in the execution of the storyline, though. Firstly, Finn gave Rachel the dumbest possible gift at first - a slaughter hog from South Africa. It bears repeating: he bought his Jewish, vegan girlfriend... a pig that was raised to be meat. Worst ever, right? So at least they were matched in their inability to behave like rational human beings. The second good decision for this storyline was that, in the end, they both relented and did something to appreciate the others' good intentions - Finn did his best to buy Rachel a meaningful gift, and Rachel did her best to show Finn that she didn't need an expensive gift for it to be meaningful. And the star idea was great! I was delighted to see that someone else indulged in Rachel Berry's self-ascribed star metaphor, until I learned that the star is actually named... Finn Hudson.
Now, I know I'm not nearly as romantic as at least 75% of Glee's target audience, but that star should have been named Rachel Berry, dammit. What better way for Finn to show that he's supporting her dreams than by not involving himself in them? Sure, you can argue that a Finn Hudson star will always be watching over the earthbound Rachel Berry, who is a natural star, blah blah blah. But there's something far more magical in the simplicity of Finn Hudson buying a star and naming it after Rachel Berry. It's a stronger choice, and much easier to communicate, without some convoluted second metaphor that draws attention to the fact that we have no idea what these kids' relationship is going to be like in the future. (Especially if they keep buying each other iPods and warthogs. I predict a spring breakup if that pattern of gift-giving continues.)
The resolution of this storyline was Rachel saying she needed to give back more, and so she and Finn hocked their gifts and donated the money to charity. On the one hand, I like that Rachel herself learned her own lesson, and for once nobody told her what she was doing wrong because she's, for example, so socially inept and self-centered, gawd. Honestly, that deserves credit on Glee. But at the same time, I'm so tired of storylines where the narrative indicates that Rachel is tyrannical about irrational desires, and sets about teaching her a heavily-plotted moral about selflessness. We've seen Rachel be selfless countless times in scenarios far more sophisticated in execution (by virtue of show, not tell!) and it's exhausting to keep subjecting Rachel to "lessons" in half-assed plotlines masqueraded as "character development." Moving on, please!
In its presentation, "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" was all wrapped up in a pretty endearing gimmick: the New Directions were going to have their own television special, and, under Artie's direction, decided to pay homage to the Christmas specials like Judy Garland and George Lucas created! It's pretty nutty to mix Star Wars and Christmas, and I for one, was on board. On a larger scale, the show-within-the-show worked, simply because it was creative and had a lot of raw material for laughs. I totally wanted to visit Kurt and his Hollywood roommate at their chalet in a galaxy far, far away!
However, I think devoting the middle chunk of the episode solely to this diversion is a little bit of an easy out for screentime. It seemed to run on too long, with whole numbers for Kurt and Blaine, Rachel and Mercedes, Finn and Puck, and Brittany and the Cheerios. Not only that, but there's only so many times the laugh track and 50s' era humor works without becoming a one-trick pony. Even though it was delightful to see a gay couple hosting a vintage-era TV special, it still felt slightly bloated - especially since the whole point of the episode was to spend at least as much time volunteering as you might putting on a Christmas special for western Ohio. The volunteering was left simply as a magical afterthought, and the Christmas special became an oversized endeavor that bogged down the middle.
Moreover, I think there was a rare opportunity in Artie's TV Special that the Glee writers often try to create but rarely execute well: not since the likes of "Sectionals" and its wood-paneled judges room has the show successfully used a situation to make commentary on the dichotomy between glee club's frivolity and the surrounding disinterest from Middle America. Sure, Ohio's been portrayed as inhospitable and narrow-minded, but rarely do the glee kids get to interact with that in a way that doesn't somehow result in a flat-out negative reaction. It's hard to strike that balance of showing the glee kids stepping out and being themselves, receiving a harmless deadpan reaction, and not feeling the wind gust right out of their sails.
"Extraordinary Merry Christmas" had the opportunity to incorporate that idea, under the duress that the New Directions' gay-fronted TV special was going to air locally and be seen by Lima's residents (the same ones who denounced Sue's affiliation with Santana as a lesbian but praised Burt Hummel's affiliation with the arts). It's unrealistic, based on what the show has given us, to say that the Gleeks could get on TV and be accepted - especially with a clumsily sophisticated throwback concept. It would have been classic Glee to allow the kids to do their thing, only to find out they had terrible ratings, or witnessed some sort of reaction from Lima that aligned with snarky but not damaging. What happened to the lady who felt uncomfortable by Haverbrook Choir's "honking?" Where is the Lima local who auditioned for "Les Misérables" with "Hey Big Spender?" I miss the charming commentary that poked fun of showmanship in a decidedly dour environment - especially when the result was so triumphant, in its own sharp-edged kind of way.
The episode did manage its own brand of snark, though, in its reference to last year's twinkly dreck of a Christmas special, where Brittany couldn't tell the difference between three separate Santas (all of different race and gender... not to mention, one was green), Artie got a miracle walking contraption we never saw again, and Sue made her sidekick dress up like a reindeer. When it aired, it was a sugary shock of Christmas fun, but the episode has not held up well over time, and I giggled madly that Glee referenced its own ridiculata, citing it as a "bad Christmas," and clearing up the confusion of Artie's contraption, with Tina saying that his "magic legs broke the next day." I love that Glee took its own miracle and completely poked a hole in it. (Because seriously, whose idea was it to give Artie the ability to walk and then never show it again? Irresponsible.)
In all, "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" had solid character work that made the most of meaningful moments, and an interesting premise that felt entertaining and unique. Sure, there were a few opportunities missed on capitalizing the strongest components of the construct, and left the pacing a bit saggy in the middle - but in all, it was a far cry better than most of this season so far, insofar as the choices made for its characters and presentation of plot.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Let's give it to the Sue Sylvester-Sam Evans-Quinn Fabray volunteer triforce, shall we?