Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The RBI Report: "Extraordinary Merry Christmas"

And unto us, this thirteenth of December, was born an episode of Glee that brought tidings of great joy - without offensive portrayals of sensitive topics, flawed premises, or sloppy storytelling choices.  And Rachel even remembered to wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah, too!  (Sure, it was an afterthought line of dialogue two seconds before the fade-out, but I'll take what I can get.)  "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" was one of the more extraordinary Glee episodes of late, in that it made smart and meaningful choices for the characters involved, raised somewhat thought-provoking questions about how to celebrate the season, and remembered a solid amount of its own history without twisting it - all wrapped up in an homage to holiday specials of years past.

"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
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Let's give it to the Sue Sylvester-Sam Evans-Quinn Fabray volunteer triforce, shall we?


  1. I'm surprised you liked this episode. I found the portrayal of Rachel at least in relation to Finn, this episode to be pretty misogynistic. The gift obsessed girlfriend who wants bling? It was borderline stereo-typically offensive considering Jewish stereotypes. It also doesn't help that the episode was Rory heavy, a character I can't stand and hopes gets thrown in the background.

  2. I'm REALLY surprised you liked this episode. While other episodes are certainly more problematic, I thought it was easily, from a narrative perspective, the worst episode in the history of the show.

    I feel like the attempts at "meaningful" content were hamfisted. I feel like, when I ask "What is the story of this episode?" it completely falls apart.

    For starters, Sue comes in early in the episode, and calls the Glee club out for prioritizing the Christmas TV special over helping kids in need. This was clearly a set-up for potential conflict and character growth, but what happens? They do the Christmas TV special anyway, and go to help the needy kids as an afterthought, because some deus ex machina happened that cut their show off early. No one has to make any difficult choices. Nobody grows. Then they sing "Do They Know It's Christmas?" for apparently no goddamn reason, while smiling inappropriately. It's almost like they're mocking the needy.

    The episode just flirts with actual conflict and ideas and growth so often, and never follows through with any of it in a thematically or narratively meaningful way.

  3. My heart broke when I found out this was written by Marti Noxon. I loved her script for the new Fright Night, and it shocks me that she could write something so narratively messy.

  4. I wish they would have mentioned the fact that Santana's abuela disowned her recently. It seems like that would make for some awkward holiday issues for her and could have fitted in nicely with Rory being sad about spending Christmas without his family. And I would rather see her dealing with that the Finn and Rachel-plot.

  5. When I watched the episode, I was taken aback on how quickly the hour went. If anything, felt like the episode was about having a music video of Christmas songs and a story on the true meaning of Christmas - giving of yourself as the ultimate gift, etc. As fans, I think we always would prefer to see more in-depth character insights and experiences but there isn't enough time.

    I did watch the show unsatisfied, but it's a testament of how invested we are in the characters. We want to understand the whys and not just the whats, but I think it's a tall order to get that sort of depth in an hour episode. There are so many great characters we want to explore but so much time.

    So I applaud that is focus of the episode is about what the Holidays should really be about as much as I wanted the characters explored. I do think they could have tamed the Rachel/Finn storyline a bit but their story was part of the larger narrative of what the season should really be about. Something that I need to learn...

  6. To be honest, I was expecting your report to be a negative one. I was surprised when I found out it wasn't, but I enjoyed some of your positive comments, and recognised that the writers did do well on some things, particularly Quinn's and Sam's and Rory's subtle development. I liked that Sam opposed Artie on the idea of a big, cheerful Christmas; even smiled when I saw Quinn doing charity work (I hadn't noticed her absence in the TV presentation).

    I agree with the GIANT question mark that was Finn Hudson naming a start after himself as a gift for his girlfriend. I'm not sure if I didn't like it just because I didn't "get the romance" behind it -- I'm actually pretty romantic, so -- but... just... WHAT? That' is the worst possible gift. Ever. All the while Finn was talking, I imagined a voice going on in Rachel's mind thinking the very same things I was thinking.

    I really disliked how Rachel seems to outshine everybody, though. Actually, what I dislike is that the writers, after three seasons of Glee, still allow her to do so. It's natural for Rachel to want to be the spotlight - it's in her character, she isn't the one who's at fault there - but even after everything that's happened on the show, even after Troubletones, the writers keep on placing her in the very middle. Yes, Mercedes did get solos, too, but even when they were both singing, Rachel got much more attention than Mercedes did.

    It is crucially important to deliver an entertaining episode. The biggest flaw of this episode was that it was dull. One of the most boring episodes of all three seasons. It seems as if the writers, in an attempt to give meaningful messages to the audience (what's the true spirit of the holidays, giving back to others, etc.), neglect the fact that they're selling a TV show. I admire the effect they're having on the audience and how positive some of the messages they promote are, but it is still equally important to sell a show that entertains. And I feel as if they forgot all about that with this episode.

    Thank you very much for your immediate reports, though. They're a delight to read.

  7. I'm in general agreement with She Bloggo on this one. I actually smiled during the TV special, something I haven't done in a while during an episode of Glee.

    FWIW,My wife and I run a blog where we review Holiday episodes, specials and movies, here's our take on "Extraordinary Merry Christmas":

  8. After the mess of the last couple of episodes (Hold on to 16 excluded) I found this one really refreshing, I laughed and enjoyed it finally! Something that didn't happen to me for almost all season. Maybe because the themes were easy and predictable, I don't know, or the characters more natural, more believable, (no Finn-male-hero to force us out of the closet, no Kurt-the good gay guy antibullying), a little more true to themselves.
    The 50's-Star Wars special was hilarious, Kurt-Chris and Rachel-Lea were in their true element, I loved them!

    A couple of bad things, though:

    it's exhausting to keep subjecting Rachel to "lessons" - Totally agree!

    Finn Hudson's star made me kind of sad. I just felt sorry for him. I hope it would have given her a copy of his college application or something like that. Considering how they want to address his storyline (which I like) that was creepy and depressing.

    Quinn's dialogue with Sam was a smart choice, I am just afraid that the writers will turn her into the Jiminy Cricket who talks the other characters out of their insicurities (for Finn would be good, though) because she has learned the BIG lesson. Will see.

    One last thing: I didn't mind the plotline with Finn and Rachel, unlike most of you did. I think that if the writers can keep the focus on their relashionship with a little less romantic drama and more
    mutual goals and mutual support on each other qualities (more like in season 1), they could justify why they are the main characters and why they embodies the heart and the core values of the gleeclub and the show.
    I am curious to know what you think about it!
    I read your "Finn Hudson and the Case of The Missing Original Intent" and agreed with you 100%!

  9. Sigh. Yet another absurd Glee episode, created more to showcase iTunes ballads than have an actual plot. I've just about given up on the show and only watch it for the funny re-caps.

    Whoever writes the show must be ashamed to call themselves writers. Hell, I've read better fanfiction.

    "Influence" is very good and is told from Brittany's POV. I bet she's sad because she's been so neglected this season.

    First she doesn't even get to participate in her girlfriend's coming out and then we never hear about their coming out ever again. Sadly, on this misogynistic show, Britt actually got more screentime when she was dating boys.

    Finn meanwhile is watching down on Rachel as a star and continues to play Glee club's personal Jesus. God know's two gay couples (particularly one that wasn't white and male!) on the show would have been too much for a family-friendly Christmas special!

    So really Glee could be bizarre post-modern art if it wasn't kitsch mainstream nonsense that sells out on actually plot lines to placate the masses.

  10. In the preview of the next episode, we learn that Finn wants to join the army... Maybe the writters had it in mind when they decided to make Finn call the star like him, whereas everyone would have expected him to call the star Rachel Berry... Just to have an excuse for Rachel in next season to sing a ballade while her loved one is in middle-orient ?

  11. (i mean, a "skyward ballade").

  12. I enjoyed the episode but I wouldn't call it one of the best of the season. I enjoyed Asian F, Mash-Off and Hold On To Sixteen far more because the kids just don't interest me as much. Since last year's Christmas episode focused on Will being alone for Christmas, I would have liked to have seen Wemma share their first Christmas together. The adults are part of the show so I do hope they start focusing on them more in the back half of this season because they'll be some of the few staying behind after the kids graduate.

    Anywho, this episode wasn't bad but I hate that they are underusing Will. Like him or not, he's a central character to the show and it's missing a piece when he's left in the background.


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