I guess not enough people have seen the 2003 Brit-ensemble holiday romcom Love Actually to merit any real kind of homage to the film's content. No, this episode of Glee didn't feature Sam learning how to play the drums to impress a girl, or Cassandra July using cue cards and the guise of carolers to tell a confused-in-the-doorway Rachel Berry she doesn't hate her at all, or even a tear-down-the-house rendition of "All I Want for Christmas (Is You)." (That was last year.)
Okay, I'm not saying any of those is a good idea. (I'm also not saying that Cassandra July one wouldn't not make sense. I mean. Think about it.) Instead of storyline homage, "Glee Actually" used a very tenuous link to Love Actually through homage to its story construction. Sue lays it out in the first thirty seconds: this episode will have five seemingly disparate stories - between commercial breaks, natch - that all wrap up with a bow in the end. Now I don't know if Glee's five storylines came together quite as cohesively as Love Actually's, but I actually liked the structural approach. If only the execution between the walls of each storyline lived up to the episode's concept. Holiday magic could only save so much...
"Glee Actually," written by Matthew Hodgson, directed by Adam Shankman
Act One: Artie's Wonderful (Wheelchair) Life
I feel like putting the word "wheelchair" smack dab in the middle of any sentence about Artie is an accurate representation of how Glee chooses his storylines these days. When's the last time Artie had an A-plot that wasn't directly related to his physical disability? I can't even remember. Anyways, Artie's chair slips on the icy ramps at school and tips him out of it, where's he forced to wait until some freshman girls can help him up. Finn finds him in such a state, and Artie's irritability causes him to utter the words, "I wish I was never in this chair." And, being that this is a Christmas episode, we began to watch the events unfold à la It's a Wonderful Life.
This kind of storyline is always fun to watch, because of the inherent intrigue of an alternate universe. What are our favorites doing in this magical new timespace? And for the most part, Artie's held that interest. The reappearance of Terri Schuester and Jessalyn Gilsig's glorious comedic timing in only thirty seconds of screentime was maybe worth the whole episode. Maybe. They made decent use of Rachel being a meek librarian, I guess, and a Kurt who never met Blaine, and a Will who never started glee club or got divorced. But mostly, everything in this section required a huge stretch of the imagination. In what universe is Artie's accident related to the glee club existing? The excuse was that Artie was too busy playing football to join glee, and it never got off the ground. After all, Artie was the glue of the glee club.
I'm sorry, were we watching the same show? As much as I'd love to believe it, never once in the past eighty-eight episodes have I ever been led to believe that Artie was the "glue" of this batch of misfits. It was always Rachel's talent or Finn's heart or Will's leadership or something else related to Rachel or Finn or Will. Furthermore, Glee also continues to use this tenuous generalization that football and glee are in binary, and so therefore working legs = more football = less glee. Who says that just because you play football you have to be a bullying homophobic asshole? Also, what excuse was there for Finn and Puck to still be students at McKinley, even though they were meant to graduate? Was it really necessary to demonstrate that Becky became a big ol' slut because Artie never taught her how to respect herself, really? And did anyone else choke back a scoff when Rory told Artie that Quinn never got through therapy because the glee club wasn't there to help her? Because as far as I remember it, Quinn actually did get through therapy in spite of the fact that the glee club wasn't there to help her, because Teen Jesus needed screentime. I mean, we all remember boner therapy, right? The writers clearly don't. But whatever; Quinn died of a broken heart anyways. I mean, she probably still got pregnant in this timeline. We know she texts and drives in all timelines, so that clears things up for sure.
My point is, through all this Grinchy snark, is that this storyline had such failed potential. This is an inherently strong concept, asking that what if, and Glee made a mess of it. With this type of construct, it generally results in one of two outcomes: 1) nothing gets any better and the unfortunate wisher realizes how crappy it would be if their wish came true, and is luckily able to unwish it. Glee did this one. Or, 2) a "destiny" element takes shape, and the longer the wisher is in the new timeline, the more it seems like the events of the first timeline might actually transpire in the second, as though it were meant to be. Now, I understand where communicating the latter instead of the former would be a real shady message to send to Artie about life without his wheelchair. ("You could have had everything just the same way, AND the use of your legs!" It's a little insulting.) But, that being said: if we were going to make this about glee club not existing, then they should have just DONE THAT and not forced Artie's involvement in the A-plot by making serious bounds of logic without any real need. I thought they actually might go the route of "destiny," the way that Will and Rachel were looking at Artie during "Feliz Navidad," as though something were waking up inside of them. (Maybe that's just the Lost fan in me speaking.) Even so, I still think it could have been cool if Artie were the one to unite glee club, and actually demonstrate that it didn't require the one and only Finn Hudson to do so - it just took someone. Someone who cared, and someone who loved music. And Artie, wheelchair or not, could be that someone. How great would that have been?
Alas, this sojourn ended with Artie realizing that life without his wheelchair also meant no glee and so therefore everything sucked; the end. Wheelchair = glee = part of who Artie is. I'm not sure about these syllogisms, Glee!
Act Two: the Kurt and Burt show feat. Blaine
Honestly, I wish this act were called "the Kurt and Burt show feat. Rachel." Because seriously, Burt Hummel gave Rachel Berry an ornament of her own to put on his and Kurt's family Christmas tree. How special is that? That action is telling Rachel Berry she's an honorary member of the Hummel clan, and suddenly it doesn't seem so weird that Rachel sang "Papa Can You Hear Me?" to this man two years ago when he was in the hospital. (Okay, nothing really makes that less weird.) Even though this inclusion of Rachel into the Hummel family wasn't set up, at all, ever... it was such a rewarding by-product of what the Glee writers were hamfisting what they REALLY wanted for this section: paving the way for a Blaine-Kurt reunion. Or at least, that's what it seemed like to me. Why else give Burt offscreen cancer and a piece of dialogue telling Kurt to hold his loved ones dear? I'm surprised Burt didn't have a cough-cough-Blaine-cough moment, just to make sure he got the point across. Subtle, writers! As for me, I think about Burt's gift to Rachel, and longingly wish that this story had been about Rachel learning to share Christmas with the Hummels, since she can't spend Hanukkah with her dads.
Anyways. I need to zoom back out of that alternate universe, since it clearly didn't happen. As for what did: I like the idea of a Kurt and Blaine reconciliation in some form. I enjoy very much the acknowledgement that these two were very important to each other, whether romantically or not, in a very vulnerable time in their lives. I like that they want to accept that and allow that and Kurt is being admirably zen about the whole thing. I do wish things had been a bit more on his terms, though, instead of literally gifting Blaine to Kurt without Kurt specifying that he wanted that. I also wish that the tone of this construct wasn't communicated through jazzy and coquettish ice skating in honor of Kurt and Blaine's holiday duet tradition. I admit, when I first heard that their annual Christmas song was going to be "White Christmas," I figured it'd be slowed-down. Since these two are broken up, with a wobbly trust between them, I thought it'd be fitting if the lyric "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" could be played wistfully, as though Kurt and Blaine were dreaming of a time when their holiday duets were simple and happy. In other words, something more like this (except with male voices... work with me here). But instead, we got a Kurt and Blaine duet that was... just simple and happy. Oh. Contrasting emotional context would have made the performance more interesting. (But none of the performances in this episode were particularly nuanced, nor were they subtly-motivated. Sigh!)
Act Three: Puck and Jake are brothers also Hanukkah also moms
I think I might be a bit too hard on this storyline. It had a lovely overarching theme about finding and honoring family during the holidays, but it also had a lot of weird shit with Jake and Puck cavorting through LA and getting matching Star of David tattoos. It also also had a crappy design with Jake's and Puck's moms being snippy at each other until the boys straightened out their 'tudes. (Phew! Thanks, boys. Ladies be bitches without you.) Much of this section was spent on the least interesting part of the storyline, which was everything that happened before Jake and Puck actually brought their moms together for the holidays. We could have cut out all that go-to-LA-no-wait-come-back-to-Lima nonsense and gotten straight to the good stuff, where the conflict is. Which, had that happened, could have alleviated the problem of swiftly solving the issue between Mrs. Jake's-Mom and Mrs. Noah's-Mom with one line of dialogue. Hell, we could have given those ladies names! Even though the end result was nice, the journey to get there rerouted through Broville when it should have steered into Momville. I shouldn't be surprised, frankly. It's not the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last.
Also, Aisha Tyler!!!! Why are you here? (I ask for your sake, not mine. I won't complain about Aisha Tyler on my TV screen. Good to see you, lady. Sorry about... this whole thing.)
Act Four: Brittany and Sam discover impending apocalypse, get married; world does not actually end, marriage was not actually legal
There were a few times I laughed loudly and inappropriately during "Glee Actually." The first was the overdramatic push-in when Kurt asked who Blaine was. The second was when Rory told Artie that Quinn never got through physical therapy because the glee club wasn't there to help her. And the third was when Sam transitioned from his pointless performance of "Jingle Bell Rock" with the line: "And here's another rock," as he procured an engagement ring. I'm sorry; but that shit is funny and also by funny I mean terrible. Was there really not a more organic way to introduce that? No? Oh. Maybe that should tell you something about your apocalypse-marriage storyline, then.
I feel like no one expects me to speak neutrally about the continuation of Brittany and Sam after last week's multi-paragraph rant. That's cool. I don't have much to say about this section except it kind of pulled a Jake-and-Puck storyline and missed what could have been the best part. Instead of a dumb pointless "Jingle Bell Rock" performance and a dumb and pointless "marriage," I would have much rather seen what exactly Sam and Brittany wanted to do with their lives before the apocalypse. It could have been a great montage of random antics with some meaningful stuff thrown in there too. It could have made these caricatures seem like real humans again, even with comedic moments! It could have been set to Stevie Wonder's "That's What Christmas Means to Me!" But lo, what part was completely omitted in favor of a "four days later" title card? Everything that Sam and Brittany did with their lives before the apocalypse.
Act Five: Sue and Becky do a nice thing for the Roses; everyone is heart-warmed
This final act was probably the strongest of the hour, simply because it rested largely on Sue and Becky doing a nice thing in earnest, a brand of begrudgingly honest Grinch-kindness that only Jane Lynch (and Lauren Potter) can sell so masterfully. Moreover, the events of Act Five actually tied back to character insight! Imagine that. Sue's actions had motivation beyond whatever transparent, brand-new reasons the writers scuff up to instant they need to sail their plot turns. We've long known Sue to have a soft spot for mother-daughter relationships in the memory of hers with her sister Jean. We met Sue's mother and saw that strained dynamic, and now we know Sue as a mother of her own child. We've seen the motherly role she's played to Jean, and now Becky. But we forget about that, and it's always nice to be reminded. Frankly, the fact that Sue Sylvester saw Marley sing a Christmas carol to her mother - her best friend and only family - and teared up while watching was the most believable thing to happen all episode.
So, Sue takes her role as Secret Santa for Mrs. Rose, and gifts her and Marley the sum total of her failed Christmas gifts for Becky, plus the proceeds of the profitable toothpickification of her exotic Christmas tree. (Nitpick: that tree should have kicked off Sue's section, to set it up as important both to Sue and the story. What do we care if she sells that tree, ten seconds after we see it for the first time and five seconds after Sue explains why the hell it's important? Show it first, and it'll have meaning later! Plant that seed, as it were.) The money's going towards Marley getting therapy for her eating disorder (although really they should just send the bills to Kitty's house) and Marley and her mom get the Christmas trimmings they'd planned on forgoing. It was all very Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim, but whatever; it worked. Plus, it featured one of my few genuine laughs of the episode: Marley realizing that even if the sudden presents under the tree were a Christmas miracle... they should probably still call the cops. (I also laughed at Sue's accurate prediction of what Marley's thank you would be, and her underwhelmed reaction at being exactly right.)
Mostly, I just appreciate that this storyline took a turn through scenic Momville - a rare stop in Glee narratives.
Fin: everything tied up with a bow?
Okay, nothing tied up all that gracefully, at least not in an intersecting kind of way. Each story finished, for sure, although none of them really wove together. (It's a lot of work, and a big challenge... but it would have been cool.) I will say, though, that "Glee Actually" boasted the first cross-location song performance, which I have long been waiting for since S4 began. Everyone sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from multiple locations, across the storylines - Kurt and Blaine in New York, Puck and Jake and Sam and Brittany at Breadstix, and Marley & Co. in the auditorium. The musical nerd in me loves suspending reality for the purpose of finding theme across the distances, and in that way I suppose "Glee Actually" actually did make good on the "wrapped up in a bow" promise.
Altogether, there was a lot of sloppy and forced execution within "Glee Actually." While there were a couple nice themes in the second, third, and fifth act, as well as an interesting structure behind the whole piece, it still missed a lot of narrative opportunity in favor of superficie.
Musical Numbers: C
Dance Numbers: C
Episode MVP: Sue Sylvester