If you wanted to, you could rag on "Props." Yes, both Puck's and Tina's storylines probably should have happened way (way, way, way) sooner. Yes, Shannon's storyline about domestic abuse is still a dour topic for this show to handle, especially when having to put it side-by-side with comedic material. And no, it still doesn't make sense for Sue to be helping these kids with their competition for Nationals, or for Rachel to have hung all her hopes and dreams on only one performing arts school.
But I don't really want to rag on "Props." Because despite these slight drawbacks in what was put forth conceptually, the bulk of the hour was executed rather well - and if you showed it to me as a standalone episode of a show I knew nothing about, I would probably like it quite a bit. Emotionally, it hit high highs and low lows with relative ease, and therefore felt very much like early Glee. This show originally set itself apart with its handling of quick-witted absurdism with surprisingly poignant (but restrained) sentimentality, and unfortunately "Props" is one of the few episodes since Season 1 that has managed to recapture that charm. This isn't a shock, though, because if you look at "Props," it's basically the payoff we never got to Season 1's "Preggers." In addition to the tonal parallels, there's resolution to the argument about solos between Tina and Rachel, as well as to seeing Puck through his anger against his label of "loser." And ultimately, you have to wonder if it's not a shock because "Props" was penned - and directed by - Ian Brennan, the brain that came up with Glee, and one of the few writers on staff who consistently manages to give their episodes the right balance of emotion and snark.
"Props," written and directed by Ian Brennan
Normally, when Glee turns their own shortcomings into storylines, it's a terrible idea. There's a little sting of bitterness even when Tina mentions that she doesn't speak all that often - her only line in the episode - and usually I just want to yell at the writers, "YOU WROTE HER THAT WAY, YOU IDIOTS!" (And then Blaine gets another solo.) So when it manifests in storylines? Usually I rage. Both "A Night of Neglect" and "Asian F" brought Mercedes and Tina to the forefront as feeling overshadowed by Rachel Berry and underappreciated by the club as a whole, and both episodes were handled disastrously. For Mercedes, the former made it seem like she simply wasn't bold enough to be a star, but still needed Rachel's approval, and the latter made her look like an irrational diva. Meanwhile, Rachel usually comes off as either completely innocent, a total tyrant, or as charitably self-sacrificing. For Tina, she's been mostly a non-issue since she willingly gave up her solo to Rachel in "Preggers" - apparently she doesn't mind if Rachel gets the spotlight. And really, only in "Preggers" was this conflict about Rachel's solo time handled even remotely well, giving consideration and likeability to both parties. But Tina and Rachel never actually spoke to one another about the issue - until "Props."
What works about "Props" is that Glee didn't try and give an answer as to why Tina hasn't gotten many glee club solos. It's not because "oh, you didn't work hard enough," or "oh, you didn't want it bad enough." The show went out of its way to remind the audience that Tina has been the ultimate team player and hardly ever rocked the boat. She's an original member, even when Puck and Finn were still tossing slushies their way, and yet she's never really had a chance to step into the spotlight. Basically, Ian Brennan took all of our collective thoughts about Tina's marginalization by the writers and channeled into the storyline. But where he deviated from pattern (aka, made it good) was that Tina was actually afforded a chance to shine, both on the stage, and in storyline - without making her a bitch, a pity case, or a selfless yet passive benefactor.
Weirdly, the zaniest part of the episode helped tremendously to make this storyline work: Tina bonks her head, and comes up Rachel Berry. Naturally, as Rachel Berry, Tina gets a solo, and it's easy to be pissed at Glee for this. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the way the body swap played out. I like that in this construct, the writers are basically admitting that all Tina needs to get a solo is to literally be Rachel Berry. It's a refreshing admission of the problem all along without trying to excuse it, and simultaneously gives Tina the screentime, solo, and standing ovation she deserves. Because it's clear that Tina-as-Rachel is still Tina. She's hesitant when handed over the performance, and even needs a talking-up by Kurt-as-Finn to drum up the gusto for on-the-fly performing. And she nails it. She doesn't nail it because she's Rachel Berry, she nails it because she's Tina Cohen-Chang. She only needed Rachel Berry's platform to get the standing-O.
What's even more refreshing about the body swap is the lesson Tina learned: she's just as good as Rachel Berry, which she knew all along. Yes, Tina-as-Rachel got all sorts of pressure from her peers, but the point of the "crazy dream" wasn't to show Tina "how hard it is to be Rachel Berry," which was set up as something from Rachel's POV but luckily not enforced by the narrative. It was one of the best choices all episode to avoid rubbing Tina's face in her own self-confidence by showing her how difficult it is for Rachel - and an even greater choice to swap that directly out with a reassurance of Tina's talents and abilities. The good choices continued further with Tina-as-Rachel going to Rachel-as-Tina to tell her she appreciates her - something Rachel-as-Rachel never really does. In return, Rachel-as-Tina encouraged Tina-as-Rachel to not give up on her NYADA dreams, and in another great choice, said that Rachel Berry giving up is "not the Rachel Berry I know." The idea that this body swap also inadvertently addressed Rachel's post-failure identity issues with a wry smile is actually rather fantastic. And it was all capped by a great piece of light-hearted snark from Tina-as-Rachel that reiterated the main conflict: "I can't believe how supportive you are when I can't even be bothered to thank you for your tremendous supporting performances!"
From here, the storyline manifested in Tina trying to help Rachel convince Carmen Thibodeaux to attend their Nationals performance in Chicago, and the fact that this was a positive lady-lady interaction was basically enough for me to give it a solid checkmark without any other info. Tina and Rachel were allowed to work their stuff out together, without anyone else interfering! But even the particulars of the dynamic were pretty great. I loved the idea that this episode raised the question: "what makes Rachel Berry so special?" - first from Tina, then from Carmen, both rather facetiously. And the idea that Tina was the one to appeal to Carmen makes so much sense, because Tina is able to communicate to Carmen that yes, Rachel is a pain in the ass, but she's the best. It makes Tina likeable, but not a martyr, and ultimately tips the balance between these girls back towards the center. Rachel now owes Tina a huge debt on the road to her success, and that construct actually helps the situation tremendously - Tina was able to do something that Rachel could not do on her own, and Rachel finally realizes the importance of having a supportive teammate, and neither "lesson" was hammered in.
There were a few suggestions of this storyline that didn't sit well with me, because they were a bit too heavyhanded. The idea that Mike scolded Tina for rocking the boat was unnecessary. Why must the dudes on this show accuse the ladies of selfishness and throw around the word "disappointed?" This is usually the bread and butter of Will Schuester and Finn Hudson, and it was strange and, well, disappointing to see it manifest through Mike. Mike's the one who threw a similar tantrum to kick off "A Night of Neglect," so it doesn't make much sense for him to condescend to Tina for her storm out. And ultimately, Mike's approval of Tina was so tangential to the point of the storyline, that adding it was insulting. Similarly, Tina's scene sewing costumes (capped by Mike's approval via weirdly lurking eavesdrop and smile-nod) felt too much like Tina was "learning a lesson" about hard work and her "place," supporting Rachel Good job, Tina! Your boyfriend is pleased you've finally come around and stopped acting all irrational! And you're happy sewing costumes with the noobs! Sigh.
I don't mind the idea that Tina (re)discovers that everyone must play a part, but it worked far better through the extension into Rachel's character crisis. I actually teared up quite a bit when Rachel asked why she was helping her, and Tina replied, "Everyone has a part to play. Maybe this is mine." But it's a tricky balance to maintain, communicating that Tina really is okay with being supportive, without making that an excuse to keep her in Rachel's shadow. Given Tina's past storylines with Artie and with Mike, I don't doubt that being dependable and supportive is actually part of her character, and I like that Glee lets her be that consistently - and now with someone who's not her boyfriend. But how do you negotiate that with wanting more, in terms of the glee club dynamics? This is a show that has annoyingly given the flattened "attention whore" angle to Rachel, Mercedes, Santana, and even Brittany, to a degree. I like the idea that there's a female character who doesn't need to be the center of attention. But as a fan, I want Tina (and Jenna Ushkowitz) to be treated fairly by the club and in the narrative, and it's honestly not that much to ask. So striking that balance between putting Tina in the spotlight, letting her demand that without being unlikeable, and then letting her be okay with a support position without marginalizing her again is difficult. Ultimately, even considering the few hiccups, and the fact that Ian Brennan can't go back and change a bunch of storylines to make this situation better, "Props" handled Tina's relegation as well as it possibly could, and better than I anticipated.
As mentioned, the scenario was aided as well by the overlap with Rachel's current storyline. The basic fact that Rachel and Tina were both allowed to have their own points of view without sniping at each other about them was great. And even though this bit of Tina's development happened rather late in the game for her character, it came at a perfect time for Rachel's. Rachel, despite having been "the star" for so long, is still struggling against rejection and her own sense of self. Placing that sense of self-doubt against Tina's perception of Rachel as a girl who gets everything provided much-needed nuance to Rachel's portrayal as an extremely talented yet oft-ostracized teenager. Usually, Rachel interacts with Kurt, who reinforces her status yet talent through his similarity, or she's swung into contrast with Finn, Quinn, or Santana as popular kids who have bullied her, but learned to see the Rachel Berry light. It begs the question: is Rachel wildly successful, or wildly unsuccessful? There's little middle ground. But putting Rachel with Tina helped strike a balance between the two, because technically Tina is the same as Rachel, but they're not that friendly. Rachel emerges as a mix of her extremes, and the extremes that the narrative forces on her. Yes, she gets all the solos. Yes, she's a pain. But yes, she has the voice, and the focus, and the drive. She's kind to Tina, and respectful, but not pitying. (Offering to pay Tina off legitimately cracked me up.) And Tina returning the favor by supporting Rachel through this NYADA snafu despite being envious of her created a dimensionality for Rachel's character that, for me, makes her comeback more meaningful than all of Finn's compliments, Kurt's solidarity, and Quinn and Santana's bequeathing her a prom queen crown combined.
And, before I move on, I have to give the cast credit for their performances in the body swap. Pretty much every one was pitch-perfect, but special shout-outs are in order. Chris Colfer was eerily flawless as Finn, right down to the slouching and weird half-smile facial expressions. Kevin McHale's Santana was gloriously bitchy, a practical carbon copy of Naya Rivera's narrowing eyes, pursed lips, and slight neck roll. Every cut-to moment of Puck and Finn as Blaine and Kurt was hilarious, especially Mark Salling's portrayal of Blaine as having a constant, self-satisfied smirk. And lastly, Jenna Ushkowitz's rendition of a Rachel Berry solo was so spot-on that I kept rewinding to rewatch because I was laughing so hard. Arms lightly lifted out, eyes shut, hands on stomach, face scrunched up on the runs? Actual hilarious perfection. (Special secondary shout-out for Jenna Ushkowitz's non-swapped scenes: girl can wield an angry monologue like nobody's business. She is a righteous blade of equality, after all.)
Good acting performances weren't hard to find in "Props," though, as Dot Marie Jones continued her understated yet powerful portrayal of Shannon Beiste struggling with her personal life. I will say, although this storyline has been questionable both in purpose, necessity, and even execution, I appreciated the effort to make it meaningful to Shannon's character development. It is heartbreaking to know that this woman, who has had low self-esteem in the romance department since her introduction, has wound up in an abusive relationship. But it was incredibly rewarding to see her stand up for herself, while simultaneously delineating the complications of her scenario. Shannon's "what does [loving you] say about what I think of me?" was tragically relevant to the way her character has been historically wielded, and I love that she's emerging from the scenario with development. She has shame about what's happened, but she's leaving it with her ring, and with him. This already-great dialogue was capped by a chills-inducing exchange: "Who's gonna love you now?" / "Me." I can't stress enough how much I respect Dot Marie Jones' flawless performance throughout this entire storyline, cover-to-cover, frame-by-frame, even despite the flaws of the bigger picture.
Of course, Shannon didn't come to her conclusion without a little push in the right direction. Honestly, if you'd told me that Puck was going to be the one who helped her out, I'd have scoffed, then laughed, then probably wept a little bit (and not in the good way). But "Props" did this storyline, and dynamic, a few favors. The first big favor was actually that help came from someone who didn't know he was helping. This show is obsessed with its White Knight Saviors, and this was another all-too-ready example for a Hero to step in and save Shannon, especially considering that the Lady Force of Sue, Roz, Santana, Tina, Mercedes, Sugar, and Brittany resulted in no change despite their efforts. In lesser (read: crappier) episodes, Puck could easily be made fully aware of the situation, and step in with protective male instincts, inadvertently taking agency away from Shannon and her choice.
But Puck was a completely unwitting accomplice, which, in addition to keeping Shannon's choice her own, and therefore stronger, it also makes far more sense in terms of how much students really know about teachers' home lives. It was nice to see Santana, Mercedes, and Brittany reaching out to Shannon at episode's beginning, but their knowledge of the situation made it unrealistic to believe that they could "save" Shannon, and ultimately it would have deprived her of her own choice. (Same for Sue's involvement.) Shannon reaching her own conclusion as she witnessed Puck go off the deep end of violence felt much more organic, and integral to her character moment. This also raises the point that Puck's actions in the episode were anything but heroic. He was not an all-consuming Good Guy; he was, like Shannon, someone who everyone thinks is immune to being hurt. That connection is really the strongest that Glee could create between Shannon and Puck, and I appreciated that their dynamic turned out to be mutually beneficial and not a pity party for either side.
In a way, Puck's treatment in conjunction with Shannon mirrored Rachel's treatment in conjunction with Tina. Like Rachel, Puck is a character that can easily vacillate between two extremes: with some characters, he's an offensive and tireless jerk devoted to misbehavior and carousing, but with others, he's a misunderstood sensitive guy who wants to be more than who he is. Glee has never been able to really merge these representations, and so Puck is boomeranged between the two stereotypes depending on whether or not the writers need him for comedy or drama. This has also deprived Puck of any real development over the seasons, and so he's stuck with only two extremes to identify him by. But with Shannon, Puck's portrayal is some mixture of the two: he makes bad decisions, like busting out a knife in a fight, and even hauling out his enduring delusion that every woman wants to be with him, but he's also incredibly understandable. His breakdown about feeling worthless was heartbreaking, and his decision to dress as a woman for the sake of his team was cheer-worthy, though misguided. "Props" finally gave us a developed, nuanced Puck, one that has demonstrated that he cares, but without absolving him of his flaws in favor of empathy. This is something that Glee truthfully should have accomplished quite some time ago.
Speaking of "Lola," I do appreciate that the writers are at least now pretending that the New Directions puts in preparation before their competitions. I chuckled to see that apparently the kids sew their own costumes from actual dress patterns, and that Glee tucked little moments of Sue and Schue debating the set list to reassure us that they weren't wildly unprepared like last year. Of course, this also led to the (supposedly comedic) construct that Sue keeps trying to spice up the routines with distractions like props and slightly offensive sensationalizing, like incorporating little people or forcing Kurt to dress in drag. Most of these suggestions were intended as background comedy, which was, for the most part, ignorable in its offensiveness given that the characters treated it as actually offensive. The idea that Sue zeroed in on Unique as Vocal Adrenaline's secret weapon was slightly ridiculous, though, as she hounded Kurt to put on a dress and adopt a female alter-ego called Porcelina. This frame was dumb, unfounded, and slightly offensive, and could have been eradicated completely if not for the opportunity it gave for Puck to introduce "Lola" and show that he cared about the team winning to set up his storyline's resolution. The idea the Kurt didn't want to dress as a woman just because he is gay is 100% defensible, but the narrative somewhat disregarded "dressing as a woman" as something less than an expression of personal identity, with Puck "stepping up for the team," and that's messy considering how well it handled Wade/Unique previously. Basically, the best thing to do is to get Unique back on the scene to show off how fantastic she is and put all this talk to rest.
And, because this is Glee, there had to be a sappy realization about New Directions discovering their "unique factor" before going into competition. Of course, what sets them apart is the fact that they came together despite their differences. Sure, it's a bit sentimental, but it wasn't clunky or heavyhanded, as it emerged naturally from the Tina-Rachel storyline, and felt strangely like a payoff to the body-swap in particular. Not only that, but it wasn't prolonged, leading swiftly into the long-awaited Tina-Rachel duet, and smoothly transitioning as the kickoff to the Nationals episode. Who couldn't be excited after seeing everybody dance onto the bus, ready to go compete their little butts off? I couldn't help it; I grinned like a fool.
In all, "Props" had some shortcomings that it inherited simply from other storylines and underdevelopment from previous episodes. But within its own walls, it sold its narrative with very few glitches. It gave equal and fair consideration for its characters' individual development as well their interactions with others, and hit the right beats of comedy and drama to make the stories engaging. For the first time in awhile, the episode itself had me caring about the characters, without having to muster up my own defensiveness about how they're (mis)handled by the show. As we get ready to close out Glee in its original high school format, "Props" may be the closest we'll get to having the show we fell in love with back, and I'm going to try and revel in it as much as I can.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: B
Episode MVP: Tina Cohen-Chang