I don't really know what to expect from Glee anymore. Sometimes I think the show might be on the verge of surprising me, but most of the time, those moments are fleeting, and then extinguished completely by the plodding insistence of disappointing predictability. Yet somehow, this predictability occurs in a world that doesn't actually make sense. This harmonious contradiction, apparent in tonight's episode, has caused me to awe at the universe Glee has created for itself. How does this place exist? Obviously, this is a world where singing and dancing in the streets of New York is commonplace, and everyone shares freely their wildest hopes and dreams. It's an existence where upstart interns with no experience impress Anna Wintour in their first week on the job, and a world where makeovers solve seemingly insurmountable problems (someone should tell the United Nations). But even when Glee tries to do "harsh reality," it still turns out in a weirdly heightened hyperbole that's just as unrealistic as the whimsy. "Makeover" fell neatly into this pattern of dashed hopes and implausible predictability, and I don't know whether to marvel or gripe at the feat.
"Makeover," written by Ian Brennan, directed by Eric Stoltz
"Makeover" was, I suppose, a loose-fitting theme for the new directions (New Directions?) being taken in the lives of Kurt, Rachel, Will, and the student government candidates. I have no complaints with this theme in theory; it's in the particulars where, of course, things get a little messy. Let's start with the most literal makeover and work backwards, shall we?
Rachel, now living in New York, mentions offhand that this new environment at NYADA doesn't feel all that different from her time in high school. Mean bitches flank her when she's walking places and insult her, à la Season 1 Santana and Quinn. She feels misunderstood, underappreciated, and out of place. This is great, right? I love the idea that Rachel starts out at NYADA exactly how she started at McKinley: as an outcast. It lets her go back to Square One without undoing her development, and lets us see how Season 4 Rachel might react to the same circumstances Season 1 Rachel dealt with. In other words, we can witness the evidence of character development while simultaneously giving Rachel more opportunities for growth! Unfortunately, though, all of this storyline potential funneled into a single line of Rachel's dialogue, meant to kick off the suggestion that she just needs a makeover. Remember in Season 2, when Quinn Fabray had actual Problems with Self-Esteem that were solved neatly by a haircut? It's a wonder what cosmetic changes can do to let you off the hook from actually creating character development onscreen! Snip, trim, there goes a multi-episode arc.
Don't get me wrong; I do think that changes to appearance can definitely affect the way a person perceives themselves, carries themselves, and projects their image into the world. Kurt had a very good point about real life being a lot like high school, and Brody had an even better point about Rachel's outsides catching up to how she feels on the inside. They're nice little bon mots. But I guess the part of me that's interested in seeing Rachel have an identity-based character arc feels a little cheated when she just traipses through the closets of Vogue, starts wearing eyeliner, and suddenly feels a lot better about herself. Are there really not psychological issues to play out? I suppose the other bothersome aspect of it is the insinuation that Rachel must shed her old, dorky self and become "sexy." Two episodes now have dealt with Rachel adjusting her image to be more provocative and "adult," and I'm not sure it should be so clear-cut. Obviously, growing up and moving away from home usually begets a new wardrobe of some kind to match the changing needs of your life. But there's this clear narrative presence of "the Old Rachel" and "the New Rachel," and the distinction makes me skittish. What was wrong with the "Old" Rachel, exactly? Why is it so necessary that she change? Can't this be framed as growth? Can't we see "Old" Rachel's skills serve her well in her "New" life, and let that be development too?
Of course, this "New" vs. "Old" construct is also being channeled into Rachel's love life, which is a choice that I personally find boring and flat. Rachel's identity conflict as Former and Current self transposes neatly into her relationship conflict: Former Boy Finn, or Current Boy Brody? Under this construct that the writers have blatantly taped to a frying pan and smacked us over the heads with, Rachel choosing change means choosing Brody. (I mean, duh. They sang "A Change Will Do You Good" and then Rachel wanted to cook him dinner, which is not really her style.) Clinging to "Old Rachel" means choosing Finn, and maybe a reindeer sweater. (Let's choose to remember the Season 1 episode where Finn told Rachel he liked the way she dressed, and forget all of the awkward bad boyfriend things from Season 2. Yes, let's.) Why can't choosing "New" Rachel or "Old" Rachel just be about Rachel choosing Rachel? Why can't Rachel's identity crisis be about her utilizing the good things in her "former" identity and polishing some areas to meet her new environment? Why is it so black and white, frumpy vs. sexy, unassured vs. self-confident, Finn vs. Brody? Gimme some gray areas, Glee. And while we're at it, can Rachel have the support and friendship of a lady, for once? I'm tired of this snotty-girls-are-mean-to-Rachel-but-the-cute-boy-notices-her construct.
Anyways, I thought Glee was going to surprise me because Rachel seemed to be willing to move forward with this guy who was super vocal about being into her (even though I find that a bit creepy, but hey, diff'rent strokes... please don't make that dirty). I like seeing Rachel self-confident and happy, even if the writers are maneuvering her there a bit weirdly, and it's always nice to see any female on this show have some semblance of power over their own relationship status. As Rachel and Brody's makeout seemed to be headed towards at least PG-13 territory pretty quickly, I thought I might be surprised. I thought Glee might have zigged when I expected it to zag, and I was prepared to give kudos.
But then came a knock at the door, and I knew exactly who was standing beyond it, and what exactly his purpose was.
So really, no surprise there. So close, Glee. So very, very close.
Kurt's storyline in "Makeover" was so predictable that at no point was I ever really expecting to be surprised, but that's not to say that parts of it weren't well done. It was lovely to see Kurt in an environment that appreciated him, even if it came on a bit quickly. (In the non-Glee-universe, we'd really need to have at least one episode of Kurt at Vogue before becoming invaluable to his boss, but hey. This is Glee universe, where Kurt gets hired in one interview with no experience, has special access to high-security areas, and doesn't get chastised when breaking in to said high-security areas.) The narrative also did the interesting thing by making Kurt's mentor, Isabelle Wright, an express "kindred spirit" to Kurt himself, by giving her an almost-identical backstory. She's from Ohio, considers herself a dreamer, and recently experienced utter failure. Just like Kurt! Sure, on some level you have to wonder if Isabelle Wright is being set up to be the Will Schuester of Vogue.com in her strange ability to be best friends with teenagers. But at the same time, Sarah Jessica Parker is endearing in the role, and her scenes with Chris Colfer have a certain kind of irrepressible charm to them, even with the complete lack of realism. It's like they live in some Cotton Candy World where it's all fashion and dreams and cutesy duets, and to be honest, I'd love to spend the day with them there as well.
Unfortunately, Kurt's acceptance into the fashion world is cramping Blaine's style, and he's starting to feel lost without him. Even though they're having adorably-choreographed Skype sessions while watching TV and eating popcorn (well-staged, Mssrs Brennan and Stoltz), Blaine is beginning to feel disconnected from Kurt. So, he decides to make a change at school. He starts joining (really weird) clubs, and runs for President. Blaine says that last year was the Seniors' time to shine, and this year is his turn, apparently forgetting that he starred in the school musical, co-hosted a televised Christmas special, and sang a sizeable chunk of the Top 40 charts in as series of grand solo spectacles. But hey. Maybe hair gel causes memory loss.
Anyways, Blaine decides to challenge the incumbent Brittany S. Pierce for President, who accepts the task by choosing Artie as her vice presidential candidate and sends Sam to be Blaine's. Not unlike last year's Senior President mini-arc, this storyline was kind of a hot mess from multiple angles. Sue did us a solid and pointed out for us the absurdity of an all-glee race, as well as the sudden appearance - and needlessness - of vice president candidates. I for one was also confused by the addition of "Celebrity Skin" featuring Sam and Brittany - it's not like they were running for the same position or on the same ticket... was the point of the number just to watch these less-than-scholarly students dress up for a political career? I still don't understand. It was... fun, though?
But truly, the worst parts of the Student President storyline were the choices and implications made for Brittany's and Kurt's characters (and another example of me on the verge of being pleasantly surprised, only to have my wonder snatched away by terribleness). First, the entire storyline - and Blaine's campaign - was built on the fact that Brittany didn't do anything during her tenure last year. This lack of activity conveniently coincides with the period of time where the writers forgot about her character completely, from about "The First Time" all the way up until her only presidential action, in "Prom-a-saurus." Funny how that worked. Honestly, the insistence that Brittany was a terrible president feels like another instance of Glee pointing out their own flaws but refusing to do anything about them. It'd be one thing to say that Brittany was a terrible president, and then give her a chance to be a great one. Second chances, right? A built-in storyline for Brittany.
I really did think Glee might take Brittany seriously in this episode, with the opportunity for redemption as president, and an unexpected serious moment about Brittany's intelligence. (Artie has to break it to Brittany that most of the student body plans on attending the debate to hear Brittany say something dumb.) But instead, everything turns out to be the absolute worst for Brittany's character. Again. She tells Artie he can do all the work as vice president, and then completely self-sabotages in the debate. The latter moment was where I really thought Glee was going to surprise me with Brittany S. Pierce, and only gave me a knife to the gut as the situation changed horrifically. As soon as she said "I love you" to the students of McKinley, I really believed, for a split-second, that magic might be happening. I thought that Glee might be showing us that Brittany could win the election not because she was popular, or hot, or "slutty," but that she had real qualities that could be valued by the narrative and the other characters in it. Brittany S. Pierce told the student body "I love you," and my heart swelled.
But then she kept talking, and the two-dimensional Dumb Girl portrayal took over with a vengeance. Brittany claimed to love the school so much that she'd do away with weekends and summer vacations, and lost herself the election in one fell swoop. How insulting. If Glee insists on bringing this character to the verge of development and repeatedly smacking her back into the punchline of a bad joke, then I would rather they just leave her as a supporting character. Stick to one-liners. Don't attempt a storyline with Brittany at the helm if it's just going to repeatedly turn out like this. Just let Heather Morris dance, and deliver jokes. Stop disrespecting the character.
The other nasty insinuation of the Senior President storyline came with one single line of dialogue, from Sam. After Blaine wins and still feels bummed about Kurt's absence, Sam tries to cheer him up with the bonds of friendship. Don't get me wrong; I'm 100% on board with the apparent plan to make Sam Evans close personal friends with every single glee club member this season. But Sam offers the bonds of brotherhood to Blaine, stating that he never felt that kind of kinship with Kurt. This insinuation that Kurt's great and all but straight guys seem to feel more comfortable with Blaine because he codes more "straight" or "masculine" is just gross, and completely unnecessary. Especially coming from Sam, whose introduction to the narrative consisted solely of his choice to sing a duet with Kurt, an openly gay guy, even if it might harm his reputation! The very action that let us know who Sam Evans was as a character is now barely there, because he's simply reinforcing a misguided notion that straight guys just can't relate to gay guys like Kurt. This is all made worse by the fact that Blaine just won the elected office that Kurt lost a year ago.
Look, it is wonderful that Glee makes the effort to demonstrate male homosexuality on a spectrum as opposed to in stereotype. The existence of Karofsky and Blaine and Sandy Ryerson and Chandler and Sebastian and Wade, in addition to Kurt, all serve to show, more than most television shows do, that there is no 'type' of gay man. There are different representations, and some are more "masculine" than others, and it's important to debunk myths and reject stereotypes. However! In the case of Kurt and Blaine, it is clear that Kurt codes more "feminine" than Blaine, who likes football and boxing and is included in boys' numbers far more frequently than Kurt ever is. And it's also clear that the writers insist on drawing this line between Kurt and the straight guys that, no matter how many positive storylines with Finn or Sam, always seems to boomerang back to the same suggestion: there is an inherent alienation between Kurt and the straight guys not necessarily because of Kurt's sexuality but because of Kurt's femininity. This is not only an issue of homophobia, but an issue of sexism. From all corners, it's upsetting. So congratulations, Blaine. You are more masculine than Kurt, and you therefore get a leadership position and also some bros.
But on some level this engendered power imbalance doesn't really matter in the narrative, because Kurt's the one stomping on Blaine's heart by not answering his phone during professional mingling. Honestly, the thing that made me feel the most sympathy for Blaine was his realization that he only ever came to McKinley because of Kurt, and as soon as he said it, I thought, "That should have come at the beginning." We should have known, right out of the gate, that Blaine felt purposeless at McKinley, and so then we could relate to him in his pursuit of meaning through presidency and superhero sidekick clubs. Like Brittany's possible redemption arc, this was a built-in storyline for Blaine: finding something to call his own at McKinley, and finally make his place there. Alas, the writers blew past this notion, funneled Blaine's discontent into relationship drama, and gave him the presidency anyways, untethered to any character meaning. Yet again, the writers have a way of screwing over Blaine's character yet still swinging the narrative in his favor for no real reason other than to give him the spotlight.
Alas, the night's purposelessness arc went instead to William Schuester, who, for some sudden reason, feels unfulfilled by his job. You'd think starting glee club over with a new ragtag ensemble of kids would reinvigorate Will's teaching, but it's actually the opposite. Now that he's won Nationals, he feels like he's run out of ideas. So, an independent arc is on the horizon for Mr. Schue: after learning that funding was cut to Haverbrook School for the Deaf (welcome back, Mr. Rumba), he decides to make a difference by applying to a Blue Ribbon Panel to Defend the Values of Arts Education. (Forgive; I'm paraphrasing.)
To be honest, this all sounds well and good, but I'm curious about the end result of this storyline. Glee has already given Will Schuester the possibilities of something bigger than McKinley, and every time, he returned to the students and chose a smaller life in the classroom. He shelved Broadway dreams for these dumdums, which simultaneously makes Will Schuester really nice and really sad. Even though he's become a gloriously bad teacher at times, I still find myself wanting Will Schuester to achieve his dreams, for some strange reason. What's the point of giving him new dreams upon new dreams if he's only going to return to McKinley and claim he wanted to be there the whole time? It seems pointless. I just wonder: will Glee surprise me and actually send Will away from the classroom, or will they just get my hopes up and dash me with disappointment at the brink of distinction? If the result is anything like "Makeover," I'm bracing myself for the latter.
"Makeover" did boast a few good things: Artie not devaluing Brittany because of her intelligence, Brittany sort-of doing a nice thing for Sam, and Sam voting for Brittany even though she was the opposition. There were also two comedy gold moments in Stoner Brett's championing of the separation of powers, and Becky's refusal to give a xylophone flourish at Sue Sylvester's whim. Both were actual laugh-out-loud moments for me, which is always welcome in a Glee episode. But all in all, "Makeover" had a lot of potential that was completely squandered with predictability. There were a few funny moments and meaningful character interactions, but individually, the character work was actually quite shoddy, and plot turns completely unrealistic yet somehow entirely expected.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B-
Musical Numbers: B-
Dance Numbers: C
Episode MVP: Kurt Hummel and Isabelle Wright, co-denizens of Cotton Candy World