16 March 2011

‘Glee’-nalysis: Blame It on the Blaine

It may look as if it was inevitable …

Being Glee-deprived in France — where the series has yet to make its debut and where alternative means of viewing, such as Hulu, don’t work — I’m forced to rely on friends’ reports and to putter around the Internet in order to keep up with the show. If there’s an advantage to this, it’s twofold: I get more gossip than I’d ordinarily bother with, and I’m a comparatively objective observer of the ongoing phenomenon that is Glee.

This week’s episode featured the culmination in a plot that’s been building for a few months: the gay romance between Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss) has at last been sealed with a kiss. Across the Internet, you can practically hear the squeals of — well, glee. But what strikes me is that the union of these characters was by no means a foregone conclusion, and it’s my theory that, in fact, the newly minted Super Couple “Klaine” (also known as “Blurt”) wasn’t the producers’ original plan but an improvised response to the unexpected, overwhelming audience enthusiasm for Darren Criss.

… But was it?
(All images here from AfterElton.com, an indispensable source of Glee stuff.)

A great deal of Glee seems to be written on the fly, despite the show’s many hiatuses that, you’d think, would give the writers plenty of time to devise long-term story arcs and to strategize characterization. Instead, it seems to me that, when the show goes on break, the writers put their brains on hold: there’s a rushed, reckless feel to most of the scripting. This is why there’s so little consistency, episode to episode and scene to scene, and why certain plots (Terri Schuester’s fake pregnancy, Emma’s marriage to the dentist, etc.) get ignored for such long periods.

The upside is that the show has greater flexibility, as we can see in the emergence of such characters as Brittany (Heather Morris) and Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.): both were backup dancers, mostly used as window dressing, but favorable audience response encouraged the producers to move them center-stage. In Brittany’s case, a couple of random lines led first to a mostly-comic scene and from there a romantic subplot with another erstwhile-minor character, Santana (Naya Rivera).

Song suggestion for Amber Riley: “Don’t Look Me Over”
(It worked for Dionne Warwick.)

But in such a large ensemble cast, the more time the show devotes to Brittany and Santana, the less time it can devote to Mercedes (the appealing Amber Riley), Emma (the sublime Jayma Mays), or even the original breakout character, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), whose appearances are mostly limited now to implausible or intrusive outbursts. Sue still gets laughs, even though her scenes don’t necessarily make any sense.

A very, very few story arcs in the series show any evidence of authorial care and productorial supervision: one of these has been the bullying plotline that focused on McKinley High School’s only out gay student, Kurt. This was planned far in advance and announced to sympathetic columnists and Internet publications; when the episodes began to air, they coincided with a headline-grabbing rash of gay teen suicides and heightened national awareness of bullying. There was no chance that Glee would get distracted from this plot (as it has from so many others).

Kurt’s last Valentine’s as a singleton?

But Blaine wasn’t the resolution the producers had in mind. They’d been planting gossip items for months: Kurt was going to get a boyfriend, the boyfriend was a football player, they’d become a power couple around the school. Fantasy wish fulfillment!

They teased our expectations with the introduction of a new character, Sam (Chord Overstreet), in the first episode of the new season. Every character in the series, and most of the Internet, assumed that Sam was gay, and certainly he was presented onscreen as if he were a G-rated Czech porn model. But — jailbait and switch — he started to date Quinn (Dianna Agron), who is very, very much a girl.

Holding hands from the minute they met.

This was when the bullying plotline started to kick in: Karofsky (Max Adler), a football player who’d previously been an extra in the series, began to attack and to threaten Kurt. Gradually, it emerged that Karofsky was insecure about his own sexuality, and in one memorable scene, he stopped harassing Kurt long enough to kiss him.

We got some After-School Special drama, then, as Mr. Schuester and Sue Sylvester attempted to help Kurt, before Kurt sought refuge at Dalton Academy. As one who was himself bullied in public school, I can confirm that private schools start to seem like an earthly paradise where sensitive, artistic boys can live in peace and harmony — and that’s exactly how Dalton has been portrayed on Glee.

The Wes Mason of Pop Music
I first suggested this as a joke: curly-haired straight guys in iconic gay roles, etc.
Turns out they went to school together, and Wes does an uncanny Darren Criss imitation. Glee: The Opera, anyone?

But setting isn’t character, much less drama, and so the sterling qualities of Dalton Academy were consolidated in one person, Blaine. As the bullying plotline continued, he became a mentor to Kurt, and proved more effective than the school administrators when it came to confronting Karofsky. Sterling indeed, and he had no bad qualities whatever: “Saint Blaine,” the Internet started calling him.

Nobody bothered to round out the character, because nobody expected him to stick around. My hunch is that, at some point, the producers planned for Kurt to leave Dalton (possibly when he realized that Blaine gets all the solos in their glee club, the Warblers, a.k.a “Blaine and the Pips”). Once back at McKinley — Kurt would start to date Karofsky. Which is more or less exactly what the producers whispered to the TV columnists, months ago.

The kiss that didn’t count: Adler and Colfer

I’m not sorry that this plotline has been abandoned. Yes, innumerable gay-bashing preachers and politicians prove frequently that many of the worst bullies are closet cases. But if you’re a kid watching Glee, that’s not a reliable rule (much less a remedy) when you’re being bullied — and you surely shouldn’t plan on dating your bully.*

What nobody involved in the show seemed to have anticipated was the supernova starburst that was Darren Criss’ performance as Blaine. In retrospect, this was foolish. This good-looking, seemingly perfect guy is singing — directly to wounded, deserving little Kurt — about how he wants to be his Valentine in tight blue jeans. And you don’t expect the Glee audience to start rooting for the boys to get together?

Moreover, there was an important financial consideration. Glee’s business model is diversification: it’s not merely a TV show, it’s also a hugely profitable music sales machine. (I’m betting that, if Ugly Betty had sold records, it would still be on the air.) Criss’ “Teenage Dream” and his other Glee numbers became instant bestsellers on iTunes and other sites. Lose the character after a couple of episodes, and the producers would lose that potential income. So, shortly after his first episode aired, Criss was given a long-term contract.

The trouble was that nobody knew what to do with him — at least, not for the next several episodes. The remainder of the Karofsky plot was quickly erased (though he did appear prominently in the Super Bowl episode), while musical numbers for Criss were jammed in wherever possible. Viewers complained that Criss’ songs seemed pasted onto the show — because they were. And forget about characterizing any of the other Dalton Warblers. There wasn’t enough time.

Only a few episodes ago did we start to see scripts that were written in the Modern Era, A.C. (After Criss), and they address head-on Kurt’s growing crush on Blaine — which of course mirrors the audience’s crush on him — as well as the need to make the character less perfect, more fully dimensional.

So we got Blaine falling for the guy at the Gap store, Blaine kissing Rachel, Blaine doing all sorts of things that wouldn’t ever have been done by the precocious paragon we met in his first appearances. Only now — just in time for the spring hiatus — has Blaine fallen for Kurt. (Mirroring the audience’s growing emotional investment in that character and in Colfer himself.)

Falling into the Gap

That’s my theory, anyway. It must be a disappointment for Max Adler, just as it must be for Amber Riley to get shoved aside so often. And yet it’s exciting for the rest of us to witness not one but two stars on the ascent: both Chris Colfer and Darren Criss make Glee worth watching. And I mean to do just that, as soon as I can.

Sing out!

*NOTE: Lest it be forgotten, General Hospital’s Luke and Laura got their start as the original Super Couple when he raped her. Where do TV writers come up with these ideas, anyway?


William V. Madison said...

A nagging thought omitted from an already-long essay: Glee has missed a valuable opportunity to provide Kurt with other mentors — namely Rachel's "two gay dads," who thus far have been seen only in a photograph in Rachel's locker. Especially in recent episodes, as Kurt and Rachel have become so friendly, it's almost inconceivable that her fathers wouldn't offer advice and support.

The consensus on the Internet is that the producers are waiting for some all-star stunt casting in a Very Special Episode (graduation?), but that strategy is coming at a price.

tomdiggs said...

This is one of the morensightful critiques of Glee going.
Story editing by test market. Blaine's Katy Perry cover was the season's real "game changer." It sold more than any other cover.
Rumor has it that Chord was originally brought in to be Kurt's love interest, but he tested so well with Diane. There's even a scene at Beadstix where he is about to reveal a big secret. I can't even remember what his secret is - dyes his hair? - felt like a last minute revision. It's hard to imagine they hired him for his current lack of storyline.
I think they wanted to push they want to push the gay narrative forward, and a gay kid falling in love with and getting to have his best friend is just that. It's light years from Jack and Ellen. I just wish Kurt's dad's sex talk hadn't sounded like what you'd tell a daughter.

John Yohalem said...

Haven't been watching since the Superbowl (and I was flirting with an old bf during that episode, which I watched in a sports bar), but your logic is unassailable (as usual), Bill. I, too, have wondered where the heck Rachel's dads have been all this time, especially when we've actually met her mom. Whom have they in store for us -- Bill Clinton and W Bush? (and why did we only get thirty seconds of Cheyenne Jackson, huh?) But the one I'd like to see LOTS more of is Brittany (sp?). I think they ought to give her the waltz from Gounod's Mireille, at the very least.

Kristen Dennison said...

Loved your essay! And I completely agree about Rachel's dads. Of course, they seem to be invisible, so I guess that's the explanation. :) But, seriously, we even had a scene where Mercedes and Kurt were hanging out in Rachel's bedroom. One would assume Kurt had at least said "hello". But there's probably not enough room to introduce two *more* characters to the show!

Lincoln Madison said...

One tidbit I noticed in the credits of the most recent episode: Chord Overstreet (Sam) is still listed as a guest star! (Of course, so are Harry Shum, Jr. (Mike Chang), Ashley Fink (Lauren, Puck's current love interest), and Darren Criss (Blaine), plus of course Bill A. Jones (WOHN's Rod Remington, judging at Regionals))

Another random tidbit: Max Adler, the actor who plays Karofsky, is active with ItGetsBetter.org.