18 May 2011

‘Glee’-nalysis: Melting the Wicked Witch

Glee is so famously, infuriatingly inconsistent that one is almost terrified to observe how good the show has been the past few weeks — four strong episodes in a row, by my count, so good that I don’t want to jinx matters. It’s a bit like the Monty Python sketch about the apartments built by hypnosis: they’re very nice, so long as you don’t question whether they’re real.

Last night’s episode tackled head-on what had become a persistent problem for Glee: the show’s breakout character, Sue Sylvester, had become a liability. The writers threw so many outrageous lines at Sue that she ceased to be credible, and often she wasn’t even terribly amusing. (Reality is the basis of most — though not all — comedy.) She was also less effective as an antagonist to Will Schuester and the New Directions gang. Something had to change, and last night, the writers gave us a Sue Sylvester who was all-too real, feeling human emotions and behaving like people you or I might know (or become).

As the episode played out, three-dimensional Sue closely resembled another Sue Sylvester we saw (briefly) last season, and she raises questions about where the character can go, dramatically speaking, next season. But for the duration of the hour, this viewer found little to complain about — and what a nice feeling it was.

It was no surprise when Sue Sylvester became the breakout character — the most compelling face in Glee’s dysfunctional gallery. The underlying theme of the show is that the world is not in fact a nice place, and some people are selfish and unkind: nobody demonstrated that better than the tyrannical cheerleading coach of McKinley High School. Moreover, the actress who plays her, Jane Lynch, had been stealing entire movies out from under better-known colleagues, and now at last she got a brilliant spotlight of her own.

But this season, it has seemed very often as if the writers had no idea what to do with the character. She’s popular with viewers, but this meant that she often seemed to appear in a given episode only because the writers felt obliged to include her, not because they had any serious purpose for her. When Sue started firing cheerleaders out of cannons, we were in jump-the-shark mode, and remained there until this week. In the real world — with which Glee has at least a fleeting relationship — Sue would have been fired, and possibly jailed, months ago. Instead, she kept coming back, week after week, appearing more and more irrational. Her jokes began to seem desperate, and her villainy merely cartoonish, rather than legitimately menacing.

For a little while, in recent weeks, the writers played with that, and had some fun with it. When Sue recruited henchmen to help her thwart New Directions, the comedy was over-the-top, yet funny (and a welcome opportunity to bring back several underused minor characters). The writers even ackowledged Sue’s apparent lunacy, as for example when she disguised herself as David Bowie and Ann Coulter.

But in a show that regularly visits serious themes such as sexual identity, bullying, and the economic crisis (a nice touch, giving Sam something to do in recent episodes), a flat-out absurd Sue Sylvester couldn’t be sustained in her dominion over Cloud Cuckoo Land. This week brought her back to earth.

Robin Trocki as Jean Sylvester

From the start, Sue’s relationship with her sister Jean has illuminated and justified much of her behavior (as when she defended Kurt Hummel), even as it made other aspects of her personality harder to understand. Sometimes it was as if Sue could feel sympathy for only one person, and after that, her quota was complete and she could freely terrorize everyone else. The writers needed to return to the relationship with Jean in order to bring Sue back from the extreme weirdness where she’s resided most of this season, and last night’s scenes of grief and reconciliation proved poignant and true — and Jane Lynch rose to the occasion magnificently. Though the time line seems blurred, it even seemed possible that Sue has been acting so strangely for weeks precisely because she was worried about Jean.

Yet while I watched her reconcile with Will Schuester, I realized I’d seen this moment already: at the end of last season, when she grudgingly conceded Will’s gift for teaching and buried the hatchet (momentarily) in her quest to undermine New Directions. Does this mean that next season she’ll start all over, and reconcile again next spring?

Or will the writers — instead of writing on the fly, as I suspect they too often do — actually think about the character’s development, and allow her to grow? The prospect of Sue’s entrance into politics seemed to be played for a joke, and yet it might yield some entertaining material, in keeping with “Sue Sees It”, her TV commentaries, and yet unlike anything we’ve seen from her so far.

Lynch and Potter as Sue and Becky

Last night’s episode also gave Sue a chance to interact with characters who seldom appear opposite her — notably Kurt and Finn — as well as with her loyal sidekick, Becky Jackson (Lauren Potter), in a way that suggested a deepening of that relationship.

But Glee is Glee, and there were implausible moments last night, as well. Are we really supposed to believe that Mr. Schuester, with hardly enough money to pay for airfare to the national competition in New York, would hire a “show choir consultant”? Well, it’s an excuse to bring back Jonathan Groff, so maybe we shouldn’t complain — that is, until Groff’s character started to channel Simon Cowell and to insult the other characters, in a way that is entirely antithetical to everything we know about Mr. Schuester’s methods and beliefs.*

Maybe Jonathan Groff’s Jesse St. James is being set up as the show’s new cartoony villain. I honestly don’t think they need another — but I suspect I’ll keep watching, just the same.

And that’s how Bill sees it.

*NOTE: It must be said that I agreed with Jesse on one point at least: I didn’t think Kurt sold “Some People,” either. But Mercedes’ “Try a Little Tenderness” was one of the best things this show has ever done.

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

Worthy of note: Last night's episode also featured the humanizing of the show's other most cartoonishly antagonistic character, Terri Schuester (Jessalyn Gilsig). While this was done in a way clearly intended to pave her departure as a series regular, the door was left wide open for her to return periodically: she's still in love with Will, and surely she'll try to get him back.