Glee Takes New Directions, Unless It Doesn’t

1 Nov

We’re two months and three episodes into the new season of Glee, and I’m not sure what’s happening.

I had—have, actually, present-tense—high hopes for this season of Glee. After two seasons being written by the sometimes-genius-always-unpredictable team of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, the new season saw a writing staff tripled in size, including an impressive team of veteran writers: among others, Allison Adler, who did great things with the first few seasons of Chuck; Marti Noxon, of Buffy and Mad Men fame; Michael Hitchcock, who was hilarious in Season One as the coach of the deaf choir (“SCARLET FEVER!”); and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, fresh off of his rewrite, for better or for worse, of the book for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

This is all great news, because it’s a move toward sustaining the series. The first seasons of Glee are an oddity in terms of the ways they ignore the tropes of mainstream TV and instead take the shape of Murphy’s apparent spirit animal of the week. When it works, it’s fresh and unique in the TV landscape. When it doesn’t, it reads as an unwillingness to commit and ultimately an exhausting lack of confidence. This new crew of writers is a talented group with a tantalizing goal—not to strip the show of its voice, but to add narrative strength and consistency.

A few episodes in, it’s hard to say how things are shaking out. The season is still young because of the World Series break, and FOX left things on a high note, with a strong third episode. It wouldn’t be Glee without a dash of the obnoxious: weekly play-by-play on the state of Emma Pillsbury’s virginity, the plot to defame baby Beth’s adoptive mother, and hints that Mercedes might be pregnant; on the other hand, she might be pregnant by Friday Night Lights alum LaMarcus Tinker, and the very presence of Blaine covers a multitude of sins. And who even remembers what’s happening with Rachel and Finn? In any case, this season is a turning point for the show—with its three biggest stars leaving at the end of the season, better writing is of the essence. Here’s where I think you go, if you’re trying to make Glee respectable:

– Move on from the Rachel/Finn train. Let them be together, or don’t; whether they get their true love story, live happily ever after as Broadway’s new power couple, or never even get out of Lima, give them the endings they deserve and lay the groundwork for new romance. Which brings us to…

– Make Brittany/Santana your It Couple–allow them to remain supporting characters, but follow through on making them the fan favorites they deserve to be. Place them in contrast with the carousel of random dating that is the rest of the cast, turn up the charm, and give fans a couple to root for long-term. (To be fair, the writers’ work with Kurt and Blaine approximates this already—but Kurt won’t be around forever, and to deny Brittany and Santana the fruition of their relationship would be a terrible thing.) Additionally, if Ryan Murphy’s looking to make a lasting cultural impact with this show—and it seems like he is, whether or not he cops to it—making the entire TV-watching American public root for a couple of teenaged lesbian cheerleaders isn’t a bad way to do it.

– Figure out what to do with Quinn. First-season Quinn was great. She had a purpose, she had an arc, she had spectacular hair, and Dianna Agron proved she’s a mature enough actor to handle the big stuff with grace and nuance. The downside to all this is that, post-baby, her plain old high school “big stuff” came across as petty melodrama. Her second-season quest for Prom Queen status made a vague kind of theoretical sense, but it wasn’t rooted in the experience of her pregnancy or carried out with an eye to how she’d changed—instead, we got the idea that she actually hadn’t. This season started out in an interesting place, with Quinn rebelling against her old social routine to play queen of the losers, but her plan to get baby Beth back from her adoptive mother (Idina Menzel) still reads as shallow compared to the emotional potential of the character. In other words: Shut it down and find this girl something realistic and satisfying to do, stat.

– Offer Dot Marie Jones Dictator-For-Life status. Coach Beiste is one of Glee‘s most inspired creations, and Jones inhabits her beautifully. Use her.

– Commit to Emma Pillsbury. Emma was barely around last season (possibly unavoidable for scheduling reasons, though I question the amount of press junketing The Smurfs required); as one of the few semi-reasonable and sympathetic adults on Glee, it’s nice to have her back. Whether or not her continued affection for Will actually speaks well of her taste in guys,  Jayma Mays is a warm human presence who also happens to nail the comic stuff without making a big deal out of it. Depending on the extent to which the writers decide to engage with her mental illness—and the sensitivity with which they handle it—Emma is a rich vein of material wrapped in a pretty, funny package. While you’re at it: bring back her psychotically matchy vintage wardrobe.

It’s hard to say what a grown-up version of Glee  would look like—Freaks and Geeks with singing?—but the move towards finding out is an encouraging one. If the new staff can impose order while preserving the tone of the show, more power to them. If that’s the case, everybody wins.

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