Glee is as earnest and misguided as a zealous neighbor’s holiday lawn, so it’s only natural that, in the parlance of our times, Christmas would eventually throw up on the show. “Glee, Actually” piles on so much holiday cheer that it sounds like Stefon describing the new it club. It has everything: short-story structure, It’s-A-Wonderful-Life-mares, leprechaun angels, apocalypse weddings, Jesse Tyler Ferguson lookalike contests, dancing ‘20s gangsters, that thing of when your dad tells your ex that he has prostate cancer and flies him out to New York so you can skate-duet-hug. Everyone from Terri un-Schuester to Unsolved Mysteries abductee Rory returns to celebrate the holidays. Some plots progress, some are self-contained, and only one approaches immaculacy. But considered as a whole, “Glee, Actually” is an impressive conclusion to an impressive fall resurgence.
Maybe that’s just the afterglow of Glee’s ringer Mike O’Malley speaking, but all that eclectic accumulation is balanced by some really modest stories: Artie has a bad day, Kurt spends Christmas with his father, Millie has a secret Santa. Life-altering shit happens—cancer, a proposal, a cross-country move—but the focus is so intimate. These aren’t stories about weddings and diseases; they’re stories about how these characters experience those things. Most of the boldness gets walked back where possible: Marley hugs her mother but then makes a note to have the police investigate the breaking-and-entering that occurred, Burt says the cure rate is almost 100%, Coach Beiste was just fucking with Sam and Brittany. One wonders about Tina’s new wheels, but Brittany’s cosmic silliness aside, “Glee, Actually” is beautifully focused.
It’s no coincidence that the Kurt-Burt-Blaine (Blurt) vignette is the most restrained and the most affecting. Of course, restrained for Glee means singing “White Christmas” while ice-skating in Bryant Park, the historic seat of New York Fashion Week and presumably Kurt’s Medina, but if that’s peak extravagance, Glee is truly turning over a new leaf. Here we are celebrating Christmas in New York, a fantasy for some people, and we stick to the old traditions. Burt tells the story of his first Christmas tree, he warms himself over hot chocolate practically alone with Kurt in a diner, he sits there in that chair with the big NYADA shirt draped over his body and a matching cap on his dome. The big moments knock you over—the Blaine/Burt bait-and-switch at the door, the “I’m just gonna say it” revelation that’s over before you’ve registered the preamble, the hand-clasp echo of Burt’s heart attack and Kurt’s Beatles ballad—but director Adam Shankman and writer Matthew Hodgson highlight exactly those little moments that will last in Kurt’s memory. And the moments that Burt will treasure, too, if all those shots of him smiling over his son's shoulder like a man whose days are numbered are any indication. I can hardly believe it, but this is almost like a real character drama.
The rest is a mixed bag, but the lower the pitch, the less the strain. Artie’s high-concept no-good very-bad day is George Bailey on Five-Hour on fast-forward on a train—perhaps giving an inadvertent boost to the quiet, slow Kurt sequence to follow—but the snowball is mostly delightful. Shankman puts Terri in scare quotes using nothing but a camera, “Feliz Navidad” is shot through with exaggerated perspectives and a budget-Kafka row of desks, the alternate futures compose a silly, little cartoon that doesn’t curdle until you consider that Artie credits himself with giving Becky self-respect by going on a date with her. The Marley vignette produces a lovely a cappella number, the Roses tragically unable to afford instrumental backing. It lives or dies by the Santa Claus element, but really, Sue selling a bristlecone pine to a luxury toothpick company is transitioning Marley out of this eating disorder “subplot,” so no complaints here. The Puckermen confuse me, however. If Puck is so lonely that he latched onto the half-brother he just met a few months ago, why doesn’t he try to get his best friend Finn to join him? Surely he heard about “The Break-Up.” Eventually the Pucks wind up in a diner scene that would be perfect with different actors and less syrup and a real story. The skeleton, though—the concept of this makeshift family coming together thanks to this asshole dad—is strong. If only Hodgson weren’t so distracted by cross-country trips and Hanukkah carnivals to develop that spine.
Which leaves us with Brittany and Sam. Their end-of-the-world episode isn’t as crazy as I expected, but neither is it all that meaningful. They pass right through your system with two exceptions. Their wedding vows are disarmingly cute, albeit inherently fluffy. And Sam’s rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” brings out some welcome humanity in Brittany via reaction shots. But all the while, Sam’s relaxed vocals are way out of sync with his emphatic physicality, which I regret is not a euphemism. So once again I have to register my disappointment that Glee isn’t really selling the butterflies of this romance, and that’s unmistakably due to the shallowness. When Sam’s with Brittany, he gets flattened into her male counterpart, and Brittany is probably beyond rescue at this point outside scenes with either Santana or the stage. There’s only so much emotional impact a coupla blonde jokes can muster.
The other distracting burnt-out bulb is that a whole subplot revolves around a minimum-wage worker so strapped for cash that she won’t waste money on a Christmas tree—and so idiotically, television-ly proud that she tries to return the $800 cash gift her secret Santa broke several laws to deliver—while everyone else spends money like it’s going out of style. But that’s Glee for you, wringing its hands about an issue until it isn’t. The tough-love paternalism (e.g. Artie, the Puck mothers, Millie, etc. at first resisting but eventually coming to accept the support of others for their own good) is pretty rank, too, consistent with the Glee vision though it may be. Worst of all, “Glee, Actually” has almost no relation to Love Actually, whose subplots intersect and overlap. What, couldn’t get the rights to “Christmas Is All Around You?”
Still, “Glee, Actually” is a heartening experiment. The regimented structure is perfectly in tune with the show’s newly centerless ensemble, and the diversity of tones, plots, and even styles makes Glee feel as lively as it has all year. Now that the season is mercifully liberated from the competition schedule, Glee is going to have to explore other kinds of stories than practice and love triangles; the family stories are a nice start. But the real gift is that Glee produced an episode of surpassing ambition whose greatest virtue is modesty. There's a lesson there.
- Rory Clarences about an empty wheelchair standing in for a dead Quinn. “Quinn texts and drives in every timeline, Artie.” Communiglee!
- Jake asks why Puck is at McKinley. “Just scopin’ out some chicks, doin’ a little research for my screenplay.”
- Wouldn’t mind seeing more of Gina Hecht and Aisha Tyler. Unsettling to see Lana Kane so demure.
- Brittany is telling everyone how she really feels now that the world is ending. “Tina, acting is a pipe dream for you, and your decision to pursue it as a career is both irresponsible and shocking for you.” Where did that come from? Tina’s hilarious. On the other hand, “Joe, you haven’t really made much of an impression on me, and I don’t know what your deal is” is dead-on.
- Brittany and Sam agree. “Some people just can’t face the cold, hard fact that this earth is really just the back of a giant crocodile that’s destroyed and recreated every 500 years.”
- Millie pays a visit to Sue’s office. “I wanted to say thank you for what you did for Marley and me.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I had nothing to do with the making of that film.”
Hit Fix by Geoff Berkshire
Holiday episodes should be a cinch for "Glee." It's the perfect time of year to get all sentimental and romantic and musical.
But "Glee" never needs an excuse to celebrate great songs, the bonds of friendship and family, and warm and fuzzy feelings, and maybe that's why the show has paradoxically never produced a great Christmas episode. How do you make something seem special when it's what you do all the time?
"Glee, Actually" represents the third stab at a Christmas episode following Season 2's "A Very Glee Christmas" (with the sweet revelation that Brittany still believes in Santa and the infamous Sue Sylvester as the Grinch parody) and Season 3's "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" (which had some clever moments lost amidst an overall mess of an episode).
"Actually" is a definite improvement on "Extraordinary," if not quite a match for "Very." But I liked the idea and wish someone had thought of it back when the show was still working, and the characters were still worth caring about.
Since the episode was divided into five non-overlapping segments, it didn't feel so much like its supposed inspiration, "Love, Actually," than it did like a collection of short stories from the "Glee" universe. And that approach oddly made for one of "Glee's" more cohesive and consistent hours in quite some time.
Artie's "It's a Wonderful Life"-style dream sequence imagining what would've happened if the glee club never existed was the most fun the show has had since the whole cast swapped characters when Tina knocked herself out in "Props." I never thought we'd see Jessalyn Gilsig again, but there she was, nailing her cameo and clutching a fake baby as Terri Schuester. And Damian McGinty's return as Rory was an even more welcome sight -- he's an actor and singer with greater natural charm than anyone "Glee" has added to the show since.
It's too bad that director Adam Shankman couldn't figure out a way to give Kevin McHale's "Feliz Navidad" solo at least half the creativity and energy of Artie's unforgettable "Safety Dance" from Season 1, but at least we got to see McHale perform *something* on his own for the first time this season. And let's just skip over the fact that this sequence totally ignored Santana ever existed (was Naya Rivera busy this week?) and totally went *there* with Quinn (you know if the writers knew Dianna Agron was never coming back they'd love to kill Quinn off for real, just to put a period on an endlessly tortured character arc).
Meanwhile, in New York, Rachel made a brief appearance in a ridiculous outfit to say a few lines and then disappear for the rest of the hour. (Remember when Rachel and Finn were the stars of "Glee," and some fans complained about how much screen time they had even though Lea Michele and Cory Monteith were never less than completely reliable and interesting to watch?)
The real focus in New York was on Kurt and his relationships with Burt and Blaine. This is the second time Mike O'Malley has appeared this season, and the second time the show has used him to try to manufacture the sort of tear-jerking emotion that used to flow naturally from Kurt and Burt's touching father-son bond.
Burt has cancer now! Sad! But he invited Blaine to see Kurt in New York! Sweet!
The only reason the silly storyline works at all is because O'Malley, Chris Colfer and Darren Criss play it completely real. Even in its best days, "Glee" often relied on talented actors to overcome sloppy writing, and this segment stayed true to that spirit. Colfer was especially good at silently conveying Kurt's mixed emotions at seeing Blaine again, and the conflicted feelings Kurt still has about their relationship. Colfer and Criss' "White Christmas" duet was a'ight, I guess, but there was nothing in the episode that came anywhere close to Rachel's "O Holy Night" in last week's not-Christmas episode.
Oh yeah, Sam and Brittany got married. In the episode's goofiest thread, the dim-witted "soulmates" decided to make the most of the few days they had left before the inevitable 2012 apocalypse and got hitched (by Coach Bieste!). Sadly, it turned out to be a ruse. No apocalypse. No wedding.
I have to admit, I was disappointed. Since "Glee" insists on forcing these two together -- and I can't complain about any screen time for Chord Overstreet and/or Heather Morris -- why not just go totally cuckoo in classic "Glee" style and get them involved in some kind of "What Happens in Vegas" rom-com mix-up where they get married first and fall in love later? At least it would give them a believable excuse to spend time together.
Also, there was another terrible subplot for Sue (I'm really losing patience waiting for the announcement that Jane Lynch is ditching this sinking ship for good) and believable enough bonding between the Puckerman half-brothers, which ended with the promise we'll be seeing more of Mark Salling in the future. (Yay? I guess? I've always liked Salling, and the show has generally done right by Puck, even when he's involved in stupid things like sleeping with Shelby, but is he really the character most in need of extra screen time at this point?)
We also met Aisha Tyler as Jake's mom and saw more of Puck's mom (Gina Hecht) than in her previous two appearances ("Mash-Up" and "Goodbye") combined. Both actresses were perfectly fine. Maybe we'll see them again. Maybe they'll vanish. You never know with "Glee."
But I do know this: This is my last "Glee" recap for HitFix. If you've been following along with me this season, I appreciate it and I feel your pain. I didn't want to take on the task of writing about "Glee" on a weekly basis just to complain about how terrible it is. The Internet has enough of that. But I had no idea what was in store for me this season. I've lost my connection with the show, and I need to reclaim the recapping time for other endeavors. I'm thrilled I had this opportunity, and I'm sure HitFix will have someone great to pick it up in 2013.
The RBI Report by Dr She Bloggo
I guess not enough people have seen the 2003 Brit-ensemble holiday romcom Love Actually to merit any real kind of homage to the film's content. No, this episode of Glee didn't feature Sam learning how to play the drums to impress a girl, or Cassandra July using cue cards and the guise of carolers to tell a confused-in-the-doorway Rachel Berry she doesn't hate her at all, or even a tear-down-the-house rendition of "All I Want for Christmas (Is You)." (That was last year.)
Okay, I'm not saying any of those is a good idea. (I'm also not saying that Cassandra July one wouldn't not make sense. I mean. Think about it.) Instead of storyline homage, "Glee Actually" used a very tenuous link to Love Actually through homage to its story construction. Sue lays it out in the first thirty seconds: this episode will have five seemingly disparate stories - between commercial breaks, natch - that all wrap up with a bow in the end. Now I don't know if Glee's five storylines came together quite as cohesively as Love Actually's, but I actually liked the structural approach. If only the execution between the walls of each storyline lived up to the episode's concept. Holiday magic could only save so much...
Act One: Artie's Wonderful (Wheelchair) Life
I feel like putting the word "wheelchair" smack dab in the middle of any sentence about Artie is an accurate representation of how Glee chooses his storylines these days. When's the last time Artie had an A-plot that wasn't directly related to his physical disability? I can't even remember. Anyways, Artie's chair slips on the icy ramps at school and tips him out of it, where's he forced to wait until some freshman girls can help him up. Finn finds him in such a state, and Artie's irritability causes him to utter the words, "I wish I was never in this chair." And, being that this is a Christmas episode, we began to watch the events unfold à la It's a Wonderful Life.
This kind of storyline is always fun to watch, because of the inherent intrigue of an alternate universe. What are our favorites doing in this magical new timespace? And for the most part, Artie's held that interest. The reappearance of Terri Schuester and Jessalyn Gilsig's glorious comedic timing in only thirty seconds of screentime was maybe worth the whole episode. Maybe. They made decent use of Rachel being a meek librarian, I guess, and a Kurt who never met Blaine, and a Will who never started glee club or got divorced. But mostly, everything in this section required a huge stretch of the imagination. In what universe is Artie's accident related to the glee club existing? The excuse was that Artie was too busy playing football to join glee, and it never got off the ground. After all, Artie was the glue of the glee club.
I'm sorry, were we watching the same show? As much as I'd love to believe it, never once in the past eighty-eight episodes have I ever been led to believe that Artie was the "glue" of this batch of misfits. It was always Rachel's talent or Finn's heart or Will's leadership or something else related to Rachel or Finn or Will. Furthermore, Glee also continues to use this tenuous generalization that football and glee are in binary, and so therefore working legs = more football = less glee. Who says that just because you play football you have to be a bullying homophobic asshole? Also, what excuse was there for Finn and Puck to still be students at McKinley, even though they were meant to graduate? Was it really necessary to demonstrate that Becky became a big ol' slut because Artie never taught her how to respect herself, really? And did anyone else choke back a scoff when Rory told Artie that Quinn never got through therapy because the glee club wasn't there to help her? Because as far as I remember it, Quinn actually did get through therapy in spite of the fact that the glee club wasn't there to help her, because Teen Jesus needed screentime. I mean, we all remember boner therapy, right? The writers clearly don't. But whatever; Quinn died of a broken heart anyways. I mean, she probably still got pregnant in this timeline. We know she texts and drives in all timelines, so that clears things up for sure.
My point is, through all this Grinchy snark, is that this storyline had such failed potential. This is an inherently strong concept, asking that what if, and Glee made a mess of it. With this type of construct, it generally results in one of two outcomes: 1) nothing gets any better and the unfortunate wisher realizes how crappy it would be if their wish came true, and is luckily able to unwish it. Glee did this one. Or, 2) a "destiny" element takes shape, and the longer the wisher is in the new timeline, the more it seems like the events of the first timeline might actually transpire in the second, as though it were meant to be. Now, I understand where communicating the latter instead of the former would be a real shady message to send to Artie about life without his wheelchair. ("You could have had everything just the same way, AND the use of your legs!" It's a little insulting.) But, that being said: if we were going to make this about glee club not existing, then they should have just DONE THAT and not forced Artie's involvement in the A-plot by making serious bounds of logic without any real need. I thought they actually might go the route of "destiny," the way that Will and Rachel were looking at Artie during "Feliz Navidad," as though something were waking up inside of them. (Maybe that's just the Lost fan in me speaking.) Even so, I still think it could have been cool if Artie were the one to unite glee club, and actually demonstrate that it didn't require the one and only Finn Hudson to do so - it just took someone. Someone who cared, and someone who loved music. And Artie, wheelchair or not, could be that someone. How great would that have been?
Alas, this sojourn ended with Artie realizing that life without his wheelchair also meant no glee and so therefore everything sucked; the end. Wheelchair = glee = part of who Artie is. I'm not sure about these syllogisms, Glee!
Act Two: the Kurt and Burt show feat. Blaine
Honestly, I wish this act were called "the Kurt and Burt show feat. Rachel." Because seriously, Burt Hummel gave Rachel Berry an ornament of her own to put on his and Kurt's family Christmas tree. How special is that? That action is telling Rachel Berry she's an honorary member of the Hummel clan, and suddenly it doesn't seem so weird that Rachel sang "Papa Can You Hear Me?" to this man two years ago when he was in the hospital. (Okay, nothing really makes that less weird.) Even though this inclusion of Rachel into the Hummel family wasn't set up, at all, ever... it was such a rewarding by-product of what the Glee writers were hamfisting what they REALLY wanted for this section: paving the way for a Blaine-Kurt reunion. Or at least, that's what it seemed like to me. Why else give Burt offscreen cancer and a piece of dialogue telling Kurt to hold his loved ones dear? I'm surprised Burt didn't have a cough-cough-Blaine-cough moment, just to make sure he got the point across. Subtle, writers! As for me, I think about Burt's gift to Rachel, and longingly wish that this story had been about Rachel learning to share Christmas with the Hummels, since she can't spend Hanukkah with her dads.
Anyways. I need to zoom back out of that alternate universe, since it clearly didn't happen. As for what did: I like the idea of a Kurt and Blaine reconciliation in some form. I enjoy very much the acknowledgement that these two were very important to each other, whether romantically or not, in a very vulnerable time in their lives. I like that they want to accept that and allow that and Kurt is being admirably zen about the whole thing. I do wish things had been a bit more on his terms, though, instead of literally gifting Blaine to Kurt without Kurt specifying that he wanted that. I also wish that the tone of this construct wasn't communicated through jazzy and coquettish ice skating in honor of Kurt and Blaine's holiday duet tradition. I admit, when I first heard that their annual Christmas song was going to be "White Christmas," I figured it'd be slowed-down. Since these two are broken up, with a wobbly trust between them, I thought it'd be fitting if the lyric "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" could be played wistfully, as though Kurt and Blaine were dreaming of a time when their holiday duets were simple and happy. In other words, something more like this (except with male voices... work with me here). But instead, we got a Kurt and Blaine duet that was... just simple and happy. Oh. Contrasting emotional context would have made the performance more interesting. (But none of the performances in this episode were particularly nuanced, nor were they subtly-motivated. Sigh!)
Act Three: Puck and Jake are brothers also Hanukkah also moms
I think I might be a bit too hard on this storyline. It had a lovely overarching theme about finding and honoring family during the holidays, but it also had a lot of weird shit with Jake and Puck cavorting through LA and getting matching Star of David tattoos. It also also had a crappy design with Jake's and Puck's moms being snippy at each other until the boys straightened out their 'tudes. (Phew! Thanks, boys. Ladies be bitches without you.) Much of this section was spent on the least interesting part of the storyline, which was everything that happened before Jake and Puck actually brought their moms together for the holidays. We could have cut out all that go-to-LA-no-wait-come-back-to-Lima nonsense and gotten straight to the good stuff, where the conflict is. Which, had that happened, could have alleviated the problem of swiftly solving the issue between Mrs. Jake's-Mom and Mrs. Noah's-Mom with one line of dialogue. Hell, we could have given those ladies names! Even though the end result was nice, the journey to get there rerouted through Broville when it should have steered into Momville. I shouldn't be surprised, frankly. It's not the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last.
Also, Aisha Tyler!!!! Why are you here? (I ask for your sake, not mine. I won't complain about Aisha Tyler on my TV screen. Good to see you, lady. Sorry about... this whole thing.)
Act Four: Brittany and Sam discover impending apocalypse, get married; world does not actually end, marriage was not actually legal
There were a few times I laughed loudly and inappropriately during "Glee Actually." The first was the overdramatic push-in when Kurt asked who Blaine was. The second was when Rory told Artie that Quinn never got through physical therapy because the glee club wasn't there to help her. And the third was when Sam transitioned from his pointless performance of "Jingle Bell Rock" with the line: "And here's another rock," as he procured an engagement ring. I'm sorry; but that shit is funny and also by funny I mean terrible. Was there really not a more organic way to introduce that? No? Oh. Maybe that should tell you something about your apocalypse-marriage storyline, then.
I feel like no one expects me to speak neutrally about the continuation of Brittany and Sam after last week's multi-paragraph rant. That's cool. I don't have much to say about this section except it kind of pulled a Jake-and-Puck storyline and missed what could have been the best part. Instead of a dumb pointless "Jingle Bell Rock" performance and a dumb and pointless "marriage," I would have much rather seen what exactly Sam and Brittany wanted to do with their lives before the apocalypse. It could have been a great montage of random antics with some meaningful stuff thrown in there too. It could have made these caricatures seem like real humans again, even with comedic moments! It could have been set to Stevie Wonder's "That's What Christmas Means to Me!" But lo, what part was completely omitted in favor of a "four days later" title card? Everything that Sam and Brittany did with their lives before the apocalypse.
Act Five: Sue and Becky do a nice thing for the Roses; everyone is heart-warmed
This final act was probably the strongest of the hour, simply because it rested largely on Sue and Becky doing a nice thing in earnest, a brand of begrudgingly honest Grinch-kindness that only Jane Lynch (and Lauren Potter) can sell so masterfully. Moreover, the events of Act Five actually tied back to character insight! Imagine that. Sue's actions had motivation beyond whatever transparent, brand-new reasons the writers scuff up to instant they need to sail their plot turns. We've long known Sue to have a soft spot for mother-daughter relationships in the memory of hers with her sister Jean. We met Sue's mother and saw that strained dynamic, and now we know Sue as a mother of her own child. We've seen the motherly role she's played to Jean, and now Becky. But we forget about that, and it's always nice to be reminded. Frankly, the fact that Sue Sylvester saw Marley sing a Christmas carol to her mother - her best friend and only family - and teared up while watching was the most believable thing to happen all episode.
So, Sue takes her role as Secret Santa for Mrs. Rose, and gifts her and Marley the sum total of her failed Christmas gifts for Becky, plus the proceeds of the profitable toothpickification of her exotic Christmas tree. (Nitpick: that tree should have kicked off Sue's section, to set it up as important both to Sue and the story. What do we care if she sells that tree, ten seconds after we see it for the first time and five seconds after Sue explains why the hell it's important? Show it first, and it'll have meaning later! Plant that seed, as it were.) The money's going towards Marley getting therapy for her eating disorder (although really they should just send the bills to Kitty's house) and Marley and her mom get the Christmas trimmings they'd planned on forgoing. It was all very Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim, but whatever; it worked. Plus, it featured one of my few genuine laughs of the episode: Marley realizing that even if the sudden presents under the tree were a Christmas miracle... they should probably still call the cops. (I also laughed at Sue's accurate prediction of what Marley's thank you would be, and her underwhelmed reaction at being exactly right.)
Mostly, I just appreciate that this storyline took a turn through scenic Momville - a rare stop in Glee narratives.
Fin: everything tied up with a bow?
Okay, nothing tied up all that gracefully, at least not in an intersecting kind of way. Each story finished, for sure, although none of them really wove together. (It's a lot of work, and a big challenge... but it would have been cool.) I will say, though, that "Glee Actually" boasted the first cross-location song performance, which I have long been waiting for since S4 began. Everyone sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from multiple locations, across the storylines - Kurt and Blaine in New York, Puck and Jake and Sam and Brittany at Breadstix, and Marley & Co. in the auditorium. The musical nerd in me loves suspending reality for the purpose of finding theme across the distances, and in that way I suppose "Glee Actually" actually did make good on the "wrapped up in a bow" promise.
Altogether, there was a lot of sloppy and forced execution within "Glee Actually." While there were a couple nice themes in the second, third, and fifth act, as well as an interesting structure behind the whole piece, it still missed a lot of narrative opportunity in favor of superficie.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: C
Dance Numbers: C
Episode MVP: Sue Sylvester
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