Fear not, fellow Gleeks. After that wishy-washy victory lap of a premiere and last week’s plot-free indulgences, “Grilled Cheesus” put us back on the path to the Glee we first met and fell in love with. I might change my tune after further recollection, but my initial reaction is to say that this may have been the best episode since “Sectionals”.
Why? So many reasons. Primarily, it was beautifully written. I don’t mean that in just an aesthetic sense; I mean it structurally, too. The pacing, the characterization, the tone–it was all spot-on. Another big plus was that it was an ensemble episode. We spent time with virtually every character in the Glee universe. No one was left out. As such, this episode was chock full of nuanced subplots and subtle developments. This was a busy hour, and Glee is at its best when it’s wasting no time. The last reason “Grilled Cheesus” was so strong was that it was an episode united by a theme, perhaps the most complex the show has delved into. And when you can accent your theme with appropriate songs…well, then, my friend, you have yourself a solid musical.
Kudos should go to Jayma Mays, Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, Cory Monteith, and of course Jane Lynch for their excellent work in this episode. Some of Kurt’s and Sue’s scenes had the faint whiff of Emmy bait, but even a cynic like me can’t deny that they sold those moments.
My only complaint with the episode is that while the many subplots were precisely placed and timed, I thought the musical numbers were perhaps one or two too many. I thought some could have been shortened or cut at the expense of others. But let’s get to those musical numbers, shall we?
Only the Good Die Young: I enjoyed this number, and not just because it was the first time this season we got serenaded by the dulcet tones of Noah Puckerman. Okay, that was a large part of it, but… It was fun, playful, and energetic–and given how down and deep the rest of the episode was, it was kind of necessary. It was a perfect match for the actor and character. And was it actually a twisted form of foreshadowing? I mean, Burt’s going to be okay, but still… For getting us jazzed right at the top of the episode, for sounding great, and for allowing Mystery Pianist to really tickle the ivories, I give “Only the Good Die Young” a B+.
I Look to You: As a character moment, “I Look to You” served the purpose of reminding us of the connection between Mercedes and Kurt. As the episode went on, we watched that relationship grow more and more strained. Granted, the eventual resolution of their troubles was bound to be more rewarding. But even though Amber Riley tore it up, and even though she did single out the underused Tina and Quinn for back-up, I feel that “I Look to You” could have been left on the cutting room floor. We’d already learned that Mercedes was on the side of the believers, and we’d already seen her trying to get Kurt to open his mind. Granted, the song heightens those efforts and Kurt’s reaction to them, but when compared to Mercedes’ second number of the night, “I Look to You” is clearly the lesser. It’s not that it was a bad performance or a bad choice (truthfully, it ranked above any of last week’s); it was just the weak link in a surprisingly strong chain for me. So, “I Look to You” earns a B-.
Papa, Can You Hear Me: Consider this the episode’s lost opportunity. Ignore the fact that Ryan Murphy seems determined to make Lea Michele the next Barbra Streisand. After all, it would totally be in character for Rachel to reach for this song in such a crisis. And I, for one, am very glad she did. This is the best Lea Michele’s voice has sounded in half a season, and this might be the best orchestration the Glee music supervisors have ever composed. Lea dominates this song, and her voice is carried aloft by a lush, full instrumental ensemble. But this auditory perfection is married to visual missteps, and as such the song just doesn’t work. There’s plenty of examples to choose from. Initially, the song was succeeding by implying that the “Papa” of the title was God, but that twist in focus was ruined by the distracting and repetitive camera work. Seriously, if there was one more pan over the top of Rachel and Finn’s little shabbat picnic, I was going to be nauseous. Were they trying to avoid Lea Michele’s over-emoting facial expressions? Whatever the reason, it was a bad choice. And while I so badly wanted the song to correct itself–by say, perhaps, cutting away to a montage of Kurt keeping watch in the hospital (perhaps with Finn keeping watch over Kurt)–it instead fell completely apart, by cutting instead to Rachel singing right in Burt’s comatose face. Why is she singing “Papa, how I miss you kissing me,” to a man who is, um, not her father? It’s a shame that the writers couldn’t think of a better way to use this song. As a recording, it’s one of the best in the Glee collection. As an on-screen musical number, it’s among the most disappointing. I give it a C+.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand: This was the heartbreaking highlight of the episode. It’s challenging enough for the Glee writers to find the right songs to fit the given moment. We have ample evidence of their failures, after all. But when the brains behind Glee really break out of the box and turn a well-known song on its head, well, you can’t help but admire that kind of creativity. Kurt’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was one of those moments. In a pre-song monologue that was perhaps a bit too long and blatant, Kurt explained how the simplest gesture from his dad could mean everything in the world to him. In a deeper but stronger voice than I recall him having last season, Kurt takes this Beatles classic in his well-moisturized hands and rings every sad bit of life out of it. It’s a wonderful performance. What puts it over the edge for me is that this might be the most successful non-diegetic staging of a song in the short, wild life of this show. I always thought going the music video route was a cop-out for Glee, but I can’t imagine “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” any other way. This was when I knew the old Glee was back. For a sound vocal performance, a wonderful visual interpretation, and a beautiful repurposing of the song–not to mention the awesome casting job on Lil’ Kurt–I give “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” an A. Best number of the season thus far.
Losing My Religion: This song had something good going for it right from the start: it was the most natural transition into song since Quinn ripped into “You Keep Me Hanging On” many moons ago. While it was a perfect song for the moment, it did mark the beginning of a worrying trend for the rest of the episode. From “Losing My Religion” on, the musical numbers were terribly truncated. This is why in retrospect I think we could have lost one (“I Look to You”) or trimmed some others (“Papa”). Cory Monteith handles this R.E.M. classic well enough. I give it a B.
Bridge Over Troubled Water: It was unfortunate that “Losing My Religion” was cut down; but it was a capital offense, a cardinal sin, an unforgivable curse that this rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was not heard in its majestic entirety. In a final attempt to mend her friendship with Kurt, Mercedes invites him to her church, where a mass will be said for his father. She makes a direct appeal for his understanding and reaffirms her loyalty to him. And, as if he needed any more convincing, she then launches into this soulful, powerhouse performance. This right here, ladies and gentlemen, is the textbook 11 o’clock number. It touches on all the themes and wakes us the hell up for the impending resolution. Like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, it was an inventive stylistic twist on a standard. Kudos to Ryan Murphy for making it this far before using a gospel choir. This was the perfect episode for it; any other use would seem gratuitous by comparison. I just wish we had heard this song full, complete, and uncut. By virtue only of the harsh edits it suffered, I give “Bridge Over Troubled Water” an A-.
One of Us: This infamous Joan Osborne ditty took the most blows on the chopping block. The sparse verse and chorus we got function more as a coda than a finale. The song was an appropriate choice, but it was just so brief. I also wasn’t crazy about the costuming and staging. The New Directions gang looked like they were posing for a Calvin Klein commercial. It was nice that Tina got to do something, though. There’s not much more to say, since there was not much else to critique. Given the crowded set list this week, it only ranks a C.
Can Glee keep its high marks going into next week? We can only hope. Until next time…
Sue’s Q of the Week: “This country is not a monarchy, Will. Trust me, I’ve tried.”