For almost all of “Glee’s” debut season, each episode has managed to either be gay fantastic(!) or, more often than not, so ridiculously overblown that you question why you’re even watching the show. Last night’s episode, which was directed by Joss Whedon and featured Neil Patrick Harris as Bryan Ryan, was a rarity: It was neither of those things. It was simply good.
There is a middle ground, after all.
Leave it to Joss Whedon to make singing a duet of “Piano Man” in a tavern feel more subdued and less theatrical. It wasn’t exactly cinéma vérité, but you could almost believe that two men discussing their problems (about musical theater) might break into Billy Joel over a couple of brewskies. And Matthew Morrison and Neil Patrick Harris have unbelievable musical chemistry. When “Glee” and “How I Met Your Mother” end their respective runs, those two should get their own musical show.
Besides chasing those dreams (reeeetch), last night’s big theme was restraint. Not the characters, but Whedon’s approach to directing the episode (did anyone else notice that the boopity-boo bop score was also less prominent?). It was a welcome reprieve from the show’s usual flamboyance, although story-wise, it was one of the weaker episodes. We’d long wanted more focus on the minor characters, specifically Artie, but it’d be nice if they found something besides Artie’s paralysis to focus on. Given the haste of the show’s character arcs, I almost though that — by the end of the show — Artie would be walking again (and for the first few seconds of Artie’s fantastically choreographed dance number, before realizing that it was a dream sequence, I nearly threw my television out the window). Instead, Artie’s subplot culminated in a forlorn, kind of tragic “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” to end the show. That may have been the most wrenching episode finale in the series so far.
The second plotline was even more soap operatic: Rachel decided that she had to find her biological mother, though so far as I know, the fact that her biological mother was not in the picture had never been mentioned before last night’s show. That one came in from left field and soared into the stands. It was Jesse St. James, back from spring break with his Vocal Adrenaline friends, who pushed that development along, sneaking a tape into an old box Rachel had found in her basement. That tape contained the voice of Rachel’s mother who, naturally, is the coach of the Glee Club’s nemesis, Vocal Adrenaline. Given Shelby Corcoran’s physical resemblance to Rachel that should’ve occurred to me earlier, I suppose. (Rent! That’s where I know Idina Menzel from. She’s Taye Diggs’ wife.) It culminated in another goddamn showtune, this one from Les Misérables.
Jesus Christ: I own my inner gay as much or more as the next guy, but I hate showtunes. All of them, save for — ironically — about four from Rent. The day that Ryan Murphy decides to do an all showtunes episode of “Glee,” is the day I refuse to watch.
The highlight of last night’s show, of course, was Neil Patrick Harris, a jilted former Lima loser who’d been burned in his endeavors to parlay his Glee Club talent into a profession, deciding to take his anger out on the current Glee Club as a school board member threatening to cut the program (how many times will they go to that well in this show?). NPH, in addition to hate-fucking Sue Sylvester (who had the line of the night: “I’ve got a secret room upstairs. Like Letterman”), killed in both duets with Schuester, but “Dream On,” in particular. That’s the way the Aerosmith song should be performed. My only disappointment was that NPH didn’t get his own solo, and I don’t know why — if NPH ultimately won the part in Les Mis — he couldn’t have somehow been a part of Rachel and Shelby’s final number. NPH has a lot of talent, not least of all his ability to make me hate showtunes a little less.
All in all, a good episode, though not a spectacular one, but certainly not a letdown. Importantly, it also set up the show’s eventual finale, pitting Rachel against Jesse St. James (who has developed a real fondness for Rachel) and her mother in the regional competition (and not to give anything away, but given that there are only two episodes left and that a state or national competition would naturally follow, we can either assume that the Glee Club doesn’t beat Vocal Adrenaline or this school year is extended into next season).
Next week: Gaga.