Glee, “Never Been Kissed”

On the surface, one could make an argument that Glee has always been interested in the bullying that happens in high schools — or at least its fictional Ohio high school — and so with the horrible outbreak of bullying-related suicides, particularly by homosexuals, the series seemed like the prime candidate to spread a “message” on network television. And in the abstract, that appears to be a good idea. There is already something of a baseline for bullying in McKinley High and the series’ best character (and actor) just happens to be a homosexual who finds himself on the raw end of that bullying.

However, despite Chris Colfer’s best efforts, “Never Been Kissed” is massive mess of an episode, one that retroactively attempts to make the series’ portrayal of bullying into something it exactly wasn’t previously and one that features one of the most ridiculously awful B-stories in the series’ short run.

Here’s the thing: I think Glee is in a prime spot to tell an interesting and possibly moving story about bullying. It has that capability, even if the results are probably always going to be heavy-handed and preachy. But this bullying trend is out of control in real life, and if Glee has any influence at all, I’m willing to sacrifice subtly for education, as long as it doesn’t lead to similarly plotted stories in the future. Unfortunately, “Never Been Kissed” alters the series’ previous representations of bullying in such a way that undermines the emotional impact or even believability of what’s happening here, both with Kurt and Coach Beiste.

By that I mean that although Glee has portrayed a number of characters being bullied, they were being so because they were “different.” There has never really been much indication that Kurt has been bullied only because he is an open homosexual. He was bullied before that just as much. Thus, the series’ bullying has been fairly equal opportunity in the sense that Rachel was continuously made fun of for much of the first season and folks like Artie, Tina, Finn and Mercedes felt the wrath of the slushie as well. For the most part, Glee‘s stance on bullying has been that it happens to anyone who is willing to stand up and be different, which of course has included and primarily highlighted Kurt.

But here, things are recalibrated in such a way that it seems like the douche football player (apparently named Hamhawk) has been tormenting Kurt this entire time because he is gay. There has never been much indication that this is the sole reason Kurt is the victim of Hamhawk’s rage, but as soon as Will pokes his nose in the matter — honestly, he should help but at this point, wouldn’t we all just rather he stay far away from any problem? — and he and Kurt share a discussion about homophobia, everything changes and the episode travels down a disappointing path that it clearly views as inspirational.

Of course Kurt is down. Of course it sucks being the only openly gay person in a Lima, Ohio high school. But in an attempt to prove to Kurt that “it gets better” and all that, his makeshift spying on one competing school turns into an overblown fantasy world of acceptance and diversity that is absolutely laughable. At this all boys school, Kurt finds his guardian gay angel in Blaine (played by a super-likable Darren Criss), who grabs his hand, runs him gleefully down a back hallway, smiles knowingly a lot and then basically serenades him with Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” From there, Kurt gets the “We’re all open and accepting here” speech from Blaine and his conveniently diverse batch of friends and even if we’re supposed to view this trip through Kurt’s rose-colored glasses, it’s all too much. This place makes McKinley High look like the Baltimore school system on The Wire it’s so happy and unrealistic.

And even despite all that, I’d willing to go with it because Chris Colfer played the hurt, alienation and frustration so well. But in the end, when Hamhawk reveals his true desires behind the bullying — he’s gay too! — any semblance of meaning or importance seeps out of the story. If Glee wanted to tell this bullying story because of what’s happening in the real world — and I have to believe they did — it’s tremendously unfortunate that this is what they’ve come up with. In the real world, people are awful. They hate because they can. They hate because of a religious belief, personal vendetta or just because they freaking want to. But in the world of Glee, there always has to be some sort of cute role reversal that’s supposed to exist as poignant or touching, and it simply doesn’t work. The bullying-gays-because-you’re-gay-and-can’t-admit-it storyline is played out and not helpful to those confused and scared homosexuals at home because real life isn’t like that. And although I would usually advocate for the fact that Glee doesn’t have a responsibility to its audience, this an issue they’ve brought on themselves and if they’re going to tackle bullying, it should be done correctly and realistically.

But again, it’s not and the episode suffers.

Terrifyingly, Kurt’s issues aren’t even close to the worst part of the episode, as Brad Falchuk’s script also turns its attentions to a poorly constructed story focusing on Coach Beiste that is odd, uncomfortable and like most Glee plots, not as moving or intelligent as the series thinks it is. Things start out okay: Spurred on by Finn’s advice, Sam realizes that the best way to simulate a cold shower with Quinn when he’s not getting action is to think of Coach Beiste in goofy outfits and sexual positions. It’s stupid, but as it transfers like Mike and Tina like a virus, it’s sort of funny. It’s kind of mean, but these are high school boys and it’s ultimately innocuous.

But then, Will gets involved yet again — what a son of a bitch — and the whole thing turns into another makeshift lesson about bullying. Will interrogates those who he apparently “knows” are “thinking” about Beisteduring intimate moments and then gives them a tremendously patronizing speech about how they cannot do things like this, particularly to people “like them.” I sort of understand what Falchuk is trying to do here in his attempts to tie the stories together narratively, but there’s just so much wrong with the execution.

First of all, as the guys say, they’re not doing this to Beiste face and they’re not doing it at school. I know that doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t really make it bullying either, Glee. Secondly and most importantly, the episode and most of the season’s stories that have included Beiste completely betray the message “Never Been Kissed” is trying to tell us with Beiste. Her appearance is the constant target for gags and jokes and while that’s not a totally progressive approach, it’s not a completely damning one either. But Glee wants to make us laugh with its jokes about her masculine looks and then slap us on the hand with a ruler for doing so. You cannot have it both ways.

And like Kurt’s story, the plot with Beiste only derails further as it continues. It turns out that these kind of “jokes” make her particularly uncomfortable because as a 40-year old woman, she’s never been kissed. Get it, just like Kurt and just like the title of the episode?! Beiste quits in embarrassment and Will terrifyingly takes it upon himself to bring her back by giving her a motivational speech about her inner and outer beauty and then…kissing her. It’s not that the gesture in itself is gross, but Will’s obvious pride in doing. the. right. thing. is so exhausting that the moment is completely devoid of real emotion or impact. Then the episode caps it all off with the guys singing a song not remotely related to an apology to Beiste and giving her a group hug! All is right in the world! Lesson learned!

Again, as I’ve said, I understand what Glee is trying to do and for once, I think it should embrace its position of influence and try to put a little change out there in the world. But this is absolutely not the way to do it, with an unrealistic and partially retconned A-story and tremendously awful, shoe-horned B-story. This episode isn’t as awful as the “Rocky Horror” effort or as weird as the Britney Spears fiasco, but it’s misguided and self-congratulating in a dangerous sort of way that makes for disappointing television.

Other thoughts:

  • Another by-product of the overwrought A- and B-stories? Puck’s return and subsequently interesting mini-arc with Artie gets the short-shift. I saw some semblance of “bullying” in there as well with Puck’s troubles while in juvy, but I would have much preferred to watch an episode about Puck and Artie being cool together than this mess, even if it meant watching Artie randomly pine over Brittany again.
  • I appreciate that the series is trying to prove that the music isn’t the whole thing worth watching here this season, but neither the “Boys vs. Girls, Opposite Edition!” or the mash-ups they sang were remotely interesting, energetic or enjoyable to watch. Aside from “Teenage Dream,” the musical performances here felt tacked-on in a way that the stories usually do — so perhaps that’s an improvement?
  • After basically playing his role in the “Rocky Horror” episode, Sam continues to be a less likable version of Puck, which is especially odd and disappointing now that Puck is back and acting less and less like the prick he appears to be on the surface. Glad to see the series is completely uninterested in doing anything with Sam.
  • I’m not particularly bothered by this because it means other characters get more things to do, but when is the last time Rachel had anything to do? The Britney episode right? Her “SPIES!” line was the best of the night.

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