The last two episodes of Glee have been generally awful. I mean just dreadful, two of the worst in the series’ run. Perhaps it’s because of that — though not only because of that, as I’ll argue — that I found “The Substitute” to be an insanely fun episode of the series, despite it’s very, very obvious flaws.
Let me say this, because I’ve taken some faux-heat on Twitter for my weird views on Glee that sometimes just make me look like a weird contrarian: I do not mind at all when the series is generally insane and ridiculous for 42 straight minutes. What I mind is when it’s insane for 40 minutes and then that individual episode’s writer tries to tie it all together with an overly simplified and mushy message. Sure, there are exceptions to that, most notably the insane, but oh so awful “Funk,” but for the most part, when the series just goes for broke and sort of avoids any real sense of reality and doesn’t try too hard to then read me a middle school report on an “issue” at the end, I’m fine with it. Of course I’d love Glee to be like “Duets” or “Mattress” every week, but I know that’s not going to happen, so when there’s an episode that features Gwyneth Paltrow doing a terrible Mrs. Lincoln impression and talking to a teapot, I can sit back and enjoy that nonsense for what it is.
And in general, I think my differences between my views on Glee and the views of the people I talked with on Twitter boil down to the music and the musical performances. I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again: While I like the music, hell love it apparently if you look at my iPod’s most played tracks, but the performances themselves aren’t particularly important to me. They’re important in the respect that I want to see how the series tries to use them as placeholders for story or character development, but not for the actual performance itself. I don’t want to put words in those folks’ mouths, but it seems like the generally stagnant and mostly beat-for-beat music-video replication-like musical interludes bored people. Me too, but not to the extent that I can’t enjoy Paltrow’s go-for-broke approach to her role as cool sub Holly Holliday or honestly, an improved story for that son of bitch Will Schuester.
I know that I’m tough on Will, but that’s because amid all the hype and the nonsense in the first 13 episodes, he had a really rock-solid arc. He was an interesting character, someone to root for, etc. But now, the series just decides to use him however they see fit, so one week he’s a sex-crazed fool, the next he’s an idealistic crusader against the various forms of teen boy climax control. And that wouldn’t even so bad because so many of the characters are inconsistent like that, but no matter what Will does in the first 30-38 minutes of an episode, he always ends up realizing the error of his ways and making a stupid speech about why he was wrong. If he’s going to be a heroic figure fine, but actually make him do something likable. Don’t make him act like a scumbag or idiot and then recognize he’s a scumbag and idiot, only to do the same exact freaking thing the next week.
Therefore, it’s kind of funny that I said the Britney episode killed Will and the “Rocky Horror” one buried him, because here, he obtains a rare strain of monkey flu — that tells you what kind of Glee we get this week — and so that virus helps him come back to life a little bit. Kind of like…a zombie! Okay, that was fun.
More seriously, sidelining Will for an episode and making him seem like an okay guy in someone’s eyes other than his own is a good thing. This episode was very willing to show us a Will who doesn’t listen to his students because he hilariously only wants to perform Journey songs –a great gag — but also one who makes a lot of stupid mistakes, here by having sex with triumphantly returning Terri. While I think the episode too quickly makes Terri an insane person and lets Will be idealistic again, this is a mistake he should be making. He was married for 16 years and quickly got divorced after a ridiculously freak thing and then became the biggest douche in Lima, which has made him lonely and more of a douche. Thus, hooking up with his ex who is clearly trying to better herself — well, until the series wants her to be insane again at the end of the episode — makes some sense.
And much like the quick turn to regret with Terri isn’t the best approach, having the New Directioners plead newly-installed principal Sue to bring Will back after she’s fired him — again, it’s that kind of episode — with all sorts of melodramatic “To Sir, With Love”-like platitudes is a little much, but they’re not too ridiculous to make the impact completely void. Will might be terrible at managing his own life and he might meddle too much, but sometimes, that actually matters to kids who feel alone and disconnected. So by having the students come to this realization instead of Will butting in for some reason and making a speech about loneliness or something works. This episode doesn’t make Will that much better of a character and there’s a chance he’ll be a total wreck next week, but after 15 episodes of terrible, it’s a start.
But with Will away, “The Substitute” was able to ratchet up the kind of high octane-nonsense it does well. Paltrow gets derided for being a pretentious shill for nu-life stupidity, and rightfully so, but every once in a while, she’s able to really turn on the charm and dive into a role that makes me not want to punch her in the face (see: the first “Iron Man” flick). Holly Holiday is such a role. She seems to really grab hold of the idea of presumed one-off guest star that we’ll forget until the series stupidly brings her back for a second episode that’s not as good just like they did with Kristin Chenoweth’s April, which also fits the substitute persona well.
As students, substitutes can feel like welcome respites from the monotony of the k-12 lifestyle, whether if that means they’re so bad you can just do nothing, or they’re so cool you actually learn something. And while Holly is a Glee-ified version of a substitute, it never pretends she’s anything else. So for the students, her sliding in on the butter, avoiding Puck’s trick, picking up on the fake names, busting into Cee-Lo and then taking the group to Taco Bell does seem like the. coolest. thing. ever. and I like that the episode plays that it up and damnit, Paltrow is just having so much fun it is infectious.
Of course there’s going to be a moment where she breaks down and realizes she can’t handle the real stuff students face in high school, but much like how April’s journey was played in “The Rhodes Not Taken,” the episode doesn’t get too bogged down in the melodrama of it all. Sure, she can’t deal with true problems, but that emotional admission to Will is completely undercut by a flashback as to why, where she’s punched in the face by a aptly-named student named Cameo. It’s ridiculous, but not so much so that it ruins the episode.
And in a lot of ways, that’s how “The Substitute” gets by. There are so many things going on here, most of which I haven’t even mentioned in detail — Sue’s principal reign, which is apparently a real thing now; Mercedes fight to keep tots around because she’s really just upset she’s lost Kurt to Blaine; Rachel being overly diva-like again, Will seeing mini-versions of all the students and a random one-off scene with Sue and Beiste — that none of them get played out enough to make an overly positive or overly negative impact. After over-using her in the back-9 last season, the series has smartly put Sue on the back-burner in a lot of this season’s episodes, so it was kind of nice to have her in full power here, but there wasn’t enough to really say charmed me or offended me. And the other stories felt similar.
So, in the end, “The Substitute” won’t be anyone’s favorite episode of Glee, not even close. But it’s an episode that despite the musical missteps — though I enjoyed “Forget You” and “Umbrella/Singing in the Rain” — seems like a normal, run-of-the-mill episode of Glee. And after an uneven season where each episode is trying something completely different and often missing entirely, it’s kind of nice to just pull back on the themes and the big messages and just be stupid-fun for a week.