Glee, “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle”

Although so much of the discourse has focused on how Glee and the Super Bowl seem like such an insane and difficult pairing, I tend to believe the opposite is actually true. The Super Bowl is most certainly the greatest spectacle in America. It’s all about the grandiose, the loud, the bright, etc. For better or for worse, those same adjectives can and should be used in reference to Glee. The FOX series nearly always chooses to go for the obvious spectacle moment instead of anything with a bit more subtlety, and in that sense, it totally works that it would follow Super Bowl XLV with an episode like “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle.”

Interestingly, when I was watching this episode last night, I started questioning whether or not I could judge this episode on the same sort of plane that I do other Glee episodes. And then I realized that this is the kind of conversation I’ve had inside my head countless times this season. I tried justifying the misfire of “Britney/Brittany,” I tried rationalizing the horrid “Rocky Horror Glee Show” and forgave the stupidity of “A Very Glee Christmas” because of the holiday connection. But I think that’s what Glee wants us to do. There are certain expectations of what’s to come when you tackle massive pop tarts, underground cult films or holidays and those expectations aren’t the same for “normal” episodes of Glee. The problem is that at this point, every episode of Glee feels like an obviously “special” or “themed” effort that bursts with spectacle. That should probably stop. It won’t, but it probably should.

So while “Sue Sylvester Shuffle” is not as bad as those three episodes mentioned above, it still lacks any real subtlety or nuance to work alongside the obviousness of the spectacle. This is an episode that is completely devoid of logic and even for this series’ low standards of reality, this is a completely unnatural mess. Unfortunately, this episode is also very similar to those three misfires in that it doesn’t concern itself with any sort of real emotional pay-off that could cover up for some of the deficiencies in logic or spectacle. Glee can succeed with episodes built entirely around spectacle as long as their a solid base of bleeding-heart emotion. This is why the competition episodes work so damn well. But when efforts lack that additional layer of complexity, there isn’t much to be proud of.

One of the biggest problems Glee has been facing all season and still doesn’t seem to have an answer for is how to avoid repeating itself. This is a series with a high-concept that could open up the world to all sorts of insane stuff and despite my issues with pure spectacle, I would at least be charmed by a crazy-as-hell Glee. I enjoyed “The Substitute” even though it was moderately ridiculous and kind of dumb, but goodness, at least it was fun. If Glee is wrapped up in its own spectacle but still not having fun, there are major issues. And for the most part, this season has been trapped in this weird space where it’s trying to re-do moments from season one that were emotionally-charged, spectacle-kind of bits, but now it’s just old hat.

I have trouble believing that the series’ three writers are obviously out of ideas and can understand that repartition is an obvious part of American broadcast television, but so much of this season has been built on the foundations of stories the series has already explored. This is particularly true when it comes to the series’ warped view of high school social circles, Sue’s treatment of the Cheerios and Finn’s sense of self-worth. Those three threads were pretty much the backbone of the first season and for whatever reason, Murphy, Brennan and Falchuck haven’t quite figured out how to move past them.

Despite that, the series has sort of managed this problem but not retreading each story in one episode yet. You know, until now. And obviously putting all three of them together makes the flaws seem more apparent, but boy have I grown tired of the tension between the New Directions and the football team. The series tried to throw in a new wrinkle with Karofsky’s hidden sexuality and subsequent bullying, but with Kurt gone from the school and literally in the stands for the events of this episode, “Shuffle'”s attempts to make us care about both Karofsky and this long-standing tension just rings hollow.

And the episode’s attempts to even create these situations with the two groups are pathetic in their faulty logic. Apparently they still play football after Christmas in Ohio — fully untrue — and even though the team has gotten along well enough to make it to the conference championship, Karofsky is still pissed at Finn for being in Glee club. You know, because he’s a bastard. After the team loses the penultimate game, Coach Beiste and Will concoct one of the craziest schemes in high school history — second only to Will’s plans for Rocky Horror — that will hopefully bring the two rival groups together through the power of song. Of course the groups slowly come together before only fissuring due to the footballers’ inability to take one slushy to the face and their general fear about the consequences of being in Glee club.

In a lot of ways, the whole structure and narrative of this episode felt like something from the first part of season one, even before the series became something that people got really excited about. I assume part of that has to do with the prospective larger audience, but I blame most of it on the fact that writers haven’t been able to really develop these primary narratives past that point. The football players are a bit less villainous, but the series is still stuck in this neutral space where it has to present a world where two groups can co-exist in any way shape or form. So much of those initial episodes was about Finn’s ability to straddle the two worlds and apparently he’s failed. It’s sort of pathetic that this episode has a character like Sam come in and note that Finn hasn’t been able to bring the groups together but in it’s not from the lack of trying — it’s from the mediocre writing.

Similarly, apart from a few throwaway lines at the jump, Karofsky’s actions towards Kurt don’t seem to be as important to the people in the Glee Club. In general, the ND’ers seem more concerned about sharing a space with a different social group than actually defending Kurt and it’s certainly unfortunate that this episode wants to discuss season two’s biggest narrative without spending any time with the character most affected by it. Instead, the episode relies on Glee‘s usual storytelling approaches by having Will lecture Karofsky about his potential and then have him enjoy the experience only to tell Finn to go screw himself in the end. Though the storyline has been lauded elsewhere, I’ve had trouble with Karofsky’s characterization from the jump due to the fact that the series presumes that most anti-gay bulling comes from closeted homosexuals. And by continuing to beat that drum with Karofsky’s feel one way, act in another reactions just furthers my concerns about the story’s endgame. The series wants Karofsky to be a sympathetic character, but he just isn’t and the way he’s been handled in recent episodes only hammers that point home.

Yet again, it’s almost worthless analyzing these moments so much because this episode is so obviously built around the zombie make-up and the mash-up halftime performance, which is admittedly awesome. But again, there’s a sense here that the series wants you to feel like they’re crossing some interesting boundaries and lines with the story it is telling, particularly in reference to the relationships between high school groups, but it’s just not the case. In short, Glee continues to want you to come for the spectacle and uh, stay for the spectacle.

And despite all of that, Cory Monteith almost holds this nonsensical plot together. Finn is often poorly written until the series needs a really big moment and then they suddenly realize he’s kind of a great character and this episode is no exception. Finn’s spent a lot of time talking about being a leader, but this is one of the most obvious examples of that actually coming to pass. He’s not concerned about doing this for Rachel or for Will or whatever, he’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do and Monteith is pretty darn good in that space. Although the S1-aping continues with the possible re-coupling of Finn and Quinn, their relationship never really got a fair shake in season one because of the horrid state of the pregnancy nonsense and so I’m willing to watch a more mature version of that relationship again. It is still horrible that Ryan Murphy told a major news outlet (can’t remember which) that he’s breaking up Sam and Quinn because he was “bored,” but I can deal because there is a heart and emotion to the relationship that makes the spectacle worthwhile.

Unfortunately, that’s not where most of “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” spends its time. This is an episode devoid of much heart or emotion and way too heavy on the spectacle. And even worse, it can’t find anything really interesting to do with that spectacle. “Shuffle” is, ultimately, kind of boring — something Glee should never be.

I could go on forever about this episode, but I’ll just finish with some bullets:

  • These ideals about spectacle carry over to Sue’s manic terrorizing of the school and the Cheerios. Her lust for danger and spectacle could serve as the Brennan commenting on the frustrations of writing a series like Glee, but Sue is so insane here that all that gets wiped away fairly quickly.
  • However, the back-to-back scenes with Sue destroying the principal’s office and then the locker room were unbelievably awesome. Glee can do absurd moments like that just so well.
  • I already mentioned this, but the halftime show performance was fantastic.
  • I appreciated that this episode was light on the Rachel-Finn drama without moving away from it entirely. Rachel’s throwaway line to Blaine about how Finn would be better off with her around was enough.
  • Rachel and Puck’s version of “Need You Now?” Okay. Completely a cover, but okay. The “Bills, Bills, Bills” performance was also fine, albeit completely unnecessary.
  • I could spend 1,000 words talking about the errors in logic this episode traded in, but it’s just not worth it. Girls on the football team but Sam’s still on the bench? HS football in February? Asking the football team to perform at the halftime of a CHAMPIONSHIP game? Okay, so I went on a little bit. BUT THERE ARE MORE.

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