Earlier this year, The A.V. Club’s Todd Van Der Werff wrote a great piece with an unfortunate, yet completely valid headline. It reads, “Community and Glee are pretty much the same show.” Obviously, the headline alone was enough to send the AVC community into a tizzy, but Todd’s piece is basically completely on-point. The first point (“They’re both about makeshift families that allow people to better themselves.”) in the piece is the most relevant for my current discussion.
If you watched Community over these past two seasons, I think you’d be willing to recognize that the series’ two seasons had very different intentions storyline-wise. In season one, the members of the study group became that makeshift family Todd alludes to in his piece and, for the most part, the season was about how they would love and support one another no matter what. In season two, those BFF claims were challenged on a consistent basis and the members of the study group quickly realized that the honeymoon phase was over. Jeff might be improved for the better by hanging out with the rest of the group, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t also sort of toxic for him as well. Same goes for everyone. Thus, the story became all about these people love one another and think they will support each other no matter what, but that might not actually be the case when you wake up and realize that Pierce is a son of a bitch, Troy and Abed are actually pretty weird, Britta sucks, Annie’s naive beyond belief and Shirley is a walking guilt-trip. Qualities that were once endearing are now annoying and it’s hard to move forward. But by the end of the season, everyone has at least come to the agreement that whatever this group is, it means something and they need to work things out moving forward.
This isn’t a completely novel storytelling approach for a series with the “makeshift family” dynamic, but Community certainly put its own unique spin on things throughout its second season. And most importantly, Community didn’t come out and blatantly say all the things that I just typed in that previous paragraph. The series likes to tell instead of show sometimes, but it still left its most important thematic concerns up for interpretation, at least from my perspective.
In tonight’s season finale, “New York,” Glee presented to us the exact same themes. The difference? Glee dedicated a moment of time in the episode’s epilogue to having Brittany explicitly express the season’s themes and storytelling directives. There was absolutely no subtext, just a quick little rant about how New Directions is about family and coming together despite the fact that on a week-to-week basis, everyone hates one another, hooks up with one another and then one another’s significant others and then comes together for a fun number at the end of it all. Clearly, Community is a much better series and one that is more adept at integrating its themes into more complex and intelligent narrative structures while Glee has never relied on subtlety and prefers to just come out and say exactly what its thinking. Therefore, I actually don’t find Brittany’s speech problematic because it is so blunt and obvious or some makeshift way to wrap up the season on a positive note.
Where my problems with the speech come is that I’m not really sure I buy it. I know that Glee WANTS to be the series that Brittany and thus writer Brad Falchuk thinks that it is here, but there’s always going to be the question of whether or not it actually backs up the speeches and platitudes characters trade with one another after doing terrible things to each other. At a certain point, I can’t really look at the series’ terrible writing, poor plotting and even poorer characterization as thematically resonant and purposeful. Yes, these characters do treat one another like crap a lot of the time and yes, they are just emotional high school fools, but I can’t completely get there in the way the series wants me to.
Community gave us the first season to show us why the study group might continue to be together despite their issues. With Glee, the characters have always been antagonistic and awful to one another. There just hasn’t been enough time spent on developing why these kids love one another and feel like a family, each episode just tells us that at the end of the week or shows them happily singing along together. I know what I’m supposed to take away from this season of Glee, I just don’t entirely feel like I can. Again, it’s really unfair comparing the two series, but it’s hard not to do so. I think Glee does an OK job with things that Community does a fantastic job with, that makes the former not unlike a hundred other television series.
All of this makes it moderately difficult to really analyze “New York.” As a traditional finale, it doesn’t totally work. The episode’s big plot threads (Will Will take on Broadway? How will the group do at Nationals?) aren’t handled with very much care. Will Indecision 2011 was unceremoniously thrown into the story a few weeks ago with the hope that it would provide the climax more urgency, but outside of giving Matthew Morrison an opportunity to sing one of the songs off his debut album in character, it went absolutely nowhere. The group finds out, tell him it’s okay and then he decides, “aw, screw it,” all within a minute or two of screen-time. It was utterly worthless. Of course, Will decision to stick around only reinforces what kind of family the New Directions is supposed to be, but again, the story was never given enough time to develop so it really doesn’t matter at all.
Moreover, it was obvious from the very beginning that “New York” wasn’t really interested in the competition. For all its bluster about Nationals, the last stretch of episodes didn’t actually consider them until the very end, again removing all urgency or care from our minds. The lead up to and execution of the competition episodes in season two has been tremendously disappointing when compared to the two great season one episodes with that framework. Last season’s finale was the conclusion to a half season of storylines that didn’t really matter, but it somehow still managed to pull the emotion out of me. This episode, on the other hand, felt completely sterile on the emotion front. Glee, I want you to make me cry. This episode didn’t make that happen.
Listen: I would like to think that the season’s inability to focus on the urgency and importance of these competitions was purposeful. In light of the events of this episode, perhaps that is actually true. The New Directions were severely unprepared for the MOST IMPORTANT COMPETITION OF THEIR LIVES. They spent most of the time in NYC fawning over how awesome it was to be in NYC, talking about their dreams, etc. and only decided to write the songs they performed at the very last-minute. Frankly, it’s unbelievable that they even finished 12th.
Going back over the season, we could easily say that the group (and the series) took Sectionals lightly and they basically coasted on the fact that the competing groups were terrible. More effort was put into Regionals, but still nothing compared to the magnitude of last season’s competitions. Again, maybe the writers had this planned on along. Maybe they wanted the season to be all about the cracks in the group’s foundations and therefore intentionally made the competitions seem less important in the shadow of the relationships. If that’s the case, Murphy, Brennan and Falchuk are much better at crafting a season than I originally thought. But…I just cannot believe that IS the case.
In a lot of ways, “New York” feels a set-up for what will be a very interesting third season. This is the first time that the series has explicitly noted that Rachel and Finn (and presumably most everyone else but Sam) are graduating this time next season. The acknowledgement that many of these characters will actually leave McKinley is both welcome for those of us who thought the series might try to keep them high school students forever and smart because it helps the Nationals loss make more sense. If the group would have won it all this year, there’s really nothing for them to compete for in season three, presuming the series wants to continue to keep the competition element integral to the series’ fabric. It’s basically the Friday Night Lights season two problem. Once you win, then what? Unfortunately, these kind of series are much better when they’re about underdogs, not winners. Now, the group’s leaders have two big goals to work towards next season in graduation and Nationals, things that should provide the series obvious story engines across that upcoming season. And perhaps maybe next season even re-commits to telling good competition-related stories.
Moreover, there isn’t a whole lot of resolution in this episode. Honestly, “Prom Queen” was clearly the season’s big storyline conclusion and the writers then had two more episodes to tie up some loose-ends and propel the characters on new paths for season three. With Will’s story being wrapped up in an instant, the only big moment here is that Rachel and Finn struggle to work out their feelings for one another before finally deciding that they should be together for this final year and figure out the logistics of the future in the future. Santana doesn’t come out, Karofsky’s nowhere to be found, Artie and Brittany don’t reconcile, Emma gets three seconds of screen-time and Quinn’s big moment is that she gets a very nice haircut. The isn’t a conclusion, it’s basically a pivot point towards what will be a much bigger one next season. I’m probably more okay with that than I’m coming across in this review.
- Seriously, I didn’t hate this episode by any means. It was just so odd and inconclusive that it will have to simmer in my mind for a little longer before I come to a final conclusion. I’ll have more on the season as a whole next week, I’ll discuss “New York” then I’m sure.
- These original songs were much better, no? “My Cup” was pretty lovely.
- Mercedes and Sam! ALRIGHT.
- Is there really any doubt that Naya Rivera and Heather Morris are the best things about this series? Similarly, I feel so, so, so bad for Mark Salling and Dianna Agron. Just them go.
- Speaking of that, I imagine that there will be talk about how the series keeps Lea Michele and the rest of the older characters around. Not to keep the FNL references flying, but I imagine Glee will try that series’ approach: Let some of them (Artie, Mike, Tina, Puck, Lauren and Mercedes are the most obvious candidates) go, try to keep others (Rachel, Kurt, Finn, Quinn [unfortunately] and hopefully Santana and Brittany) go. I’m not sure it’ll work, but I could easily see the series trying a Rachel, Santana and Kurt in a NYC apartment with Finn somehow stuck back in Lima.
- Vocal Adrenaline was much less intimidating this year, I hope the series tries to rectify that, or better yet, comes up with a different villainous group.
- Not surprising that Sue was MIA here, that’s fine.