Watching Glee Until It Gets Bad S1E3: Acafellas

by thethreepennyguignol

Hold on to your jazz hands, folks: this is the first episode solely written by Ryan Murphy.

Ryan Murphy is a man with whom I have a parasocial on-off nemeses-to-TV-lovers relationship with. He’s been behind some of my genuine favourite TV of all time, and also, he made Nip/Tuck. For every powerful female lead, there’s a bisexual incestuous rapist. You take the milk with the cream, you know?

Whatever vague hinged-ness Glee has been hanging on to for the last two weeks goes directly out of the window with Murphy’s unwieldy Acafellas, his textbook madcap scattergun style pock-marked all over the script everywhere you look. Characters get up in the middle of overlong scenes to announce “I’m bored” and quickly steer the plot back on course. There are poorly set-up but undeniably impressive fantasy cutaway song numbers that last several minutes apiece. It’s unfathomably problematic by today’s standards – the predatory gay, the teenage-boy-having-sex-with-adult-women-framed-as-good subplot – and it is, without a doubt, really, really watchable.

Like I just mentioned, Acafellas is an episode packed-out with great musical numbers, even if the reasoning for having them there is often slim. Amber Riley gets a front-and-centre moment doing Bust Your Windows by Jazzmine, but the lead-in to it is this bizarre plot where she falls in love with Kurt (despite, as Rachel points out, the fact he wears a corset to second period), she gets mad at him, destroys a bit of his car, and then they work it out within about ninety seconds at the end? It’s so, so clear this is the vaguest set-up possible just because someone had a really cool idea for staging this sequence, and I’m glad it’s here, but God, does it feel wedged-in.

The titular Acafellas have probably got my favourite performances of this week, especially this particular one:

I do really enjoy when Glee does the super-polished, showy numbers every now and then (this episode has a great Vocal Adrenalin one that is frankly just showing off), but stuff like this is what genuinely delights me. It’s so fun to see these slightly amateurish but very enthusiastic guys shamble around a stage doing a cheesy cover of an even cheesier song. There’s a rambunctious energy to it, a little cringey but totally self-aware, and everyone is really giving it 100%, even if that means not really entirely lifting their feet off the floor. This is also as good a chance as any to say how much I love Patrick Gallagher as Ken Tanaka in the first season; he’s replaced by my wife, my mother, my darling, my inspiration Dot Marie-Jones in season two, and sometimes I forget about him a little as a result. Ken might be kind of a weirdo, but Gallagher imbues him with such a genuine sweetness and charisma I can’t help but love him to pieces.

I’d also like to take a moment here to talk about Matthew Morrison’s performance style as Will, because I think it’s actually really cool – he acts like someone who grew up in the nineties trying to be cool, which makes perfect sense for Mr Schu as a character. His cheesy boyband stuff is extremely silly and a little cringe, but it also works beautifully for Will, as someone who last engaged with popular music in the nineties, and I have to love it.

When it comes to drama, it’s hard to judge what’s good coming from Ryan Murphy: he rarely does okay, usually somewhere between absolute screaming horseshit and life-alteringly moving dialogue that could have come straight from Tennessee Williams. Here, he’s for sure on the former side, but I think the episode gets away with it because of the focus on Matthew Morrison and his upcoming fatherhood (well, ish) plot. Morrison is committing his hardest to his insanity, even if it is about as subtle as being clipped by a moped. The blunt-force drama, against the backdrop of the rest of this episode’s tone, feels downright sincere, just by virtue of everything being so mental. People will suddenly make handbrake turns into serious plot points, but they play it so sincerely they manage to get by.

When a show is this untethered from reality, the comedy comes pretty easy. Sue is barely even in this episode, but it’s still genuinely hilarious, and that should tell you everything you need to know. We’re getting the first glimpses of the Unholy Trinity (Quinn, Santana, and Brittany) in full force, as well as a seriously fun guest turn from a very game Josh Groban. There is some near the knuckle comedy here – in fact, there’s a lot that goes outright over the knuckle and down to the elbow, to be quite honest – and it’s a reminder once again that Glee was never this utterly toothless saccharine show for sweethearts. From that hideous extended gag at the start about the shop teacher slicing off his thumbs to Sue’s casual reference to saving Noriega from Panama, the comedy still the best part of the show at this point, as the performances and long-term plots start settling in.

When Ryan Murphy is at the helm of an episode of Glee, you know it’s going to be kind of stupid. But, most likely, it’s also going to feature stacks of fun performances and absurd comedy, so it’s easy enough to forgive it. For now, at least…

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(header image via IMDB)