Watching Glee Until It Gets Bad S1E20: Theatricality

by thethreepennyguignol

Can you believe we’re twenty episodes in, and Glee is still Not Bad? More than Not Bad – that it’s still, actually, pretty damn great?

I mean, I knew I loved this first season, but I thought it was more in spite of than because of – that I had a soft spot for it because of what it meant to me growing up, with a few shining high points to help bolster my adoration. But, genuinely, apart from a few wobbles, this first season is wonderful. It’s hard to imagine the horrors waiting for us (see: The Rocky Horror Glee Show), but right now, let us just revel in the wonderfulness, shall we?

Glee is at it’s best when it finds a balance of it’s three major strands – drama, comedy, and performance – and Theatricality is one of the best examples of that.

The Rachel-Shelby plot picks up from last week, where Rachel first became aware of her mother, and their meeting comes for the first time in this episode. I love when Glee subverts my expectations, and the handling of this plot is surprisingly mature and nuanced in a way I didn’t expect from the, well, theatricality of it’s introduction last week. Rachel and Shelby meet, but they soon realize that the fantasy they had of this mother-daughter coming together after more than a decade and a half of seperation just isn’t going to happen – despite their biological bond, they’re still strangers, and the dramatic familial reunion both of them seemed, on some level, to want just can’t quite come out. It’s nice to see Lea Michele get to play Rachel a little more grounded, even because it’s just a bit of a novelty to see the character depicted that way.

I’ve always loved the way Indina Menzel plays Shelby – a blend of pragmatism with these small cracks that shine through a hopeful idealism about the way the world should be or could be if she just pushes hard enough to make it that way – and this is really her episode for how well she pulls that off. The way she plays the realization that she doesn’t actually want a grown daughter like Rachel, but a baby who really needs her, is sad and a little awkward and a little self-effacing and selfish all at once. Her ability to recognize what she wanted from her relationship with Rachel, as well as her ability to know why it’s not going to work, feels mature and earned, due in no small part to what Menzel imbues her character with. Plus, that Poker Face? Delicious. I could listen to these two sing together forever. The way this arrangements breaks up the duet to reflect their relationship is really clever, too – Shelby singing the “I won’t tell you that I love you” part, for example.

And Theatricality scores another slam-dunk point for me by bringing Mike O’Malley and Romy Rosemont, my beloved parents/polycule, into the other major drama this episode. Burt invites Carol, Finn’s mother, to move in with him, putting Finn and Kurt at close quarters, which leaves Finn uncomfortable in the face of Kurt’s one-time crush on him and his open homosexuality.

I think this is the kind of plot that really builds on the work done in the Burt-Kurt relationship earlier in the season. One of the absolute high points of Glee for me is the father-son Hummell relationship, how carefully it’s been built up since the fourth episodes of the season. We’ve seen Burt work so hard to understand his son and support him in his coming out even if it’s not something he can totally wrap his head around himself, so when he overhears Finn calling Kurt a slur in this episode, his reaction feels really earned. Without the previous work in this season, it might have felt a bit after-school-special, but the way Mike O’Malley steps into that protective father role without a second thought is so in line with his characterization, it works. Cory Monteith does really well here, probably because he’s surrounded by some of the best actors in the show so far, and his eventual turnaround and acceptance of Kurt’s openness about his identity is pretty sweet, wrapped in a shower curtain and giving more Lady GuyGuy than Lady Gaga.

Speaking off, Lady Gaga’s work is a central theme of this episode, and a really enjoyable one at that – it’s fun to look at this episode as a little time capsule, when her work was still a novelty and her pop culture dominance was so new. Her over-the-top looks and styling allow for this episode to go kind of crazy with the execution of a few of the performances, and the inherent goofiness and creativity in her work gives Theatricality a candy-coloured gloss that contrasts well with the drama.

I’d also be unfairly ignoring another piece of pop culture dominance this week, which is, of course, Tina’s Asian Vampire storyline. It’s one of those plot points that’s so clearly just the bluntest way possible the writers could find into a Lady Gaga feature, but it’s so stupid and so bizarro-world, it makes me laugh every single time. Iqbal Theba has such a specific and delightfully deadpan performance style, seeing him descend into genuine and utterly baseless terror works way better than it should.

If I had one criticism of this episode, it’s probably that Glee is feeling less and less like an even-handed ensemble – the Tina plot, while it’s fun, is very throwaway, and the focus is very much on Rachel, Finn, and Kurt than it is on anyone else by this point in the show’s run. It’s an inevitability that some characters will get more screentime and focus than others, but Glee isn’t even really trying to pretend it’s not using most of the Glee club pretty much as background plot-producers than anything else.

But even with that, I think Theatricality is another brilliant episode in this back-half of the first season. We’re just a couple of weeks out from the end of season one, and I’m so enjoying getting to indulge myself in the show every week – when it’s this good, it doesn’t feel like work.

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(header image via Fandomania)