The wheels come off the musical wagon
The Story So Far...
The problems are the same as they ever were, as characters are inconsistent in their behavior, logic means nothing, and plots are repeated again and again. The criticism of Community's Glee-inspired Christmas episode rings incredibly true as this season unfolds, as the focus is once again on regionals, the year-end competition they work towards all year, just like last season and the season before that. However, unlike the other choral groups they face at these competitions, Glee's New Directions group never works toward improving their chances, as they never try to perfect a performance or even establishing a set list, instead focusing on goofy theme weeks or whatever popular song they feel like singing that day. So once again, when it comes time to compete, they're scrambling to decide what to sing.
This goes with one of the show's biggest issues and that's the balance between reality and fantasy. We're constantly told there are budget-issues at the school, yet the show choir has more elaborate sets and costumes available to them than many Broadway shows. Now, it's easy to explain these if you make the numbers fantasy scenes, which the show does at times, but it has trouble keeping the borders clear, and as a result there's a lack of consequences, which makes the drama constantly produced meaningless. For instance, Blaine (Darren Criss) is severely injured by a rival group, but a few episodes later, it's as if nothing happened. It's as if there's a reset button in the rehearsal room, and it's constantly being hit. (And speaking of reality, where do all the supplemental dancers that perform with New Directions come from and when are they working on their choreography? And does their accompanist live at the school?)
No character represents this issue like Quinn (Diana Agron) who was the perfect villain when the show started, as the head cheerleader and queen bee of the school. As the show has moved on, it's become almost a joke the way she vacillates between psycho and sweetheart, scheming or helping depending on the breeze. No one will claim a teenage girl is a paragon of logic or consistency, but if we're going this way, let there be a cost to it. Here, everyone just accepts it and moves on. And when Quinn finds herself in a wheelchair due to a life-changing accident, it has little to no affect of her, as she keeps up the split-personality, and again, soon the chair is rolled into the past. At least in this way, they show is consistently refusing to change.
Quinn's accident was another example of a big trend in this season, as the show gave lip service to social issues, touching on everything from sexuality to bullying to texting and driving and domestic violence. But if the series refuses to dole out consequences (which it proves again and again, be it Puck (Mark Salling) and his multiple chances to graduate or Rachel and her repeat auditions for college) these supposed lessons are meaningless. Yes, the plotlines of former bully Karofsky and his struggles accepting his own sexuality or Coach Bieste's (Dot-Marie Jones) violent home life are touching, and presented powerfully thanks to the show's talented cast and crew, but they are here-and-gone, rarely if ever leaving an impact on the characters.
The one thing that consistently makes the show worth watching is the music, as the cast is talented, and there's a decent mix of classic songs, recent pop hits and show tunes, though it doesn't push the envelope in terms of original arrangements the way the first season did. It does push the envelope in terms of pure quantity, learning nothing from the story-damage inflicted by overloading on songs. Occasionally there will be a song that stands out for its presentation, like the cello-powered take on Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" or the surprisingly effective songs in the Whitney Houston tribute episode, but for the most part they only range from good to very good, because they stick tightly to the originals. Interestingly though, when the show tried an original composition this season, the only one after several in season two, it once again came out strong, with "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" sounding like it's been on holiday radio playlists for decades.
This season was something of a wrap-up, with several of the students graduating, including lead performers Rachel (Lea Michelle) and Finn (Cory Monteith), whose relationship leads them to contemplate marriage. There's a lot of finality to these episodes, especially as the seniors enter their last competitive season, their last prom and eventually graduation, though it's unlikely any of them are gone for good, since the show plans to follow their lives beyond Lima, Ohio. Part of that speaks to the show's seeming fear of trying something different, and risks putting the series in the same company as Heroes, which originally planned to switch casts as the story dictated, but stuck with what was working.
Fortunately, the wave of new characters brought on this season raises the possibility that things will change, but like Heroes, Glee had difficulty integrating its new crew, playing with the new toys before quickly forgetting about them. Four new additions from the reality competition/cattle call The Glee Project had varying success, with the show's winners Rory (Damian McGinty) and Joe (Samuel Larsen) getting key roles as part of New Directions, while Wade (Alex Newell) and Harmony (Lindsay Pearce) had smaller roles, though cross-dressing Wade and "teen Jesus" Joe and his dreadlocks look to have longer-term impacts. All four fit in well musically, but the show doesn't seem to have time to do much with them, with all the seniors needing time to shine. The same goes for Sugar (Vanessa Lengies), a rich girl with little talent and self-diagnosed Asperger's, who exists mainly for her father's money to pay for things the group couldn't otherwise afford. The other big newcomer, other than Grant Gustin's evil Warbler Sebastian Smythe, was Real Housewife Nene Leakes, who brings her caustic personality to the show as the new swim coach, who quickly becomes a thorn in the side of cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), earning the label of "black Sue." While it's nice to see someone put Sue in her place, and Leakes gets off some Sue-like gems, her presence further weakens an increasingly soft Sue.
If any addition has strengthened the show it was bringing in Darren Criss in the second season, and he's likely to take on a bigger role as a senior. His charisma, dancing ability and singing talent are sorely needed to keep interest in the kids at McKinley, and his many spotlight songs in this set, including several in "Big Brother," (which introduced his successful brother, played by Matt Bomer) show he's up to the task. Unless they are planning to add another dancer, it will be up to Criss to fill the gap left by the graduating Harry Shum, an underrated part of the cast, whose dancing was always worth watching.
Like Fox's Modern Family Blu-Rays, the menus keep track of your progress through the set, so it knows which episodes you've watched and on which disc the other episodes site. It's a nice little feature.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks do a great job of getting the show's songs across strongly, putting the vocals in the center channel, while the surrounds get impressively powerful music, that's enhanced by the LFE, especially on the more bass-heavy numbers. The dialogue doesn't fare badly when they're just talking, getting some neat audio atmosphere in the surrounds, but there's nothing too dynamic about the mix. You wouldn't expect it though, since anything with any movement in the show normally occurs during a musical number.
Disc one also offers a 7:45 featurette, "Glee Under the Stars," which shows a season kick-off event held in August 2011, at Santa Monica High School. Sitting in front of a big LED screen, a mix of cast and crew, including Lynch and Jones, talks about the show and answers questions from a loyal audience of fans. There's also an extended scene (4:05) featuring Emma Pilsbury's (Jayma Mays) "ginger supremacist" parents, that doesn't add a tremendous amount more than what was shown on TV, and a deleted scene (2:43) with a young Sue Sylvester, which somewhat explains her attitude toward the arts. The actress they found to play Young Sue is an excellent match, so it's too bad this didn't make it on the air.
The second disc adds just one deleted scene (3:50), but it's a good one, as resident sexpot Santana (Naya Rivera) tries to help Finn bargain with a salesman by singing "Santa Baby." This is a great example of the show's fantasy numbers, and another wonderful performance by Rivera.
Disc Three brings another featurette, this time the 7:46 "Glee Give a Note." In this one, Mays and Jones pay a visit to Culver City Middle School in California to present the school and its students with a check for $10,000 to help with arts education. The focus is on the students and their participation in the competition that earned them the money, which is a nice touch.
Disc Four holds the bulk of the extras, starting with "Glee Swap: Behind the Scenes of 'Props,'" a 5:41 peek at the production of the body-swapping episode, with a focus on the costumes each characters gets to wear while portraying another character. It was a nice choice of episode to put a spotlight on, due to the unique factors, and based on the interviews with the cast, they seemed to relish the opportunity.
A lengthier featurette, the 13:20 "Meet the Newbies" looks at the season's new cast members, with interviews with each, talking about how they joined the show and a profile of the characters. If you didn't know much about them (as in you didn't watch The Glee Project), this is a quality introduction.
With the new crew covered, the veterans get a moment in the sun with "Saying Goodbye," a 15:19 behind-the-scenes look at the season finale, with some thoughts about the journey from the pilot to the end of the third season. Though some commentaries would be welcome, this piece does a nice job of giving fans some insight into the production.
Sue Sylvester is the star of the remaining two extras, "Ask Sue: World Domination Blog" (6:07) and "Return of Sue's Quips" (2:58). I expected more from "Ask Sue," as Lynch, in character, answers questions from viewers, but it's just mildly amusing. "Return" is funnier, but it's also not original, as it's just a collection of the best mean things Sue has said on the show, picking up from where the last entry in the series (on the Season Two set) left off. But why not refresh the Santana and Brittney best-ofs? And where's last year's ComicCon panel?
The Bottom Line