Show Crams In as Much Holiday Cheer as It Can, With Mixed Results
Sometimes "Glee" is the best when it's equal parts spun sugar and insanity, and we get a dose of both in the annual holiday special, when the club learns valuable lessons about selflessness and the show crams eight songs into the episode to maximize sales.
We open straight on "All I Want For Christmas Is You," which Mercedes sings as the rest of the cast twirls around with yards upon yards of tinsel. Amber Riley shines throughout the episode, but none more than here where she commands attention even in the midst of every other clubber twinkling and trying to steal focus with holiday cheer. Finn and Rachel are caught under the mistletoe, signifying that they are the pair that will learn the true meaning of Christmas this year. Because Rachel isn't messing around this Christmas, and since Finn is clueless about what to get her, and also broke, she's prepared and extensive and expensive list that will ensure a memorable holiday. We juxtapose that with Sue in her office imploring that "Wheels, Porcelain and Other Gay" enlist the rest of the club to provide Christmas cheer at the homeless shelter, so it's clear the very special message we're getting tonight is about how to embrace the true giving spirit of the holidays and not be so self-centered. Sounds good, now bring on the song and dance!
We head to the choir room, where Rory tells the group that since his parents can't come for the holidays he'd like to sing a song for "the king" ("Jesus?" implores atheist Kurt, but Blaine tells him no.) It's Elvis, and Rory croons "Blue Christmas" right in his sweet spot as the miniature Michael Buble. Once the kid is singing you forget how he's half unintelligible when speaking. Regardless, he's a joy on the show, but that song brings Santana and Rachel down, and Rachel tells everyone to focus on the upbeat Christmas tunes instead, since last Christmas special was such a downer with Grinch Sue and some clarity on why we never saw those magical Artie walking legs that Beiste bought ever again (they broke the very next day, says Tina!) Schue makes a dramatic entrance to let the group know that he's booked them for their very own televised Christmas Special (royalties on the yule log are too high, but not on multiple songs!) with Artie set to direct. After a meeting with the station owner he agrees only if he's allowed to pay homage to both the Star Wars Holiday Special (Chewbacca came to him in his dreams) and Judy Garland's 1963 show. One might think the two won't mesh well, but they're actually perfection, as we'll soon see. The owner allows it so long as Artie keeps the budget to under $800.
He clearly blows all of his cash in the next scene, where Rachel auditions on a snowy, tree-dotted stage with "River," despite her own decree that the club keep things upbeat. Artie shoot her down and then outlines his artistic vision for the special -- Kurt and Blaine's Bachelor Chalet plays host to all of the club coming to visit, with a grand finale reading of a rewritten, non-melting Frosty The Snowman tale. Everyone else is down, but Sam objects to them taking the depression out of the holiday, pointing out the the sad things are what make you remember what's really important, but no one has his back. Didn't they fight to get him back last episode, and now no one wants to make him feel welcome? Even Rory, who Sam had just bonded with about being away from their families at the holidays and offered to be his personal guide to an American Christmas, won't go do charity work with him instead of the show.
Rachel continues her crazy quest for jewelry from Finn, and reacts pretty rudely to his gift of an "African sow pig" Not that Finn is blameless, Rachel is a vegan and that's a pretty strange gift when there's a lot of middle ground between diamonds and pork. Rachel continues her amped up quest to be the Jew Who Loved Christmas by enlisting Blaine to duet with her on "Extraordinary Merry Christmas," the namesake of the episode and one of the original numbers from the "Glee" holiday album. No one makes reference to this not being a known song, as they usually do with the original numbers, and despite the track being a weird techno jumble at its heart, it's undeniably catchy and Lea Michele and Darren Criss sell it for all they're worth. Artie green lights it for the show, but Coach Sue arrives to remind the group that they agreed to volunteer at the homeless shelter on Friday, which is conveniently when they are taping the special. The group tries to justify bailing, and the show tries hard to position Sue as the good guy and the kids as bad, but the solution of them taping the special and showing up for volunteering after is pretty evident, even if the show wants to build imaginary tension here.
After the commercial break, "Glee" in some ways loses its collective mind. It's holiday special time, and either you love this or you hate it. There's not much middle ground when "Glee" drops you into Artie's vision, complete with Star Wars themed intro and direct reference to Judy's special, right down to the camera angles and set decoration. Although, anyone who thinks this is weird should
To recap (within a recap), Glee went complete 60s homage on us, then pulled some 80s nerd references in for good measure, with a healthy dash of sexed up rhythmic gymnastics and a sprinkle of Jesus, all in black and white. It's the kind of moment that on another TV show would be so standout it's impossible to ignore -- Buffy's musical episode, for example -- but on "Glee" almost edges too normal to be as special as it deserves to be, and that is saying a lot about what kind of television dominates the mainstream today.
Quinn and Sam are the only clubbers who skipped the special, and they bond while serving rapidly diminishing food to the homeless with Sue. But just in time the rest of the club arrives with food and cheer to spread, coming together to sing "Do They Know It's Christmas," the tune that "Glee" is selling as a charity fundraiser in the spirit of its original intent.
The only thing left to wrap up is Rachel's greed plot line. Back at school she's embraced her pig, naming her Barbara and hoping the people the porker feeds will bring them as much joy as Streisand brings her. Finn, however, managed to figure out both a touching, meaningful gift, buying Rachel a star named after him, since there's already one star named Rachel Berry and that's all the world needs, as well as hocking his Letterman jacket to afford the earrings she wanted. However, Rachel's had a change of heart and they head to meet up with Sam and Rory who are collecting charity donations, giving the cash from their returned gifts before joining in to rings some bells for a charity that has noted anti-gay leanings, a strange turn for one of TV's gayest shows.
Lessons learned are great, and musically this episode was one of the season's overall strongest, but our only qualm is that "Glee" went whole-African-hog instead of falling into the Very Special Episode trope in part. The holiday special homage was a shining example of what "Glee" can do when given the leeway to be strange and different, and perhaps an entire episode built on that construct with just a dash of in-narrative exposition about what we are seeing could have taken what will be a total miss for some and brought it to a whole new level of television. Drop us straight into a Christmas Special tribute and let the viewers make of it what they will. Embracing the fantasy might be the kick in the pants "Glee" needs right now, but a half-and-half episode is better than none at all. We'll take our lessons with a healthy dose of musical marshmallow fluff.