The band of lovable losers in the McKinley High glee club sure has lots of aspirations and they were all called into question. But how do they get their dreams back on track? With song! Duh.
Last night's episode was the much awaited installment directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind Joss Whedon and guest starring Neil Patrick Harris, the dreamiest gay man in the whole entire world. We also got to see what was going on with some of the minor players, like resident cripple Artie and non-stuttering stuttering Asian goth girl Tina. Oh, and Mr. Schue had an entire plot that did not involve interacting with a lady in a romantic way. That's progress. But rather than talk about all that boring stuff, let's look at what they were singing.
"Piano Man": Who doesn't know all the words to this Billy Joel sing-along? Will knows that his former rival Brian Ryan will be able to join in, which is why he calls this ditty up to the juke box. The lyrics are about a man who finds joy in performing for others and whose meager presence at a ratty bar helps all those that are listening to him. It is an inspiring call to arms for someone who has sworn off the stage.
Brian, the silly part for our dear NPH, was the top dog in Will's glee club back in the '90s and he shot out of Lima to go chasing the fame dragon but wound up performing in an amusement park and on some cruise ships and returned home a sad and disillusioned has-been. He is the show choir equivalent of the guy who peaked when he won the high school football trophy. When he decided what color his parachute was, he became a school board member, and he is dispatched to McKinley High to find programs to cut so they can balance their budget. Because he was shat out of the fame game's ass he also started a kind of Show Choir Anonymous, where he tries to counsel former performers into giving up their step-ball-change hobby altogether and accept the fact that fame is never going to happen.
When he arrives at the school, he tries to counsel all the kids in New Directions that their dreams are never going to come true. This might not be the worst thing in the world—would we have as many MFAs in Creative Writing if someone came along and told most people that their scribblings wouldn't amount to anything more than so much spilled ink?—but it's certainly damaging to our impressionable young heroes.
To change his mind about his direction in life, Will invites Brian out for a drink and finds that, while he's trying to convince people to get over their former lifestyle, he's secretly living a lie and hiring male prostitutes to "carry his luggage" when he goes on European vacations. Oh sorry, wrong hypocrite. Brian Ryan actually sneaks off to Broadway to see show tunes. The difference between Brian and Will, two men who have both had their dreams of singing acclaim dashed, is that Brian let his dream harden inside him like the indestructible heart of a comet. Will just changed his dream around, and found salvation through fostering the dreams and talent of a group of kids, a skill he puts to use to melt Brian Ryan's Halley's Comet of a soul.
Artie was also hoping to augment his performance last night. His lady-pal Tina finds out he wants to be a dancer and she tries to help make his dreams come true. After concocting some cockamamie way to get tap wheels on his wheelchair, Artie tries a pair of crutches he borrowed from a friend with cerebral palsy (seriously, there a kid with every conceivable ailment at this school). They are a crashing failure, with Artie literally crashing to the floor and Tina leaving in tears. Oh, don't give up, sad little Artie.
"Dream On": Next to "Dude Looks Like a Lady" (and "Love in an Elevator" on certain days), this is probably the greatest song in Aerosmith's catalog, but for some reason Steven Tyler never sounds like Steven Tyler when I hear it. Anyway, he's talking all about persisting with a dream of becoming a big-mouthed rocker with a hankie-strewn microphone stand even when everyone tells you you'll be nothing more than a fish-lipped lounge singer. Or something like that.
Now that Will has Brian Ryan's creative juices flowing, he inspires him to try out for the community theater production of Les Miz, which is in constant competition with Phantom of the Opera for the worst musical beloved by the most people and is an ambitious undertaking for the modest citizens of Lima, Ohio. Can't they stick to Pippin? And that's when the old rivalry comes back as both men try to sing the same song and end up doing a powerhouse duet while bounding around the stage. The best part of the number is, like the middle-aged fools they are, they end up panting for breath after the performance is complete. Oh, they're not young anymore, even though they're behaving like adolescents. Of course Will gets the role, much to Brian's chagrin.
After his fall on the crutches, a despondent Artie was ready to forget about cutting a rug ever again, when his lady friend Tina went on Google (are kids still using that? Have they switched to Bing because of all the Gossip Girl product placement?) and found out that some spinal injuries can be reversed. Then Artie was in a plane crash and woke up on an island and not only could he walk and dance but he could hunt polar bears! Wait, that was the show we watched before Glee. No, Artie wasn't able to walk or dance, but he had hope again. Tina is so sweet that she wants to make her man happy, but she needs to know that there are limits. There is keeping Artie's dreams alive and then there is deluding him into thinking that the impossible can happen.
Rachel is also getting some assistance to dream her impossible dream. When she mentions to Jesse she always wanted to know her mother's name or meet her but didn't want to piss off her dads, he starts encouraging her to find answers. After harboring the same well-intentioned delusion that every gay boy summons up upon hearing his first show tune—that Patti LuPone is her mother—she faces the reality that her pedigree is probably far less celebrated. She and Jesse decide to start rummaging through the Rachel Barry Museum her fathers keep in the basement for clues.
"Safety Dance": If you buy me a drink, I'll share with you a story that the Men Without Hats' former tour manager once told me. Yes, it involves some embarrassing facts about the Safety Dance, but does not include anything about the crazy midget-dancing Ren-Fest video. How Artie would arrive at this tune for his fantasy dance number, we have no idea, but we're glad he did.
This is really the first time we get to see Artie do any fancy footwork because, well, he's usually being the resident cripple (when that other quadriplegic isn't around to steal his thunder) but the boy can really move. This was one of the best dance numbers perhaps of the whole season, which was equal parts "Thriller" group dance and YouTube like-capture of kids dancing in the mall. That aspect was not only visually interesting, but you know it's going to lead to the first Glee-inspired flash mobs in just a few months.
There was absolutely no reason to include this song last night other than to have a splashy performance right in the middle of the show but, know what, we don't care! Especially because when the number ends, and we see Artie, still confined to his chair sitting sadly alone in the mall, it brings a tear to the eye. Then, when Tina comes back for him and he says, "I'm gonna dance one day," well, that just sets the waterworks going. It's not just Babygay Kurt that can make us cry anymore. It's that blind hope in the face of opposition that makes Glee a treat, even if we know failure is right around the corner.
Of course this is a song for Rachel planted by her mother, the wonderfully-named Vocal Adrenaline coach Shelby Corcoran. Just as everyone hoped, Idina Menzel is playing Rachel's mother. I think this is a little insulting to Ms. Menzel. Just look at the two of them next to each other. They certainly look alike, but much more like sisters than mother daughter. IRL (as the kids say) Menzel is only 15 years old than Lea Michele. Biologically that's enough to be her mother, but still!
OK, so Jesse plants a tape in the Rachel Barry museum that says "from mother to daughter" and shows it to Rachel, but she's not ready to listen to it. What if her mother isn't as good as Patti LuPone or (god forbid) better than her! We thought the biggest problem for a teenage girl with a cassette tape would be finding a way to play it. Who has a tape player anymore? Not kids these days. As we all figured, Jesse is working for Shelby to try to ruin New Directions chances at Regionals so they can take the crown again. He also confesses to Shelby that he's starting to fall for Rachel (and all her drama). Maybe he isn't so gay after all.
Shelby explains to him that she responded to a classified ad looking for a womb to host the baby of two gay fathers and she wanted to help out and get enough money to live in New York for a couple of years. That didn't work out, and she came back to Ohio alone; all she had was her work and the regret of never having seen her baby. So, as much as this is a chance to ruin a competitor, she also wants to have her daughter back. I don't understand why she needs to get Jesse to transfer schools, go out with Rachel, plant a tape, and have Rachel come to her. Sure, she signed a contract that she won't contract Rachel until she's 18, but if she's going to go this far, why not just have Jesse recruit her to VA and then work her influence on her as a coahc? It just seems a bit needlessly convoluted, but that is the wonder of television, isn't it?
Brian Ryan is facing his famous fantasies not coming true for a second time. Once again enamored with glee club, he bestows upon them gifts and sheet music and praise, all taken from the Cheerios' budget. Once the dormant artist inside awakens, he would rather the school have art programs than athletics. Even a roll in the hay with Sue Motherfucking Sylvester isn't enough to get her money back (is a fumblingly passionate kiss between two of the small screen's greatest openly gay actors too much to ask?). What does Sue do? She makes sure Will gets the part in Les Miz so that Brian Ryan hates glee again.
God, will they please promise to stop putting the club in jeopardy? This is getting more tired that Alex Trebek's Canadian mustache! Mr. Schue does the right thing and gives up the part to Brian Ryan so that he can keep glee's funding. He gives a great speech about dreams and stars turning into festering black holes and it's all very moving.
"Dream a Little Dream of Me": Sadly everything I hear this song I think of the 1989 movie with two Coreys and not the Ozzie Nelson song. It's really an instruction to a loved one far away to dream about the singer, because he is absent.
It's really perfect for Artie, who is absent from Tina's dance with Mike Chang (a name check for the Asian!). After a sobering discussion with Emma (this is the best guidance we've ever seen the counselor give), Artie realizes that he may never walk again, and he finally embraces the fact again, after a Tina-sponsored detour through fantasy land. Tina, being able to walk and tap dance (badly) doesn't understand how he can accept that, but he assures her that he is. But there is a hint of sadness in the song (look how Quinn reaches out to comfort him) that really makes it heartbreaking.
The funniest thing about this episode is that it was all about crushed ambition. Will, Shelby, Brian, and Artie all have their greatest hopes in life irrevocably dashed, and that is a very sad thing. A woman who gave up her child to try life as an actress but fails and becomes a choir director is just about the saddest thing in the world, especially when she's singing to herself in her car in the rain. You expect her to pull the car into the garage, close the door, and keep the ignition running. But she doesn't. Maybe this episode isn't really about finding, keeping, and losing dreams, but about muddling through. Maybe it's about getting past all the crap of limitations and personal circumstances and finding some sort of true connection to other people in everyday life. Maybe it's about making friends and lovers and doing the best that you can with the hand you've been dealt. Maybe that's what this whole thing is about. Or maybe it's all just another excuse to sing.