Last week’s episode of Glee was all about its characters finding their true voice; and this one was, to me, ultimately about the series demonstrating its own voice and its space within the world of contemporary musicals. I don’t know what exactly I expected when I heard Joss Whedon would be directing, although it did send me diving for my Buffy The Vampire Slayer sing-along DVD. What I didn’t expect was an episode that didn’t feel like Whedon at all but felt intensely like Glee, more specifically the Glee that endeared itself to me in the first half of the season. What has always appealed to me about Glee, and apparently to Joss Whedon based on this episode and his interview on Fox’s website , was the show’s delicate balance of tongue-in-cheek bitter cynicism, which keeps Glee blessedly away from High School Musical territory, and a sometimes heartbreakingly authentic sentimentality that draws me into a deeply emotional engagement with the characters and a desire to see them triumph. As others on this blog have mentioned, the stunt shows, focusing around a musical theme or dance conceit, are fun but can bring the show away from its narrative engagement and this mix of sincerity and cynicism that musical numbers have often been harnessed in service of.
“Dream On” brought back this dynamic and foregrounded it in contrast to some of the more music-themed recent episodes. Neil Patrick Harris is the king of bitter(sweet) cynicism, and his performance as Bryan Ryan maintained the comedy in what otherwise was in danger of becoming a maudlin episode. Rachel and Artie’s storylines gave both characters an opportunity for growth. Artie’s triumphantly joyful flash mob scene (fangirl moment – thank you Glee, for a flash mob!) in particular made his final moments of aching vulnerability that much more poignant. There has been reflection on this blog about the way that Glee sometimes uses, one might even say exploits, disabled characters for emotional endings and to humanize its more difficult characters (Sue and Rachel), and Artie’s storyline comes dangerously close to becoming part of this trend. There are certainly issues with how Artie’s storyline is presented in this episode, and I leave those issues for other commentators more knowledgeable in these areas. Problematic though this is, it is consistent with the series’ ethos from the beginning. The show has always undermined its own after-school special themes, or at least made them less saccharine, by unabashedly drawing on stereotypes and refusing after-school special endings: Artie cannot dance, Tina doesn’t do the “right” thing. All is not well in McKinley High. If it were, it wouldn’t be Glee.
That this episode spoke most clearly with what I feel is Glee’s unique voice is made even more important through its intertextuality, which evoked a self-awareness on the part of the series about its place amongst contemporary musicals. Here again we return to Joss Whedon and Neil Patrick Harris. Both figures have had important roles in bringing contemporary uses of the musical to television and the web. They worked together on the web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Neil Patrick Harris has performed in musical episodes of How I Met Your Mother and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and Whedon’s musical episode of Buffy often makes lists of the best musical television episodes of all time. In this same episode that the guest director and guest star positioned Glee within the contemporary use of the musical on television, we discover that Shelby Corcoran is Rachel’s mother. Shelby is played by Idina Menzel, who originated Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway, with Glee guest star Kristin Chenoweth. Menzel and Chenoweth further link Glee to the tradition of the contemporary musical that may be a much more appropriate reference here than for the more obvious, but deceptive, High School Musical. Contemporary musicals have become increasingly mature, cynical, parodic and subversive, trends that Glee falls squarely within. In an episode so drenched in references to the contemporary musical context, it was all the more important that Glee followed the examples of its characters in the last episode and emphasized its own unique voice. Whedon showed himself to be a true Gleek by emphasizing the voice of the show over his own.