Welcome back, Paltrow. With a particularly apt lyric, Dick Van Dyke shared viewer sentiment that “it's a jolly holiday with Mary,” in a tuneful celebration of co-star Julie Andrews' breakthrough turn in Mary Poppins. And likewise during the otherwise clunky first half of Glee's sophomore season, we discover that “it's a Holly Holliday” indeed when Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow's chic substitute teacher Holly Holliday arrives at McKinley High School to become this season's veritable saving grace.
Needless to say, this was quite a surprising event for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the realization that traditionally network execs visit the walk-of-fame in the hopes of benefiting from some of the fickle and fleeting Tinkerbell like fairy dust that inexplicably surrounds a person who’s “in” one week and “out” the next.
And the decision to bring on guest stars and how many to use is always tricky, especially in the case of series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s breakout hit, which had perhaps gotten a little too ambitious and tried to fly before it had grown its wings during its landmark premiere season.
With this in mind, every time I learned about another star scheduled to walk McKinley’s Slushie stained halls this year from Britney Spears to Javier Bardem, I grew concerned that the series was going to spiral out of control in a cross between a postmodern musical real-life Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game and a campy ‘70s variety show without the cheesy intent.
And because the multiple award winning Glee is so phenomenally successful, the emphasis on the A-list rather than earning “A” grades on its own is slightly alarming from a fan standpoint, especially because and much like its fun cast of teen characters, the show needs time to decide what it wants to be when it grows up… or at least continues to evolve in future seasons.
Yet while Gwyneth Paltrow’s debut does coincide with sweeps week, as witnessed in the show’s freshman season, Glee has always been particularly gifted in ensuring their guest stars add to the overall harmony of the show, blending into the outsiders-welcome school glee club in a way that would make the fictitious McKinley High School’s director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) proud.
Unfortunately, it takes some pretty uneven episodes before we meet the unorthodox, musically inclined Holliday who urges the kids to tell Will to put down the sheet music of Journey and embrace the future because it’s a whole new century.
Ironically, Holliday’s scripted advice may also have paid off behind the scenes as well since Glee’s two most-hyped and admittedly expensive looking blast-from-the-past episodes aired this season are tragically the worst in the Ryan Murphy scripted “Britney/Brittany” and “The Rocky Horror Glee Show.”
Since Glee loves a good musical homage, it’s amazing that Murphy and company passed up the opportunity to have more fun with an ideally cast, easily charming yet slyly manipulative John Stamos as the dentist beau of the adorably neurotic guidance counselor (Jayma Mays) upon whom Will has a crush.
Of course, there’s no telling if the admittedly macabre Little Shop of Horrors would’ve worked even a little bit better than the creepy, out-of-place and all over the place Adam Shankman directed “Rocky Horror” that actually winds up making you lose some respect for Will, but bringing in some new writers for fresh ideas wouldn't hurt.
However, the honors for the absolute dumbest episode of Glee and least effective usage for a celebrity guest star in showcasing Generation Y’s musical icon Britney Spears occurs in the second episode wherein all of the Glee kids go visit Carl the dentist and then proceed to have Britney music video fantasies while under the influence of dental drugs.
Laughable to the point that (as a writer) I actually wondered if Murphy was simply “having a laugh” because he could get away with it or had just quickly written out the idea for the plot after a dental exam and didn’t feel like investing that much work in the script, “Britney/Brittany” makes an awkward transition into more serious territory.
Although it’s hard enough to find an authentic solution to a problem on traditional hour-long network series given time constraints, addressing dramatic conflict has always been one of Glee’s Achilles Heels considering the large ensemble cast and amount of subplots that need to occur in addition to the requisite musical numbers. Therefore, from the infamous fake pregnancy, fake baby daddy world of the previous season, we’ve gathered that subtlety has never been one of Glee’s strong points.
However, despite one major well-intentioned misstep wherein writer Brad Falchuk misses the point of exactly why paying (literal) “lip-service” to a problem was wrong in the episode “Never Been Kissed,” the formerly enigmatic female football Coach Bieste (Dot-Marie Jones) is nicely transformed into one of Glee’s greatest unsung heroes.
Nonetheless, fortunately overall the writers avoid some of the traps of last season’s tendency to relyon exploitation of others to lift the ensemble up. And although far too often they have to go with a veritable “band-aid” solution to a much more difficult problem, particularly regarding an escalating level of horrifying bullying targeting Kurt (Chris Colfer) that initially rings false when he visits what appears to be the most politically correct private school on the planet, ultimately for Glee this year, Kurt's plotline is the one that's easily the most compelling.
Far more interesting than the on again/off again romances of fellow glee club teammates, Kurt refreshingly matures beyond the one-dimensional gay stereotype of last year by not only experiencing his own lonely battle with homophobic bullying but also his first crush on a boy who isn’t straight, all of which is instantly shoved aside when his beloved father (Mike O’Malley) undergoes a major health scare.
To this end, the writers have a field day making the episode in question “Grilled Cheesus” the religious equivalent of last season’s “Wheels” that dealt with the mobility of their wheelchair bound teammate Artie (Kevin McHale).
While Kurt remains steadfast in his atheism, everyone from the students to Sue (Jane Lynch) debates and defends their own beliefs while giving the club’s best belters – Mercedes (Amber Riley) and Rachel (Lea Michele) – at least one opportunity to sing their faith to the heavens.
Yet whereas award-show favorite Kurt is given the chance to grow and change, Jane Lynch’s Sue is at risk of becoming a punchline whereas – much like Scrubs star John C. McGinley – when they’re in frame, we just wait for the insults to start flying until they exit stage left.
Although the music remains the standout and just like with Broadway shows, there’s a definite decline in our interest between songs, Paltrow’s fresh-faced Holly gives us a holiday from the usual, by filling in for Will while he’s home sick and injecting the series with a much needed dose of real femininity. (Note to Staff: Add a female staffer or two to the Writers' Room.)
Nonetheless, one of TV's most unfailingly unique series even when we’re just watching characters hallucinate in a dental chair, here’s to hoping Glee finds its rhythm to ensure that we’ll be singing its praises for a long time, with or without holidays or stars playing Holliday for sweeps.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.