Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gleeful Part Two: Guest by Request

Fans' feelings on guest stars in Glee are bitterly divided: some love them and feel they add something special to the show, while others want the show to focus on its principal cast. I'm of two minds: when the show uses a guest star really well (Kristin Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris), Glee is never better. When it uses a celebrity for a quick cameo (Josh Groban, Olivia Newton-John), it can be a really fun parody of the celebrity's public persona.

But then certain guest stars get woefully misused, Victor Garber and Molly Shannon principal among them. Shannon's been particularly misused, being introduced as a major character but only popping up very infrequently since for completely unsubstantive material.

As poorly executed as those guest roles are, the ones that trouble me more are those of Jonathan Groff and Idina Menzel, two key figures of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline. Both stars are incredibly talented musically, with Groff's duet of Hello with star Lea Michele being a highlight of the back nine episodes of this season. Menzel's performances in particular, as you'll notice below, are superb. But the characterizations of both Groff's Jesse St. James and Menzel's Shelby Corcoran are disturbingly off-base. I'll do my best to keep this brief, as this post is really about the music, but this is something that's been bothering me.

First: Groff's Jesse. A rather infamous article written in Newsweek magazine, by an author so revilingly stupid I won't give him the pleasure of reprinting his name, posited the theory that gay actors who are out cannot convincingly play straight characters on television, in film, or on the stage. Groff was one of the actors singled out for this article. The theory has been roundly criticized as "completely idiotic" from anyone with a brain and a basic knowledge of Neil Patrick Harris' performance on How I Met Your Mother.

However, as much as it disgusts me to agree with anything this disgusting writer wrote, since his theory was so grossly misinformed and formed from a place of great hate, I must agree that Groff does an awful job on Glee. Now, this has absolutely nothing to do with his sexuality. He could do it with farm animals and he would still be awful as Jesse St. James.

Groff comes from a world of theater, where everything is meant to be overplayed. For some of the actors, this works to their advantage. (Michele, for example, knows how to imbue that spirit into Rachel Berry, whose life is made to be overacted.) Groff, however, comes off as nothing but a caricature, a poor role written as nothing but a stimulus to advance the plot. I don't believe that Rachel would fall for Jesse, nor that he would be able to convince any of the other characters that he wasn't plotting something underhanded. He reeks of drama, and he has only one setting: attempting to be hot. (He's not.) Again, this has nothing to do with his sexuality: he just isn't acting well IN THIS ROLE.

His character exists for one reason only: to get Rachel to realize her birth mother is his glee club director, Shelby Corcoran. Menzel plays Corcoran fairly convincingly at first, and she does the best she can with the material, but hoo boy. Shelby might be one of the worst-written characters in television history. Basically, she establishes contact with her daughter, then ditches her because it turns out not to be right after singing "Poker Face" in a stripped down, cabaret style.


I wish both characters, while musically gifted, were better formed in personality and purpose. But I digress. The music's the thing, and without further ado, I present to you the best guest performances from this season of Glee.

(Of course, Chenoweth and Groff aren't in this set, because they're featured in the duets and solos sections.)

Honorable Mentions

"Funny Girl" - Idina Menzel
This is a great song choice for so many reasons. First, it's good for the plot, because it recalls when Rachel, Shelby's daughter, chose another Barbra Streisand tune, "Don't Rain on My Parade," for sectionals. Second, Menzel sings the shit out of it. Third, it shows how theatrical one can be without being overly dramatic...a lesson promptly whacked by "Bad Romance," fun as it was. So points off for being irrelevant to the week's lesson, but still a high point of the back nine episodes.

"I Dreamed a Dream" - Idina Menzel & Lea Michele
This could easily have made it as high as No. 1 had "Poker Face" not come along and shown viewers what Menzel and Michele were really capable of. However, it's still a brilliantly reimagined duet, with the lines "And still I dream she'll come to me/That we will live the years together" not referring to a lost lover, but to a mother from a daughter desperately seeking that relationship. Beautifully sung, if a little inappropriate at moments for the storyline.

Top Three

3. "Physical" - Olivia Newton-John & Jane Lynch
Think Lynch faked her way through "Vogue" and still can't sing? Take a listen to the utterly contemporary, fun, revived "Physical" and realize that she has talent to match a legend like Newton-John. Is the vocal Auto-Tuned? Sure. They all are these days. But it's still a great performance, and one that is infinitely listenable.

2. "Dream On" - Neil Patrick Harris & Matthew Morrison
American Idol contestant Danny Gokey will happily tell you exactly how difficult to execute the scream at the end of "Dream On" truly is. But not only do Harris and Morrison do it well, they knock it out of the park. In fact, this whole duet is a home run. It's powerfully sung, almost a competitition for the two singers (which concomitantly works for the plot, as all songs should in this show but usually don't). It's a pleasure to listen to on repeat, something that doesn't happen much these days.

1. "Poker Face" - Idina Menzel & Lea Michele
GAH. Oh, sorry, that's not English. Or any language. But it is the instantaneous reaction when listening to Michele and Menzel belt this usually fast-paced, dirty ditty from Lady Gaga. They slow it down and make it a show number, even moreso than Gaga herself does in acoustic performances. The implications, er, aren't great (the song's originally about bisexuality...and this is a mother and daughter...), but neither are the implications of "Endless Love," my favorite duet of the show. Sometimes, for Glee, you've gotta suspend disbelief for what is truly amazing.

Sorry that part of this turned into a venting session, and it should not be taken as a statement of dislike for the show in any fashion. There's just no such thing as a perfect show, and since, unlike with the awful pregnancy plotlines last fall, no one is pointing out exactly how disappointing this Jesse/Shelby plotline really is, I thought I would.

And just in case anyone had any further confusion, I think the article written in Newsweek was absolute slime with absolutely no basis in fact. The author, a self-professed gay man, needs to take some time to realize exactly how stupid he sounds. But as is so often the case, upon hearing criticism born from a place of hatred, respondents choose to canonize the criticized: namely, Groff. Sadly, while Groff may be undeserving of the writer's criticism because of his sexuality, he is deserving of criticism because of his acting.


joe burns said...

I agree with you 100%! I don't believe at all that they couldn't see that Jesse is a total fake. I like Menzel, but her character is so inconsistently written. I mean, I was asking Why?????? During the scene when M.r Shuster is telling her to separate with Rachel.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the lack of believability with Jesse. I just can't think of a scene where it was the acting more than the writing.

Its much like Quinn's character, in that since they know we know where it's going, they think the means of getting there don't matter. It makes the scenes they show jump around so wildly, you can't possibly believe the character.

Kevin said...

Joe, thanks for the comment. Glad you agree: I just can't find anything believable or likable about either character OTHER than their voices.

Anonymous, you make two great points. Jesse is such a character of writing, not acting. It's almost painful to watch at times. And what you said about Quinn was wholly true as well. I've enjoyed how Quinn has been developed a bit more post-pregnancy reveal, but overall, both situations have been fruitlessly frustrating.