Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gleeks on Writing: Episode Two

Let’s talk about Rachel’s mom.

I applaud the Glee folks on how its exploration of parentage came to a riveting and emotional climax last night. It’s been largely buried beneath fake pregnancies, Babygate, teen relationship drama, and lots and lots of dance numbers, but at its core, the show is about what it means to be a parent, spouse, or a son or daughter, and the way that teenagers relate to the adult figures in their lives when things go wrong. So far, we’ve seen a wife go to extremes to save her dysfunctional marriage, a daughter deal with the rejection of her parents over her decision to go through with an unplanned pregnancy, a father trying to find middle ground with his homosexual son, and the ways that Will Schuester serves as a support figure for his troubled students when things become difficult for them. However, the elephant in the room – or maybe the phrase “phantom of the opera” is more appropriate – has always been Rachel’s home life. We know from the plot that she has been raised by her two gay dads and was the product of a surrogate pregnancy planned by the couple, after a seemingly eugenics based screening process of various women for attributes of talent and beauty. In the first thirteen episodes, Rachel’s family background was largely on the periphery of her character’s narrative. However, her recent storylines with boyfriend Jesse and her failed attempt to use “Run Joey Run” as a way to project herself as sexually experienced have set up a need for a female presence in her life. Enter Vocal Adrenaline coach Shelby Corcoran (Idina Menzel) and the master plan that’s been unfolding since Glee returned last month – to use Jesse as a way to get closer to Rachel, her daughter by birth.

The major accusation critics have made against this revelation is that there’s little to no shock value. Lea Michele’s eerie resemblance to Menzel has been a subject of discussion since it was announced that Menzel would be joining the cast for the rest of the first season, and the possibility of a biological relationship has come up more than once as a potential plot twist. And yes, maybe this is true – maybe there is something slightly predictable in bringing Rachel’s mother into the story by way of a perfect casting opportunity. But Shelby’s story of how she came to meet Rachel’s fathers and her original plan to use the surrogate job as a way to make money to head to New York is heartbreakingly told on the screen, and the climatic moment of the episode, where Rachel imagines herself singing “I Dreamed A Dream” alongside her mother brings these issues of childhood and parenthood to an emotional watershed for the series. In spite of the potential for predictability, I’m excited to see what will unfold next week when, according to the previews, Rachel will confront Shelby. And still, no matter how sincere Shelby may seem, this is still Glee – which means there’s still a chance someone could get hurt. And most likely will.

But here’s why it doesn’t quite work. Although Rachel references the dads multiple times throughout the series, but although they obviously seem to be important figures in her life, we have never actually seen them. The legend of the two gay dads has always fascinated me as a viewer – although one might argue that there is a gigantic layer of stereotype between Rachel’s over the top personality and her background, I’ve always wanted to see her interact with them. From what we know, it’s a safe assumption that they’re helicopter parents on steroids – they’ve raised their daughter to believe that she is perfect, exceptionally gifted, and worthy of respect, and when these things don’t happen for her, she emotionally craters. But assumptions aren’t enough. When the parents of the other Glee clubbers, such as Finn, Quinn, and Kurt, enter the storylines, we are able to sense the ways the characters’ family relationships create the conflicts and insecurities they deal with on a daily basis. We sense their drive to please their parents, to live up to the expectations they believe they have set for them. But what exactly are Rachel’s expectations, and aside from spoiling her rotten, what do her fathers want for her? In last night’s episode, she claims that she never asked about her mother because she “didn’t want to hurt their feelings.” Why not? Surely they are aware that eventually, she would want to know.

That said, this week’s rule of thumb could be summed up as “Don’t let phantoms haunt your stories.” That’s exactly what’s happening here and why this latest plot development might end up tanking. If we haven’t met the gay dads, we don’t know what Rachel has, and if we don’t know what she already has, we don’t know what there is to gain from a relationship with her real mother. Simply put, the stakes are still largely undeveloped. At the risk of entering into dangerous theoretical territory, the absence of Rachel’s fathers also calls into question what it really means to be an “absent parent.” Shelby has been out of Rachel’s life since her birth, but now that she has a physical presence on the screen, has her image effectively pushed the fathers out of the story? I could understand potential anxiety on the part of the authors about portraying gay parents with a female teenage daughter – but Glee has committed so many other acts of political correctness deviancy that I doubt this is the case. Maybe Rachel’s dream is to find her mom, but my dream is to find Rachel’s gay dads.

Other non-writing related points:

Best Sue Sylvester Quote: “I got a room upstairs. Like Letterman.”

Best Song: Neil Patrick Harris and Matthew Morrison go head to head in a rage filled duet of Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”

Additional Notes: Artie’s cover of “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats adds to the previously explored lack of comfort with disability by altering the lyrics to the song. I believe the line is, “It’s the safety dance”, not “It’s safe to dance.”


  1. The show seems at its best when it has those moments of wildly comic absurdity, like the notion that there's a West Lima Crack District or that part of the Cheerios budget goes for skydiving lessons. What makes them so funny is precisely that they're throwaways, coming out of nowhere. You're right that the same principle doesn't work at all with the dramatic writing since we absolutely need context for that.

    Uh, the choreography for "Safety Dance" was really good, though.

  2. OOOH! I forgot to mention how awesomely northern Ohio this episode was. I lived near Lima for four years and every time they say Allen County it makes me feel fuzzy (even though it really is like the worst place in the world to live. It ticks me off, though, that they seem to think Akron is near Lima. It's a 2.5 hour drive. But I have been to EJ Thomas Hall like five million times and loved that. "Was Mandy Patinkin there?" HAHA!

    And yeah, that choreography was awesome. I'll give them that :-)

  3. A lovely assessment of the episode, Kori. They're really going to have to do something spectacular if and when the Dads show up--or will the Dads be like Maris from Frasier and never appear at all?

    Is the problem that Rachel herself is such a force? I wonder if, in some way, and even though she's about to connect with her mother, the lack of parents makes Rachel read as more of a "type"? It does seem that Rachel Berry entered the world the same way Athena did...

    I love the moments with Artie and I will totally cop to finding them very moving. Safety Dance was brilliant (way to go Joss Whedon!) and I loved it as much as I loved the "Dancing with Myself" number from earlier in the season, where we see Artie trying to navigate the halls of his high school.

    And NPH and Idina Menzel in the same episode? Puh-lease, I'm dying.

  4. Thanks Jess!! I agree - even though some of the disability portrayals make me slightly uncomfortable, I love Artie. Kevin McHale is adorable!