SOUND OFF: GLEE's 'Born This Way' Goes Goo-Goo For Gaga
Today we are taking an up-close and personal critical look at last night's super-sized episode of Fox's hit musical comedy series GLEE, titled after Lady Gaga's newest #1 song up until this last Easter weekend - of course "Judas" sits atop the iTunes charts now - and featuring an especially rousing rendition of that German techno/"Express Yourself"-esque anthem, in addition to a mellifluous mash-up of TLC's "Unpretty" and WEST SIDE STORY's "I Feel Pretty" by Lea Michele and Dianna Agron, and, even, an Andrew Lloyd Webber diva moment made famous by Patti LuPone and, in concert, by Barbra Streisand - "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from SUNSET BLVD, ably attended to by Golden Globe-winner Chris Colfer. We also take a look at the dramatic side of McKinley High in this episode and trace the journey we all have taken over the season so far as GLEE ramps up the excitement, emotion and energy for the final five episodes coming in the next number of weeks - and, also, a look ahead to next Tuesday's Fleetwood Mac-themed show with all songs from 1975's RUMOURS featuring the grand return of Tony-winner and Broadway baby Kristin Chenoweth as once-boozy bowling-alley barmaid/now-born-again gospel singer April Rhodes. Plus, "Prom Queen" on May 10! Also, is that really the last we'll ever see of Season Two all-stars Darren Criss and Gwyneth Paltrow? GLEE is getting on the right track - and getting better - just in time (and right to the beat).
GLEE and Gaga go together like, well, how goo-goo always goes with gaga. They are both in-your-face outrageous, audacious, defy any and all expectations and are impossible to categorize. Additionally, they stretch the very definition of the impact of a message in popular music and what it can bring - and the magic it can achieve; whether politically, socially, culturally, emotionally, spiritually or in any amount of other ways depending on the individual. Pop music is the closest thing we have to a little slice of Heaven and GLEE serves up at least a pie-ful every Tuesday night - sometimes it is served up ala mode with a cherry on top like tonight while other times it's a little bit stale. Both GLEE and Gaga are, too, relatively rarefied - whether Gleeks of GLEE or Gaga's Little Monsters, every cult has to have a cultish fan base and the convergence of the two in the ninety-minute "Born This Way" episode last night once again proved that this is a match made in Heaven - just as the point was proven in Season One's "Bad Romance", which, one imagines, in some ways must have elicited this encore. That Season One episode, featuring that title song, contained what unquestionably is the strongest and most original GLEE musical moment of all time: Lea Michele & Idina Menzel's stripped-down/souls-bared acoustic "Poker Face". While tonight's Gaga homage was a little light on the musical content given the generously expanded running time, the selections chosen were uniformly excellent and the performances of all more than just merely choice.
Following last week's eagerly anticipated yet somewhat Gwyneth Paltrow-centric "Night Of Neglect", the focus in "Born This Way" returned to the central drama of the kids and away from Sue Sylvester, Will, Emma - I refuse to refer to them as Wemma - and the Legion Of Doom, though I'm sure Cheyenne Jackson, Jennalyn Gilsig & company surely still lurk in the shadows, somewhere, ready to leap out and say "Boo!" Yes, finally, after last week‘s fun but negligible frippery of a dramatic detour we got back to basics and the musical numbers were both the entertainment focus and the dramatic focal point of the show, which is always when GLEE is at its very best - even if another one or two songs certainly would not have hurt. And, the Emma/OCD subplot? Enough already. As with last week, the most memorable acting comes from Naya Rivera who tears into her role of Santana with such ferocity and relish that one hopes should the Darren Criss/Warblers spin-off actually happen, she would be an ideal co-star or foe for Criss there. She needs even more of a chance to shine than she is given on GLEE, that's for sure. Additionally, last week's scene of Colfer, Criss and Rivera taking on the bullying Karofsky character could very well have been the first time on national television at eight o'clock you could see four gay teenage characters as you can on GLEE - and Rivera and Max Adler‘s confrontation last night packed quite a punch, as well. These scenes are not only a credit to the persuasive power to look beyond differences that GLEE so emphatically encourages, but also another feather in the cap worn by the progressive-agenda-pushing captain of the good ship GLEE, creator/executive producer/show-runner Ryan Murphy. "Born This Way" definitely delivered on addressing the themes and political message of Gaga's equal rights call - or, should I say: cry - to arms, and this episode acts as yet another in a string of serious issues addressed from all sides - or as many as ninety minutes and FOX would conceivably allow here and now. Few primetime shows have pushed the envelope so far leaving so few paper cuts as GLEE has done and "Born This Way" is a colorful, candid expression of that and of what matters most to teenagers today - and, all things considered after all: everything about GLEE and Gaga goes too far as a means to demonstrate a point by making a standout statement. Last night was no exception. That sort of work is bound to leave some scars on some - paper cuts or otherwise. I wonder what the afterbirth - aka the fallout - will be from this episode, if any? Does it even matter? Can we move on from the issues involving rights of individuals yet? Ever? We were all born this way, whatever we are. Right? Right.
With this particular execution - and dedication - of theme, at least insofar as the musical content is concerned, "Born This Way" was largely contingent on whether or not the eponymous Gaga anthem was put across effectively and entertainingly - which, in and of itself, would be no easy feat to pull off. Check. Did you see that T-shirt-happy finale? OK, now, was it everything it could have been and more than even the most skeptic critic could have imagined? Not quite. But, then again, Dianna Agron had more than a few chances to show her range with two impressive scenes, with Lea Michele and Ashley Fink. And how chilling was that Wendy Carlos/THE SHINING-ish tribal chant as her perceived-to-be horrific former self was finally shown for all to see plastered on all the walls? If this episode was any less than epic it would have been a vast disappointment on a huge scale - or, in the words of Kurt just before his Duck Sauce lip-synch named after the world-famous icon: "If you let one misguided societal pressure make you change the way you look, then you won't just be letting Barbra [Streisand] down, you will be letting down all the little girls who are going to look at your beautiful face one day and see themselves." And so goes the message and moral of the show.
Letting the secondary leads shine (for once) in the singing department - especially (if only briefly) Jenna Ushkowitz, as well as the ever reliable Amber Riley - was a deft touch, and giving Chris Colfer the intro to "Born This Way" seeing his central role in the proceedings of the evening was nothing less than inspired - as were all of his reactions and moments throughout. This episode should be Colfer's Emmy submission next year. Indeed, newly minted Golden Globe-winner Colfer has been absent from McKinley for too long and his grand comeback - make that: return - was oh-so-appropriately set to the strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber's diva-who-returns musical adaptation of the 1950 Billy Wilder film SUNSET BOULEVARD. True, Barbra Streisand sang "As If We Never Said Goodbye" perhaps the best it has been sung - in THE CONCERT - and it may have been even more spine-tingling to hear Lea Michele tackle the big belting ALW blaster - but, so be it; it was just fine as it was, especially given the actual painted trees and seas and whispered conversations enacted fully for our viewing pleasure. This track and song sequence is up there with "Blackbird" as far as Colfer's best star-turns this season are concerned, with, otherwise, two of his Darren Criss (aka Blaine) duets being both the pinnacle - "Baby, It's Cold Outside" in the Christmas episode - and the nadir - "Candles", which is a weak song to begin with and was clearly not the right fit for either of them and especially unsuitable for them together - of their shared material on the show so far. Criss's Blaine, along with The Warblers, made their epic if all-too-expected exit - well, more or less - and their impassioned and emotional "Somewhere Only We Know" was effective and moving, displaying Criss - as usual - as a true shining star in a cast of major pop, power and pizzazz. The mash-up of "I Feel Pretty" from WEST SIDE STORY and "Unpretty" by late-90s R&B/hip-hop girl group TLC stands as one of the best tracks of the second part of Season Two with some awesomely NIP/TUCK-inspired cinematography which was assumedly much more than a mere coincidence (Murphy was the creator of NIP/TUCK as well, which featured its own plastic surgery musical montages which ironically commented on the dramatic content) - and acts as evidence that the right GLEE mash-up can still soar higher than almost anything else on display. And "Born This Way" had a little bit of everything. Agron and Michele's affection for each other on and off-screen was amply evident to enjoy in the sensitive and endearing rendering of their at first seemingly at-odds duet double-header - and the songs' compounded messages work well as the common theme amongst the rivalry that exists between these characters: low self-image beyond their pert veneers. Also, the precisely put new last line of said song ties it all up with a perfect pink ribbon of a flourish. Lastly on the musical front, Cory Monteith's "I've Gotta Be Me" - with charming choreographic input from Harry Shum, Jr.; who is always a stand-out - was generally smooth and relatively suave given the nature of the delivery. This song makes one wish there would be more swing and big band material featured on the show - this season has been especially early 21st century overload, for sure. I may be mistaken, but I believe tonight's episode was actually the first time all season that two showtunes have been featured in one episode - so, if only for that, "Born This Way" satisfactorily pacified the Broadway babies inside every fan of GLEE.
While GLEE and Gaga may never change the world, they can set one and all in motion - and in time - to taking the first steps toward equality for everyone. It's all in the baby steps.