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SOUND OFF: GLEE's Blue, Starry Christmas

A television staple since the very beginnings of the format, the Christmas episode is a tried and true trope of TV this time of year and no show promises more hatfuls of holiday cheer and buckets of glee more than, well, GLEE does - and, last night, on the seasonally-themed "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" (titled after one of the two new original songs penned for the episode), GLEE was a cool, neon blue star in the oft-midnight black galaxy - one far, far away, evidently; especially given the Chewbacca cameo and STAR WARS CHRISTMAS SPECIAL nods - of network TV today (or ever, for that matter). Capturing the copious charm of the cast and commonalities of the holidays among us all, the Matthew Morrison-directed Christmas special was a jolly Santa, his decked-out sleigh and all the merry reindeer to go along with them. Positively overflowing with song selections from the simply spectacular GLEE: CHRISTMAS VOLUME 2 - available now - last night's GLEE was not only a holiday music lover's and gleek's dream, but it also came with a maraschino cherry on top for the Broadway babies among us - THE SOUND OF Music's "My Favorite Things"; sung in Summer in the famous Rodgers & Hammerstein show and Robert Wise film version, the song has nevertheless become widely associated with the season due in no small part to Barbra Streisand's unforgettable inclusion of it on her peerless 1967 classic, A CHRISTMAS ALBUM. "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" also gave Sue Sylvester some room to exact her ongoing revenge - and redemption - while the rest of the episode contained a multitude of New Directions-centric plot developments, surprises and, of course, seriously Santa-friendly musical numbers - all, fascinatingly enough, with an all-inclusive (and, even, religion-friendly; in Rory's nativity story scene) style. Not that Judy Garland's Christmas classic special wasn't paid as much homage as Santa and the baby Jesus were - as we should always expect from GLEE - because it was. More on that in a moment. So very, very - merry - much to discuss!

I Don't Think I'll Skip This One This Year

Band Aid to The Waitresses to Elvis and Mariah and Judy and beyond, GLEE's "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" packed a whole lot of production value and production numbers into an hour's time. Much more so than last year's good-but-not-great "You're A Mean One, Sue Sylvester" Grinch-themed Christmas homage, this year's GLEE Christmas special delivered a significantly larger quotient of not only plot twists and musical numbers, but also some seriously striking special effects and winks to the 60s-styled and 70s-styled tributes or yore, including appropriations of two of the most memorable holiday specials of Christmases past - two unforgettable throwbacks: the long-treasured THE Judy Garland SHOW CHRISTMAS SPECIAL from 1963 and the inexplicable STAR WARS CHRISTMAS SPECIAL from 1978. With "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" GLEE contributed a classic Christmas episode to go along with those - even exceeding them in pure entertainment value and showmanship along the way; and, while to better the latter is easy to do, besting the former is much more difficult to achieve, to say the very least. There was certainly something for everyone - whether you expected it or not. Such is the true joy of the universe of GLEE, after all - you never, ever know what will come next. Who knows! Maybe Sue will get her comeuppance or show a shred of humanity. Or, Rory The Leprechaun might sing an Elvis tune. Heck, Chewbacca might even rear his hairy head and Finn may dress as Luke Skywalker - and Puck become Han Solo. All aforementioned wishes actually came true - whether actually wished for or not - and they will surely continue to come true as GLEE soldiers on with a slightly-smaller audience than it may have once commanded and continues the series-best consistency of quality streak that it has maintained throughout the entirety of Season Three so far. Guest stars, heavy promotion and a volcanic pop culture temperature made GLEE a household name in its first two seasons and now it seems to be settling in for the long stretch - to Season Four, infinity and beyond. Indeed, 2012 looks bright for GLEE and gleeks, particularly since the first half of the season has already been so stupendously strong - and, undoubtedly, Ryan Murphy and company shall surely be sending out the original New Directions in the equal parts flashy, surprising, exhilarating and emotional way that we have come to expect from epic events in the GLEE universe - such as that graduation send-off for the seniors on the show should, without a doubt, be. So, insofar as theme episodes go, this one may very well set the GLEE tree alight in a brilliant blaze with the best of the bunch in the show's history - right up there with "Britney/Brittany" super-sized tribute and "The Sue Sylvester Shuffle" Super Bowl extravaganza from last season. Very merrily.

The spark set by Amber Riley's truly triumphant tackling of Mariah Carey's most famous holiday hit - recently reworked into a duet featuring Justin Bieber - GLEE Christmas: The Sequel was, unquestionably, loaded with more magnificent musical moments per minute than any other individual show so far this season. Exploding - almost overloaded - with music, "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" proved to be the almost too-spot-on  title for the song-centered tour de force. In Season Two, the variety show format of many of the episodes and the overall inconsistent styling of the season's arc itself left many critics and even gleeks themselves left wanting more plot and character development and we have certainly gotten those two things in spades so far this season, yet, in both this tribute episode and the WEST SIDE STORY school-musical-premiere-based show only a few weeks ago, GLEE's creators and staff have seen to it that the songs are constantly interwoven - ingratiated into and intextricably linked to - the specific story being told. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and MAD MEN scribe Marti Noxon penned the ep and Mr. Schu himself, Matt Morrison, directed, so it is to their credit that two relative newcomers to the GLEE game - in Morrison's case, his directorial debut; and, also, one of Noxon's first handful of shows - managed to make such overwhelmingly appreciable and joyous magic of it all. "Blue Christmas" was winningly warbled and "All I Want For Christmas Is You" was wow-inducingly wailed to the mistletoe-laden rafters courtesy of Damien McGinty and Amber Riley, respectively, and, so, too, did the rest of the McKinley High glee club get their special seasonal moment to set the night alight atop the tree. Lea Michele's abbreviated cover of Joni Mitchell's heartbreaking and unbelievably moving "River" stands as not only one of the best takes on the song since the original, but also one of Michele's finest musical performances to date - and that is definitely saying something - especially as heard in full on the album. A perfect pairing of melody, lyric, song and, in last night's case, setting - oh-so-blue trees amidst freshly falling snow. The only complaint? It was far too short! But, again, where last year's Christmas show failed to fit in many musical moments at all - less than half of the 13 total on last year's roster - and even the ones included did not all work like gangbusters, this year's show fit in a whopping 9 - count 'em, 9 - musical numbers. And, all were sensational. So, 3 down, 6 to go!

Maybe the most surprisingly memorable musical moment of the evening came in the form of a completely unexpected delight - the original composition that also gave last night's episode its title - "Extraordinary Merry Christmas", performed by Lea Michele and Darren Criss (also the show's strongest musical performers as far as I am concerned). Yet, in the Christmas song canon, for every "River" or "Last Christmas" there is a "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" and "Christmas Shoes", so the fact that GLEE's powers-that-be contributed an exceptionally solid original holiday tune to the soundtrack that also served as a superb spotlight for the show's most amply gifted performers - which, again, is saying something - is another fluffy pom-pom on Santa's famous hat. So, too, was Criss's duet with Chris Colfer on "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" ala THE Judy Garland SHOW a delectable highlight of a near-blindingly bedecked tree of plenty - with more than its fair share of glitter and pizazz. The attention to detail was positively divine to witness. Judy would be proud - which, in the GLEE universe, is as good as it ever can get - staginess, ticks, outrageous camp, canned laughter, winks and tinny twinkle included. In this black and white sequence - as in all its best and most beloved songs and sequences to date - GLEE makes reinvention inventive and invests the homage - whether it may be parody, homage, tribute or a little bit of each - with the spark, verve, excitement and vitality of true, real, original creation. That's the trick of it all, after all - or at least a little bit of it. I mean, what other show but GLEE could command the (8 million-plus) audience that it does week in and week out and pull off a Judy Garland SHOW 60s black and white TV parody whilst also allowing Lea Michele the chance to channel Barbra Streisand's Christmas album and its Broadway baby roots (with a Rodgers & Hammerstein ditty introduced by Julie Andrews, no less) and also give Amber Riley, Christ Colfer, Cory Monteith, Mark Salling and Darren Criss distinct and detailed cartoon characters within it to portray? And that's not even mentioning the smorgasbord of delicacies offered forth by the perilously stacked all-eras-examined soundtrack.

Case(s) in point: Finn and Puck arrive at Judy's - excuse me, Kurt and Blaine's - and bring some Born-In-The-USA-era Bruce to the Christmas dinner table - Bruce Springsteen, that is. "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" - especially in this version; complete with the Darren Criss-enacted harmonica solo - was just the dose of rock n roll - and far-out - attitude needed at the moment, as was the sassy and sexy Heather Morris-led "Christmas Wrapping", originally sung/rapped by The Waitresses (most famous for "I Know What Boys Like", covered last year by Lauren Zizes). Honestly - and don't forget what time of year this is, boys and girls - who could ever imagine a Bruce Springsteen tribute and an 80s Mickey-esque cheerleader rap spectacular taking place on the set for the THE Judy Garland SHOW CHRISTMAS SPECIAL? Only on GLEE - and thank goodness for that. And, for everything else. Additionally - as if all of that already were not enough - the entire cast took on Band Aid's slightly awkwardly worded and intended 80s charity anthem, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" with expectedly bombastic and big-hearted results. And, could anything have possibly been sweeter than Finn's gift to Rachel at the end? Tying the episode together in an impossibly touching and witty way is something of a hallmark of this season - and this finish was yet another bejeweled and brightly shining facet of the increasingly, impressively filigreed halls of GLEE, now, as it passes the 50 episode mark still flying high. Higher than the highest bough - or bow.  

Plus, for further proof that this episode had it all - even beyond a pig lovingly named after Barbra Streisand - and more than enough to warm the hearts and twinkling eyes of children of all ages everywhere, we even got the Bible nativity story read in an Irish brogue thanks to Damien McGinty's new GLEE Cast addition, Rory. Truly, the only way "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" could have been a more satisfying 2011 send-off would have been if it was 2 hours long and we were allowed to enjoy full versions of all the songs. But, then again, we have the just-released Volume 2 soundtrack - in stores with ample time for stocking stuffing, of course - to satiate any and all Santa-themed cravings and holiday hankerings anyone could ever have.

What shall the 2012 return of GLEE after the month-long break spell? Wedding bells and graduation speeches, perhaps? What else?

Well, no matter what 2012 brings, one thing is for sure after last night: GLEE went out of 2011 in a big way.

Best. Christmas. Episode. Ever.

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