Let’s start with the end of the episode first, where a mother-daughter duo sang the words “bluffin’ with my muffin” and tried to sell it as a moving and believable moment. Glee is no stranger to ridiculousness, but that went straight past the line of Ridiculousness and landed on Uncomfortable.
For what it’s worth, Broadway vets Lea Michele and Idina Menzel—as Rachel Berry and her newfound mama Shelby Corcoran—have incredible vocal talent and showed it off abundantly with their jazzy, piano-laden rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” But for a show whose writers seem to put so much care into song choices, even when they’re literal or cliché or just entirely absurd, this clearly wasn’t thought through. It’s as if the staff wrote the entire script and then realized OH WAIT THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE LADY GAGA EPISODE and chose the song at the last minute without realizing how awkward it would be having blood relatives singing those lyrics to each other. Admittedly, I was expecting their touching closing number to be in the Les Misérables vein, but “Poker Face.” Man. Did not see that one coming.
Then there’s the whole notion of this being “The Gaga Episode.” The way the episode was framed in trailers, it seemed like it would be a companion to the excellent “Power of Madonna” episode earlier this season, with the song selection focused on just one artist. Alas, this was not so. Also, the complete lack of Sue Sylvester was a disappointment.
So we’ve got two major plotlines in the Gagasode. Rachel finally confronts Ms. Corcoran, her biological mother and rival glee club coach (the reunion takes place during the fading chords of Menzel’s stirring rendition of Streisand’s “Funny Girl”), but mama is distant. On the other side of town, Finn’s mom and Kurt’s dad are moving in together, with Kurt breaking the news with a glass of sparkling cider and a deliciously evil grin. Everyone is pleased about this development, except for a bewildered Finn.
After it’s revealed that rival club Vocal Adrenaline is preparing a Gaga set for Regionals, the cast recycles the same music-and-fashion-pioneer praise they showered on Madonna and the ladies buckle down on creating some Haus of Gaga-inspired looks. The ensuing fashion show and accompanying rendition of “Bad Romance” were effortlessly fierce and fun to watch—easily the episode’s musical high point. Highlights included Kurt’s George-Washington-in-drag wig, Santana’s seductive black lace and killer solo, Brittany’s totally inexplicable lobster mask and Rachel’s Beanie Baby-laden take on the “Kermit dress,” a fitting choice for a character who once sparked the comment, “Those sweaters make her look homeschooled.”
Of course, the guys want to do something a little more butch. So they pile on makeup, leather and spikes and rip into KISS’s “Shout It Out Loud.” The performance was energetic and just the right amount of kitsch and made sense as the guys’ answer to Gaga.
There were a few moments of brilliance, like the bookending scenes about Principal Figgins’s fear of vampires (topical!). Ms. Corcoran’s matter-of-fact tone in delivering a line about chafing from her Vocal Adrenaline dancers “being forced to wear metal underwear.” And then there was Puck’s subtle but hilarious tribute to his Jewish heritage—the Star of David in his Paul Stanley makeup. Ayzeh yofi!
One thing “Theatricality” did do well was effectively use members of the cast outside of the Will-Rachel-Sue-Finn bloc. Puck, who has stolen the show and drove off with it in the getaway car in several episodes now, gives the crowd sensitivity and maturity with an earnest, stripped-down cover of KISS ballad “Beth,” which he dedicates to babymomma Quinn and their unborn daughter with a promise to take responsibility. It was refreshing to see Tina (the gravely underused Jenna Ushkowitz) in the foreground of this episode, and she used her time at center stage well, donning bubble dresses and vampire fangs with flair and fearlessness.
And this just might have been the best performance of Mike O’Malley’s career as Burt, Kurt’s blue-collar dad. When Finn, uncharacteristically uncomfortable in his masculinity, begins hurling homophobic slurs after Kurt IKEA-fies their bedroom, Burt rallies for his son with an impassioned speech. The content may come off as preachy to some viewers, but O’Malley delivers it like any dad defending his son would, with sincerity and compassion, one of the rare moments in which Glee tackles a very real high school problem (homophobia and the culture of teen machismo that reinforces it) gracefully and honestly. Let’s hope Burt isn’t preaching to the Gleek chorus on this one.
“Theatricality” ends with those same meatheads about to beat on Kurt (because when you’re a high school jock in a show about musical theatre kids, nothing is more terrifying than androgyny), when Finn comes to the rescue, wrapped in a fire engine red shower curtain. And as always, fierceness trumps brute force. The Gleeks win again.
It’s a fitting end to an allegedly Gaga-centric episode. Self-expression through attire, defending one’s identity, acceptance of difference: these are all things The Gaga stands for. The episode may not have done as much with her music as it could have, but it definitely captured her spirit.