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Image: Idina Menzel, Lea Michele on "Glee"
Adam Rose  /  Fox
Idina Menzel, left, guest starred as Rachel's (Lea Michelle) long-lost birth mother, Shelby, on "Glee." Unfortunately, Shelby felt more like a vehicle to get Mendel to duet with Michele on the show rather than a well-developed role.
TODAY contributor
updated 6/21/2010 2:55:01 PM ET 2010-06-21T18:55:01

My foot is starting to slip off the bandwagon.

I don’t plan to jump, but there were definitely moments in the spring episodes of "Glee" when I had to question the blind loyalty to a show where the initial critical response ranged from “brilliant” to “phenomenal.”

Nothing drove that doubt home more than the penultimate season episode, “Funk.” Maybe it was the stench of desperation punctuated by the use of Beck’s “Loser,” but the episode lost sight of character development. “Funk” didn't advance a single story, and simply had the characters moping around between musical numbers, depressed about the upcoming singing competition. It marked another example of how the tendency to put musical numbers before the stories has weakened the series.

The episode alone was cause for concern for the future of “Glee.” Amid several uncomfortable moments, nothing quite clicked the ick factor like Matthew Morrison’s show choir director, Mr. Schuester, trying to seduce his nemesis, cheer squad coach Sue Sylvester, with the Rufus tune “Tell Me Something Good.” You can't force sizzle where none exists. Worse, we expect more from our Will than to woo Sue, only to humiliate her in order to make himself feel better.

Even before “Funk” aired on June 1, significant flaws were appearing. “Glee,” despite its redeeming June 8 finale, has reached the point where a seismic refitting seems in order before the show comes back in the fall.

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I’ll chalk the missteps up to the fact that few thought this show about a school choir that included geeks, freaks and jocks would make it past the initial episode order and long-term planning might not have been a priority. After all, “Glee” is the first successful musical series on TV. (The landscape is littered with spectacularly failed earlier attempts, from Steven Bochco’s “Cop Rock” to CBS’ “Viva Laughlin.”)

From the beginning of the series, TV critics were downright giddy about “Glee,” which successfully blended teen angst with catchy tunes and flashy choreography. Fox smartly paired the brightly executed show with behemoth hit “American Idol,” and “Glee” benefited from a built-in audience that had a hankering for pop songs and a theatrical experience.

A good show, an entertaining show, but certainly a flawed show emerged this season. Character and story developments were jettisoned and placed so far back on the burner they landed in the neighbor’s kitchen. For example, “Glee” rightly took some moderate heat for the absurd tangents in the story of cheerleader and virgin-activist Quinn’s pregnancy.

Quinn’s financial struggles, family rejection and body bulges were suddenly shoved aside. It came to the point where her pregnancy was almost ignored as she came full term, still able to jump around as if she weren’t packing several pounds of developing human around her center of gravity.

Then there was the emergence of the sinister character of Shelby Corcoran, played by Idina Menzel, the rival show choir director for Vocal Adrenaline who bore an uncanny likeness to Lea Michele’s self-absorbed choir star Rachel. In fact, Shelby is Rachel’s long lost mother. She gave Rachel to a gay couple so she herself could pursue her goal of Broadway stardom. Shelby’s story of dreams denied, or who she really became, was never fully developed. Instead, she seemed just to serve as a vehicle to get the talented Menzel to sing a duet with Michele.

Left hanging
Dangling story lines have plagued “Glee” throughout its freshman run. The universal cry during the whole Shelby-is-your-mother road trip was: Where in the world are Rachel’s two dads? It was the perfect time to introduce her fathers, even briefly, during Rachel’s quest to find her birth mother and discovering Shelby.

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Producer Ryan Murphy knows how to develop a moving and meaningful story line. The journey of flamboyant Kurt and his dad alone proved that. So why the gaping holes in most of the other characters’ stories, particularly in the latter stages of the season?

“Glee” works best when driving home the sentimental moments, bringing viewers to tears with aching scenes dripping in relationship payoffs. Kurt telling his working-guy dad he was gay, and the response from his dad that he already knew and loved Kurt, still triggers my tear ducts.

And who doesn’t love Sue, one of the most complicated — and funniest — villains we’ve seen on the air? A season highlight came with the reveal of Sue's tender relationship with her mentally handicapped sister. Suddenly our preconceived notions of this woman were shattered. In the finale, Sue acknowledges her kindred spirit with the choir crowd, but doesn’t lose her edge.

But — spoiler alert to anyone who hasn’t yet seen the finale — when we that Shelby has adopted Quinn and Puck’s baby, it goes all creepy for me. Shelby selfishly wants a puppy instead of a dog — that dog being Rachel. Rachel’s too grown up for Shelby, mom said to daughter. So I found it impossible to be happy that she would be raising baby Beth.

Turning up the music
But musically, the season finale worked beautifully. Flipping the action from Quinn delivering her baby to the performance by rival choir Vocal Adrenaline’s charged “Bohemian Rhapsody” couldn’t have gone better. There was also the heart-tugging “To Sir, With Love” with the touching retrospective by the students that offered up the Grinch moment when Sue Sylvester's heart grew at least three sizes that day.

The music has always driven the episodes, but the best ones link the songs to plight of the characters. It is exactly those emotional connections with the characters that kept me tuning in. Even the absurd notion that antisports kid Kurt could become a star kicker on the football team — and get them all dancing during a game to “All the Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” — just worked because of the investment we had in him.

But as much as the music can add to the strength of an episode, it isn’t always perfect. The Lady Gaga tribute episode didn’t work well because I never believed that jock Finn was homophobic, just uncomfortable sharing a room with someone who wanted a relationship he couldn’t give. And having the mucho macho Finn dress up in the red vinyl Gaga ball-gown costume simply didn’t possess a single tingle of truth.

There’s a whole summer ahead to plot the future of “Glee.” I’m just hoping the show goes back to those characters first, uses the songs to punctuate the relationships and junks the funk.

Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.

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