Glee Recap: “The Substitute”

The mark of whether a TV guest star was a success or a failure is whether you would want to see them return. I guess we have to assume Gwyneth Paltrow was a success, because I hope we haven’t seen the last of Holly Holliday. Paltrow was a breath of fresh air in what has shaped up to be a somewhat intense season (bullies, religion, heart attacks… and that’s just Kurt’s storyline). She was charming and fun, and most importantly she seemed like she really wanted to be there. From jokes about hoarders and Lindsay Lohan to her blunt way of handling her students to some dynamite show-stoppers, she really upped the energy level of Glee (and the New Directions kids).

It turns out that flu season has hit McKinley High and Mr. Schuester and Principal Figgins have been caught in the crossfire of sneezes. (How gross was the sneeze Figgins took to the face?) Sue got appointed interim principal, while Will was replaced by substitute Holly. After a disastrous attempt by Rachel to lead glee club while Mr. Schue is out, Kurt convinced Holly to step in. Apparently she has a reputation of being a fun sub, with an awesome, in-class “Conjunction Junction” flashback to prove the point. She won the group over (minus Rachel) by asking what they want to perform, and by showing off her youthful side. This gave us a chance to see the kids really enjoying glee club, something I don’t think there’s enough of. Other than tonight’s episode and their version of “Time Warp” from a few weeks back, there haven’t been a lot of smiles around New Directions. Holly eventually confronted Rachel, telling her she sucks and that she needs to have a little fun, and then they bonded over a musical number Rachel had been dying to try.

Meanwhile, Sue was looking for a way to assert her newfound authority. She attempted to disband the football team in order to get rid of coach Beiste but was thwarted by Besite’s irrefutable logic: with no football team, who will the Cheerios cheer for? Sue was left instead to find another outlet for her power.  In an interesting twist, she focused her energy on improving the quality of the school’s lunches. This actually seemed to me like a reasonable thing for a school principal to be working on. Maybe Sue really does have the kids’ best interests at heart?  The banning of the school tater tots, however, did not sit well with Mercedes. First she stood up in the cafeteria holding “TOTS” sign (Kurt’s “Oh my God!” as a supportive student yelled “Tots!” in agreement was the funniest moment of the night for me.), and then she plugged the tailpipe of Sue’s ultra-rare car with tater tots. This landed her and substitute Holly in Sue’s office, and in a heap of trouble. It turns out Holly, in her attitude of fun and carefree living, told Mercedes to go ahead with the plan, getting Mercedes suspended and leading Holly to a bit of a personal crisis.

Mr. Schuster missed most of this by being sick at home. And who should show up to take care of him but his evil ex-wife, Terri. Is there any way we can ban her from ever appearing on the show again? She served a purpose in season 1, but I was happy to be rid of her, and she kept this episode from being one of the best ever. She’s just such an unlikeable character (as Holly said later, “Wow, your wife is kind of a bitch.”), and all she does is bring the show down. She took care of Will with sickening baby-talk, and encouraged him to watch his favorite sick-time movie Singing in the Rain. And then she slept with him.  I have to admit I’m fairly frightened that this will end up with another pregnancy subplot, but this time for real. Hopefully the writers are smart enough to know we don’t want that.

These plot threads all came together when Holly decided to visit Will for some advice. She felt guilty for being the sort of person who doesn’t care about consequences, living from moment to moment, never committing to anything serious or long term. It was a sweet scene, well played by Paltrow without being sappy or forced. Evil Terri came in and was jealous and annoying until Will told her, “Don’t come back,” which is good advice for the writers of the show. Will got his job back as Spanish teacher/Glee coach and jumped right back into ignoring what the group wants. After realizing their lack of enthusiasm, he recruited Holly (interrupting an awesome in-costume history lecture about Mary Todd Lincoln’s bipolarness) for one last number, to show the kids that they could connect with what he was trying to teach. As much as I enjoyed the ending of the show, I don’t feel like it really solved the issues between the students and Mr. Schue, but with Sectionals in 2 weeks, I don’t think that will matter too much.

There were a few other subplots as well, mostly dealing with Kurt and Mercedes. It turned out that Mercedes was upset by Kurt spending so much time with his new friend Blaine, but it was hard to relate to her side too much, since I would think she would understand how important it was for him to have someone to relate to. It did allow for a hilarious scene where the three of them were eating dinner and Kurt and Blaine could only talk about gay issues. (Mercedes hallucination of them repeatedly saying “Gay” over and over was great, topped off with Kurt pulling a miniature pink purse out of his mouth.) It was nice to see Darren Criss again, even in a brief cameo. He’s a natural performer and comedian. There was also one fairly disturbing scene where Kurt got a death threat from McKinley’s resident bully/homophobe/closeted homosexual. It definitely stood out in such an otherwise fun episode. It’ll be interesting to see how upcoming episodes handle this; whether it’ll be taken seriously or just as an idle threat.

All in all this was a great episode, mostly carried on Gwyneth Paltrow’s more-than-capable shoulders. Hopefully this will encourage other Oscar-quality talent to guest star on Glee (I’m looking at you, Meryl Streep). Having Carol Burnett next week as Sue’s mother is another step in the right direction. As for the musical numbers:

“Forget You”
Clearly the highlight of the evening, this was an example of my favorite type of Glee number. I always love when a rehearsal song turns into a free-for-all where everyone knows the words and the dance moves. It reflects the fun we like to believe they’re having behind the scenes, and it really serves to bring the group together. This was a song I’d never heard of but I thought Gwyneth Paltrow really knocked it out of the park.

“Make ‘em Laugh”
It’s really a shame they chose to do this as their Singing in the Rain tribute number. It’s a song that is so defined by Donald O’Connor’s performance in the movie that anyone else doing it just feels wrong. Matthew Morrison and Harry Shum, Jr. give it a valiant effort, and they treated it pretty much like a shot for shot remake, but it fell flat for me. It’s more of a comedy piece than a musical number, anyway, and there aren’t many people who could pull it off. Plus, Morrison’s attempts at making O’Connor’s funny faces were just sad. They would have been better off doing “Good Morning” instead, which could have been fantastic with Gwyneth Paltrow involved as well.


Rachel’s pet project turned out to be a performance of the finale from Chicago. It felt sort of out of place and random, but they still did a good job with it. I really liked the fact that New Directions has enough money in its budget for pyrotechnics for even the every day performances.

“Singing in the Rain/Umbrella”
I would love to have seen a version with only Singing in the Rain, but this mash-up worked nicely from a story standpoint. I though it was somewhat uninteresting musically, but that was more than made up for by the exceptional production. Ryan Murphy (series creator) directed the hell out of this number, and it was stunning. The choreography never got in its own way, and it allowed Matthew Morrison and Gwyneth Paltrow to sell both the performance and the entire episode. I’m ok with the fantastical nature of it (rain and a flooded stage? The McKinley janitors are going to be pissed!) because it felt like it fit right in with the fantastical nature of the show. I’ve always looked at the elaborate routines as representing the feeling of the moment as much as the reality of the moment.

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