Thursday, June 21, 2012
Glee finale analysis: Why Kurt's Season Three cliffhanger is a narrative failure
The third season of Glee ended with a "cliffhanger" of sorts, for Kurt Hummel. He was not accepted into NYADA, and the audience is left to wonder what he's going to do next. Over at the Glee Forum we've had a very long discussion as to whether this was a narrative failure or a brilliant piece of misdirection on the part of the writers. Today, I'd like to explain why I thought it was a narrative failure in a little more detail than I have before.
Glee is consistently marketed as a show in which underdogs struggle before finally achieving success. This particular year was marketed as the year in which the ultimate underdogs achieve the ultimate goal: New Directions wins Nationals and win the respect of the community. At the same time, this was the year in which all the members of the Senior Class were to overcome their personal obstacles and decide on an ultimate direction for themselves. In some cases, that obstacle may be getting into a chosen school, as it was for Quinn, or even just graduating, as it was for Puck. However, the promise was that this year would end in a major milestone for each, and Kurt, the boy who began the first scene of the first show in the first season by getting thrown in the dumpster, was the biggest underdog of all. The narrative rules and expectations that Glee sets up for the audience needed to be followed through with him as well as with Rachel, and Puck, and Quinn, and the rest.
They began Kurt's storyline with a strong, consistent theme that was workable within this overall context. They followed through on this theme very faithfully until the finale episode: Kurt is an exceptionally talented boy who cannot achieve recognition in Lima because nobody can see past his effeminate personality. The implication is that, if he can get the opportunity to reveal his talent to somebody who is more open minded, he will be able to get past that hump.
The writers gave him a terrific audition for West Side Story. They had his audition song be about his own unconventional self-image; clearly the fact that he was a tad unusual and special was meant to be a consideration here. They took care to show that all three of the play's directors were very enthusiastic about his performance. They had Emma, the most open-minded of the three, champion the idea of giving Kurt the lead. Then they threw up a roadblock; Beiste rejected Kurt as Tony, not because he wasn't talented or because he did not audition well, but because he was too effeminate for her tastes. Moreover, the directors decided that Kurt was unfit to play any of the Jets at all, even the childlike Baby John. We are led to believe later that he somehow managed to impress as Officer Krupke; the story leaves us with the idea that he was talented enough to make a good impression with even a tiny role. They established the idea that he was exceptionally talented, but Kurt can't catch a break in Lima.
The writers built on this theme with the Class President election. As Brittany put together a campaign of obvious lies, Kurt attempted to establish himself as a champion against bullying. Although the writing for the campaign was ham-fisted, preachy and tiresome, the writers did manage to communicate the idea that Kurt was clearly a much better choice to be Class President than Brittany was. They even had Rachel make a speech to underline that idea. Then, they had Brittany win anyway; it is not clear whether she actually got more legitimate votes, or won because Rachel's ballot-box stuffing disqualified Kurt, but the result is the same. Kurt may be the better choice, but he can't catch a break in Lima.
Finally, the writers set up a scenario in which discrimination ultimately prevented Kurt from ever being a featured vocalist for a New Directions competition number. In the Junior year, we saw Will offer Kurt a lead role in Rocky Horror for which he was vocally very poorly suited - the baritone role of Frankie. He offered Kurt that because he assumed the effeminate boy would want to play the transsexual character. He was wrong. Here again, in the Senior year, Sue makes a similar decision; she decides that Kurt must cross-dress in order for New Directions to be able to compete with Unique and Vocal Adrenaline. He is the only person she will accept as a cross-dresser; Puck's courageous attempt to take one for the team is discarded. Kurt is punished for his "refusal to be a team player" by graduating as the only Senior, and indeed, the only cast member who has been around for more than a year, never to solo in competition. The question lies not in his talent; they are limited in what they are willing to allow him to attempt because of his personality. Kurt can't catch a break in Lima.
Of course, they did such a good job of establishing why Kurt can't catch a break in Lima, they don't explain well exactly how Kurt earned the letter than established him as a NYADA finalist. Maybe NYADA faculty were excited to see a counter-tenor apply. Maybe they saw Artie's Christmas special on Youtube. Maybe somebody figured out that this kid was Congressman Hummel's son. At any rate, he gets the break that the narrative and the theme they've established says he needs. He's got an audience with somebody who is completely uninterested in whether or not he's effeminate. When given the opportunity, he takes advantage of it to the full extent that he is capable. He chooses a song that is well within his range, that celebrates his status as an oddball, and he nails that audition, drawing very forceful and positive praise from a character who is repeatedly shown to be icy, critical, and difficult to please. She offers no negative notes of any kind; we are left with the impression that this was an unqualified success.
They set up a storyline: Kurt the underdog will not be able to succeed unless he can get an audience with an unbiased observer who evaluates his talent and potential without caring about his effeminate nature. Then he gets that audience, and he gets unqualified praise. And then... he fails anyway. Apparently, it was about his talent level after all. He really wasn't good enough, and this ultimate underdog is the only one left with no personal triumphs of any sort whatsoever over the course of his entire senior year.
There are two ways they could have fixed this narrative failure. If they had understood that Kurt was ultimately going to fail from the start, they could have weaved the implication that he was really going in the wrong direction into his storyline all year. That's what they successfully did with Finn. Furthermore, once this shattering final failure hit, Kurt needed to have his storyline resolved. We needed a moment to absorb the idea that his entire story was a complete misdirection, that the writers were misleading the audience in the direction they were taking him. There needed to be a moment of catharsis to absorb that blow. His failure needed to be seen as a major issue that the audience cared about and would be outraged about. Instead, Brad's script indicated that Kurt's failure was an acceptable speedbump in route to the payoff Brad actually expected the audience to embrace. Rachel did get into NYADA. That's supposed to be the happy ending, and Kurt's failure just isn't important enough to warrant a single line of condolence or grief. All of a sudden, he just does not matter at all, and his entire storyline for the year is a complete waste of time. We are left to wonder if Brad indeed thought the only issue of importance to the audience was whether Rachel would be lonely without her Best Gay in New York with her.
In a successful narrative, you must either follow through on the theme you've constructed, or provide some kind of resolution when the theme is subverted. The writers presented us with a box that was clearly marked a particular way, and then when opened, proved to be mislabeled. Then they refused to give us a narrative moment to deal with the misdirection and disappointment, suggesting that it just wasn't that important.
Glee does that a lot. They set up a lot of shiny boxes that end up being mislabeled. That's what happened with the bullying storyline last year, too, and they were still trying to fix it as of this past Valentine's Day. They've mislabeled and relabeled Blaine so many times he doesn't make any sense at all anymore. The problem lies in this; Glee lacks any kind of creative discipline. They have lots of glittering ideas, and creative ADA. They can't follow through effectively. That's at the heart of their continuity problems, and it's really why the show has declined so much in quality, and is no longer considered to be an Emmy contender.
The Season Three cliffhanger for Kurt Hummel was a narrative failure because it represents an example of Glee's consistent inability to follow through on the narrative themes it sets up for itself. Glee consistently breaks its own rules, not because the writers are brilliant, but because they are sloppy.