Television

How 'Glee' Missed The Mark With The Much-Hyped 'Never Been Kissed'

The boys of Glee

The guys put together a performance at the end of last night's weak episode of Glee that was intended to make up for some of what had come before. Adam Rose/Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Rose/Fox

BE ADVISED: Since this is a discussion of last night's episode of Glee, it contains a discussion of what happened on last night's episode of Glee, so if you don't want to know, you will not want to read it.

Last night's episode of Glee, called "Never Been Kissed," was clearly one that the show wanted to get right. Chris Colfer's performance as Kurt has been one of Glee's most beloved and reliable elements, and this episode represented his first foray into actual romance with another out gay teenager. "Never Been Kissed" is also the first in an arc on high school bullying.

But as well-intentioned as it undoubtedly was, "Never Been Kissed" turned out to be one of the most facile and emotionally inauthentic episodes the show has ever produced.

We have to start with the acknowledgment that realism, obviously, is relative. What with all the bursting into song and the cartoonishly villainous Sue Sylvester, nobody would ever deny that Glee contains plenty of fantasy elements. But those fantasy elements tend to be situational, not emotional. The show is best when the circumstances are unbelievable, but the reactions to those circumstances have a fundamental soundness.

Here, Kurt's problems started with being bullied – again – by one of the menacing football players who's been knocking the Glee kids around since last season. He wound up telling Will that he felt both bullied and not challenged at McKinley. So far, so good.

Cut to: Kurt visiting a local private boys' school with a killer singing group (described as a cappella but accompanied by instruments … mm, okay). [Note: A friend suggested this was actually a cappella, and on re-listen, I admit this may be true; it's just so heavily produced that the entire feeling of how a cappella groups actually sound live is gone.] Kurt meets the beautiful Blaine, who immediately pats him on the shoulder (literally!) and then delivers Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" directly to him, with all the earnestness of High School Musical. Sure, yes, this is fantasy – "Teenage Dream," get it? – but there's no there there, when it comes to Blaine. He's like a wax figure at this point.

After the performance, Kurt talks to some of the Warblers (for that is their name) about whether everyone in their group is gay, to which they reply in a sort of ho-ho-ho amused fashion that at their school, the gay kids and the straight kids live together in a spirit of peace and harmony because of the "zero-tolerance policy" against bullying. We also learn that the groovy singers are "like rock stars" at this school, where it seems like a cartoon bluebird constantly hovers just out of frame, ready to land on any troubled shoulder. It is as if Kurt has stumbled into some sort of utopian parody of a gay-friendly high school – what Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club brilliantly christened "Tolerance Narnia."

But wait! We're just getting started.

Blaine gives Kurt a much-needed pep talk about standing up to bullies, and Kurt takes this advice back to McKinley, where he decides to stand up to the menacing football player. So the next time Kurt gets thrown to the ground, he follows the football player and stands up for himself, angrily yelling that the football player can punch him if he wants to; it won't make Kurt any less gay.

At which point, the football player – no lie – grabs and kisses Kurt.

Now, look. That many people who beat up on those who are different get their hostilities from insecurity is indisputable, I think. That some percentage of the people who express animosity, discomfort, hate, or fear with regard to gay people are struggling with their own sexuality certainly makes sense. The suggestion that the football player might be acting as he does because of his own pain? Sure.

But the idea that a kid who has his own sexuality buried that deeply under that much social and personal agita would go, as a result of about ten seconds of resistance from Kurt, from bully to passionate kisser? That is just absurd — it feels emotionally and behaviorally unsound, as it were.

But of course, Magic Blaine appears at school to help Kurt, and they confront the bully, with Blaine (whose articulateness and poise suggest either Guy Smiley or Jiminy Cricket) doing everything but giving the guy the number of a local support group. The entire thing just seemed ridiculous – not the emphasis on how painful bullying is, not the suggestion that bullies are often struggling with their own stuff, but the way the story made it seem like standing up to a bully is simple rather than complex. It's like telling kids that sharks are more afraid of you than you are of them, so go ahead and dangle your bloody leg in the water. Standing up to bullies is a serious and difficult thing — it's not a matter of vanquishing a bully by drawing the lust for you out of him with a couple of stern words fed to you by the cutest boy at the Utopian High School For Theatrically Inclined Boys.

But as miscalculated as that story was, it shone compared to the story of Bieste, the gym teacher. The gist of the story was that the glee kids – mostly the boys – began to use mental images of Bieste as their personal sex-drive-killer, like a human cold shower. She realized that something was up, and Will decided that the thing to do was tell her all about it in detail, while idiotically and condescendingly cooing that she shouldn't take it personally.

Now, Will has been getting stupider all season. He may have been getting stupider all his life. But this was really something, even for him. See, Bieste told him that this hurt her partly because she feels sexually ignored and has never been kissed. So Will decided to kiss her out of pity, as if that's what she wanted when she said she'd never been looked at as a woman. How could Will think pitying her was going to help? Does he think she's going to feel any less like she's never been kissed than she did before? Does he think she's so dumb that she believes that kiss had anything to do with seeing her the way she wanted to be seen? Does the show, which portrayed her as shyly grateful for his generosity, really think that the pain of her situation was going to be allayed by having the nearest man — any man — kiss her as a favor?

Basically, all the dignity the show works so hard to give a lot of its characters, it denied to her. The implication was that she just wanted lips, even if only because someone felt sorry for her. Even if not someone she's ever suggested she's attracted to. Any lips are apparently fine.

Think of it this way: would Glee have ever suggested that Kurt would have wanted to be kissed out of pity by a straight guy (in other words, a guy who didn't mean it at all), just to get the physical experience over with? It was the most ham-handed, tin-eared bucket of nonsense since Glee's disastrous fake-pregnancy storyline.

As if all that weren't enough, it was also a very weak showing musically. Low-quality mashups, a lifeless duet between Puck and Artie, that "Teenage Dream" business ... there just wasn't much to it.

It's sure to be a polarizing episode — I've already heard from people who really liked it. But for me, this is the worst kind of Glee episode: the kind that thinks it's being incredibly sensitive and thoughtful when it isn't.

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