It was almost a year ago that Glee first tackled the King of Pop, featuring a mash-up of "Thriller" with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Heads Will Roll" in its super-sized post-Super Bowl episode. Last fall, Michael Jackson's family finally gave the blessing for a full-fledged tribute. Despite the initial whiff of product placement and forced timing (Blaine mentions Cirque du Soleil's "The Immortal World Tour" less than five minutes into the episode), "Michael" proved to be Glee's most effortless tribute episode yet: the song selections seamlessly wove into the hour's plots, while also paying tribute to the creative and musical talents of Michael Jackson. And "Michael" also proved our theory about Sue Sylvester's absence being indicative of a good episode: she was nowhere to be found tonight. Still, we got a whopping nine MJ tunes and nearly everyone had their turn in the spotlight:
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'":
Blaine, Kurt, Santana and Mercedes are still talking about sectionals (because it's always sectionals, or regionals, or nationals, as Community so aptly pointed out in its fall finale). The latest theory is that the New Directions beat the Troubletones because the New Directions performed a Michael Jackson medley. The remedy? Michael at regionals! (And a tribute episode that seems to have some relevance to things that came before it.) Blaine kicks things off with the appropriately titled "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" – his slick showmanship making him a natural for lead vocals. He starts strutting down the hallway, followed by Brittany and Santana in Cheerios outfits, Mercedes in all black and Kurt in all black with an overwhelming fur hat. And thus, the New Directions' sassiest members kick off the highly caffeinated number, shooting the episode out of a proverbial cannon. They recruit Tina, Rachel and Quinn in the library and meet up with the the rest of the glee club in the auditorium, where the big dance number doubles as a fashion show of Jackson's most famous ensembles.
Sebastian makes his evil return at the local coffee house, mixing insults in with the reveal of his devious planning: he got Blaine to spill the New Directions' plan to sing Michael Jackson at regionals, except the Warblers go first and wouldn't it be grand if they one-upped the New Directions with some MJ of their own? The New Directions are still miffed at the next glee club session, when Mr. Schue devotes the week to prepping for regionals by asking the New Directions "WWMJD?" (What Would Michael Jackson Do?). After a brief history of all the ways that Jackson fought back against his haters, Blaine decrees that Jackson would "take it to the streets."
The New Directions, at least, literally do this, meeting the Warblers in a shady underground parking lot, à la the "Bad" video. In the episode's first homage to Jackson's legendary videos, "Bad" is as much a dance battle as it is a vocal one, and the winner gets the rights to sing Michael Jackson tunes at regionals. The arrangement gets an interesting twist thanks to the Warblers' penchant for a cappella, and Artie and Santana begin the battle for vocal MVP of the episode. He once again proves an innate ability for a spot-on pop vocal, while her dynamic power adds an edge to otherwise straightforward melodies. It's not all fun and games though: the number ends with Sebastian tossing a slushie at Blaine, one so powerful it sends him to the ground and tears his cornea.
The New Directions are still reeling from the parking lot showdown, and Kurt tells everyone that Blaine is out of commission while he has surgery (also conveniently providing an out for Darren Criss to make his Broadway debut while the episode was being filmed). The New Directions want an eye for an eye; Schue says no. Artie fights back: "I'm not interested in it getting any better. I want it to be better. I want to hurt them, like they hurt us." After Schue tells him to cool off, Artie gets up from his wheelchair, asks, "Who's with me?" and things shift to black and white as Mike rises in agreement. Suddenly we're on a futuristic spaceship for one of Glee's most impressive production numbers to date: a recreation of the mega-expensive video for Janet and Michael's angst-ridden sibling duet, "Scream." We've got nothing but praise for the number, which showcases Glee's two best male dancers. Usually solo-shy Mike rises to the occasion, and both he and Artie capture the anger heard on the original.
"Never Can Say Goodbye":
Despite her self-imposed deadline of three days having passed and additional persuasion from Finn, Rachel still hasn't been able to decide whether she wants to say "yes" to last episode's proposal. She seeks advice from Quinn in the ladies' bathroom (the site of many a high school TV drama advice session). Newly mature Miss Fabray reveals that she's been accepted early decision to Yale on the strength of her essay about teen pregnancy, and advises Rachel to reject Finn's proposal: "I'm all for making the most of the next few months, but I'd hate the idea of dragging an anchor from my past into the bright lights of my future." She further proves her point in song, launching into the Jackson 5's 1971 single – a tune well-suited for Quinn's sultry voice and the flipped meaning she gives the lyrics. Instead of feeling remorse over her three high school loves – Finn, Puck and Sam – Quinn uses her performance in a slinky black sequined dress to make peace with saying good-bye, successfully reminding us of her evolution from the most annoying to the most level-headed character since the season's start.
Sam invites Mercedes to the auditorium for a duet, because they've never actually sung together. She refuses, but then the music starts, and it's totally impossible for her not to sing over Sam's bare-bones guitar intro to the Thriller cut. Their voices are great together and separately: hers restrained and soulful, his rock-tinged and raw. It's a crisp, well-executed cover that ends with an appropriately timed kiss. The song is called "Human Nature," so we'd have been fools to expect anything less for the setting of Sam and Mercedes' reunion.
Burt pulls Kurt out of class: the letter came from NYADA! After walking from room to room, they wind up in the choir room, where Kurt finally opens the letter, reads that he's a finalist and Burt reaffirms his stance as TV dad of the year. "You are unstoppable, Kurt," he tells his son. "I am so proud to be your dad. They can never take this away from you." Things aren't going so well for Rachel, who hasn't gotten a letter. "I knew it, I had this weird feeling in my stomach all week long," she tells Kurt as she breaks down because all of her plans (correction: her one plan) have fallen apart and she has no idea what her future holds.
The emotional roller coaster continues at Blaine's house. Blaine hasn't had surgery yet, so he's wearing an eye patch, while Kurt is reading a Broadway article to him and Rachel and Finn show up with chicken noodle soup and eye patch-friendly DVDs (Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.). After toasting Kurt's good fortune, Kurt, Finn and Rachel try to make Blaine feel better about missing Michael Week by singing "Ben." The song about a rat. The good news is that Kurt, naturally, does well in the high range, Rachel sings sweetly to complement and Finn comes in with a rich verse of his own. But it's still a little creepy to sing a song about a rat around a bed, however much about friendship it really is about. Maybe they could have changed "Ben" to "Blaine" and it would have been a tiny bit less uncomfortable.
Santana, in a female-friendly take on the "Smooth Criminal" video ensemble, goes to the Warblers' rehearsal space (somewhere far, far away from the polished library of Dalton) to rip the Warblers a new one for tossing the slushie at Blaine. Turns, out it was intended for Kurt. Sebastian still won't 'fess up to what he put in it, so he and Santana settle the duel the best way they know how: with song. Sebastian, Santana and some furious (and furiously awesome) cellos take on "Smooth Criminal" in an empty ballroom – the high school glee club version of the bar the original video took place in, we suppose. It's the perfect soundtrack for the show's slickest villains: Santana wails, Sebastian channels his Chuck Bass and we are sold. The only other thing we could have asked for is some of the video's trademark leaning in the choreography.
The song ends in a draw (though we'd hand it to Santana), but Santana gets Sebastian to admit he put rock salt in the slushie, and she secretly gets it on tape. Back at McKinley, Kurt puts the kibosh on seeking payback. "If Michael went after all the haters, he would never have had any time to do that amazing music. so we're not going to punish the Warblers; we're going to teach them a lesson." He leads the New Directions to the auditorium, but Finn asks Rachel to stay behind.
"I Just Can't Stop Loving You":
In what amounts to "Finchel: The Proposal, Part 2," Finn begins to serenade Rachel, which is sweet to hear since he's usually the target of her ballads. Again, we are grateful to the Glee team for assigning plot-relevant songs in a week where it would be so easy to go awry. Case in point: this number, which is the duet that will launch a thousand fan blog .gifs and YouTube tribute videos. We have to admit that we got swept up in the moment, as well. We're also proud of Finn for holding his own against Rachel, vocally.
In case you doubted it for a second, the song does the job: she says yes! He's overwhelmed. She's crying. It's adorable, if not completely impractical. And only the awkward back-up musicians are there to witness it. We're not sure where, exactly, Rachel turned from career-focused Broadway diva wannabe into only having eyes for her boyfriend, but she's so happy that we don't want to break her spirit.
"Black or White":
Kurt's lesson involves inviting the Warblers to the McKinley auditorium, where the New Directions proceed to give a moral speech and Puck has a line (Hi, Puck. Where have you been all episode? How's Shelby?). Then, in true episode finale spirit, they launch into a triumphant number in which almost everyone has a solo and there's lots of dancing on the stage. Artie once again nails the MJ impression, but he can tack on the Macaulay Culkin rap to his resumè, as well. It's appropriate that Kurt sings the line "Don't tell me you agree with me, when I saw you kicking dirt in my eye" and, predictably, all of the Warblers go up to join the New Directions. All of the Warblers, except for Sebastian, of course, who is firmly pegged as the New Directions' new villain (no episodic retribution for him!). Did we mention that they also did the face-morphing as seen at the end of the original video? Because they did. And we'd be lying if we didn't get excited when it happened, because we were pretty sure it wasn't going to happen – until it did!
Santana and Kurt tell Sebastian about their recorded proof of his evil doings. But they take the high road and opt to give the tape back to him, claiming victory will be sweeter when they beat the Warblers – including Sebastian – at regionals. The drama isn't over yet, however: Rachel meets Kurt by the lockers, envelope in hand. She's also a NYADA finalist. But has she told Finn? No idea, 'cause it's another Finchel cliffhanger.
Bottom Line: Our one gripe would have to be that there wasn't enough Brittany: she's one of the show's best dancers, so where was she during a Michael Jackson tribute? But, that aside, this is exactly the kind of episode we wish Glee did every week: plot-relevant tunes, actual significant movement in storylines and over-the-top production numbers. We feel like a broken record for pointing it out every time it happens, but those instances have become so few and far between that every time it does happen is worth noting. Next week we'll find out if Ricky Martin can help keep the momentum up. Livin' la vida loca, indeed.
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