An episode built on bad songs comes up looking pretty good -- but we could've used more Molly Shannon

By Darren Franich
Updated May 05, 2010 at 04:00 PM EDT
Credit: Michael Yarish/Fox
S1 E17

There’s been a self-congratulatory quality to the first few episodes of Glee since the Great Hiatus. In some ways, that’s okay: the creators have certainly earned a victory lap or two. But I prefer Glee when it finds a way to work emotionally messiness and high-concept weirdness in with all the big-hearted balladeering.

A Madonna episode? Sure, fun stuff. But an episode that combines a mystery, a mega-meta riff on modern celebrity, a purposefully-awful series of songs, not one but two high-concept retro music videos, and some realistic forward motion on various romantic plotlines? Now we’re talking! Last night, you could actually hear the psychic nuclear explosion sweeping the nation as ”Run Joey Run” suddenly became the awesomest song ever. Now this is the Glee I fell in tormented love with.

The episode, called ”Bad Reputation,” began with the kids huddled around a laptop watching Sue Sylvester jazzercising to Olivia Newton-John’s ”Physical.” (Kurt and Mercedes found the video mixed in with Sue’s hormone-replacement injections.) The promise of viral celebrity, and the general urge to give Sue a taste of her own medicine, led the kids to post the video to YouTube. (Sample comment: ”The man in this video looks like the champion cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester.”)

This put Sue in the curious position of being the victim of scorn, as opposed to the Empress. (Although she could still sling an immortal Anti-Schuester Zinger: ”I might buy a small diaper for your chin, because it looks like a baby’s ass.”)

Naturally, Sue blamed the Glee kids for the prank. As a bizarrely convenient plot twist fate would have it, the Glee kids were in the firing line for ANOTHER crime: someone had posted a hotness list of Glee kids. Figgins wouldn’t stand for these shenanigans at this school! (These shenanigans at this school!) In the Gleeverse, Us Weekly-style web scandals have hit local high schools. Apparently, there was a recent blow-up at a neighboring school, where the superintendent was photographed wearing women’s clothing while riding ponies.

So, we had a mystery (and a central plot): Who wrote the Glist? Because it wasn’t quite clear what the parameters of the list were — Hotness? Naughtiness? Sexuality? Purity? — everyone was left to ponder, in their own way, how to get more popular, by balancing the various strands of admiration, fascination, respect, and despicability that comprise modern celebrity. In other words: How do I go from being Heidi Montag 2006 to being Heidi Montag 2008, without becoming Heidi Montag 2010?

By the way, here’s the complete rundown of the Glist:

1. Quinn

2. Santana

3. Puck

4. Brittany

5. Jesse

6. Finn

7. One of the guys who doesn’t talk

8. The other guy who doesn’t talk

9. Rachel

NEXT: Stop, collaborate, and listen

Will decided to teach the kids a lesson about bad reputations, or something, by requiring them to find songs that have become a joke and make them great again. And how did he demonstrate this? By picking the jokingest joke song that ever joked:

Song 1: ”Ice Ice Baby”

Oh no! A Mr. Schue rap! Plug your ears! Run for the hills! Shoot your horses before they’re driven crazy! Surprise surprise, this was by far the greatest performance of ”Ice Ice Baby” ever. (Which is only half a compliment). The choreography was key. Glee really feels in its element when it captures the unforced feeling of a bunch of performers just hanging out and playing around. ”Ice Ice Baby” is not a great song, but the cast looked like they were having fun. (Does this mean that, if Glee lasts for seven seasons, they’ll find a way to rehabilitate Vanilla Ice’s secret masterpiece?)

Grade: B

Sue Sylvester walked into the teacher’s lounge and discovered, to her horror, cruel slow-motion laughter. ”What’s that smell? Dear god, that’s coffee! It’s usually masked by a smell of fear.” Two things I love: 1) Jane Lynch’s facial expressions while she’s having an inner monologue, and 2) Molly Shannon. And this scene had both! Molly Shannon randomly popped in as Brenda Castle, a teacher transfer from Fort Wayne with an alcohol problem and a drug problem. She then popped in for about two whole seconds in the rest of the episode. More, please!Sue fled for a one-on-one with her sister, Jean, who reminded her that Sue used to help out at the animal shelter when she got sad.

Cue Emma! Sue decided to play therapist for our beloved everythingphobe. I enjoyed seeing these two play off each other. Sue is powerful and confident to the point of megalomania, while Emma, to quote Sue, walks around like she was raised in Imperial Japan and someone bound her feet. But Sue filled in Emma about Schue’s dalliances with Ambiguously Evil Idina Menzel and World-Class Banana Magnet April Rhodes. Cut to an epic bitch-slapping scene, where Emma called Will a slut a billion times. Will looked despondent. But his hair was perfect.

Meanwhile, this episode saw the return of my favorite character: Rachel’s Narcissistic Ambition. She wanted to become more popular by becoming more despicable. Make sense? Step one of her mad plan involved hanging out with Puck. Now, I dunno about you, but I’ve been missing Puck. He was the breakout character of the season, moving almost imperceptibly from a background thug to a weirdly adorable, bizarrely honorable tough guy with a confusingly old-fashioned moral code.

NEXT: Can’t touch this? Or shouldn’t touch this?

Basically, Puck is to Glee as Sawyer is to Lost. (Rachel even calls him ”Noah,” much like how Kate calls Sawyer ”James.”) I’d say Puck’s breakout moment started with his brief romance with Rachel, and his magnificent rendition of ”Sweet Caroline.” Rachel agrees with me, and told Puck that their dalliance (they were known as Puckleberry) ”gave you a sense of humanity.” A near-makeout ensued.

Over in Supporting Character Land, Artie, Mercedes, Kurt, and Tina didn’t even qualify for the Glist. Since the only thing worse than being hated is being unknown, Kurt (who was looking extra furry this week) wanted to create a massive scandal. (Brittany participated because she wanted to break the top three, and because she was a bit lost. ”I took all my antibiotics at the same time. Now I forget how to get out.”)

Song 2: U Can’t Touch This

Viewers, it’s time for us to ask an important question: should Glee just leave hip-hop alone? The show usually manages to take pretty much every musical genre — classic rock, ’80s arena rock, soul-pop, whatever Barbra Streisand is — and make it work. But a truly memorable hip-hop performance (other than ”Ice Ice Baby” — and that only barely counts) has proven elusive. Also, you’re telling me that Kurt and Mercedes, who are brilliant, actually thought it was a good idea to wear parachute pants and perform the first ever rap song that eight-year-olds could memorize? And they were going to do this in the library? Oh heavens, I’m so scandalized I can’t breathe!

Grade: C-

Schuester interrogated the whole Glee squad to find out who wrote the Glist. Everybody had a reason, and everybody had an alibi, and everyone’s alibi was, ”Puck did it.” Except Brittany, whose alibi was, ”I don’t know how to turn on a computer.”

Meanwhile, Sue Sylvester was pouring her angry thoughts into her journal when she received a phone call from Olivia Newton-John, who gamely played herself as someone who speaks in a language purely composed of fun wiki-facts about Olivia Newton-John. ”’Physical’ spent 1- weeks at number one… it was one of the first music videos ever… I had seven consecutive number one singles!” Oooooh!

Song 3: ”Physical”

Listen, there’s something inherently wonderful about a heavily auto-tuned Sue Sylvester gliding across the floor on a rolling mass of man meat. But the geniues of Glee is that it takes old songs and makes them better. Whereas the whole point of this performance seemed to be doing an exact imitation, complete with the original artist. The resulting video seemed to last forever, and had nothing to do with anything except for its ridiculousness, and let’s face it, it wasn’t that ridiculous. It didn’t help that this is the second extended-homage Sue Sylvester music video in three weeks. I’m sure all the ONewJo fetishists out there were gagging with happiness during this performance. I’m happy for them, but sad for me.

Grade: C-

Quick, Glee, redeem yourself! Redeem yourself!

Song 4: ”Run Joey Run”

Before last night, I had never heard of ”Run Joey Run.” I did not know that David Geddes was a person. And whenever someone says ”story song,” I curl up in the fetal position and scream ”help me!” in foreign languages. But wow, Rachel’s ”Run Joey Run” knocked me on the floor. After watching the video 99 times, I think I’ve figured out the three reasons why ”Run Joey Run” captures the very best of Glee:

1. Perfectly Executed Amateurism: Despite the everpresent fog machine and a five-digit costume budget, Rachel’s video actually looks a little bit like something high schoolers would shoot. Dig those iMovie split screens, and all the people passing her in the locker hallway, and the Cheerios in Angel wings! And marvel at Mr. Ryerson as the angry father — when he fires a gun, a paper ”Bang” flag pops out! And was that a heart wipe?

2. Perfect Song Choice: As I noted above, Glee can do good things with pretty much every kind of song. But ”Run Joey Run” is a song that’s right in the strike zone: ridiculous lyrics, an addictive hook, a swaggery chorus, and debased pop culture history. It’s a guilty pleasure that’s arguably just bad, and the peculiar genius of Glee is that it can actually add depth to a song like this, because…

3. It may be silly, but it means something: It took me a second to figure out the twist of the video — that the male role was being played by all three of Rachel’s paramours — but when I got it, the whole video clicked into place. There’s what she THINKS it means (that she’s promiscuous, and hence, cool), and there’s what it ACTUALLY means (that, in some strange way, these three very different guys all fascinate and stimulate her.)

Grade: A

Will stopped by for a patented Will Schuester Apology Session, but Emma was having none of it. ”I’m supposed to smile and be impressed by how in touch you are with you feelings.” By putting Will in his place, she gave him a taste of loserdom, which somehow revealed to him that Quinn wrote the Glist.

If Puck is Glee‘s Sawyer, I’d say that Quinn is roughly equivalent to Juliet — someone introduced as a villain who ultimately stands revealed as an emotionally bruised survivor. (Feel free to try and extend this whole Lost analogy throughout the Glee cast, but I’m worried it breaks down pretty quickly. Is Artie Sayid? [Ed note: Artie is Locke.]) Like Puck, she’s been kind of a background player lately, so it was nice to see her get a big scene here. ”A bad reputation is better than no reputation at all,” she explained. Will managed to set her straight with words of wisdom that everyone should take to heart: ”High school is going to end.”

Song 5: ”Total Eclipse of the Heart”

Viewers, it’s time for us to ask another important question: is Rachel just really the most interesting character on the show? I only ask because there was no reason why this last song had to be anything more than an energetic roundout. There’s really no way to do a better ”Total Eclipse” than Old School, and this interpretation was about as straightforward as you can get. But somehow, it kind of left tears in my eyes.

Actually, it’s not really fair to call it ”straightforward” — the way Rachel subtly passed the lyrics back and forth from Jesse to Finn was wonderfully unexpected. But this wasn’t a ”Dancing With Myself”-style remix. Nope, just Lea Michele belting every ridiculous syllable like she traveled back in time and wrote the song before Bonnie Tyler was ever born.

And man, it was awesome. I have no clue about anything involving ballet, but my girlfriend assures me that the moves they were making take years to perfect. And the end of the song, with everyone leaving Rachel alone in the room, just brings me back to the question: is Rachel just more compelling than everyone else? As much as I love the minor characters, something about Rachel’s basic personality DNA — her unbridled talent, her ambition, her terrible knowledge that following that talent and ambition will leave her friendless and alone — feels endlessly interesting.

Grade: A-

What did you think of ”Bad Reputation,” Glee fans? Did you like Olivia Newton-John’s cameo, or did you feel like every minute she was onscreen was a minute that Molly Shannon was offscreen? Was Brittany on fire this episode, or what? Which guy had the best leather-jacket swagger in the ”Run Joey Run” video? Didn’t you expect them to sing ”Bad Reputation”? And can we all agree to take a shot of vodka from now on whenever Will says the words ”with Regionals coming up?”

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