The Great 'Glee' Debate: Was Gwyneth Awesome or Just OK?
The Great 'Glee' Debate: Was Gwyneth Awesome or Just OK?
Meghan Carlson
Meghan Carlson
Senior Writer, BuddyTV
Maybe it's Glee season 2, which seems to be suffering from a personality crisis of sorts, or maybe it's just that I started writing about Glee during season 2 and so began over-analyzing it at that time, but I just can't seem to make up my mind about anything Glee-related these days. Love-love, hate-hate, love to hate and hate to love--I go through just about every emotion, about every element of the show, all the time. I'm a revolving door of Gleemotions. This is a new feature in which I will argue with myself about one aspect of the week's Glee episode, in an attempt to finally take a stance on something. It's called the Great Glee Debate. Even though I'm not very great at debating.

This week: Was Gwyneth Paltrow awesome or just OK as "The Substitute," Holly Holiday?

I've never been a big Gwyneth Paltrow fan. I am not a full-fledged anti-Gwyneth club member (but this article at Salon explains the bandwagon pretty well). I'm more of a dabbler, mainly because I find it slightly disturbing that people devote so much time to disliking one celebrity, and I love The Royal Tenenbaums because duh that movie is so great. I mostly just find her lifestyle zine-thing, GOOP, to be tone-deaf and insufferable, and even that's an easy problem to fix, at least on a personal level. (It's called "unsubscribe.")

However each of us feels about Paltrow (because apparently it's a real hot-button issue these days) doesn't really matter here. Gwyneth's stint on Glee should not be judged on her zine-writing or child-naming or Country Strong-promoting skills, but on her performance. And I think (maybe?) we can all agree that on Glee last night, Gwyneth as Holly Holiday was, unlike GOOP, neither tone-deaf nor insufferable. She carried her tunes well, especially the impossibly difficult to cover "Forget You," which--though I stand by my initial analysis that it is not-so-good--could have been a lot worse. It's not really her fault that "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" was contextually random and musically forgettable. And even if we are all sick of hearing Rihanna's "Umbrella," she didn't make the feeling any worse (it was the mashing it with "Singin' in the Rain" that did), even while tromping around in two feet of water in black leather pants.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of her song and dance numbers, but she's not Glee's choreographer or story editor or wardrobe-selector or song-chooser, so I can't fault her for it. She performed really well with the material she was given, and all three of the numbers were visually impressive and enthusiastic without going too much into embarrassment territory. Even when she hopped on the piano and screamed for tacos. Even when she cartwheeled. She made her role in these songs believable, even when the situations were not. ("Nowadays," especially.) That's a feat not to be taken lightly, especially on a show that has, over the last few episodes, caused me so many cringes at its mismatched cheesiness. Matthew Morrison's "Make 'Em Laugh" earned way more internal "eeeks" than all of Gwyneth's songs combined.

The main problem I had with Gwyneth on Glee lay within her character, Holly Holiday, and the role she was meant to play as the cool, hip, social-media-savvy, tellin'-it-like-it-is substitute.

Especially for an actress whose detractors have called her "elitist" and "cold" off-screen, she played the part of the kooky, irresponsible, "fun" sub better than expected, and for bigger laughs than any other character in the episode. Holly Holiday managed to charm everyone's pants off, from Sue to the students, and Paltrow gets full credit for extending that charm all the way off screen, to the point where even people like me, who came in expecting to hate the episode and the character, were laughing hysterically at her Mary Todd Lincoln impression and traumatic "Cameo" flashback, even while internally questioning both scenes' logic and possible offensiveness. She did the episode's heavy comic lifting, and she made it look (relatively) effortless.

But, to my problem: Like too many characters on this show, Holly Holiday's sense of fresh, fun, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants-ness--her whole essence, which was a refreshing essence indeed--was compromised and contradicted too many times in the course of her (brief) story. It worked for her character to sing "Conjunction Junction" in English class, take the Glee club to Taco Bell, and stage a too-elaborate Broadway number to get Rachel to loosen up. Even though her speech about supporting students through Twitter infuriated me with its bald-faced wrongness, she sold it through the character, who is so desperate to relate to these teens that she'll try any means, however ineffective, if it's hip.

But Holly also outright told a student (Rachel) that she was a "total drag" who "sucked." She openly handed over quiz answers to a student (Puck) who just last week was supposed to have learned the value of hard, honest work. She stood by without a word as Mercedes got expelled, and then wrote off the situation by tacking on an "or whatever." That's not "fun" sub behavior. That's mean, careless and cowardly sub behavior.

As the crazy, fancy-free sub jabbing at Lindsay Lohan, Holly Holiday was just the right amount of flawed. But turning her into the spineless and tactless sub in these moments rang false, as they robbed her of even a basic sense of compassion. I kept waiting for the reveal that Holly, like Mary Todd Lincoln, was bipolar, as these acts seemed so clearly out of character. Even when she confessed her run-away philosophy to Will, it didn't make her behavior less obnoxious, because she never learned her lesson. Alas, once again, as I've been forced to ask myself about Will, Rachel, Finn, Sam, and even Artie, who have all at one point or another forgotten their basic sense of self for the sake of a story: "I'm supposed to like this character?" Weirdly, yes. And weirder, still ... I still kind of liked her, anyway.

So here's my final verdict, after this circular self-debate: Gwyneth Paltrow was indeed awesome, because it's Holly Holiday who was just OK, and Paltrow still managed to make me like the character anyway. It's not really Gwyneth's fault that I want something Glee will apparently never give me: An adult who acts like one.  And, at least compared to the tater tots and Terri Schuester storylines, Paltrow's performance was the shining light of an otherwise mediocre episode.

But I might change my mind(s) again tomorrow. What did you think of Gwyneth's guest spot on Glee?

(Image courtesy of Fox)