“Glee” Delivers With Excellent “First Time” Episode; Beiste Steals the Show

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Tuesday’s “The First Time” episode of “Glee” is built around the first sexual encounters between Rachel and Finn and Kurt and Blaine, and it delivers in a big way.

But while those key characters have fine storylines that greatly improve upon the usual, somewhat-tedious portrayal of their relationships, the real standouts are the supporting characters. As with Mike Chang’s (Harry Shum, Jr.) excellent storyline from previous episode “Asian F,” the supporting “Glee” cast has so much to offer, and it’s a shame the show only sporadically recognizes the depth of its ensemble.

Sure, no one has demonstrated the overall acting chops of Chris Colfer (Kurt), who again dazzles with his performance here–expanding his range from the usual “poor me, I’m getting mistreated for my sexuality for the 1000th time” to a compelling portrayal of jealousy, protectionism and emotional weakness over his relationship with Blaine. Those who look to “Glee” as cutting-edge in its portrayal of homosexuals might complain that little in the way of passionate, physical sexuality is shown between Kurt and Blaine (especially for an episode showcasing their “first time”), but what the episode does well is put them through the gauntlet of normal relationship problems–namely, Kurt wonders whether he is being too prude for Blaine, and the introduction of a sex-crazed, Blaine groupie (Grant Gustin as Sebastian) only makes things more challenging. That is so much more “progressive” than just showing an over-the-top sex scene, because it means “Glee” sees this as a real couple, not a stunt pairing for attention.

But there is only so much Colfer can do without it getting stale–even his once-brilliant moments with Mike O’Malley (who plays Kurt’s father Burt) have lost their sparkle. And that’s why it’s so great that Kevin McHale (Artie), Harry Shum, Jr. (Mike) and Dot Marie Jones (Beiste) prove themselves more than capable of carrying the workload.

For Artie, it is a touching scene in which he explores why directing the school’s rendition of “West Side Story” is so meaningful to him. It’s predictable and sappy, but it feels so honest and poignant, making for the best “Artie moment” since “Wheels.”

For Mike, it is another encounter with his father, one that builds upon their heat from “Asian F.” This time, however, Mike has the strength from knowing his mother has his back, and the result is a scene in which the misguided character stops playing the victim and further embraces who he is.

And, for Beiste, it means one of the most touching moments of the past two seasons, with the female football coach finally getting a love interest. The build to Dot Jones’ wonderful monologue about “pretty girls” (a great companion piece for Addy’s emotional “pretty girls” storyline on the Glee creators’ “American Horror Story”) is simultaneously light-hearted and heavy-hitting, with Beiste showing the results of damaged self-esteem. Lacking confidence, she’s completely oblivious to her suitor’s advances until he makes his intentions abundantly clear, and at that point, she assumes the date request is out of pity–because that’s the only reason someone who could have any girl he wanted would go out with her.

Beiste has been so led to believe that she’s so obviously NOT the kind of girl for whom guys go that she cannot appreciate how uniquely-suited she will be for the guy who finally does see the beauty in her. In portraying this hardship, Dot Jones eclipses Jane Lynch as the best supporting actress on “Glee.” It is a shame such a wonderful addition to the cast did not come until after season one, as the weakened buzz due to questionable overall-writing has taken away attention she should be getting for her fantastic performance.

One of the most stacked episodes of “Glee” to date, “First Time” still offers ample material for the major “Glee” characters. As noted, Kurt and Blaine go through their first real relationship hurdle on the way to their first time; Rachel and Finn, similarly, run into a problem en route to their first night together.

On the surface, the Rachel-Finn storyline would seem fairly by-the-numbers for the show. Finn is awkward and goofy (and even accidentally cooks the vegan Rachel a meat meal, although she never finds out), Rachel does something obnoxious, they fight, they make up. But the inclusion of Rachel’s performance in the rendition of “West Side Story” and Finn’s desire to impress the Ohio State football recruiter adds freshness to the interaction, which in and of itself, is deeper than it would appear on the surface.

In essence, the storyline gets at why Rachel’s “prudeness” has made her first time so meaningful. For Finn, the idea of Rachel expressing willingness to have sex is a big deal, because it reveals the massive extent to which she loves him (since virginity means something to her). So, if he has reason to doubt Rachel’s intentions for sex, it doesn’t just make the encounter “dirty,” it also takes away that massive comfort of knowing he has someone on whom he can count and trust. Going through a challenge with football and an overall worry about his future, Finn cannot afford NOT to have someone like Rachel there for him. But if she’s going to be there–it has to be out of love, not out of self-interest on her part.

Fueled by a great emotional moment for Cory Monteith and the usual great work from the always-”on” Lea Michele, the Rachel-Finn storyline might not be as fresh as the supporting storylines, but it still holds up to the lofty standards of the episode.

The only, albeit unfortunate, negative of the episode is the inclusion of West Side Story. It is a true shame “Glee” no longer owns its audience through pop culture prowess, because the characters’ version of the play really deserved its own special, two-hour episode. Early last season, when “Glee” could do no wrong (a level of rapport it quickly squandered by doing too much wrong), the show easily could have done ratings for a West Side Story special.

Now, it can’t take the risk, and it had to relegate what should have been a much longer, deeper arc into the background of “First Time.” Though a few songs are shown being “rehearsed,” “America” and “One Hand, One Heart” are the only numbers that get anything resembling a full stage treatment.

Ultimately, though, that gets chalked up as a wasted opportunity–not a weakness of the very strong overall episode. Last week’s troubling “Glee” ratings reveal just how much momentum this series has lost, and this is unlikely to spur any sort of long-term rebounds, but those still watching should very much enjoy “First Time.”

“The First Time” airs Tuesday, November 8 at 8PM.