As Glee settles in to institutionalism (it’s in Nielsen’s Top 10 and just marked its 25th episode), we start to see the show for its benchmarks — for memorable episodes which forever will define it. Grilled Cheesus was such an episode.
Few Glee hours will be as weighty — yet also, in a way, as wacky. When a plot takes off from a Jesus image on Finn’s grilled cheese sandwich, you know this isn’t your parents’ sermonette. This is Glee, where moments of levity laced an otherwise sobering tale of Burt Hummel’s coma, son Kurt’s (and Sue’s) atheism and a general wrestling with the concepts of faith vs. luck, solitary stoutness vs. the succor of family, and organized religion vs. innate spirituality — there being a big distinction between the last two.
Though the acting was strong, I was most proud of this episode musically, with seven superb songs and an emphasis on meaning, not fun but flimsy showboating. And the best of the night, for me, was Papa Can You Hear Me, Rachel’s second ode to idol Barbra Streisand, but more importantly, the most beautifully sung number in Glee’s history to date. Lea Michele, we already knew you could do more than belt, but this was special. You had me at “Papa.”
But Mercedes’ (Amber Riley’s) heartfelt I Look to You wasn’t far behind, while Finn’s spin on REM’s Losing My Religion brought the song a pained edge, and the full-church Bridge Over Troubled Water was a welcomely boisterous celebration of faith amid the show’s morose meditativeness.
But beyond Rachel’s Yentl tribute, the night’s best numbers were Kurt’s (Chris Colfert’s) tearfully moving I Want to Hold Your Hand, a dramatic, slowed-tempo entreaty along the lines of TV Carpio’s version of the early Beatles rocker in the film Across the Universe, and the full cast’s One of Us, a stirring remake of Joan Osborne’s soulful 1995 pop hit written by Eric Bazilian, formerly of Philly band the Hooters (and Baby Grand, if you go back that far). One quibble: It didn’t last as long as Glee’s studio version, whose final 45 seconds soar with exquisite harmonies.
Plotwise, I’d have liked seeing more of Kurt at his dad’s bedside and less of him moping uselessly at school. But Sue’s visit with her sister — and closed-door confession to Emma — richly enhanced her character. And assenting that her sister pray for her was the most vulnerable moment of the crusty Jane Lynch character’s life.
Fittingly, Grilled Cheesus was ecumenical, not dogmatic, and asked far more questions than it dared answer. But it did leave us with a clear, strong sense that Glee isn’t just a comedic song-and-dance revue, but a meaningful assessment of the human condition.
And happily, that was nothing new. If there’s one thing Glee has proven since its first notes of Don’t Stop Believin’, it’s that this show — for all its highjinks and hilarity — has what any religion, any righteous God or any truly spiritual person must have: loving compassion. And that, in itself, is religion enough for me.