In the most obvious sense, Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Holly Holliday, a substitute teacher called upon to cover Will’s Spanish class when he fell in. An enterprising Kurt convinced her to replace Mr. Schue (Matthew Morrison) at the head of glee club, and she did. Literally. Meanwhile, Mercedes (Amber Riley) was trying to substitute food for love, even as Sue (Jane Lynch) tried to substitute…healthy foods for Mercedes’ beloved tater tots. Also? Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) feared that Holly was trying to replace her in Will’s life,
The most effective substitution for me was probably Holly’s move to replace Will’s tired old songbook with a few more modern numbers. She also sought to usurp Will’s more autocratic style of “advising” the show choir by turning over most of the decisions about songs to the kids themselves. (Thus, the students became the masters — another substitution.)
Holly was full of platitudes and can-do pluck, but when it came time to demonstrate the courage of her convictions, Holly turned and ran, leaving Mercedes to face the wrath of Sue. Turned out, slogans and teaching philosophy are no substitute for being dedicated to the actual work. And the teacher role cannot be recast as a best pal. One cannot substitute the whims of children for considered adult decisions. And a substitute teacher is no…er, substitute for a teacher. (Or is she?) “I thought you’d never ask.”
Oscar winner Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) made Holly engagingly smug, and got the chance to show off her musical chops several times. I remember seeing Paltrow in a movie called Duets (2000) — a film about competitive world of professional karaoke singers, in which she sang with Huey Lewis. Also, Paltrow is starring in Country Strong, an upcoming movie about a country singer.
Holly scored points by parroting the anti-GLEE backlash that has focused on the song selections. A running joke within the episode had Will obsessing over finding a Journey song the kids had not covered. And what about Will’s dictatorial style of ruling glee club? Mr. Schue is positioned as one of those hip, young teachers you see on TV and in message movies — the ones who always have an appropriate teaching anecdote and/or a one-liner ready to go — be he only talks the talk; when it comes time to truly empower his students by — gasp — picking a song, Will shuts them down. When he says he’s trying to get the kids to see other points of view, he usually means his own.
I’m not sure the mash-up of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Umbrella” worked, but it was fun to see Holly, Will, and the others strutting around in the artificial rain, trying to make the Gene Kelly classic feel relevant.
Is GLEE itself being to question its own relevance? As I noted above, the backlash is in full swing.