Glee and the coma plot

Comedy comas are predictable, but Glee gets away with it by being earnest

by Jaime Weinman

One of the things that makes Glee popular is that it has no qualms about doing the kinds of episodes that audiences still like, but TV writers had mostly grown tired of. There’s a hint of irony in the way Glee uses these plots, but nothing like the self-reflexiveness of 30 Rock or Community; just as we are free to accept Glee as an un-ironic musical if we want, we’re also free to take its crazy stories at face value. So last night they used one of the corniest plots known to modern mankind — a regular character goes into a coma for the episode, and his loved one stands by his bed with the crying and the hand-clutching — and sort of played it straight. While I like the show better when it doesn’t try to make sense (that is, I actually like the Ryan Murphy episodes, with their complete insanity), I have to hand it to them: they’ve proven again that you can get away with almost any story if you don’t act like you’re ashamed of it.

I say the coma plot is “corny” on comedies because, first of all, it uses a very serious problem for an easily-solved, one-time-only story, and second of all, because it’s been done so often that we sort of know how it’s going to play out. The subversion last night on Glee was simply that Kurt didn’t pray to God for his father’s revival; most of the previous versions featured a character addressing God directly at the comatose character’s bedside. But otherwise, we know the story from several comedies, and I’d be interested to hear where you first saw it. I think the first sitcom to use it may have been Happy Days — which is quite likely where many of the later shows got it from — where Richie went into a coma because the writers wanted to show kids, through Fonzie, that it’s okay to cry sometimes. This episode kind of set the pattern, though at least the big song was an original composition — why don’t the guys at Glee get Leather Tuscadero in for a guest appearance, hm?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73iheHjvJ3w

Then there was “So It’s Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show,” where Homer went into a coma for most of the episode. Bart revived him not by praying to God but by confessing that he caused the accident that put Homer there, which caused Homer to rise from his bed and strangle the boy.

Boy Meets World, which borrowed more heavily from Happy Days than any show except That ’70s Show, did it as the climax of an episode where Shawn (Rider Strong) gets involved in a cult; an episode that seemed to be primarily a showcase for the devoutly Orthodox creator Michael Jacobs to harangue kids about the need to accept God in their lives (if you don’t, you’ll be empty inside and join a cult!). He’s snapped out of it when his favourite teacher conveniently has a motorcycle accident and goes into a coma. The over-the-top final monologue (“Don’t blow me off, God!”) was published in at least one book of monologues for kid actors, which is why you can sometimes hear them using it as their audition piece — there are a couple of kids on YouTube who’ve taped themselves performing it. But the really hilarious thing: this was the last episode the actor playing Mr. Turner ever appeared in, so many fans weren’t sure if he was alive or dead for at least a year afterward.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuTU8sTynQM

Then in the ’00s, My Name Is Earl put its title character in a coma for an arc of several episodes. (Bringing it, I suppose, a little bit closer to dramas where comas are actually taken semi-seriously and can last for more than half an hour — but it was pretty much the usual coma plot otherwise.) This was in the third season when the show squandered its initial popularity and basically ruined everything.

Other coma plots on comedies? I’ll tell you that the first comedy I saw this in was not a TV show, but a comic book story originally published in 1972. Seeing the great Samm Schwartz use his signature comedy style to draw Jughead in a coma was pretty traumatic for a kid, I tell you what.

It was a pretty good story, but that’s just not right — and if that story inspired the Happy Days episode that in turn inspired all these other Comedy Comas, then it’s got a whole lot to answer for.




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Glee and the coma plot

  1. I've often argued that 30 Rock also uses these plots straight-forwardly. Things like Jack's evil doppelganger, Jenna and Tracy arguing over who has it harder as a member of a maligned group, Pete getting his hand stuck in the vending machine – none of those stories has a wink or an acknowledgment that it's a cliche. The way 30 Rock handles material about NBC and its own status as a TV show makes you anticipate those moments, but they never, ever come. It almost seems to me that Fey and the rest of the staff are trying to see if some of the show's more snobbish fans will accept cliches at face value.

  2. A bit OT, but one thing that I noted about last night's episode (and which, to my eye, was never explicitly addressed) was the fact that Finn never prayed to Grilled Chessus to bring Kurt's dad out of the coma. I don't know what (if anything) that means, but I found it noteworthy, particularly in that it was not noted. It was hard for me to tell how seriously Finn was actually taking the sandwich, but it did seem as though he started sincerely believing in it after he got to second base. At some point, it seemed like he really believed that his prayers were being answered, and yet he never tried asking for the thing that was REALLY important. He seemed to feel guilty about hurting the other quarterback, and maybe a little conflicted about using supernatural powers to feel up his girlfriend, but it never seemed to come up that he was wasting the powers of his magical sandwich on football and girls while his friend's dad was in a coma in the hospital. I mean, come on, at least ask Grilled Cheesus to look in to the whole coma thing before eating Him!

    • I thought it kind of came up when Puck caught him in the locker room with the sandwich. Finn said he was just praying (didn't mention the grilled cheese) and Puck confessed that he'd gone to church with his grandma and prayed for Kurt's dad. Finn said that was what he was praying for too but you could tell it made him realize he had perhaps wasted his 3 prayers ("so is this like a genie and I get three wishes?"). From there, he was told by Emma that the sandwich didn't work and he sang about losing his religion.

      • That was the most remarkable thing to me about last night's Glee. In an episode where the set up was for the staunchly atheist character to develop some kind of spirituality or wider view, you have a predictable but rather touching counterpoint moment of faithful Finn being brought into doubt–as expressed by the well-deployed REM song.

        And then you realize that the faith he is losing is faith in his magic sandwich. They played that _completely_ straight. And it worked.

        If they can keep that up, I'll keep sitting through the irritating bits.

  3. Ah, but you forgot the most important cliché detail – there's always some sort of argument (usually petty) before the person becomes comatose. That way, the person who is most affected by the coma REALLY knows how important the situation is and how silly the fight was.

    Trite or not, I'm usually a sucker for these storylines. Kurt played it pretty brilliantly, too.

  4. They shoulda had Richie's semi-legendary older brother in a coma.

  5. I watched a whole episode of "Joani Loves Chaci" once. Put me in a coma for a week.

    My wife and I watched Glee last week, first time ever. Halfway through, she turned off the TV, looked at me and said “I just want to punch them. All of them.” Have to say I'm with her on that.

    • I think one has to be in the right mindset for Glee. You can't take a show where song and dance numbers spring organically into being at the drop of a hat, and where that piano guy and his string section are always, conveniently, right there (with a piano!) too seriously.

      Also, some of them you're SUPPOSED to want to punch.

      • Oh, we're willing to suspend disbelief for a musical, but it was like watching "Wrestlemania: On Ice!", but the 90's version of Wrestlemania where all the heros were a bunch of dirtbags and the women were brainless cheerleaders.

        But even the "good guy" on Glee is such a putz, oi, the slapping I'd give him…

        • Ahhh, see, whereas I LOVED 90s style Wrestling!!!

        • Also, I think it's useful not to think of the Glee characters as "people". I've always thought of it more as a cartoon (in a good way).

          • Fair point. I've only seen the single episode thus far, so I'll concede you that one. I doubt we'll be going back. Might as well just rent "The Pirate Movie"…

    • To be fair (assuming you're talking about the Britney episode that aired last week), you watched basically the worst episode ever.

      • Perhaps, but that was the season opener for…Season 3? The shark appeared early, then…

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