I’ve Heard That Song Before: What We Owe to “Glee”
(Author’s Note: This piece was originally written in late 2018, timed to the show’s tenth anniversary in May 2019.)
It seems to me I’ve heard that song before
It’s from an old familiar score
I know it well, that melody
It’s funny how a theme recalls a favorite dream
A dream that brought you so close to me
I know each word because I’ve heard that song before
— music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn
In high school, I was a Kurt. Or, at least, I would have been in a more precise way if my school had been big enough. I was a bit fey, not yet out, so opinionated that my art teacher once took me aside and told me my friends thought I was condescending about my perspective on film and culture, swinging back and forth between indulging in my wallflowery existence and my loud, slide on the floor while singing “All My Loving” by the Beatles flamboyance. My friends knew I was a Kurt before I knew I was a Kurt, but, regardless of the implications, seeing “porcelain” Chris Colfer daintily sing “Mister Cellophane” — ostentatiously holding one particular note as he ostentatiously adjusts his hair — while auditioning for a glee club in May 2009 spoke to me. That scene was, I would have said at the time, made for me. And looking back at that time is, unsurprisingly, tinged with a little regret, disappointment, a bit of nostalgia.
Submerging yourself in the world of William McKinley High School, the fictional institute of learning in Lima, Ohio in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s musical satire/endless afterschool special, soap opera, and brief cultural phenomenon Glee (2009–2015) is like getting lost into Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931). The conventional logic of character development and trajectory, plot evolution, and general tonal coherence rarely apply in which is supposed to be a reality-adjacent setting. The mind literally melts after what feels like the dozenth time Spanish teach-cum-Glee club coach Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) raps, or the fourth attempt at trying to shoehorn 10% of any random artist’s discography as an entire episode.
It’s not exactly like entering the past, because the cultural references to 2009–2015 are too on the nose, and I suppose it’s not entirely dissimilar from the kind of Purgatory that Friends is, but the difference is that so little of Glee is actually comforting. Even with its pleasures, few and far between, and in its unevenness, Glee is like if a season of American Horror Story went on for too long (by like over a hundred episodes), or like having to listen to the bully try to make nice again even though you’re torn by their facsimile of sincerity and their occasional burst of authenticity. Glee is hard to pin down, really, bizarrely amorphous at times, with only the autotuned cover songs to ground it at all. I can’t describe it as stepping into the past because time bends around Glee in unsettling ways, like the show has no regard for such metaphysical constructs.
Whatever the show claimed to be at any given moment — progressive call to action, poison-tongued satire, critique of monocultural institutions, coming of age musical, love and hate letter to high school, love and hate letter to its own cast, love and hate letter to music and musical theatre — and whatever behind the scenes drama was being reported on Page Six — Cory Monteith’s overdose, Mark Salling’s arrest and suicide, Lea Michele and Naya Rivera’s supposed rivalry — the show lives and dies on what it did with its music. Bad, awful, offensive, clever, inspired, moving, egotistical, loud, brash, sentimental, bizarre, tone-deaf, sometimes queer, hit-making, funny, fiery, heartbreaking, insufferable, inspirational, boring, maddening, entrancing, disappointing. That was all Glee.
1 “Don’t Stop Believin’” — Rachel, Finn, and the New Directions(Journey) // Pilot
Glee’s pilot and what Glee ultimately became (after, say, episode 10) are not the same thing; they barely exist on the same plane of thought, of existence, of television making. The pilot debuted in May 2009 on Fox, an advanced preview for some, but a test of the waters for the network; could you bank on a clear-eyed pilot that was about a bunch of losers coming together in a notoriously uncool group and make it funny and weird and a little heartwarming, without being saccharine? With the tune of nearly 10 million viewers, it sounded like a yes. That the pilot premiered a full three months before the actual fall premier was a sharp marketing move, a clever way to attract fans and invite them to self-define as “Gleeks”. Murphy and Falchuk could get away with what amounted to a musical version of Alexander Payne’s Election, if somewhat tamer, if you got the right kids on board.
Assembling a group of capital D Diverse misfits — like the theatre kid equivalent of Tracy Flick, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), the aimless jock, Finn (Cory Monteith), the gay kid, Kurt (Colfer), the disabled kid, Artie (Kevin McHale), the goth, Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), and equally ambitious Mercedes (Amber Riley) — and calling them the “New Directions” meant 1) constructing a purposefully identifiable lake of dweebs and 2) calculating the possible internal tensions. Mostly, people cared about the first part.
I was among those self-identifying Gleeks; there was an impressive lead up to the actual premiere of the pilot, and it waved about all the things that were pandering to me: the musical element, the caustic sense of humor, irony. Before even knowing much about Michele’s character, her performance of “On My Own” was available on iTunes, and after the pilot’s airing, that, too, would be on iTunes for free. The pilot landed — just as bracingly clever and just sincere enough — and the cultural impact trailed closely after. It was an invitation to love it, to put your thumb and forefinger above your head in the shape of an L. Band geeks, and musical theatre weirdos, and then those who were just broadly outsiders banded together to talk about it — no, sing about it.
It is a very good pilot: Murphy and Falchuk firmly establish what Glee could have been, even if it meant that its longevity was at stake: it was a show about how weirdos are weirdos, but that wasn’t really a bad thing and that all you needed to get through the day was perform. Not literally, not actually on stage, but the kind of theoretical performativity that is now much more of the public discourse. It wasn’t actually about after school levels of tolerance and dreams and niceness and whatever, at least, it wasn’t for the front half of the season before it was officially picked up for a full season order after the third episode debuted in the fall; it was much more subversive, with the keen ability to slushie dreams and tell its characters to get over it and carry on with life, because that’s all you have. Its villains — in Cheerios cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and mega-Christian goodie two shoes Quinn (Dianna Agron) — could be both political and personal, institutional and on the ground. He could blackmail a student into being in the glee, and there could be, between Finn and Rachel, be a nonsensically deranged kind of chemistry. The suds it had were self-aware, with the presence of The Swingle Singers’ a capella score accentuating that irony, and that’s what made it a little brilliant. It’s the kind of acerbic that has no more heart than it needs, and even then its heart was delivered with a wry smile and a wink.
As a device to get people together talking about shows in a water-cooler-esque way, Glee would be one of the last of its kind, for younger people anyways. I wasn’t the only Gleek in my school; I watched it with my friend Seneca, one of the only other musical inclined people I knew, and while there were a few others, she and I convened over the episodes with intense fascination. A mutual friend of ours, Amber, went to Glee! In Concert and picked up one of the gigantic, overpriced programs (which I still have). Other people who were aware of the show designated me as the Kurt of the school, something I continue to have mixed feelings about. At the time, I liked the attention. I was seen, if not necessarily in the way I would have chosen, kind of prematurely. The pilot was delivered in a way that it could gauge what kind of audience it had and could then telegraph to in the remainder of the season (were it to get picked up), and then, for the rest of the series, effectively changing its motivations and drifting to another world entirely.
The pilot ends on an extraordinary note: the previous forty-ish minutes have been defined by just how far down the ladder everyone is in a school that isn’t much high up on there in the first place. Rachel is fame hungry that a sense of belonging is directly related to how much validation she gets, Finn has nothing, and Will doesn’t remember why he loves his wife or his job, and isn’t making enough money with a baby on the way. Emma (an underrated Jayma Mays), the manic pixie dream guidance counselor with OCD, reminds WIll what allows him to live to get him out of his existential funk: an old, lame video of him doing show choir. The reveal is cheeky and earnest, that it’s okay to be kinda lame, a kind of anti-pragmatism that’s fitting fantasy, and aligns Will’s motivations as just enough questionable in terms of his desire to actually help the young misfits succeed or for him to live vicariously through them.
The final moments of the pilot are in direct contrast to both the very beginning of the pilot and the very beginning of the glee club , post-auditions. The show opens with an intense cheerleading number, the Cheerios in their manically choreographed routine baking in the sun, ending twirls and jumps only to hear Sue scream out, “You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded, that’s hard!” And during “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”, the current members of the glee club are a mess, without organization or harmony or chemistry, bumping into one another somewhat directionless. Those two scenes are structured as if in dialogue with one another, and Sue’s question of what is or is not hard could easily be applied to just living as these people. They’re nothing compared to the flair and confidence and gold standard of rival school Vocal Adrenaline, with their tricked-out flips and jumps during a flashy, but ironically sanitized rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”.
But Mr. Schuester walks in on the auditorium, ready to, as a producer’s cut of the episode implies, leave on a jet plane (there’s a reason why that song was cut from the pilot), only to see his newly together glee club in red and denim, singing a sort of a capella version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”. They’re lined up and synchronized in their basic, but warm, moves; electric in how brightly they shine as performers with Rachel and Finn taking the leads. Unofficially a cover of Petra Haden’s acappella version of the song, it was filled with an unerring sense of optimism and it was, for all of its toothy smiles, kind of silly. But that was the beauty of it. Even if the cast and crew thought the nascent version of the show was more escapist and more optimistic than what actually appeared in the pilot, it was nonetheless refreshing and fun and weird. It was not aggressively saying “it’s okay to be a loser because you’re special”, it was more like “it’s okay to be a loser” period. Its pilot, about these people wanting a better shot, seemed to buck up against the idea of being overly special, at first. It was humane, without being patronizing. It’s kind of an adrenaline-filled, overwhelmingly emotional moment to end on. It was kind of perfect.
That Murphy seemed kind of unaware of just how cutting his show was, in addition to its sweetness, (at least publicly) goes to show how bad Murphy is at measuring his own tone in his work (well, we know that all too well now). For better or worse, his desire to create a “postmodern musical” has to be inflected with a little irony. But that inability to balance irony and earnestness would be the unmaking of the show. You can still live on the highs of the clever orchestration, the hokey choreography, but it’s the spirit of the thing that was so winning and so memorable, and so irreplicable. The pilot for Glee did make you believe for a split second that there was a tiny world for outsiders, losers like me.
2 “Dancing with Myself” — Artie (Billy Idol/Nouvelle Vague) // 1.9 “Wheels” / “Safety Dance” — Artie (Men Without Hats) // 1.19 “Dream On”
Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff isn’t entirely wrong in arguing that Glee started to turn its wheels towards going off the rails in its second episode, “Showmance”, with the introduction of the hysterical pregnancy plot line for Will’s controlling wife Terry (Jessalyn Gilsig). She writes, “That fake pregnancy was an early example of some of the show’s faults, like its propensity to stack up campy, melodramatic storytelling against honest human emotion and its occasionally awful attitudes toward its female characters.” VanDerWerff goes on to argue that with the bait and switch of this plotline, it motioned towards the series’ broader faults about characters’ stakes, or lack thereof.
I’m a little more forgiving of the first eight or so episodes, the total front of season one being 13 solid episodes, which would have been a good, if imperfect season by any measure. There were enough stakes and the time was compressed to suggest this tiny universe of outcasts could be specific and universal without being so universal that it bordered on ultra-pandering. Well, sort of.
Its early moments included clever ways to mock the fear of the arts in public schools, or to exaggerate them. The worry that all roads towards the thirst for fame and performance being quenched resulted in heartbreak and disappointment and catastrophe was embodied by a charmingly excellent guest appearance from Tony Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth as April Rhodes in 1.5 “The Rhodes Not Taken”, a once talented classmate of Will’s in high school and current alcoholic who has lost her way. As she sings “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, all the hurt and pain from unrealized potential and a squandered future in focus.
That kind of anxiety would be a preoccupation of the show, which is far more interesting a thread than its Issue of the Week tendencies. I believe the moment Glee got bad, terrible mind-numbingly self-serious was during “Dancing with Myself” in “Wheels”, the ninth episode of the first season. Glee had already danced around how seriously it wanted to take itself with Kurt’s coming out, particularly in 1.4 “Preggers”, and while that moment teetered on insufferable earnestness, the episode balanced that out with the absurdity of other plot moments. It’s in “Wheels” that the show begins to bank more on Glee as a cultural moment of making “difference” popular and mainstream and cool, but misreads how to approach empathy. We follow Artie doing wheel dances by himself, follow him at eye level in slow motion through the halls. That episode’s plot revolves around making wheelchairbound Artie an object of disability porn, Will challenging the members of the glee club to spend a week getting around in a wheelchair and then doing a number to “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (or, really, Tina Turner). It has not aged well and seems misjudged. Its inane body politics isn’t so much offensive as it is baffling, and so one of the core problems of Glee rears its head: how are we supposed to take this supposedly sincere attempt at humanizing a disabled character when the show spends so much time reveling in its ironic bigotry?
The episodes literally turned into lessons, but what are you supposed to do with that when its internal logic only cares about those ideas in the most self-aggrandizing, glib way?
Sue is the de facto greatest offender, a bad guy whose once deliciously acidic takedowns, with florid line readings and all, very quickly began to feel tired and exhausting and basically needlessly cruel. It is not the fact that it is problematique that is Glee’s, well, problem, but that it became an untrustworthy show. The desire to show real emotion, to appeal to marginalized people with storylines of trans identity, poverty, racism, etc. are rendered insincere and glib, the TV show answer to crocodile tears. It made it hard to believe that a storyline so fiercely sentimental could be taken seriously, when, by this time, its other tonal half was aggressively satirical. The two tones cancelled one another out, turning Glee into both incoherent and insincere. It wanted to make fun of the after-school special, and yet epitomize that form at the same time.
But occasionally the show would bounce back in weird ways. In 1.19 “Dream On”, directed by Joss Whedon, a male version of an April Rhodes, Neil Patrick Harris’ Bryan Ryan, would appear to discourage, encourage, and then discourage, and then once again encourage the glee kids from following their dreams. It’s about dreams! One of Artie’s is to be a dancer, and former boyband member McHale dances to a neatly choreographed, but almost unwatchable shot flashmob fantasy in a mall while he’s with his crush Tina. If any other song were chosen, it would be as poorly thought out as “Proud Mary”, but the Men Without Hats ditty “Safety Dance” is kooky enough to get away with a story beat that could resonate as, once again, insincerely sentimental.
Does the show really ever care about Artie? It allows him to be sexual, have a romantic life, to be sure, and occasionally even without the crux of his disability, in season 5. It kind of is interested in how disabled people get around New York. If Artie’s characterization is not the worst, he’s nonetheless emblematic of the show’s paradoxical qualities.
It would be one of the last episodes to try to successfully measure out the two tones, but the fear of failure in the arts would persist throughout the rest of the series’ run. It was better when Glee hadn’t actually backed an idea of whether dreams came true or not, that it could play with disappointment and failure more and broad, abstract ideas and feelings instead of ultimate truths and lesson plans that necessitated didactic dialogue with actual statistics, poorly retrofitted to sound like weaponized dialogue between rivals WIll and Sue. The more Glee tried to mean something real, as opposed to the escapist fantasy it once allegedly intended to be, the more it was on the brink of falling apart.
3 “Valerie” — Santana (Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse) // 2.9 “Special Education”
Accusations that Glee’s cover songs were sanitized, anesthetized, autotuned monstrosities, or at least dull, isn’t entirely untrue, numbers wise. There are a lot more flat, uninventive songs the show performed than there are truly remarkable ones in their inventiveness or passion. In a sad way, it is to be expected; by the end of season four, the show had performed over 500 songs, so the odds aren’t exactly in its favor. You don’t get a “Somebody to Love” (1.5 “The Rhodes Not Taken), a “Forget You” (2.7 “The Substitute”, feat. Gwyneth Paltrow), or a “La Isla Bonita” (3.12 “The Spanish Teacher”, feat. Ricky Martin) every episode, now do you?
But moving or exciting reinventions or reintroductions to music weren’t so rare; as implied above, they could be part of the show’s pleasures. I’m heavily biased in this choice of highlighting “Valerie”, a song originally written and performed by British pop-rock group The Zutons but made more famous by Amy Winehouse on producer/DJ Mark Ronson’s cover album Version, because that song is my favorite of all-time, and Glee had no small role in solidifying that.
Much of the series felt like it was trying to cram in as many songs as possible, regardless of their relevance to the plot, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the series ran out of steam so quickly. After the first season, it seldom gave the impression that it could enjoy music on its own merits, regardless of how contrived its presence was. But “Valerie” is an exception.
What always struck me as confusing about the series was their need to auto-tune everyone, even the people who could sing. Like her voice or not, Lea Michele can sing, yet she was subject to autotuning throughout the series, as was Jayma Mays, Melissa Benoist (in 2.10 “Glee, Actually”, Marley sings an acapella, unfiltered version of “The First Noël”, and you can just how dramatically they autotune her voice in other songs), Chris Colfer, Darren Criss, and others. Maybe it’s not the autotuning itself that is bad, but how poorly it’s done, how obvious it is. It takes away from the fantasy of Glee and makes it patently obvious of the fakery. It’s frustrating because, even with its Chicago-esque conceit (in that many of the performances take place in the imaginations of different characters), it wasn’t a show that was about artifice and deconstruction, even with the Chicago reference point in mind. It was, on the contrary, focused very much on the ability of these characters to actually perform. If Fame were for dweebs, it would be Glee, but the premise is still the same: talented young people showing off.
Though Naya Rivera’s solos grew after the first season, and her role gradually more interesting, “Valerie” is Rivera, and Santana, at her most fun. It’s an isolated moment that doesn’t seem to matter in the actual context of the show, because the surrounding events aren’t very interesting. But Rivera thrives in this scene, her charisma firing on all ends. It’s ironic that a show that put so much effort into expressing the idea that there was joy to be found in music and the performing arts churned out so few numbers that articulated that same kind of thrill. The beauty of “Valerie”, at least as far as Winehouse’s version goes, is its ability to be, in equal measures, thrillingly alive, melancholic, and filled with yearning. This isn’t sacrificed too much in its translation to the Glee world. On the contrary, if the glee club were to do a version of the song for Sectionals that was closer to one of Winehouse’s reworkings (slower, more savory R&B), it would roll over into annoyingly melodramatic territory like so many of the songs do. “Valerie” is a diamond in the rough in Glee history, a cover of a song that works on its own, perhaps even better out of context.
4 “Rumor Has It/Someone Like You” — Santana, Amber, and the Troubletones (Adele) // 3.6 “Mash Off”
After the first half of the first season, Glee tried to establish its footing as some combination of a teen melodrama, soap opera, satire, infrequently finding cohesion between the various tones and modes. People slept with one another, or lied about it, people broke up and got together, people cheated, left, stalked, crushed winsomely, etc. It was all done with little consideration in terms of actual character consistency, but it was done nonetheless. By season three, it was madness. ENough of the show had the DNA of Ryan Murphy’s first venture Popular (1999–2001), hence the desire for scathing remarks to paper every episode, and these insults lobbed at the students and Will mostly by Sue, and then at each other by characters like Santana, were less enjoyable on their own terms and predicated severely on the actor playing them. So, specific names notwithstanding, a tirade from Sue could have easily been said by Santana or, later, Cassandra July (in season four, Kate Hudson), without actual specificity to the character saying them.
The way Ryan Murphy and his team write women is frequently lauded, particularly his aptitude at employing older actresses in shower roles in American Horror Story and American Crime Story, Glee hardly an exception. It’s curious that he’s not under more scrutiny for backing far staler female archetypes than he’s given credit for: his women may be older and have the opportunity to spread out their acting arms as much as they like, but they’re frequently jealous, driven by an obsession with youth and a fear of aging and death. In Glee, they’re ambitious bitches willing to sacrifice friendships for their own gain, and we’re never sure when one of them is supposed to be human and worthy of empathy, or just caricaturish. When the show moved from illustrating Quinn as the school’s mean girl, Rivera as Santana gladly took up the mantel, able to wield weaponized language like very few others on the show. There was, in her line readings, a kind of droll quality, as if the mean things she were saying were totally self-evident and that she barely needed to reiterate them in the first place. Her stake in the show was as shit-stirrer, not really as character. She was, for almost two full seasons, a catalyst for the destruction or dismantling of everyone else’s relationships, primarily between Finn and Rachel, and she was conniving without much reason.
Placing Santana introduced a curious problem to Glee that would plague the series: keep her in this unidimensional role and you have no reason to care about her or her motivations, she’s there mostly as a prop and caustic comic relief; humanize her and you risk coming off as saccharine or cruel or some permutation of badly written. Naturally, Glee went with the latter. They had managed to handle Kurt’s storyline regarding his gayness with an appropriate amount of sensitivity throughout the early part of the series, especially the frustrations one encounters when faced with an entire institution that “can’t” do anything. It had, a few episodes deep into season three, tried to combine its soapy elements with its afterschool special desires, unable to reconcile the two satisfactorily.
So Glee’s move to write Santana as lesbian was curious because of the tonal shifts the show was constantly undergoing. Even within its own context, Glee seemed unsure how to treat Santana’s queerness — it was a point of frustration because Brittany (Heather Morris, who is better dancer than actress or singer) didn’t reciprocate her feelings, it was something that threatened her status at the school (as if being in glee hadn’t already) and on the Cheerios, it was a little weapon for political use, both in terms of some no-name opponent of Sue’s in a local election, and for Finn, who had been the object of Santana’s ridicule.
Centering the story on Santana was one part of the equation leading up to the mashup of Adele’s “Rumor Has It/Someone Like You”. The other part was the ongoing favoritism of Rachel in the glee club, a latent storyline that ran through the entire series. Tired of rarely getting the opportunity to shine in a meaningful way, Santana, Mercedes, and Brittany leave for an all-female glee club run by Shelby Corcoran (Idina Menzel), who was revealed to be Rachel’s mom later in the first season, and who adopted Quinn’s baby. More easily drawn from tension in the school. If other characters who are not Rachel get solos in the show, it’s usually in their imagination. “Valerie” was Santana’s only solo in competition. Ironically, even if the characters did get solos in their imagination, Rachel’s presence was aggressive nonetheless. Hence the introduction of the Troubletones, who kicked things off with Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman”, a competent cover that really operated to show off the voices that had been kind of pushed aside in favor of Rachel’s.
With those parts swirling, it came to a head, one of the rare moments of the show where its high octane, really annoying melodrama served the show for good, if only inasmuch as the performance that came out of it. The girls, dressed in black, are ready to face off against the New Directions in a “mash off”. Finn has basically outed Santana to the rest of the school. Out of all the fury and tension and fiery anger and pain, “Rumor Has It/Someone Like You” is perhaps one of the most explosive musical moments in the entire series, where editing, choreography, vocals, and orchestration all work together to express something vulnerable, tactile, and raw. Amber Riley’s voice has always been one of the strongest the show’s ever had, but it feels purposeful in this moment. After she sings, “Sure, she’s got it all / but, baby, is that really what you want?”, they hold in deafening silence for seven seconds, and the camera observes Santana take a deep breath before the number continues. The girls sing “rumor has it” as Santana walks to the front and center, and she belts, “Don’t forget me, I beg / I remember you said”, like it contains some spike she must purge from her body. The song transitions into “Someone Like You” and the percussive beats lower, with Rivera’s tone leading, singing, “I heard that you / settled down, that you / found a girl, and you’re / married now”. She trades pained looks of longing with Brittany, who seems not to notice. On the final line, Santana walks towards the front of the stage again, as if defeated by the emotional exhaustion. But she sees Finn whisper something into Rachel’s ear, and a brief argument later and she slaps him.
The mashup of “Rumor Has It/Someone Like You” was the show’s 300th musical number, which reasonably meant that it had to be propulsive in some way, at least marginally exciting. It was filmed in front of some press members, and the lead up had a fair amount of buzz. But the mashup signaled something very strange about the series that kind of became its ultimate truth: it needed music to ground it. If its emotions and plot lines were in complete disarray numbers like this could find sense in the chaos. It was a strategy, to be sure, but an odd one, given that it seemed like the show was more interested in pumping out singles with little consideration, if only to push them to the charts rather than to take serious consideration as to how they helped and shape the show. “Rumor Has It/Someone Like You” was the first time in a long time that the kind of energy that made the first half of season one so compelling to watch returned, a flicker of brilliance that could have been Glee, a rumor, if you will.
5 “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — Rachel (Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) // 3.19 “Choke”
I don’t remember which episodes, but Rachel Berry is unironically (in the show?) called Barbra Streisand’s “heir apparent” multiple times. It is mostly not a joke, and it mostly does not have a wink attached to it. When she originally performs the most famous number from Funny Girl at Regionals in the first season, she says something like she’s been rehearsing the number since she was three. That one is a joke, but it’s so far removed from the time that Rachel ends up auditioning for the performing arts school NYADA, the dean of admissions an intimidating woman named Carmen Tibideaux (Whoopi Goldberg). She’s performed the number multiple times in the series, but here, on her fateful audition, she chokes. She forgets the words. And on a second chance, she forgets again. She’s given 16 bars when she only deserved 8, says Ms Tibideaux. Rachel’s chance to get out of Ohio and go to Broadway is smashed in one fell swoop. Except it’s not.
As aforementioned, Emily VanDerWerff wasn’t wrong when she asserted that the series hated making hard decisions about its characters, and this criticism is most egregiously evident when it comes to Rachel. The show was fine defining her for the first 13 episodes as, again, a Tracy Flick-like character: hungry and desperate and fun to watch in her insanity. But the show got longer, and kept rewarding her atrocious, selfish, egotistical, horrendously un-self-aware actions. It was content with turning Rachel into something beyond a parody of a theatre kid, the kind of not real person that makes the women of Black Swan look rational.
God forbid Rachel not get a solo. The sheer number of episodes that are about Rachel having a tantrum because her so-called talent is being unrecognized or squandered is the show’s worst habit and worst obsession. Glee’s characterization of Rachel is at one doggedly obsessive and yet cruel, a character whose actions can’t be described as textural to her character, or complex or nuanced, or even interesting within the framework of teenagerdom, but simply reductive in the same manner that Ryan Murphy’s work should be scrutinized more. His treatment of Rachel is no less sadistic than how Lars von Trier treats the female characters of his film, but is additionally more aggrandizing.
So what does Rachel choking on her audition really serve? On the one hand, it’s supposed to be a little schadenfreude. But because we know the show would never take away Rachel’s star, its impact is lessened because she gets a third chance and gets admitted to NYADA anyways, leaving Kurt’s solid audition (with “Not the Boy Next Door” from the Peter Allen biomusical The Boy from Oz) in the dust. (He gets in later, too, because of course he does.)
It became standard practice to build Rachel up and briefly knock her down, and the fall from grace never felt like it would leave much of an impact because we knew she would come out on top. We were bludgeoned to death with that information, and more so, that she and the show thought she deserved it above all else, even when she was making the most ridiculous, entitled decisions. And ultimately, Michele’s performances as a singer weren’t worth having to sit through six seasons of that. Even if it was somewhat amusing trying to discern where Rachel ended and Lea began, the probably apocryphal reports of animosity between her and Rivera dripping with a mixture of misogyny and a seed of believability, she began to embody a sort of nightmare star child. It’s hard to describe her as an anti-hero because I was not rooting for her and I did not find her interesting. She’s not fascinating enough to be more than a brat for much of the series’ run post-season one, because they kept giving her the same story beats. Her anxiety about her future never resonates as authentic because the show makes it obvious that the odds have always been stacked in her favor, so that tension of whether or not she’ll be successful is virtually nonexistent. She is the worst kind of mean in that she doesn’t think she’s mean, and, well, if she is, you probably deserved it because it would have gotten in the way of her stage presence.
In all fairness, Rachel/Lea does have stage presence. She is a star, in a way, even if one hates to admit it. She can belt out “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in the show like few others, making it her own (which is somewhat ironic, given her inability to do that with some others Funny Girl tracks, which are hyper-faithful). The spotlight comes to her, and that was necessary for Glee; but the show never really figured out what to do with Rachel despite her omnipresence.
Is Rachel Babs’ heir apparent? No, but in the end, it never mattered what we think. Glee was going to do with Rachel whatever it wanted, even if it meant having her quit school to play the lead in Funny Girl in a Broadway revival, shaping “I’m the Greatest Star” into something devoid of irony. Honestly, Rachel is only interesting when her parade is rained on.
6 “Because You Loved Me” — Tina (Celine Dion) // 3.20 “Props” / “Americano/Dance Again” — Cassandra July (Lady Gaga/Jennifer Lopez feat. Pitbull) // 4.1 “The New Rachel”
It was always about Rachel, obsessively so, and its ensembleness was only a thinly veiled way of making everyone else orbit around her. When Rachel has left and gone onto New York, people compete to be the “new Rachel”. It sends the remaining characters at McKinley High into bizarre story arcs, again, absent of consistency, but worse, they felt half-hearted. It’s heartbreaking for me that Tina Cohen-Chang, who had for most of the run been mostly a non-character, became the next in line to be completely insufferable. Perhaps an act of revenge or retribution, Tina’s storylines after everyone graduated were almost more frustrating than Rachel’s because she had so little to begin with before the writers decided to make her just egotistical and hateful. She was jealous of everyone, she fell in love with Blaine (Darren Criss), despite knowing that he’s gay. She became a little troll with her own assistant, not unlike Sue’s use of Becky. Tina was more interesting as the formerly meek, shy girl with the fake stutter. It often felt like the desire for Tina to have the same kind of gravitational pull that Rachel had was contrived and forced onto her, when it didn’t fit naturally with what we had learned about her, and couldn’t evolve into a personality that actually made sense trajectory-wise. She turned into a bizarre whipping girl for the show, as if aimed at her was all the maliciousness of some of Rachel’s storylines, but without the effort or support. She felt like an afterthought.
This is especially frustrating in an episode called “Props” from season three (3.20), where Tina is slightly concussed after tripping at the mall,relegated to making costumes and failing to score another solo. She experiences an alternate version of her life where she’s Rachel, champion of the glee club, winner of all solos, the spotlight shining on her as if it always has. The sequence is brief, but long enough to make compelling assertions about the dominance of Rachel in the group and the role of Tina in the show as a whole, and long enough for Tina to perform as Rachel. The subtext of what the show was supposed to do with its nonwhite characters was part of the DNA, or rather, that it didn’t know what to do with them when it wasn’t ironically tokenizing them. The way that Will handled race in the glee club felt like meaningless lip service, and his conflict diffusion tactics were always paltry. It was only in the third season (3.12 “The Spanish Teacher”) that the show finally owned up to the fact that a) Will was probably a terrible teacher and b) he was a white guy who a terrible Spanish teacher. Santana ripped into him decadently after she and Ricky Martin performed “La Isla Bonita” by Madonna (in a really extraordinary revamp), and he performed a Spanish language version of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” in a toreador costume. Was the point that a mid-30s white teacher from Ohio was going to have a severe blind spot on race? And if Glee has always struggled with how seriously it wanted to take itself, why bother?
Tina’s performance of Rachel is an interesting way of having an Asian American perform an ideal whiteness, Rachel’s Jewishness notwithstanding (the show doesn’t really delineate the two). In a way, Tina’s almost background presence on the show is broadly analogous to the nonvisibility of Asian American people in popular culture in general; there, but unseen, vaguely assimilated. The brief sequence gives Jenna Ushkowitz the chance to perform Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”, a very nice performance. But it taps into a wider desire to finally reclaim a certain kind of proximity and space in the show, maybe rightfully arguing in favor of the voices that had been sidelined for the sake of Rachel all the time.
The moment is short-lived; not only does Tina concede to Rachel scoring the lead all the time, she resigns herself to being small, undeserving of the kind of attention that was rained on Rachel. She says that people have a certain role, in the most Orientalist-like moment of deference.
These scenes do not make Tina’s character evolution into season four and for the rest of the series any more satisfying; they felt like unnecessary comeuppance for something not done. Like revenge for Tina asserting her worth.
On the other side in New York, for a brief moment, Rachel is knocked down a peg by her dance teacher. Glee thinks this is a problem. Cassandra July, former star, current NYADA Dance 101 teacher, is tough and mean and uncompromising, which, in this world, means villain and enemy. Because she’s unwilling to indulge Rachel’s wanton brattiness. Which is to say that with Cassie, as they call her, Glee ran out of reasons to have a villain, and that their villains, though a driving force of the show, never really made much sense in the first place.
As far as Sue goes, her ideological inconsistency was less a mark of her humanness and seemed more like bad writing: she could be unendingly verbally barbaric and inhumane to trans student Unique (Alex Newell), to disabled Artie, call Kurt “Porcelain”, shame Quinn, make fun of Sam (Chord Overstreet), fat shame everyone else, but her hard line was cognitive disability. Her sister had Down syndrome, her best friend and equally volcanically mouthed assistant Becky (Lauren Potter) has Down syndrome, and her child (whom we never see) has Down syndrome. It was strange to make mostly the only thing that made Sue anything other than a villainous cartoon. Her motivations to destroy the glee club were murky after the first season, and the show was fancy-free to fill her mouth with increasingly dull insults, obscuring why she was even there in the first place.
After Quinn became a tenderer character following a brief stint as mean girl, Santana took on the role of the archetypal mean girl/bitch; and after Santana graduated, Kitty (Becca Tobin) replaced her in season four. Glee accidentally made all of its villains fairly interchangeable, blandly mean, and with barely a spec of complexity. Cassie might be the only exception only because she’s mischaracterized as a villain. Her criticisms of Rachel’s dance moves (or “Schwimmer” as Cassie likes to call her) are no more or less harsh than any other serious dance teacher, no less in New York City for students training or aspiring to be on Broadway. The misjudgment once again suggests that the show is so heavily, so blindly in Rachel’s favor that is illustrates normal (if occasionally questionable) teaching practices as bad or unusual, because it forces its beloved lead to be challenged for once. It’s a shame, because there’s more to Rachel than her sycophantic ambition, just as there are more to the other characters when they don’t exist relationally to Rachel. But outside of that lens, they fall apart usually.
Kate Hudson is good because she’s pretty straightforward as a “villain”; just like she does not indulge Rachel’s sophomoric attitude, she does not indulge the script’s campier moments, as opposed to other characters that feel the insistence to amp up their line readings, undermining the effect. That Hudson plays it straight reveals a skill in her ability to bring out something interesting about the power dynamics within the show, and also reveal how flawed its scripts are in the first place. It’s a show with a complicated relationship to power, who has it and who doesn’t and when they should or shouldn’t. But it cares less about power, per se, and more about the broad, Tumblr-esque idea of the powerless being empowered by music.
Rachel has a sniffly attitude in her first dance classes, experiencing, for the first time, that she is not necessarily the perfect golden child she’s been told she was. And when her light insubordination gets the best of her, Cassie gives her a taste of what’s to come: the mashup of Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez is fairly inspired, loud and brash and gleefully filled with smoke and mirrors to obfuscate that the routine is less about skill and more about the same brand of theatricality that Shelby once lectured about in the first season to a very subtle and lovely rendition of “Funny Girl” (1.20 “Theatricality). It’s like the show’s editing: flashy and bombastic, hiding its lack of skill and savvy. “Americano/Dance Again” is kind of like a much-needed assertion that Rachel isn’t the only girl in the world. If only the show actually believed that.
7 “Being Alive” — Kurt (from Company) // 4.9 “Swan Song”
Even if Glee was obsessively focused with Rachel as de facto lead, that’s not to say that other characters on the show, other actors, never got their moment to shine. Rather, there are several gorgeous performances that come from some of the cast, textured, tactile, full-throated, particularly for young people. Quinn’s place in the show takes a back seat after season three, but, ironically, her wispy feather of a singing voice actually enhances her performance. She’s wounded, fragile, the child of a strict patriarchal system which she has realized does not work for her and works at the detriment of other people. Her sensitive performance of “I Feel Pretty/Unpretty” (2.18 ‘Born This Way”) is a highlight of her time on the series, even if the episode in which it appears is gross and somewhat exploitative. Her soft perfection engenders empathy, and she has perfect voice modulation for scenes, controlling her tone on specific words. Jayma Mays as Emma, too, took advantage of okay material and frequently made more of it. Though her character struggled to carve out its own arc when not in relation to Will or the glee club, Mays has a pure and innocent earnestness that’s never assuming, acting almost antidotal to the condescending tendencies of the show.
But I think Glee was always kindest and most generous to one of its leads, as far as the variety of material he got, when it came to Kurt, even when the material was unforgivingly bad. Colfer came from a background of little acting experience, and his original audition for Artie compelled the creators to write a new role just for him. And presto, you have Porcelain, with his soft, milky white skin and femme affectations. While you can occasionally see the shakiness of his performance in early episodes, the naivete works to his advantage, as they slowly flesh him out to be something other than the Perfect Cis White Gay for America circa 2009.
He becomes sexual, he develops values, he confronts assimilationist politics (by kind of embodying them, but you win some, you lose some), he reconciles with how exhausting it is to be the face of difference at such a young age for so long. He’s a very interesting, reasonably flawed character, and is frequently given some of the most compelling performances, which are imbued with the same rawness as his acting. The marginalized identity space he occupies is by design, certainly, and there were attempts to rectify or whatever afterwards, but his success as a little political Trojan Horse was completely predicated on his performance, how he negotiated the irony and the earnestness, the satire and the after-school special.
His character is tormented probably more than any other on the show, at least with physical violence, and yet his performance is oddly generous and giving. At its most thankless, Kurt had to revisit his trauma over and over again, in different forms. Kurt was perhaps the only “important” character who worked because however effortful the show made him, Colfer brought a human quality to Kurt.
I was clocked as a Kurt in high school, which I both embraced and rebuked. I had the rhetorical skill to argue against a character who I thought, at the time, was too heavily defined by his gayness, but while he wasn’t exactly an aspirant figure for me, I did recognize myself, or project myself, onto this fey little fairie, who thought Le Jazz Hot was a “seminal classic” and who fluency in old-timey queer culture was admirable in a time where that was beginning to fade out. I don’t know what that makes Kurt to me; not exactly an idol, not the first time I saw myself (though the pleasures of a fellow adorer of Chicago were precious to me), not something I outright resented either. I was as thrilled as any latently queer person to see him win a Golden Globe Award, and I felt like I had won something, too. And although I had mixed feelings about being compared to him, since we had little in common beneath the surface, perhaps it was a shade of shame or internalized homophobia which fed that. What was Kurt to me then and what is Kurt to me now? Without reducing him, or trying to turn him into something atomized. Without being pat about it. Kurt represents the kind of friendship I wish I had in high school and the kind of companionship I’d like today, and that I’ve found in varying forms in Provincetown and New York.
“Being Alive” isn’t one of Kurt’s best performances (that might be “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from 3.3 “Grilled Cheesus”), but it is emblematic of his simple, minimalist countertenor power. While he is, as Ms Tibideaux argues, good at selling a song (the reason why he initially failed to be admitted to NYADA), good at the showmanship of performing, his best moments were just him, on a stage, revealing himself in a way that few performers did on the show. Colfer’s performances have a humbleness to them, and regardless of the writers, Colfer seems to care about his audience and the implied emotional trajectory in a way that stands out from the rest of the cast. “Being Alive” is the finale for Company, a musical about a New Yorker’s coming of adulthood on his 35th birthday, and Colfer makes the assertion that, however contrived its appearance on the show is, only he can make it work on Glee.
8 “Teenage Dream (Acoustic Version)” — Blaine (Katy Perry) // 4.4 “The Break-Up”
Although it long tried to assert Kurt as the male equivalent of Rachel, the real answer to that was Blaine Anderson, a character that, like Kurt, jumped between public school McKinley High and private WASP nest Dalton Academy. The star of his a capella group, The Warblers, and the actual star of a subpar Harry Potter parody musical, Blaine might not be as overly ambitious as Rachel, but he shares her kind reflexive disingenuousness. It is he, not Kurt, who represents a bizarre kind of ideal gay, just masc enough, just implicitly affluent, etc. Well, at first.
After Blaine and Kurt begin their relationship, Blaine’s character arc takes some off the walls turns, from somewhat irrational jealousy, to infidelity, to your standard crushing on a straight guy storyline. He, like Rachel, is a goody two shoes, unable to imagine transgression in his own life, and yet frequently transgressing.
In a unexpected way, this is a good thing. His role on Glee is more than intermittently infuriating, insofar that a lot of what he does rarely makes sense, but he at least subverts the kind of milquetoast gay he’s initially set up to be. Criss’ theatre-kid “please like me” desperation would be to his advantage later in his post-Glee career, adding depth to his take on Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (2018). He’s more deeply flawed than Kurt, more prone to acts of selfishness and egoism under the guise of being nice or some permutation of open-minded, when really he’s kind of petty and, honestly, human. I found myself growing more attracted to Darren Criss and Chris Colfer as I watched the series.
It comes to a head when he surprises Kurt in New York, after Kurt had been away and busy in the city implicitly emotionally abandoning Blaine at home. Kurt is living with Rachel in Bushwick (before it was more gentrified than it currently is, so there’s a lot of time spent complaining about the neighborhood, in spite of the fact they have a gorgeous loft), and along with Finn, and Rachel’s new crush form NYADA Brody (Dean Geyer), go out in the city to a show tune piano bar called Standards (which is actually Marie’s Crisis in the West Village). Something is up, and Blaine takes the piano and sing a tear-streaked, nerve frayed rendition of “Teenage Dream”, which he initially sang to Kurt when first meeting him at Dalton Academy.
Criss’ voice cracks throughout the song, and it’s perfectly emblematic of what a solid, even impressive actor he is. And while it could be suggested that the show really went off the rails well before this scene, the revamping of “Teenage Dream” makes the boldest assertion that the show would against shift gears. The strange thing about Glee is not how awful it often way, but how many different kinds of awful or shrill it could be, and relentlessly so. With barely a moment’s notice, Glee could shift tonal gears and make you miss the kind of awful it was a couple episodes prior in comparison to however it shapeshifted in its current iteration. The reintroduction of the Perry song meant that the show would continue to show its inability to navigate the lines of caring about its characters and caring about its audience, the ironic distance between scenario and emotion, and what mode “seriousness” had to be consumed. Who knows what to make of Blaine’s impulsivity to propose to Kurt, after the disastrous near wedding between Finn and Rachel?
Glee found its strengths when it was dragging its characters through the mud and testing them, making them fail, because its chipper tone and perspective about dreams coming true always felt like a lie that had a shoe that hadn’t quite dropped yet. So Klaine and Finchel breaking up, Rachel’s struggles at NYADA, and Kurt’s ambivalence about his internship at Vogue.com (which he inexplicably got on the spot, given to him by Sarah Jessica Parker) felt like an alternate show, a superb punchline to an awful setup.
The show treated the “Klaine” relationship very seriously until it didn’t, and at times it existed in a world where Glee was self-referential and quasi-postmodern. Season three Christmas episode 3.9 “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” poked fun at the sort of future uber-domesticity the couple aspired to, via a Christmas special within a Christmas special, a heavy nod to Judy Garland’s. Through seasons four and five, the series took their relationship very seriously, until the sixth season transformed it into some postmodern experiment examining the relationship between Glee and its fans as hands of god. Glee, or television in a broader sense, wasn’t like the movies in that the text didn’t respond to its audience, didn’t reply. It could drop the artifice and admit in some form that it know what it was doing and it know what its viewers were doing and talking about, and the show could comment on it. The show could comment on how television was, to this show, a different medium because of its potential to respond to its audience. Honestly, it was always kind of admirable how the show could pack 4–6 songs into an episode and still leave room for ludicrous plot points, all in under 46 minutes.
Glee’s final season goads its viewers is alternately vile and brilliant, but I’ll get to that. It’s like fan fiction come to life, but with the awareness of how narratology works within the show’s increasingly off-kilter tone. So, 6.4/6.5 “The Hurt Locker” exists to try to both reinforce and undermine the core relationship between Kurt and Blaine, introducing this admittedly clever duality between the way narrative is shaped in the writer’s room and the way it’s shaped online in fan communities. But because Kurt and Blaine get back together (more than once), and their dysfunctionality is symptomatic of a more boring bourgeois idea of gay domesticity, “The Hurt Locker” reveals how artificial the stakes in that relationship really were. Maybe it’s quite smart, turning Kurt and Blaine into Brechtian pawns, there to reveal how predicated on theatrical artifice Glee really was. Or maybe it’s a dream.
9 “Loser Like Me (Acoustic Version)” — Blaine, Sam, Tina and Artie (Original [Rachel, Santana, and Finn with the New Directions], 2.16 “Original Song”) // 5.13 “New Directions”
I have neglected to talk about the cast that joined the series after the main cast that began the show graduated. In the wake of the graduated, the New Directions picked up Puck’s (Mark Salling) younger brother, Jake, (Jacob Artist), Kitty, Marley, Unique, and Ryder (Blake Jenner). But the introduction of these characters did not equal new, inventive storylines, or rather, new ways to tell stories and to freshen up the halls of the high school that now smelled like old gym socks. Nor have I mentioned Coach Beiste’s role on the show, who was both lovely (Dot Marie Jones is a gem) but too easy a tool for talking about spousal abuse, non-normative gender presentation, desirability, and, eventually, trans identity. It’s a bit of a shame because Beiste was, on the whole, not an unwelcome addition to the show in season two, but is an easy representative of the writers’ inability to find human drama naturalistically and organically. EVerything had to be a lesson. And so the new cast served that purpose as well, but with even less commitment.
Whatever storylines being thrown around for the new kids on the block, the show lost control of its arcs and still favored most of the original cast, be it still at McKinley or in New York. So much work had been put into those characters, there was little point in abandoning them wholesale. And it had been set up so that the audience would want to see what was going on in New York. A friend remarked, “A series never really sustains a new cast unless it’s a medical drama.” And, through a pregnancy scare, dyslexia, bulimia, catfishing, and a school shooting (kind of), the new cast was basically disposed of in fewer than 33 episodes. Over the course of about a season and a half, there would be a solid handful of episodes that were exclusively about Rachel, Kurt, and co. in New York, most intriguing in season four. I don’t feel bad enough for that cast because there was so little investment on the writers’ part. But the New York episodes of season four opened up an interesting potential for the series, for it to become a mature, smart show not about the childish idea of dreams in the arts. It could be a show about the uncomfortable reality of trying to make it as an artist in the city, play with the fantasy of performance in New York and the materiality of having to work and hustle there.
In the meantime, Glee’s proclivity towards looking inwards, to put it nicely, or straight up navel gazing, is not only evident in episodes like 5.12 “100”, where the cast once again performed the songs voted by fans as the best the show had done (including “Toxic”, “Valerie”, and “Defying Gravity”), but the repetition of “Teenage Dream”, “Don’t Stop Believin’” (which was performed four or five times in the series, I forgot), and others. Glee is not exactly about itself, per se, but embodies at least a worldview of characters that think about themselves a lot. In Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens (2015–2016), this seems to be the thematic villain, the sort of solipsistic narcissism of youth; but in Glee, it’s the hero. The show’s taglines about love and loss and friendship revert back to itself, as do the characters, which is certainly one of the reasons why it’s hard to watch.
Is Glee ugly because it arguably perfectly captures a supposed narcissism attributed to the generation of people it ostensibly depicts? Is it hard to watch because its asserts that young people, or as Time and the Wall Street Journal would have it, “millennials” are egregiously inconsistent, incoherent, glib, narcissistic, cut-throat, and, all at once, self-reflexive? Is it the worst of people my age blindly aspiring to be the best?
It’s indicative of the entire arc of Finn, up until his death. Constantly looking inwards, but without the assurance that that song guarantees. Cory Monteith had died a before the season started filming, leaving much of his threads without closure, but his characters in general was defined by a lack of direction, and ambivalence towards embracing that kind of loser honorific. He’s a disarming actor, surprisingly charming in a role that almost has Rachel sitting on him in terms of the kind of trajectory the two get, and it’s not until late in the fourth season that he finds a “purpose”. That was his anxiety through the series, and while it was something that hung over everyone’s heads, the extratext of Monteith’s struggles off camera seemed to gauchely inform what happened on screen. (Side note: He is a ridiculous choice to be Rachel’s talent foil.)
The original song “Loser Like Me” returns in a solemn, acoustic cover, as the New Directions are about to, once again, face the end, due to Sue’s institutional manipulation. Once a cheeky song about reclamation and embracing outcast status, the acoustic version takes on the same kind of self-seriousness that plagued the rest of the series. It’s not a good cover because it takes all the fun out of everything, missing the point of the original composition. It is tired and weary, adolescent and a bit whiny. The cast slumps over the piano in the dingy show choir room, while I slump in my bed, waiting for the next half-assed hat trick to be pulled.
10 “Don’t Stop Believin’” — Rachel, Finn, and the New Directions (Journey) // 6.12 “2009” / “Daydream Believer” — Kurt and Blaine (The Monkees) // 6.13 “Dreams Come True”
I feel like I’ve run out of interesting things to say about the show, kind of how the show ran out of interesting things to say and do. Glee is the kind of show that makes you forget what good writing looks like. I don’t know what an ideal version of this show would have been, at least as far as after its initial 13 episodes. Maybe it should have stopped there.
I watched the show during its original run, beginning in May 2009, and I was happy to take the inane, infuriating ride for a while. I had friends with whom to talk about it, and to complain about its asinine plotting and confusing character illustrations. The show probably was important, and probably does have historical or cultural significance in terms of how we talk about certain issues, particularly regarding queerness. It was a cultural phenomenon that spawned a concert, a concert movie, a reality competition show, merchandising, apps, and many a soccer parent’s gas bill to rise driving them to and from show choir practice. But it lost its savvy early, became lazy in its storytelling, and faded from cultural memory during its run pretty quickly. The pleasures in its pulpiness ran thin. It was a star that burned so bright and then burned out.
The final season was maddening in, at the very least, inventive ways. Everyone goes crawling back home to Ohio: after breakups or alienation or Rachel leaving Funny Girl to pursue a pilot that tanks. She learns that McKinley has completely dumped its art programs with Sue as principal. She convinces Kurt, who has returned to win Blaine back only to learn that Blaine is dating his high school bully, to co-coach a revived New Directions with a whole new cast that is not worth mentioning because the final season, with thirteen episodes, must squeeze in the plots of both several original cast members as well as the new kids. The show tries to wrap up threads, pay lip service to certain plot lines, give stakes to its new characters, and run on the fumes of former glory, a lot like Rachel. The best parts of the final season are like diabolically written fan fiction, with flashes of the original 13 episodes’ cleverness and subversiveness discernible. The worst parts are exhaustingly forgettable, half-heartedly written.
Of the brilliance, the electrifying beauty of the New Directions’ first performance together returns in the penultimate episode, 6.12 “2009”, a kind of mirror episode to the pilot that gives insight to what wasn’t onscreen in the debut. We get into the heads of Tina, Artie, Mercedes, and Kurt and find out why they all joined the glee club in the first place. It’s all for the same reason: loneliness, alienation, being an outcast. (Rachel returns to being a likable parody. Okay, well, a not completely insufferable one.) The victory of “2009” is that it could still wring out emotion from that overplayed Journey track, because what the show could have been, what it pretended to be for a little bit, was in “2009”: it could be both slickly humorous and yet full of pathos. Glee would have ended on a near-perfect note if that episode were the series finale.
But it didn’t.
The series finale, 6.13 “Dreams Come True” is all of its laziest and half-baked habits in one episode. It is wish fulfillment when no one really deserves it. There is a time jump between 6.11 “We Built This Glee Club” and the finale, and the New Directions have not only won Regionals, but they’ve gone on to win Nationals, too. McKinley gets turned into an art school. And then… not much happens in the finale, actually. Like the worst episodes, it was just crammed with music without much meaning or cohesion. Jump further into the future, and Kurt and Blaine stage an all-male Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Lincoln Center, Mercedes is a famous singer, Sue is Vice President, Artie got a film into Slamdance with Tina, and Rachel, still never quite learning with any significance what a monster she’s been in the past without feeling sorry for herself, wins a Tony Award, and serves as surrogate for Kurt and Blaine. Additionally, the auditorium they always performed in (with frequently astonishingly gaudy sets with money from I don’t know where) is named in Finn’s honor. Didn’t you read the title? Dreams do come true!!!!
When Kurt and Blaine dance around with kids to the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”, the show feels like it must balance out the material visions of success (everyone else is rich and they just did something daring in theatre) with something more abstract, like children, or something? It’s tenuously linked to anything else that happens in the show, broad and inspirational, like a poster in your gay doctor’s office. The show spent so much time watching people try to achieve their dreams that when they finally happen, it’s boring, beige, and easy without any self-awareness.
“‘Dreams Come True’ is a bumper sticker, not an episode,” wrote Brandon Nowalk on the finale at The AV Club. It’s an apt truth that applies to much of the series. So much of this overly long piece has been about identifying its problems and not focusing on its strengths, but that’s because without some sort of unity or unifying approach, there is little to point out. Glee could be about unity and spend hours of expository dialogue on the idea, but it never applied that in form or writing. In that way, it was ultimately emblematic of the Obama era, where wins in progress could exist in blips and moments, but with little cohesion.
Its format, aspirationally Rob Marshall-adjacent, isn’t quaint any longer; it’s a little sad, a little desperate, like high school kids who want to be wanted tend to be. Performing your traumas and vulnerabilities for all to see is just another day on Twitter (the little joke about MySpace lands as more awkward now). Framing your traumas as performances, that too is commonplace.
In 2018, it is striking how much of a product of its cultural era it is, even if it wasn’t so long ago: in spite of the rose-colored lens through which we look at Barack Obama’s presidency, his strikes against teachers and their unions has had a lasting impact, and when measured against his wins for some marginalized groups and healthcare, embodies the same paradoxical, strangely enticing qualities the show embraced. His controversial relationship with the NEA, but growing amicable dynamic with LGBTQ people, could ignite pedagogical dialogue concerning both the disappearing security and benefits for teachers as well as why it’s okay to be gay and it gets better, or something. (Will literally raps “Same Love” in 6.7 “Transitioning”.) Visibility wins in the cabinet were applauded, and visibility wins on Glee were also met with accolades, including a Golden Globe for Colfer and Lynch and five GLAAD Awards, amongst other recognitions for its progressiveness. But as white suburban liberalism began to lose its sight on concrete terms, its tendency to fancy amorphous, abstract ideas about “Hope” (ahem) and idealism, that same white liberalism became a reflection of perhaps what makes Glee so frustratingly inconsistent, particularly in the aftermath of its sixth season in 2015, the 2016 election, and the current political climate. What was once exciting and progressive regardless of its cohesive qualities now fails to resonate, the material progress notwithstanding. Yes, Glee matters; yes, it was a crucial stepping stone to the way the discourse and media approach and depict people and ideas today. As its sixth season aired, Jeff Jensen wrote, “Glee might be one of the quintessential expressions of the Obama era. It arrived so full of progressive fire, representing change and promising hope for more; it now moves toward the exit dogged by criticism of inconsistency and unmet ambitions, framed as a disappointment.”
One of its best and worst and most concise iterations was Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, which is both wall-to-wall performances (where you can learn that, yes, the cast is full of competent singers that don’t need to be hyper autotuned) and wall-to-wall testimonials of people talking about how Glee changed their life. Filmed during the last leg of their concert tour in June 2011, it captures the essence of the other version of itself that it wanted to be: anthemic for the outsiders, a homing beacon for the outcasts, for those of whom that believed everything could be worked out with a song or two or twelve. The ensemble has real star power on stage, even when they might look like they’re phoning it in. But what’s curious is that, filmed during the break between the second and third seasons, the “Gleeks” seem to never mention how acerbic the show could be, how ceaselessly cruel its characters could be to one another, who dicey some of the subject matter was. Even in its incongruous unevenness during its run, it was hard to mistake for a light show, exactly. Hope though it may have been about, nostalgia-filled its veins may have been, one of Glee’s most destructive issues was its struggle to be its own show and the joy-filled “very special episode” series many of its fans thought it was. Glee: The Concert Movie is like its confusing essence, bottled up, ready to spill.
Its cultural legacy doesn’t not exist; at least not really for the reasons that Tyler Jacob dances around. Glee may have faded from cultural memory not only because of how short term it feels in contemporary discourses, not only because its tendency to treat progressive politics in pop culture felt more like a checklist (like subpar Norman Lear) than an actual way to build drama and politics organically, but because it’s hard to talk about disappointments. It’s hard to talk about the promising dreams that weren’t shattered, exactly, but never came true, even though they were always technically in view. Glee always, through its best and worst moments, had the potential to be a subversive, aggressively modern masterpiece, and it was fueled by a bright, shimmering attitude that pushed it forward. But the pipedreams of success for the show never really came to fruition in the way they nonsensically did for its main characters. Glee is like looking at your high school yearbook and realizing that you’re so much different than you said you were going to be back as a freshman. Like others have said about the show, Glee was not only about nostalgia, it was nostalgia.
I jumped ship, as I tell people, midway through season three, long after I should have, because I knew when Glee failed to live up to what its pilot promised: it could not figure out the kind of distance it must have between ironic detachment and emotional investment in its characters and situations, it could not figure out how to care for its audience, and it could not make its characters face even a satirical version of reality. I thought returning to the show, as young people tend to when they can’t let go of the cultural detritus of their youth, and finally finishing it, it would have reoriented itself and come together. It didn’t. Maybe in its desire to be and do a lot of things, it just never figured out what its actual dreams were, as a singular, unified, interesting piece of television, of work. Maybe it just ended up drifting the halls, like a general studies major, a bit lost, floating on other people’s dreams, and hoping the music would help Glee find its way.