I have a problem with Glee, but I guess that can be pretty common these days. A lot of people don't like the show's fawning tone, its paper-thin characters, or the nigh-ridiculous soap opera storylines.
[Image via Gleenz]
Some have a deep resentment for Glee's simplistic portrayal of high school that stems from their own experiences, while others just hate show tunes and pop music. None of those are my problem.
Those things are intrinsic to Glee's nature. They're non-negotiable; a price of admission I was more than willing to pay in return for one other aspect of the show. For a time, it featured some of the most incisive, biting social commentary on network television. My problem, now, is that Glee seems to have abandoned its wit and sense of satire for a more genuine tone.
Know this: Glee is not a sincere show, or at least it wasn't at the beginning. The first five minutes of the pilot contain a teacher (our protagonist, Will Schuester) ignoring an incident of gay-bashing (spearheaded by football star Finn Hudson), another teacher molesting a student on school grounds, a comparison of cheerleading to waterboarding, a character exhibiting symptoms of OCD, a referendum on the lack of funding in public schools, and our cultural emphasis on athletics. Does that sound like the saccharine sweet show Glee is portrayed as?
No, Glee as it was first envisioned was dark as hell. Before the pilot is over we've seen Will (again, our hero) plant weed on a student (Finn) in order to blackmail him, a childhood flashback to Finn's mom being ditched by her boyfriend for a blonde bimbo, and a (supposedly) high school aged choir perform a version of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab".
Plot points from the first few episodes include Will's wife Terri faking her pregnancy in an effort to save their troubled marriage, Finn having trouble with premature ejaculation, flamboyantly gay Kurt coming out to his traditional father, Will having an alcoholic burnout mentor the glee club, and Finn's girlfriend Quinn getting knocked up by his best friend and then telling Finn that the kid is his.
But lately, I'm afraid, Glee has started to abandon substance for style. The show's early run had some good commentary about growing up in the Midwest, and how the high school kids want to grow up and get out while most of the adults are just trying to recapture what they once had. Remember, Glee sprung from the mind of Ryan Murphy: the man who brought us the incredibly dark and often disturbing Nip/Tuck. For a show that contains so much singing and dancing, there's a palpable sadness to many of Glee's scenes- like Quinn's parent's kicking her out of the house when they find out she's pregnant -that gave the show surprising emotional heft.
This is not to say that Glee was always melancholy and meaningful. There were plenty of feel good moments to be had, but they were usually used to underscore the show's dramatic element. As the show devolves into a cartoonish parody of itself, we're losing the brilliant things that Glee can do. At one point, the show transitioned from the glee club's pajama-clad, mattress-acrobatics filled rendition of Van Halen's "Jump" straight to a scene where Will discovers that Terri is faking her pregnancy. That three-and-a-half minute segment is already intense, but putting it right after a goofy dance number makes it feel almost mind-numbingly explosive.
Or, call to mind the revelation that Jane Lynch's caustic, near-fascist cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester has an older sister with Down Syndrome living in an adult care facility. Coming at the end of an episode all about handicaps, seeing a comically harsh character soften while reading "Little Red Riding Hood" to their sister was a beautiful human moment in a show that often skews towards the absurd.
Compare those scenes to the most recent episode of Glee, where the storylines had to tread water in order to allow the writers to cram as many Madonna songs as they could into a single hour of television. If I had closed my eyes I would have believed that I was watching an hour-long infomercial for Madge's latest album. For a show that can summon such poignancy to stoop to lines such as "Madonna. Simply saying the word aloud makes me feel powerful" and "You don't deserve the power of Madonna" is downright embarrassing. The heavier storylines have been muted or pushed to the side to make room for more escapist fare. We haven't even heard more than a passing mention of the show's Ohio setting in a long, long time.
Why, then, has Glee abandoned the intelligence that indued it with so much life and meaning? The only reason that comes to mind is the same reason that every good show dumbs down its content: the audience. The pilot first aired after the season finale of American Idol, a show whose audience is very old, very young, and very female. By playing to an audience of younger tweens and teens, Glee pulled in a viewership that is not known for its appreciation of irony, satire, and social commentary. Rather than appreciate the series for its subversive side, these less mature fans largely take the series at face value." Maybe add a note that says something like "Sorry for the accidental sexism, I'll be more careful next time.
Of course, those unsophisticated viewers might not be right, but they are many. Look at a list of the top-rated scripted shows on television: NCIS, The Mentalist, CSI, NCIS: Los Angeles, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Desperate Housewives, Criminal Minds. Not a lot of intelligent programing on that list. The highest compliment I've ever heard paid to one of those shows was when a friend called The Mentalist "Pretty amusing, a good way to kill an hour." Quite the endorsement.
The fact is: to win big, you have to win stupid. Faced with a possible hit, Murphy & Co. have made concessions to their original conceit and filed down the edges on the show's razor-sharp fangs. Perhaps the most troubling incident of all is the casting of Broadway superstar Idina Menzel (Rent, Wicked) after an internet campaign based solely on the fact that she looks like Glee star Lea Michele. I don't believe that any audience, much less the majority of the people who follow Glee, should be able to dictate the terms of art.
I still watch Glee, and enjoy it for the most part, but the experience has been cheapened for me. I think about what the show could have been, and how it's never quite lived up to the promise of the pilot and first couple of episode. I still get a kick out of the creative cover versions of pop and rock standards, but the thrill fades when I have to sit through another stretch of uninspired romantic storylines with a Zac Efron look-alike and cliché dialogue. It's alright, better than most drivel on TV these days, but it could have been so much more.
Dan Suitor is a 21-year old college student in Worcester, Massachusetts. He enjoys using big words that he thinks will impress the ladies, berating his rube of a roommate, and looks forward to being unemployed upon graduation.