There are countless listicles littering the internet dedicated to pieces of pop culture that ‘did not age well.’ It’s a booming market thanks to the ceaseless thirst for nostalgic content and I’m reasonably sure I’ve contributed more than a few pieces to this glut of hot takes for clicks. The supposed timelessness of a story is seen as a sign of its quality, as if its enduring appeal lies in how it rejected or simply never possessed any of the markers of its era. It’s a flawed way to understand pop culture that can often discourage us from trying to understand what made a film, TV series, or book so beloved and discussed in the first place. We’ve seen this cycle unfold so many times with Friends alone. The series that I have been obsessing over, however, when I think about this phenomenon is Glee.
It did not age well.
It’s been five years since Glee left the airwaves and I struggle to think of a television show of its caliber that became so popular and so critically welcomed, only to sour in an absurd fashion and descend into the ranks of self-parody as spectacularly as this one did. Nowadays, we talk more about the behind-the-scenes chaos of the show rather than its on-screen drama, and when we do, it’s seldom in a complimentary manner. No series, at least in my lifetime, rose so high and fell so low. At least Lost gave us a polar bear.
I remember the very first time I heard about Glee, a new comedy-drama on Fox courtesy of one Ryan Murphy, a showrunner best known at the time for the overtly-glossy soap drama Nip/Tuck. The show was initially the brain-child of Ian Brennan, who conceived the story as a movie and famously wrote the first draft of the script with the aid of Screenwriting for Dummies. One of the co-hosts of a TV podcast I listened to religiously way back in 2009 literally squealed with joy when discussing its pilot, and I knew that I had to watch it. I loved it, of course, as did basically everyone else I knew. This story of a washed-up high school teacher in small town Ohio who uses the glee club as a means to fulfil his lost dreams seemed like the right show for the right time: An acidic dark comedy that tackled social issues through an Alexander Payne-esque lens, and with toe-tapping songs! It should have been a recipe for disaster and yet critics embraced it alongside audiences.
It quickly fell apart after that.
I have frequently said that my major problem with Ryan Murphy as a storyteller is that he gets bored with his own ideas very quickly. Check out literally any season of American Horror Story to see how long it takes him to stop caring about the story and characters. It’s a miracle if he lasts longer than half the runtime before throwing in the towel. Glee skidded off the rails in a predictably speedy fashion, but the driving force of that was less Murphy’s own follies and more the demands of mega-success on a major network. Fox didn’t just get a hit: They got a minor pop culture phenomenon, and they were ready to milk the hell out of it via any means possible.
I don’t think Glee was ever supposed to be about the song, at least not as dominantly as they became. Fox, however, knew a money-train when they saw one and it didn’t take long for every episode to be its own mini-soundtrack ready to clog up the iTunes charts. Before long, the main hook of the series seemed to be what the musical theme of each episode would be. Hey look, there’s the Madonna episode. It’s the Rocky Horror one. Why yes, that is ‘Gangnam Style,’ thank you very much. Never mind that it didn’t entirely make sense for this supposedly rundown and underfunded Ohio high school to be mounting Broadway level productions week after week. Compromise the verisimilitude of the show all you want for those compilation CDs, the nationwide tour, and the reality T.V. series, as well as a veritable f**kton of merchandise. It took no time at all for Glee to become an extended commercial for its own cannibalizing brand. The music dictated the show rather than the other way around, and it was all for sale.
Of course, Murphy and company were perfectly capable of sending this series off the rails on their own too. The first season alone took such a nosedive in quality over 13 episodes that I wondered at the time if some sort of world record had been set. The key problems with Glee can be found in the two characters it wrongfully obsessed over for the majority of the show’s run: Rachel Berry and Mr. Schuster. There are few characters in television history I have found as loathsome as Mr. Schu. He was a pathetic shell of a man who manipulated often vulnerable adolescents into being the vessels for his failed dreams, and at first, the show had the nerve to depict such actions as creepy and self-serving. There may have been some altruistic thinking behind his meddling in his students’ lives but when the show committed to that acidic tone of the pilot, it made sure to emphasize that his actions were still often deeply hard to justify. Remember, this is the guy who gets a student to join Glee club by planting drugs on him. Yet the show couldn’t help but make him the selfless hero when the occasion called for it. As noted by Joshua Alston at the AV Club, ‘as the show progresses, Will’s character becomes amorphous as he becomes a walking vessel for the episode’s musical theme. His personality bends and stretches depending on the needs of the episode.’
As played by Lea Michele, Rachel was intended to be the Tracy Flick of the series, the highly ambitious high schooler whose big dreams eclipsed and seemed destined to be crushed by her circumstances. She was a future Mr. Schu in waiting, and the show seemed to understand that, at least for a while. Michele, best known at the time for appearing on Broadway in Spring Awakening, quickly became the capital-S Star of what was intended to be an ensemble piece. The pilot, which still stands as an excellent hour of TV, establishes her as easy to laugh with in all her winsome aspirations but ultimately an understandable young woman. Who among us hasn’t worried about being denied the opportunity to be who we want to be? Rachel, however, quickly morphed into the monster that Glee never committed to with Mr. Schu. She is callous, vicious, an extreme bully, and an endless thrower of toddler tantrums. The show seems to hate her yet never wants her to be anything less than the hero. Time and time again, her hopes and dreams are prioritized by the narrative, often over characters with more compelling arcs (as well as actors who weren’t white.) She is offered opportunity after opportunity to prove herself, even when she is undeserving of it and all while the show seems to glory in torturing her. It’s a strange sort of chemistry that Murphy and company, of course, get bored with very quickly. Rachel’s relatability from that pilot dissipates because we know that, even as the series treats her like dirt in some deeply misogynistic ways (it is a Murphy show, after all), she will get everything she wants.
Those problems of character expand to the show’s ever-growing ensemble. Murphy often seems torn between caustic camp and eye-watering earnestness in his works. American Horror Story and Feud exemplify his fickleness in that department. There is a way to be simultaneously catty and sincere, to crack close-to-the-bone jokes about your characters while exploring issues of identity politics. Such balances require a defter hand than Murphy’s dazzling sledgehammer approach. The end result was an often dizzying inconsistency of tone that all too often relied on tooth-rotting and wholly unearned sentimentality. Glee didn’t just want to be beloved: It wanted to be important.
So many of Glee’s most infamous episodes feel like hyper-specific parodies of Very Special Episodes from 1980s network sitcoms. Glee wanted to be a progressive ideal in the Obama age but only if it could use that shield to make the same kind of jokes that all the bullies were making. Sue Sylvester, played by Jane Lynch with panto-villain relish, had to be the kind of woman who pushed students down the stairs and verbally abused them at every opportunity before making nonsense U-turns to become an anti-bullying advocate whenever the plot called for it. The bite that made the pilot so refreshing became diluted to the point where it became indistinguishable from what it claimed to be parodying. Take the infamous school shooting episode as the perfect example of this problem: Glee pushed itself repeatedly as a voice for the misunderstood, the perpetual underdog unafraid to take on the system, but in their handling of a very real pandemic that plagues American schools, and doing so four months after the massacre at Sandy Hook, they turned pain into farce.
It became increasingly hard to take Glee seriously on the merits it felt it deserved when its gaze was so glaringly white, cis, and male. Rachel was given the spotlight repeatedly over women of color, and Kurt, played wonderfully by Chris Colfer, was centered in stories in a more layered and empathetic light than Brittany and Santana, the latter of whom was oft-painted as the ‘bad girl slut.’ Incredible talents like Amber Riley, Jenna Ushkowitz, and Harry Shum Jr. were given the option of being tokens or non-existent presences on-screen. Women, particularly women of color, suffered under Murphy’s soapy gaze, one that seemed to believe that the illusion of self-awareness was enough justification to dive head-first into misogyny. Murphy and company’s self-righteousness came and went whenever their moods fluctuated, in keeping with their inability to focus on one thing at a time. It would have all been deeply patronizing if it hadn’t been so dang boring.
Of course, we can’t talk about Glee and its legacy without discussing the real-life chaos, drama, and pain that have come to define the series long after the songs climaxed. Lea Michele’s reputation took such a nosedive thanks to her endlessly gossiped about rudeness and bullying that she seems only a few years away from a ‘Where Is She Now’ retrospective. Multiple actors involved with the series, most notably Naya Rivera, talked candidly about feeling ignored or shunted by the showrunners. Cory Monteith, who played Finn, died of a drug overdose at the age of 31, with his death written into the show in one of the series’ most genuinely emotional moments. In 2015, Mark Salling, who played Puck, was arrested on suspicion of possessing several thousand photos and videos depicting child pornography. He pleaded guilty but died by suicide before sentencing. To refer to any of this as ‘drama’ feels euphemistic and reductive but it does only further fuel the strange status of Glee as a relic of what feels like a whole other age.
I don’t see Glee gaining any sort of nostalgic traction or being rediscovered by younger audiences in the same way shows like Friends and The Office were. The problems with those comedies are plentiful but it’s easier to deal with them without the choking stench of self-aggrandizing that makes Glee such a cringe-fest. While Ryan Murphy is now one of the most powerful names in television, his work is at its best when he takes a backseat to let more diverse and committed voices tell stories, such as Pose and American Crime Story. Five years since its cancelation, Glee feels like an endless cycle of what not to do when you hit the big time. On the bright side, at least we’ll get an amazing and seriously juicy tell-all book about the show at some point in the next few years.
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