So, Glee. It’s only 2016, so just a little over a year since it officially ended though at least a few years since its actual.
There’s a lot that’s already been said about this show: It’s innovative, it’s messy, it’s breaking down cultural barriers, it treats everyone horribly and is proud of it, etc. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I can’t imagine I’ll add much new discourse or insight about it but, as a personal curiosity and project, I can try to dig at what struck a nerve during my teenage years and see what still holds up (or at least taps into my nostalgia and fondness).
Basically, I’m going to watch it all, because Netflix is an amazing convenience and enabler. About half of it will be a rewatch and the other half is brand new to my jaded eyes (though I did watch the series finale and read plenty of spoilers). So something like a recap and review series. I was planning to do a post for every episode but there’s six seasons with 121 episodes. No one needs that. I’ll probably just post every few or several episodes with some single episodes highlighted? It depends on how I feel. Also I’m calling it “Glee Club Reunion.”
To be upfront about a few things:
- I hate Will Schuester. I didn’t always hate him but I’ll get into that later.
- I like Puck a lot, but I feel very dubious about Mark Salling, given the news of being charged with possession of child pornography. I don’t feel too uncomfortable talking about his character, as they are separate, but I wanted to be clear about this.
- I’m quite critical of the show. I have affection for it but it’s deeply, deeply flawed. This is a way of revisiting my criticisms of a teenager and seeing if those are still valid, as well as remember what worked.
- I have, frankly, fairly bad taste in music. I have plenty of songs I would die on a hill for, but I’m also down for a lot of mediocre pop garbage. And some ballads. Guaranteed, no matter what episode, I will like at least one song. So I’ll have a bit at the end about which songs I like and dislike (I might make a playlist of my favorites later.)
- I’m not a film major, or an English, or any sort of expert in anything about storytelling. I just have my thoughts and my feelings that I’ll try my best to articulate.
- Will Schuester is a badly written character.
Anyway, I watched the pilot last night.
So TV pilots, ideally, should lay down the thematic foundations for the whole show, or at least the season. That doesn’t mean nothing can ever change or shift, but essentially you want to establish what kind of ideas you want to explore. Even if the topic changes from episode to episode, the kind of desired angles of approach and tone should be established.
So, what is Glee about? What does it want to be about? What kind of overarching themes will it explore? What kind of approaches will it take? And do they work?
I suppose that’s a lot to answer in a pilot but those are starting points. It can also just be starting points of a specific episode, especially for a show like Glee which liked to tackle specific and different themes per episode.
So, first off: A lot about this show is uncomfortable and purposefully so. Some people are good, decent, and sincere. But most are terrible, or at least kind of terrible, and in different ways. They use each other, inflate their egos, pretend to be good, and knock others down for a variety of selfish, petty, and close-minded reasons. Even those just trying to get by or genuinely make the world better end up screwing other people over.
I don’t mean to make Glee sounds like some edgy HBO or Showtime original production, starring some hardened cop scarred by years on the job and burdened with a dead wife. It’s just the sort of angle it takes on people and the subculture of high school. Almost every major character in the pilot commits something either relatively cruel or just plain inadvisable. Schuester plants pot to blackmail Finn into joining Glee club. Sue even comes off as pretty minor in comparison, just harsh, prideful, and overly dedicated to the Cheerios.
And a lot of it is played off for jokes. Rachel accusing a teacher (and getting him fired) for molestation of a student is a joke about she’s so obsessed with attention and to reflect badly on how “driven” she is. Ken’s romantic pursuit of Emma, almost bordering on harassment, plays on how unappealing and oblivious he is (both to her disinterest and the sheer mismatch). Then there’s the bullying which ranges from humorously mundane to viscerally extreme to goofily coordinated. (Camp. Camp is the word I’m looking for.)
I think, while it’s reasonable to be uncomfortable, even upset, at some of these jokes, there’s an edge to them underlying a lot of them. About how unfulfilled many of these characters are, how sad they are, and how they hard they chase after things they can’t have or settle for what’s next best.
There’s a scene that cuts between two conversations Will has with Sue and then Emma (and Ken, but mainly for plot reasons). Sue lectures Will on the hierarchy within high school and the divisions that high school teenagers fall within, stressing the importance of not blurring the lines. Emma acknowledges this peer pressure but proposes that teenagers don’t necessarily stay true to themselves out of this fear, so Will needs to recruit a few popular kids so that others may feel comfortable enough to follow. She commends him for his care for both glee club and the kids. However, the scene ends with a cut to Sue, who goes off that similar premise of Will’s care for the kids and suggests he should let them stay within their hierarchies. Paralleling Emma’s ideas of kids not following their heart because they’re scared of being outsiders, Sue suggests kids “like to know where they stand” and that Will shouldn’t try to make anyone think they’re something they’re not (referring to the sense of social importance the glee club may feel).
Sue’s comment also contrasts with an early scene with Rachel, who bemoans how other students pick on her. When Will questions her on why she thinks joining glee club would make her any cooler, she asks, “Being a part of something special makes you special, right?”
These three conversations highlight some of these main themes. None of these characters are exactly wrong, but it’s these tensions that Glee seeks to set up and explore. The true passions of one’s heart versus the social stigma of following them, especially when you have other things at stake. Wanting to belong is just as valid as wanting to be special and genuine. Finding not simply a balance of those two tensions, but a synthesis of them is difficult and not guaranteed to last. As Will even said of his high school days, “I knew who I was in the world.” It’s not new, especially not for a story set in a high school, but it feels genuine and valid.
Speaking of Will, the pilot is probably peak “I feel sympathetic to Will Schuester” personally. It’s not deeply explored, but it’s explicitly stated that his prime was in high school, being a part of McKinley’s glee club at in its prime as well. However, here he is: A Spanish teacher living paycheck to paycheck and married to someone who may love him but doesn’t truly understand him. (Not that I like how Terri’s framed or written but another time.) He pursued his dream, married his high school sweetheart, and now he’s still stuck in the middle of nowhere (it’s not said why he’s stayed in Lima, but as Finn’s speech to the football team mentioned, it’s likely he’s one of the many who stayed behind, even if he attended college). New Directions is his only way of getting even somewhat back to what he was. He’s like Rachel (more so than he is like Finn), but instead of looking to the future, he looks to the past, to “recapture” the happiness he once had.
And all of this comes to a head when Finn chooses to help Artie instead of bully him. “We’re all losers, everyone in this school. Hell, everyone in this town.” He appeals to doing what’s true to him, being in New Directions and playing on the football team, but not out of some sense of sought out grandeur or solely a sentimental sense of belonging. For once, the scope isn’t simply high school or Broadway, but Lima and everything outside of it. He can see past high school, the insular and meaningless hierarchy, and sees himself, and almost everyone else around, also stuck in the middle of nowhere. So he might as enjoy his time here. Small town blues. (I don’t have much personal experience with living in that sort of town but I’ve always been weak to anything akin to acceptance of mediocrity and failure.)
The payoff doesn’t quite match the buildup (he seemed to barely tolerate his time in New Directions in the short moments we saw), but it’s a good element to add. It may feel a bit too self-aware, but it’s a genuine showcase of his leadership.
By the end of the pilot, even with the expectation of a baby coming, Will chooses sincerity over practicality. It attests to the sincere, gushy heart of the show, which does exist despite my lede of Glee‘s universe being based on cynicism. People do terrible things to each other but if they dig in deep, they can also change and do better, and they can be a part of something special. It’s sort of crashing through all its own caveats about how following your heart can go wrong, doesn’t always make everything better, every struggle and piece of bullshit it entails, and going “but it feels good, doesn’t it?” Coming together for those moments can make up for almost anything. It’s kind of cliche, but the themes set up can still make for some interesting storytelling.
These are more general thoughts I’m spitballing about, especially knowing what comes later.
More specific: Finn is great. Well he’s great right now. I’m going to hate him for a lot of writing choices they make later and despite what I said earlier about his speech, the framing of him as the default leader kind of bugs me. (He asks Mercedes to be in charge of costumes? With Kurt right there? I know everyone in New Directions not Rachel and Finn were kind of unknown at the time and brushed over for the moment but still.) But he’s so plainly charismatic in a dopey, non-threatening way, it sort of makes sense. He’s weirdly sincere, even while lying. His flashback with his mom and the Emerald Green guy are funny, sweet, and kind of sad. He probably comes off as the best person in the episode, besides Emma. His parallels with Will are an interesting setup but sort of sad because Will is terrible. Finally, Cory Monteith’s voice absolutely cannot match Lea Michele’s. Like, he tries and he’s okay but he is not the Great Male Lead that Rachel complained about wanting.
Emma is also great. Her crush on Will is kind of tragic (and understandable at the moment) and for now they have a gentle, pleasant chemistry. She also has the best outfits. While Emma’s phobia of germs and fumbling over her crush are played a bit for laughs, she’s sympathetic and a compassionate character.
For as much as Terri’s painted as a selfish, nagging shrew of a wife, she and Will do kind of…have some moments. Their scene in the craft room was great, even as a microcosm of how fundamentally bad their marriage is. It’s cute at first but then just kind of sad for both of them.
Also MySpace. MySpace gets mentioned twice as a popular thing Teens These Days use (Rachel uses it to upload videos of herself!) and wow, I feel old. Glee aired in 2009 so it’s not totally unreasonable but it’s odd. Facebook would’ve felt less jarring but even now it’s shifted from the big teen thing to something that 50 year old moms frequent.
- I love all the kids’ rehearsals. They’re just so high school teen. Except Rachel’s but you know, Lea Michele.
- Rehab: Nothing is as good as Amy Winehouse’s voice for this song but I do like the Vocal Adrenaline cover. Kind of lifeless, frantic, and a bit too perfect but I guess that’s the point? It’s also hilarious to witness a high school glee club performing in their regular auditorium getting a full house and REPEATED audience cheers.
- Don’t Stop Believing: I will always love this cover. It makes my heart feels things.