I think the time has come to have a little talk about Glee. Now in its fourth season—returning to screens this evening after a six-week hiatus—the once-hit Fox show is still burning up the iTunes charts and selling McKinley High merchandise as well as, like, Chevys to fans far and wide. True, its ratings have dropped significantly (and unsurprisingly, as shall be addressed anon) from the halcyon days of the first season, and its triumphant coming out party after the 2009 Superbowl, or its subsequent Madonna and Britney episodes (not to mention its Joss Whedon-directed one). But with its off-air revenue keeping pace with its ad buys, not to mention the role it plays in bringing many a forgotten/undiscovered/unappreciated/indie artist to the masses, it would be a foolish network indeed that would mess with a good thing.
Here’s why that’s a bad thing.
Glee started out as a quirky pseudo-musical cringe comedy about a group of underdog music nerds who are desperate to win the approval of the popular kids. Into their lives came the earnest Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), a Spanish teacher in whose heart lay a song (often a rap song) and who took over as head of their Glee Club with the lofty ambition of taking this ragtag bunch of ne’er do wells to a National Championship. A former Glee Clubber himself, Mr. Schue delivered unto the kids much wisdom and learnin’ disguised in a bunch of hair metal power ballads (and, again, rap), and despite his evil wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) making life otherwise unbearable, he found much satisfaction in the molding and shaping of young diva-inclined minds.
The most diva-ish of all the McKinley Glee Club divas was Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), a musical theater prodigy whose rich, soaring voice and powerful emoting made her the star of an unquestionably—one might even suggest unbelievably—talented ensemble. In the first episode of the series we learn of her ferocious crush on football star Finn Hudson (Corey Monteith), which is only deepened upon the discovery that hey, he can kind of sing! His head cheerleader girlfriend Quinn (Diana Agron) and rakish best-friend Puck (Mark Salling) join the club at Finn’s side, as do a couple of other football players and cheerleaders who will go on to have varying effects on the storyline (oh, cute-black-guy-who-wasn’t-quite-as-good-a-dancer-as-Mike, we hardly knew ye). They, along with existing songsters Mercedes (Amber Riley), Kurt (Chris Colfer), Artie (Kevin McHale) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), were our first season kids. With them we explored issues ranging from teen pregnancy to homosexuality to disability to body image, and with an almost universal sense of satisfaction. Oh, sure, there was much silliness—especially on the romantic front—and you really had to question the dedication of this school band who seemed always to be at the ready for whenever someone felt the need to sing, but by and large Glee was a fun, funny, occasionally even moving show that delighted and amused week after Auto-Tuned karaoke-filled week.
But then things started to go wrong, and I’ll tell you where. Season 2, Episode 3 was called “Grilled Cheesus,” and it is among the dumbest things I have ever seen on television. Finn sees what he thinks is an image of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, and the next thing you know, it’s God Week at McKinley High. Now, awesome things happened in this episode: Kurt’s father (Mike O’Malley) had a heart attack and the raw, heart-wrenching performance from Chris Colfer is doubtless what earned him his second Emmy (though he also got pretty emotional later that season when his pet canary died). But his stirring rendition of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” aside, this is where the bloom fell of the rose for me; I, who had managed to go with even the outright wackiness of dentist chair-inspired Britney Spears numbers the episode before had a very hard time even staying awake during Rachel’s “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” And don’t even get me started on Finn eating a week-old, unrefrigerated sandwich. Ew.
Things didn’t go immediately to hell afterwards, though. Season 2 saw the heretofore silent Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.) take a more prominent role, alongside the spectacularly dim Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris), whose increasingly left-of-field pronouncements became fodder for much hilarity. (“I was pretty sure Dr. Pepper was a dentist.”/ “I know the cricket that reads to me at night is totally stealing my jewelry.”/“Sour Patch Kids are just Gummi Bears that turned to drugs.”) We made new friends, notably Chord Overstreet’s “trouty-mouthed” Sam and Darren Criss’s be-gelled, captivating Blaine, the former of whom was absent for the early part of Season 3 but returned after much internet outcry, the latter of whom moved from the snooty Dalton Academy to the plebian halls of McKinley on the heels of his One True Love, the ever-fabulous Kurt.
Meanwhile, Mr. Schue’s ongoing will-they-won’t-they shenanigans with school guidance counselor Emma (Jayma Mays) and the increasingly outlandish positions taken by the nefarious cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) also held me spellbound—Sue, especially, was alternately frustrating, hateful, pitiful and bizarre, but as she was also pretty much always entertaining, even her worst flights of infamy could be ultimately excused.
Well… maybe not the marrying herself thing. That was just surreal.
Adding that to the horror of “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” (02.05), the World’s Worst Christmas Episode debacle (“A Very Glee Christmas” 02.10), the Many Travails of Coach Beiste (Dot Marie Jones) and Sue’s ill-fated campaign for Congress, among much other nonsense, the fact that I made it out of the black hole that was the back end of Season 2 and then on through the mediocre length of Season 3 is a testament to how much I enjoy a) Auto-Tuned karaoke and b) teen romance.
Kurt and Blaine are my favorite couple of the series, but I have also looked on fondly at the tempestuous dalliances of Rachel and Finn/Puck/Jesse (and now Brody), Artie and Tina/Brittany/Sugar, Quinn and Finn/Puck/Sam, Sam and Quinn/Santana/Mercedes (and now Brittany), Santana and Puck/Finn/Karofsky/Brittany and who knows how many other permutations of pretty, pretty youngsters who keep on doing each other and then doing each other wrong—and then sing about it. The new high school class of Season 4 features the gorgeous but insecure Marley (Melissa Benoist), who not five episodes in was deep into an eating disorder subplot as wearisome as it was patronizing, and she was instantly the object of two new guys’ affection, setting up a tiresome triangle I just can’t work up any interest in as yet—actually, it’s more of a love square, with new queen bitch Kitty (Becca Tobin) in the mix, but that doesn’t make it any more compelling. The reverse, actually. Probably the only really fascinating character currently attending the old alma mater is Wade “Unique” Adams (Alex Newell), a transgendered teen with the voice of Aretha—so, of course, we’ve hardly seen anything of him/her.
Instead, we’ve been spending a lot of time in New York, with big name stars you’d have thought had better things to do.
Glee has long been one for stunt casting. Olivia Newton-John and Josh Groban have appeared as themselves, Broadway star Idina Menzel starred as Rachel’s birth mother, Wicked’s Kristin Chenoweth showed up as an old schoolmate of Will’s, and we’ve seen the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, John Stamos, Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer tread the New Directions rehearsal room boards—each soon thereafter with an iTunes release to call their own. But this season has taken things to whole new level, with Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Hudson and Whoopi Goldberg all in the mix.
You see, Kurt and Rachel live in New York now—you should see the Brooklyn loft where these supposedly penurious eighteen-year olds live; even Mr. Big would have considered it palatial—and Parker is the former’s boss at Vogue.com (he got the coveted job there with a scrapbook version of his many splendid outfits), while Hudson is the latter’s dance teacher/nemesis at the fictional New York Academy of Dramatic Arts (where her star is already shining bright, and where Whoopi is, of course, the dean of admissions). Despite these luminaries, however, Season 4 has seen a steady decline in viewership; even “Glease,” the horribly-punned episode in which the kids put on most everyone’s favorite musical, and the equally horribly-punned “Glee, Actually” failed to capture the popular imagination. And now the FOX people are talking about a Season 5 maybe entirely set in New York, and there is a big part of me that wishes that they’d just let it go already. The Glee that was will never be again; I really don’t want to see it descend any further into Saved by the Bell: The New Class territory.
The thing is, though, each week for several seasons now I watch each episode and I say to myself, “If there isn’t at least one performance here that I don’t absolutely LOVE, I’m done.” And each week, there is a performance I absolutely love. Kate Hudson is freaking awesome, even if her character is despicable, and Lea Michele can still bring it so hard as to give you goose bumps; likewise, Chris Colfer. When New Directions get it right they are terrific (even under the current direction of the directionless Finn), and whenever the Dalton Academy Warblers make an appearance you can be guaranteed of a good time. And when you have moments of pure, heartfelt love and angst put into song, like Sam launching into “Something Stupid” to woo Brittany, or Blaine, Kurt, Rachel and Finn all breaking up to the raucous strains of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” how can you not pardon even the most ludicrous of plot devices?
So until an entire episode goes by without at least one well-covered song, I guess I’ll remain a Gleek for a while longer yet. Besides, if I don’t watch Glee, how will I know what music the kids are listening to nowadays?
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.