“By its very definition, Glee is about opening yourself up to joy.”
– Lillian Adler
At the dawn of the pilot, featured beneath a photo of a very homely woman making a comically awkward expression, the camera settled over this quotation for a moment. It’s interesting, six years later, to think of how perfectly a single frame captured the strange blend of irreverent humor and wide-eyed optimism that would characterize Glee.
I finished Glee only a few days ago, taking my sweet time with the sixth season. If you’ve kept an eye on the entertainment scene at all, you might be tempted to take a jab at the show’s rocky trajectory. It’s true; Glee had its fair share of bumps, and it certainly became in vogue to hate on it. But I never stopped caring about it, and I never thought it lost its heart. A wise friend even reassured me that it’s kind of perfect, the show losing its acclaim; it was always, at its core, the story of a bunch of relentlessly dreaming misfits in a world working to dash their hopes.
No, the issue was not that I lost interest in the series. It was, in reality, that it came to mean much more to me than I expected. So much so that, as the reality dawned over me that I would soon have to bid it goodbye, I began to drag my feet. I can’t encapsulate everything about what Glee was – reflect on each of the characters and their stories – or at least I don’t want to. What I’m setting out to do here, I guess, is reflect on what this show became to me.
2009. In the spring of 2009, I was a Freshman in college at Ball State. I had a girlfriend, I had just learned I would be an RA in the coming year, and I was just beginning to explore who I could be. One night, following the American Idol finale, the pilot for Glee aired. Fascinated by television, I caught the episode the next day. I watched it again and again. “There’s nothing ironic about show choir!” I repeated in hysterics, particularly entranced by the magical moment at the end of the episode, New Directions’ first performance of Don’t Stop Believin’.
In the Fall, the show returned, and it quickly became a sensation. Glee cast covers of popular hits were consistently on the best-selling iTunes list, and pre-teens across the nation were holding Glee-themed birthday parties. As the showing became increasingly considered ‘non-masculine,’ I quieted my interest in the show. One of my fellow RAs quipped to me that it was a relief I stopped talking about it, since that made me ‘seem gay.’
But Glee remained appointment television for me. I burned iTunes-purchased tracks to blank CDs and sung them on my journey between Ball State and home. At the end of the first season, I teared up when New Directions covered Don’t Stop Believin’ again. Quietly, I fell in love with the irrepressible heart of the show, however uneven its storytelling sometimes was.
Glee and the stories of gay and lesbian teens. I’ve heard straight people say before that gay stories are everywhere, that this somehow indicates we’re standing in some Utopian, postmodern era where gay and lesbian teens aren’t struggling with themselves or fighting to believe there’s hope for their lives. While I do think times have gotten better, I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing these characters, watching their stories. My generation’s Jack from Dawson’s Creek was probably Kurt Hummel.
The first episode of Glee introduced Kurt, a perhaps stereotypically gay Ohio teen, out of place in his designer clothing and burgeoning sexual identity. In the early episodes of Glee, Kurt came out to his father and struggled with unrequited love for Finn Hudson. Steps identifiable to most gay and lesbian people, I’m sure.
In season two, however, Kurt attracts the attention of bullies. He is harassed, shoved into lockers, and threatened harm. Hopeless, Kurt explores a nearby private school, Dalton Academy, and almost immediately bumps into a handsome stranger, Blaine. As an out gay teenager, Blaine takes Kurt by the hand, both literally and figuratively, and shows him he does not have to accept a life of constant fear. “Courage,” he prompts Kurt with an on-screen text.
And, while we’re here, let’s just take a minute to appreciate Blaine. Oh heeeeey, Blaaaaaine.
How you doin’? I see you, singin’ and shit.
Some. Type. Of. Way. *clears throat*
When Kurt is voted ‘Prom Queen’ as an act of ridicule, he bravely opts to accept the crown. Amidst deafening silence, he takes the stage and accepts his crown. Donning it, he beams at his peers. “Eat your heart out, Kate Middleton.”
Later, when the bully Karofsky is revealed to be a closeted gay teen, we watch his character struggle to come to terms with himself. One day, he enters the locker room with his peers, hiding behind his smile. When he sees his defaced locker, his smile fades. His mask – happy, aggressive, confident – is gone. He is vulnerable and terrified. In a show often marked by defiant optimism, it is a staggeringly real moment.
Stories like these, woven into the context of small-town Midwest high school life, moved me incredibly.The storyline brought back memories of my high school experience. Hearing ‘fag’ in the hallway. Finding notes in my locker calling me ‘faggot’ and urging me to come out. Fighting to hide, begging just to blend in.
When Karofsky attempted suicide, I found myself frustrated and sad. Why do we perpetuate the idea that there’s no room for gay people? I asked myself. Of course there’s room. I bet I paused. There’s room for me, too.
Over six years, the show continued exploring the experience of growing up gay in the rural Midwest. Blaine and Kurt visit a seedy small-town gay bar. Kurt and Blaine break up when Kurt moves to New York, and – like the other couple that breaks up that episode – they are devastated. There is such a significance to narratives like these. Stories of real LGBT people living their lives honestly and bravely. It gives hope to those in hiding.
It gave hope to me.
Glee and radical optimism. As I said before, the trajectory of Glee over the course of six years is a bit dubious. The show skyrocketed to wild popularity, then gradually fell into a kind of strange obscurity. The death of Cory Monteith, the amicable male lead for the series, marked a harrowing narrative challenge. All the while, despite presenting a deeply flawed and challenging world to its characters, the show kept a tone of radical optimism. Singing in the face of hardship. Unity among misfits. Forgiveness and second chances.
Glee sometimes sought to do a bit too much, probably. The show introduced characters facing domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, poverty, dyslexia, gender transition, religious identity crisis, sexual abuse, online dating fraud, body dysmorphia, absence of a parent, and more. It became a little too ‘after-school special’ at times. But, on occasion, it hit an issue just perfectly.
There are certainly worse crimes than trying to tell the stories of too many types of people.
I will miss a lot of things about Glee. The annual Christmas episodes have become a staple in my holiday soundtrack and watchlist. Hearing Lea Michele conquer cover songs across the musical spectrum has been sensational. Santana’s one-liners (‘your wide-eyed approach to life makes my teeth hurt and my breasts ache with rage’). I will miss these characters, their acerbic wit, their one-liners, and their stories. We grew up together, didn’t we?
I think, for me, Glee gave me permission to open myself up to joy. To ignore the naysayers and to search for an opportunity to shine. Maybe even to laugh about the absurdity of that. We are, after all, just people searching for meaning and a place to belong.
Six years later, I am so glad for the work of the people who created Glee. It is, by no means, in vogue to say so. I consider myself a television connoisseur, an analyst of Mad Men and Lost, and a critic who knows just when Dexter took a turn from great television to crap sandwich. But I am unafraid to admit my love for this TV show, a bright-eyed misfit that fought for its moment in the sun and who believed in itself, regardless of the jeers thrown its way.
I’ll revisit the show, I am sure. I’ll listen to the best performances and remember the moments in the stories that caught the breath in my lungs. It was worth watching, every episode of it. The highs and lows, moments believable and absurd. I am better for having allowed myself to enjoy, without scrutiny, the radical optimism of a show with its own song to sing.