Sunday, March 15, 2015

Glee -- Requiem for a TV Show

I admit I was taken in by Glee immediately.  Fox made the very shrewd move of debuting the pilot during May sweeps rather than waiting to debut it during the summer or fall when it could easily be missed.  As a show, Glee was unlike anything I'd seen.  It clearly didn't take itself seriously, except for moments where it snapped to deadly earnestness.  Plots mixed fantastic over-the-top elements with an at times earthy portrayal of the pains of growing up in small town America, fitting for a series based on the American musical, where everyone on the street may suddenly stop what they're doing and break into a spirited song and dance number, miraculously with perfect choreography.  Episodes might deal bluntly with topics like bullying, gay issues, and teen sexuality before segueing into a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland "Let's Put on a Show!" routine or vice versa.

This dichotomy was evident from the start.  Some of the first dialogue in the pilot episode featured breakout character Sue Sylvester screaming at her tortured Cheerios through bullhorn, "You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded, that's hard!" The absurd elements were balanced by the very real concerns of protagonist Finn Hudson, who told his buddy Puck, "Don't you get it, man? We're all losers! Everyone in this school! Hell, everyone in this town! Out of all the kids who graduate, maybe half will go to college, and two will leave the state to do it! I'm not afraid to be called a loser because I can accept that's what I am."  Dreams were central to Glee, in both senses of the word.  The show celebrated both creativity and the ambition to make something of oneself.  Unfortunately, its downfall can be partially traced to its failure to remember that both are difficult.

It's not surprising that Sue would eventually make a Jigsaw-like puppet of herself.

Glee had from the beginning two central themes: the acceptance of others and celebration of diversity on the one hand and that hard work and the importance of working toward one's dreams.  Eventually the show would undercut the latter theme, but during its early seasons, hitting these two themes hard and intertwining them in various ways provided the show a means of keeping momentum despite missteps with individual episodes and subplots.  Clunkers like Rachel bringing the healing power of song to a quadriplegic student, Finn seeing the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, or any time Matthew Morrison chose to rap or get funky were balanced by the teen pregnancy of Quinn Fabray, the hilarious rivalry between Will Schuester and Neil Patrick Harris's Bryan Ryan, and Burt Hummel's acceptance and embracing of his son's sexuality immediately without question, earning him Father of the Century honors.

Seriously, if any of the kids in my extended family come out to me, I will think, "What would Burt Hummel do?" and attempt to live up to it.  He was that awesome.

The diversity of the cast played to the show's strengths, blending a mixture of faces and voices into a singing, dancing machine on stage thanks to the characters' common ground of love of song and the need to make something better of themselves.  A cast that at first blush seemed a collection of token characters and stereotypes grew to be relatively well-rounded for tv.  The gay character could experience the pains of young love and the scares of a parent's health problems.  The latina character could come to grips with her sexuality.  The black character could struggle with her weight and jealousy of others.  The wheelchair-bound character could find that it's harder to keep a girlfriend than it is to get one.  In some cases, the central challenges of the characters were handled deftly, while others seemed beyond the series' capabilities.  It became quite clear that the makers of the show had no way to relate to what it's like living in a small, mostly-white town as an African American, but it handled subjects of sexual diversity and physical and mental disabilities well.  It's no coincidence that some of the series' most reliable chill moments involved Lady Gaga songs given their frequent theme of being different.

Including the celebration of everything that's bad about ourselves.

And for a series built around what can most charitably be called overproduced karaoke, there were a remarkable number of chill moments.  These typically surrounded the characters overcoming some internal or external hardship and celebrating it in song.  This trend began with the closing number of the pilot, when the first members of the club finally gel and belt out "Don't Stop Believin'" and continued periodically throughout the show's first few seasons.  A fractured glee club reunited to save its first performance for the school with a rousing rendition of "Somebody to Love".  Finn returns to lead the club he abandoned in anger to victory in their sectionals competition, telling the competitors who'd stolen their play list that "You Can't Always Get What You Want" followed by the victors letting their teacher know, "My Life Would Suck Without You".  After a loss at regionals somehow spells doom for the glee club's existence, the club serenades a farewell to Mr. Schuester with an emotional "To Sir With Love".  Building to big moments like this where emotional climaxes coincided with strong performances of well-chosen songs was thankfully something that the series never forgot how to do.

The non-diva portion of the cast performing a Jacksons medley to win sectionals was another high point.

For some reason, the creators of Glee blame the loss of series heartthrob Cory Monteith for knocking it off stride, but the series was already in trouble well before Monteith's tragic death at the hands of his personal demons, drugs and alcohol. While no subsequent season quite lived up to the promise of that first season, it's safe to say that Glee's first three seasons represent its golden years and that the direction chosen for the series leading up to and following after the graduation of so many of its featured characters spelled its decline and demise.  A show centered around high school students has a choice to make when its cast graduates.  Many, like Beverly Hills 90210 and Boy Meets World, choose to follow the cast that made it successful in their post-high school lives.  Some, like Glee's ancestor Fame, choose to keep the school the central figure and swap out characters so that it can continue making episodes with the same overarching themes and plots.  Glee made the decision to not make a choice, splitting its energies between following Rachel Berry and other New Directions alumni into their adult lives while introducing a new crop of students to the mix at McKinley High.  This would prove disastrous.

Yep, this was the beginning of the end.

Major changes in a show's status quo requires time to let the new situation develop.  The move to New York by Rachel, Kurt, and (eventually) Santana introduced new supporting characters, environments, and plotlines that would require time to make adjustments by the show's creative team and for the audience to grow accustomed to.  The introduction of new students to McKinley would require screen time to flesh out the initial one dimensional definitions of the characters and for the actors to learn how to live within those characters' skins.  Glee's foolish attempt to have its cake and eat it too ensured that neither half of the show would have enough space to gain artistic traction.  Plots would derail in service of attempts to sync up an episode's musical theme across both casts.  The result was suffocating.

This was made worse by the show being unable to let go of characters for whom it had nothing to do.  Despite graduating but not going to New York, Quinn appeared in three episodes.  Mercedes appeared in eight episodes of season four.  Puck also appeared in eight, though not the same exact set.  This soaked up precious screen time that could have been used to establish the new status quo(s).  Instead, Glee became an unending sequence of class reunions that held no emotional impact because no one ever seemed to leave.    This completely undercut the show's theme of working toward one's ambitions, unless it's a secret ambition of much of America to spend its days hanging out at its old high school.

The situation with the McKinley half of the show suffered further from an inability to generate interesting new characters and cast actors with effective musical-comedy chops.  Perhaps a sign that Glee had no idea how to handle its own success, the producers developed a reality competition show the summer between seasons two and three.  The winner (and, as it turned out, some other competitors) would be cast on the show.  The results of this decision were predictable.  While the series always had success with guest stars from Broadway like Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, and Grant Gustin and found solid new cast additions in season two from up and coming theater star Darren Criss and bit actor Chord Overstreet, the introduction of reality show winners to play the characters of Rory, Joe, Wade, and Ryder guaranteed one-note characters played by actors that would be easily overmatched working alongside more seasoned and talented castmates.  The casting of the attractive but bland Melissa Benoist and Jacob Artist to play one-note, bland characters was just the icing on the top of a fallen, tasteless cake.  It came as an unsurprising and overdue relief when the producers finally pulled the plug on the McKinley cast midway through season five.

Look, kids!  White people!

By focusing solely on the New York cast, the show did manage to regain some degree of energy.  However, much of the action in New York failed to hit the same artistic heights of the cast's McKinley days, and this can be primarily traced to its abandonment of its theme of working toward success.  For some reason, now that the New Directions had won nationals and started their adult lives, they were not allowed to lose again.  Rachel quickly became the star of her arts school, NYADA, and she was soon joined by Kurt and, eventually, Blaine.  Somehow the three kids from Lima were quickly recognized as the best in the school, as unlikely as that seems.  But it didn't stop there.  Kurt gets a dream job at, regularly hanging out with its publisher.  Rachel became the star of the first Broadway show she auditioned for, became a critical darling, and was offered her own television show.  Santana for her first time and became her understudy.  Sam became a successful male model.  Mercedes continued having little problem getting recording deals.  A series built on the struggles of Midwestern kids to fit in and work toward their dreams became instead a series dedicated to characters succeeding without really trying and then whining about it.  Along with this shift in tone came plummeting ratings and a tailspin that the show could never recover from.

Glee received a final, abbreviated season this winter to wrap its run up.  Predictably, it's been an up and down set of episodes that has simultaneously demonstrated the show's promise and repeated its mistakes.   Set entirely at a McKinley High improbably populated by recent Glee alumni among the faculty, it introduced a new set of students for the Glee Club, this time with relative unknowns, one child actor, and the one character from seasons four and five with any amount of charisma, head bitch queen Kitty.  The characters did not receive enough time or attention to go beyond their one-dimensional introductions, but the group at least showed it could put on some compelling performances, bringing some much-needed soul and texture to the stage, including a rendition of "Uptown Funk" that surpassed Bruno Mars' version.

Seriously, these kids can sing.

Had Glee not destroyed itself prior to their introduction, this group might have made the basis for a viable new cast.  Instead, it predictably suffered through several episodes featuring old cast members returning to "mentor" them by taking over the spotlight.  The bad habits continued with Rachel successfully getting cast in the lead of a Broadway show at the same time as being invited back to her prestigious school.  Still, the many redundant class reunions did allow for an episode dedicated to a double same-sex wedding that would not have been possible when the series first aired, celebrating the change in tide that America has undergone the past few years, a change that the show may have had a hand in ushering in.  That, if nothing else, should be looked upon as Glee's legacy.

The curtain will lower on Glee on Friday night.  When it's gone, I'll miss it, warts and all.  As annoying as it could be and as many missteps as it might take, the chance that in any given week we might witness a stunning performance of a song that captured the emotions of the moment perfectly was enough to bring me back.  Musicals, as goofy as they can be, have that magical touch when all goes right.  And I will miss that feeling when Glee is no longer bringing the musical to the small screen.