(Note: Spoilers ahead! Go watch the season finale if you haven’t yet.)
Like a good (gay) son, I got my mother hooked on watching Glee. This was a mistake. Now, every week, she wants to watch, but then I have to hear about everything she doesn’t like about the show. The most common complaint? “The plot is so unrealistic.” My most common response? “Duh.”
But I think there are all things that we don’t like about Glee. Here are a few of mine. Don’t worry, I’m not going to dwell on these; I’ll only be talking about Glee in a positive light after I get through them.
First and foremost, given my background in music education, I hate how easy they make show choir look, especially with the absurd quantity of songs they develop. The same goes for “the band” that just happens to always be there to slavishly play at the group’s whim, plus the sets that build themselves, the lights that set themselves, and the costumes that sew (or buy) themselves. (I got over all this back at the pilot, but it’s still in the back of my mind every week.)
I hate Sandy Ryerson, the creepy-ass glee club director, who luckily hasn’t been around as much as he was at the beginning. Similarly, there are some weeks where I hate Kurt too. Gay men have only been demonized as pedophiles since they first started coming out—can’t we make them just a little less creepy and stalkery in 2010? Similarly, it’d be nice if Artie could show us what it means to be a part of the disability community instead of playing out the tired old “I still want to walk/dance” plot line. I think we got enough of that from Jason Street on Friday Night Lights, thank you very much. And let’s not get started on the racist jokes that make it into almost every episode.
And last but certainly not least, the show absolutely drives me crazy with all its loose plot lines. I don’t expect full treatment of every character in every episode, but can’t we at least pretend that the previous episode happened? For example, Burt kicked Finn out of their house. So……… what happened to Finn? Nada.
But when I sit down and think about these things, I remember something very important:
Glee is unique.
That’s the entire reason Glee works. It doesn’t try to be anything else. There’s really no model for a television show like it. It lives in its own world.
And I think that’s why we’re unfazed by our own critiques. See, we try to fit Glee into the schema we have for all other television shows and it just doesn’t work.
We see an uplifting show about a group of outcasts succeeding and we think, “Oh, this should have a lot of positive messages like a good after-school special!” Nope.
We see a complex serial drama with interweaving story lines and think to ourselves, “Oh, I can expect to see the next part of the story in the next episode!” Nope, not necessarily.
We have watched so much reality television that we see things on Glee and think, “Oh, that would never happen,” but yeah, on Glee, it does.
What is this amorphous quality that makes us like Glee despite all its incongruities? Why is it that we continue to be obsessed about a show that simultaneously drives us kind of crazy? How does it make us cry when we feel like we haven’t even gotten sufficient character development?
The answer, my friends, is not so amorphous. Glee is musical theatre.
Did you not realize? It’s been hiding there all along.
Most people that I know who claim to not like musicals say it’s because they think it’s unrealistic the way people just break into song. Well, duh, it’s a musical. Hey, this conversation sounds familiar…
Have you ever wondered why “camp” (as in over-the-top extravagant expressionism), and by association, the stereotypical personality of gay men, is all associated with musical theatre? That’s what makes musical theatre work! Musical theatre has to take itself too seriously and be over the top. (And for gay men, this reflects the freedom of not conforming to masculinity as part of hiding in the closet.) For example, in Oklahoma! (a classic), Curly doesn’t really care that it’s a beautiful morning; he’s just horny for Laurey (who later has one of musical theatre’s many drug-induced ballet “dreams”). Realistic? Not entirely. Frankly, think of any musical’s impact and imagine it working without the music. It doesn’t. Let’s not even consider Cats. Yikes.
Music enhances the drama. Music helps us escape the drab reality we live in and takes us to a heightened emotional state. It communicates things we can’t say with words. It builds a connection between us as human beings that is unique. Just as the music lifts us just a little above reality, so too are we then able to appreciate plots that are a little above reality. It’s the music that grounds them for us. The plot lines, at face value, are absurd and campy, but they still reflect real emotions and feelings we can appreciate. The music lets them make sense, and if anything, the impact is all the greater for it. The whole experience is an emotional extravaganza, and when it’s over, we float back down to earth.
Think about this week’s finale. I was really bored by Vocal Adrenaline’s performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but I loved the way it was juxtaposed with Quinn giving birth (which we knew had to happen in this episode). It was kind of hokey, but it still worked. It used music to tell the story. (Psst… that’s musical theatre.) And of course “To Sir, With Love” and “Over The Rainbow” made us cry. Hell, “To Sir” even made Sue tear up! Those songs communicated something that mere spoken word couldn’t have replicated. Music is that venue and we just get lost in it and it feels wonderful.
Further proof is in how barren we feel by the emotionally charged scenes that do not include music. They feel quite real, and often quite salient. Think back to when Will finally found out that Terri was faking the pregnancy and the way he unloaded on her. It was so raw, but felt so validating after weeks of her scheming. There was nothing fantastical about it. The same was true of when Kurt’s dad lectured Finn for calling Kurt a “fag” (which I think was one of the most important scenes the show has ever aired). These are the little clues that remind us that the show takes itself seriously and that we should too. Of course it’s absurd most of the time; that’s by design. But it’s that “camp” that helps us appreciate reality all that much more.
Glee isn’t fabulous because Jane Lynch is funny or Cory Monteith is cute. It’s not because Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison sing our pants off every week. It isn’t even because of Madonna, Lady Gaga, or Journey. In the end, all our little complaints melt away and we love Glee because Glee reminds us what it feels like to love one another.
Musical theatre is kind of weird; I’ll be the first to admit it. Think whatever you want of it, but you can’t deny it makes you feel. Glee has successfully encapsulated that for us in weekly supplements in a way television has never tried. It brings us together and I think it deserves a standing ovation.