Sometimes watching a new episode of Glee reminds me of watching The O.C. It’s not because these two shows had anything else in common besides the high school setting, but because both shows, while sharp and well-written at their best, always keep their viewers aware that the episode you’re watching could take a fatal turn at every moment. What Glee and The O.C. doesn’t share in terms of style and sensitivity, they share in unevenness and in their ability to make me love them despite being fairly disinterested in the trials and tribulations facing their central couples. I guess their imperfections made me a more loyal fan in both respects. Would Seth Cohen have been as much of a hero to me if I hadn’t been so thoroughly bored by the Marissa/Ryan drama? Has Kurt, Sue and other Glee characters that work come into sharper relief because neither the Will/Emma relationship nor the ups and downs of Finn/Rachel are particularly interesting? I think so. Sharing a less-than-excellent experience may do more to forge a bond of loyality than a flawless episode would.
Seen through that lens, the first three episodes of Glee’s second season has kept the promise of the first season. The first season offered a healthy dose of camp and quirkiness (the new football coach), eye-candy (Sam, the new quarterback, and a more prominent role for Mike Chang) and something that Glee sometimes forgets to deliver; a plot that actually pulls the storyline forward. True to form, the Britney Spears episode failed on most of these accounts, reduced as it was to a string of badly integrated pop classics sewn into a nearly non-existent plot too heavily dependent on its relatively bland lead couples. But did that episode make me less excited about what was in store for this week? Fitting for a show that seems intent on building O.C.-style loyalty through unevenness, quite the opposite was true. Luckily, I really enjoyed this week’s episode. Some critics have said that the religion issue was handled in a ham-handed way, but I have to disagree. Sure, the Finn/Jesus thing was downright awful, but it was more than outweighed by the moving way it handled the conflict between Kurt’s atheism and his friends’ wishes to express their solidarity in spiritual terms.
So, having laid out how I sometimes love Glee more in spite of than because, here are some notes on has made the show a pleasure thus far:
Perhaps the most endearing trait of Glee is how dedicated show creator Ryan Murphy is to the uniqueness of his universe. He knows that what’s unique about Glee is its musical format, not the fact that it is a high school dramedy about glee club members. In most episodes, the musical numbers work in their own right, while also being vehicles for pushing the storyline forward. Sure, the song choices may at times be a little to predictable or convenient, but the most important reason for Glee‘s success has to be that it’s enjoyable as a musical. Also, the show has an ability to turn some of the less interesting characters into something of a character trait of the show itself. Like it may be the blandness of Emma that make us appreciate Brittanny, or the averageness of Will that makes Sue’s outrageousness endearing, it’s the chinks in the armored that makes Glee feel like something different and more than a well-constructed musical farce with high production values.
For instance, I really hated the fake-pregnancy, baby-swapping storyline between Quinn and Will’s wife in the beginning of the first season. It was stupid, and it exposed Finn as so dumb that my relationship with him still has not fully recovered. Nonetheless, it felt like the kind of over-the-top quirkiness that a show like Glee needs every once in a while, for the laughs it may collect, and for the contrast with the earnestness and warmth with which the show has handled many other issues. In general, I prefer the storylines that underline the genuine humanism of its universe, but without the at times annoying quirkiness, it would all eventually become monotonous.
An example: If Glee hadn’t started off with that generally flawed fake-pregnacy thing, we might have run the risk that Sue could have felt like an outlier, just too outrageous and out of sync with the general tone of the show. Instead, she embodies all that is Glee: She is fierce, funny, slightly camp, but like everybody else she fundamentally grapples with personal insecurity and the looming threat of loserdom. That is why the cynical mockery and the scenes with her sister feel equally real. With Glee being married to the soapy theatricality paraphrased in a season one episode, she is of course a villainous caricature, but one who deep down inside identifies with the struggling kids.
This, then, goes to what I may like most about Glee; for all its over-the-topness, it’s still surprisingly grounded. The music offers some grandeur, and some of the storylines and characters are pure camp (like Kristin Chenoweth as Will’s old flame), but the ethos of Glee is best defined in a scene from the pilot. Defending Artie, Finn is asked why he’s standing up for “this loser”. He says:
“Don’t you get it, man? We’re all losers. Everyone in this school, everyone in this town. Out of all the kids who graduate, maybe half will go to college, and maybe two will leave the state to do it. I’m not afraid of being called a loser, ’cause I can accept that that’s what I am.”
You could decide to write if off as a cynical quip aimed more at the television audience than the people he’s talking to. If you wanted to, I’m sure you could read a condenscending view of Middle America into it, too. However, I see it as quite the opposite. In a weird way, I see realism, not cynicism; not a put-down of Ohio, or even a longing for something else, but a love letter to the non-spectacular. It reads to me like a geuine – and genius – act of Middle American populism, and one that allows us to invest so much of ourselves in what at first may seem like petty challenges, but which in the end turns out to be all the small things that make up everyday life. Also, it respects the need teenagers have to make their modest life goals sound important.
All in all, I like the kids much better than the adult characters. Emma’s quirkiness is so mild and free of edge and danger that I never really got myself to cheer for the Emma/Will relationship, and the point of Will still mostly seems to be to function as a sparring partner onto whom Sue can fire her verbal jabs. Of the teens, I’m really struggling with Rachel. She has more edge than Emma, sure, but I never quite feel like the show really wants us to like her. She’s believable as the most talented, passionate and disciplined member of the glee club, but there still is a gulf to bridge between the control freak who is the butt of jokes about taking glee club too seriously, and the socially awkward girl who we are supposed to sympathize with; a disconnect that grew almost painful by the end of the first season, with the conflict between Rachel, her mother and Rachel’s rival/boyfriend, Jesse (Jonathan Groff).
My favorites, then, are Kurt, Mercedes, Tina and Artie. It may be identity politics, but I just love Kurt. He makes me feel both gayer and prouder than what I usually let on. And like everyone else, I completely love the scenes involving Kurt and his father. Having never been to America (although I’d love to go someday), I of course wouldn’t know anything about that, but I imagine that their relationship captures something real about how families cope with homosexuality outside of the liberal bastions on the coasts. Burt Hummel works so hard not to say or do anything wrong, and he defends his son so fiercely, but I’m glad he’s allowed to voice the implicit insecurity that often comes with something like this. I also like that he’s a single father, which only sharpens the masculinity/male role model angle, and gives added depth to the vulnerability that Kurt feels when his father has a heart attack.
At a glance, there is enough otherness in Glee to support the notion that the creators were simply checking off a list of outcasts, but the secret lies in how each and every character transcends the neat summaries of identity politics, whether they are gay, African-American, disabled, Jewish or Asian-American. That said, I’ll allow that I like Artie in particular because he speaks directly to my experience. The episode Wheels nicely captured a central balancing act when dealing with disability. Disabled people are acutely aware of their otherness all the time, which often manifests itself in a need to downplay it, to accomodate, when challenges specific to their disability arise, as it did with Artie and the bus issue in that episode. All the attention drawn to his disability (the bake-sale etc.) was well-intentioned and heart-warming, of course, but if I was in Artie’s shoes, I couldn’t have helped but feeling a little bothered by all the attention. For me personally, it goes to the core of the debate over labels: When I’m more comfortable with the gay label than with the disabled one, that’s because the former speaks to “who” I am, while the latter mainly speaks to “how” I am. I’m not running away from the fact that I’m disabled, but being gay has more to do with who I am on the inside. My legs don’t fall in love with other guys, my brain and my heart does.
I also enjoyed the other big Artie storyline, in which Tina convinces him that the scientific breakthough to cure him of his disability is right around the corner. It’s a very charming story, but with a kernel of melancholy. I remember when the doctors finally told me that I was never going to be able to learn how to walk, which had been the goal that much of my life had been organized around since the day I was born. I was completely devastated, and although I got through it after a while, my social awkwardness led me to hope for years that somehow there would be a breakthrough that would make me able to prove them wrong. So, while that episode mostly made me laugh, I could definitely see where Artie’s melancholy was coming from.
In the television industry, the term sophomore slump is used to describe shows that lose their way creatively and/or their connection with the audience because they fail to build on what made the first season a success. The O.C. had one of the worst cases of sophomore slump I can remember, getting lost in storylines about Sandy Cohen flirting with an old girlfriend, and Caleb’s would-be daughter. By the time the show regained its footing somewhat (it later lost it again), we were more than fifteen episodes into the season, and much of the audience was never to return. In the case of Glee, its audience luckily seems to be growing, and however uneven, the season so far doesn’t suggest that an O.C.-style implosion is ahead. However, this wouldn’t be Glee if it didn’t throw in a bad episode once in a while just to test my loyalty. I’ll stay tuned.