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10 Years Later: A ‘Glee’ Retrospective

The road to success is not a straight path.

This is arguably the message of Glee–a show that, at the time broke boundaries and challenged cultural norms. It starts out like many underdog shows. The first episode of Glee shows us spunky, bright-eyed misunderstood artists, ready to take on high school. Even their teacher, William Shuester (Matthew Morrison) isn’t quite defeated by his unachieved dreams. He loves his job–or at least he loves helping kids–and he wants to keep doing it.

The beginning of the show is charming. It has a nice story and interesting characters. There are elements of magical realism that evokes feelings of being back in high school. Watching your friend sing to you won’t actually make a spotlight magically appear and singing in the hallways to an unrequited crush will certainly draw their attention, but Glee uses these types of scenarios to mix high school drama with musical theater and music videos.

The show has a strong start. If Glee would have ended with one season, it would have still had an incredible legacy. The first season is extremely tight and it goes overboard in all the right ways. It has an innovative and moving storyline about Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley). Kurt and Burt navigate the issue of Kurt’s sexuality with intentional messiness. Burt doesn’t always know how to be supportive, but he always tries. They don’t fall into the binary of parents who unquestioningly accept their children’s sexuality and parents who refuse to accept their children’s sexuality. Burt has plenty of questions and discomfort around his son’s sexuality, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t try. It is easily the best and most effective storyline on Glee, and one to be remembered in the history of LGBT+ storylines in television history.

But looking back at Glee is hard. It’s difficult to watch the show knowing the fate of the real-life actors embodying these roles. It’s hard to watch Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) learn that his father died of a drug overdose knowing that the actor would meet the same fate not long after. It’s uncomfortable to see the actors who, despite their young age, would die before the pilot could reach its tenth birthday.

Finn Hudson dies off-camera in the episode “The Quarterback.” Kurt narrates the beginning of the episode. By this point, the two were step-brothers and it drew Kurt and the others back to Lima even though the show at the time was set partially in New York City. Kurt tells the audience that the reasons why Finn died are unimportant. This move is inherently problematic, and it avoids the issue of having to decide if Finn’s struggles would mirror Monteith’s.

But this leads to Finn being almost entirely devoid from the episode. The performances in the episode were raw and powerful, but the story was lacking and it focused almost entirely on the people left behind. In some ways, it’s fitting. Finn’s legacy is the impact he had on others. But the entire rest of the show is about his legacy and how the characters are able to go on without self-destructing. An episode that fans looked to to mourn the passing of the character Finn Hudson and the real-life Cory Monteith was a nonsensical story that ignored Finn’s personal growth.

The episode placed a great deal of importance on Finn’s popularity. Finn was the quarterback, and he used his social standing to help the club. However, this ignores that Finn often had to grapple with the fact that his popularity was not enough to stop the harassment of New Directions. Moreover, by the end of his time in high school, he realizes that he’s really not that good of a quarterback either.

Part of growing up is dealing with these kinds of disappointments. Teenagers grapple with being a big fish in a small pond even if they are immensely talented. But Finn was so much more than that. Finn’s growth was realizing he didn’t peak in high school. He wasn’t the group’s quarterback. He was their friend and teacher. He was a mentor and someone at the beginning of finding out what they excelled at outside of the safety of William McKinley High School.

To call Finn the quarterback ignores the thing he was best at and the things that made him the happiest. The episode revolves around how his letterman’s jacket (a continuity error–he had sold it in his senior year) changed hands from person to person. The plaque was the more fitting memorial and symbolism for Finn. The club didn’t excel because Finn protected everyone because that was something he wasn’t able to do. The magical thing that happened was that he transcended his role as the quarterback of their high school. When the club saw how well they fit together despite the absurdity, they started to believe in the absurdity of them being champions.

By the point in the show that Cory Monteith passes, the show was already circling the drain.  The first three seasons are pretty good television, even with Shue’s rapping. Subsequent seasons would not be as good. When the characters graduate, there is little holding the show together other than their friendship. Still, Glee cast charming, charismatic actors that you just want to root for. But, by season four, this had become a parody of itself. They were repeating the same storylines to remind the viewer of when the show was better. In the process, they weren’t letting the characters live their lives.

High school is formative for many people, but it should not be the peak for talented individuals. It’s preparation for the rest of your life. Ideally, these years should have ripe opportunities for making adult mistakes with the safety net of still being a child. Seasons one through three leaned into this, but the rest of the show couldn’t move past these issues. Though the show wasn’t a sitcom, it fell into the issue of resetting characters when it was convenient at the expense of the story.

Glee will be remembered. There is no doubt about that. Despite the show’s inconsistent quality and jokes that certainly haven’t aged well, Glee did things no one else was doing. If Glee aired for the first time today completely as is, it would still be subversive and empowering in many ways. But the show kept trying to top itself to the point where no one was allowed to grow up. Characters who change significantly, namely Santana, are all entirely absent from the show by the end.

Like Kurt, Santana (Naya Rivera) had a memorable run on the show for the attention her story brought to the presence of LGBT youth. Santana clearly is part of the history of hyper-femme lesbians in media. She is very feminine and has several relationships with men throughout the course of the show. Discussion of her lesbianism starts as a throw-away joke. Brittany (Heather Morris) mentions on a phone call to the other New Directions members that she and Santana have a sexual relationship. This is quickly glossed over and not addressed again for quite some time.

When Brittany and Santana’s relationship is first addressed in any meaningful way, it feels like fan service. They’re both in Brittany’s room kissing each other or on a date with a man promising he can watch them kiss if he buys them bread sticks. Their emotional journey is later developed, but the pendulum swings again. Now their story is devoid of any affection. This was likely a result of the network feeling uncomfortable with the development of a lesbian relationship, but it still has a lasting effect on the show.

Glee‘s own biases are not meaningfully addressed either. The show has several characters with down syndrome, but throws around the r-word in early seasons. Santana, during one of her breaks from her relationship with Brittany, says she doesn’t want to date bisexual women anymore, the excuse being that she wants someone who actually likes women–a biphobic statement that is never properly unpacked.

Glee was mean in the early seasons. The characters mercilessly bullied one another. Even Finn Hudson, arguably the hero of the show, referred to Kurt as a slur in the early seasons of the show. However, Glee did give the oppressed agency. Kurt was one of the driving forces on the show and was never simply reduced to his sexuality. Similarly, Becky Jackson (Lauren Potter), while she often grapples with the reality of having Down’s Syndrome, also has plenty of other character quirks and roles she plays in the story.

Glee has its biggest problems with power when it comes to its heroes. Finn has more than a few problematic moments, and, especially when viewed in 2019, he arguably leans homophobic at times. He weaponizes queerness against other characters, and when there are consequences for this, he claims to have not understood the consequences of the things he had done in anger. Finn has a lot of growing to do, but it is always presented as fact that he will grow. Because we don’t adequately explore Finn’s darker side and prejudices, we never get a full understanding of the character. This is a shame, because the most fascinating parts of Glee are the situations and characters that live in a gray area.

Like with Finn, at times the show didn’t understand who was the hero or the villain. Will Schuester crosses many boundaries with his students, and often prefers to play petty games than simply talk to the people he has a problem with. This is annoying when the character he has a conflict with is an adult, and problematic when it’s a student. Schuester is as gleeful taking Sue down a peg as he is Rachel.

However, Schuester is never thoughtfully examined. The characters who call him out are undercut by their own villainy. Santana and Sue (Jane Lynch) are merciless to the other characters, and when valid criticisms are put into the mix, it can be seen as a moment of clarity, but it is mostly lost in the mix.

The songs on the show ranged from genuinely good to genuinely bad. Every singer on the show was very talented, but the performances and arrangements varied greatly. Sometimes this was intentional. Particularly in the first season, the songs were often meant to be bad. But at times it was unclear if the New Directions were meant to be putting on a poor performance or not. By the time the show covered “Gangnam Style,” it wasn’t clear what was good and what was bad.

Now we’ve reached 2020, when the epilogue of the show is meant to take place. Glee began to air in 2009, and I finished the series in 2019. I gave up on the show while the fourth season aired. It just didn’t have that same spark that it had when everyone was still in high school. Many of the plots from season four on became legitimately depressing. What was traumatic in seasons one through three was presented with the understanding that life gets better after high school. When the characters continued to fail and make the same mistakes into adulthood, it feels like a bad message.

Glee was about finding your talent. It was always done with the understanding that nothing is permanent, and the New Directions would always have to move on. That’s a bittersweet message. There’s the good and bad parts of that. They’ll see their friends less, and they’ll see their tormentors less. They’ll know what friendships will stand the test of time and which ones will fade away. But, most importantly, they’ll be able to more fully find themselves without the restraints of high school and childhood.

In 2020, Rachel has won a Tony award and stayed friends with most of The New Directions. But she has also married the tormentor who spent most of his time on the series gaslighting her. We don’t see Jesse St. James redeem himself. We just have to assume that he does. Rachel has achieved all that she ever wanted in high school, but, now that she’s an adult, shouldn’t she want more than that? The show has always highlighted Rachel as its star and main character. It’s a strange choice to have her, after a decade, continue to be limited by the plan she made for herself in childhood. Likewise with Finn, the show could never acknowledge Rachel’s developments and constantly reduced her to who she was in the pilot episode.

In the end, the show was as much of a fantasy as it was in the magical realism of season one. Unfortunately, the fantasy has gone from merely the performances to every aspect of these characters’ lives. Either the characters were losing everything or they were on top of the world. Glee had trouble operating in shades of gray. Moreover, the addition of legions of new characters–some added by the reality competition show The Glee Project–distracted from what the show was actually about.

Glee has a real legacy. It was a show that had an impact on all forms of media. The fans connected with the characters and storylines. Much of this does hold up, but, upon rewatch, it just gets more and more difficult to get through. The show goes from sensitively done stories about trauma to Darren Criss dancing with puppets. Glee lost its way, and it never quite managed to get back on track.

…And that’s what you missed on Glee.

Fiona L.F. Kelly (@FionaLFKelly)
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She has published numerous articles about all things gaming and pop culture on websites all across the internet, was also a writer for Trinity Continuum: Aberrant 2e, and has been published in books and magazines. She is an editor for the pop culture and media website GeekGals.co. In addition to her writing and editing, she has also been a guest and host on several podcasts. She hosts the Project Derailed podcast Big Streaming Pile, produces and performs on Fables Around the Table, and plays the githyanki pirate Rav’nys on Tales of the Voidfarer. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/fionalfkelly

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