Re-watching Ryan Murphy’s 2009 creation, “Glee,” was an accident at first, then a happy choice. Some might say this follows the same trajectory as the show itself. At the time the show was airing, I don’t think I made it further than season two. I got tired of the contrived plot lines and song covers. For those who don’t know, “Glee” follows a club of misfits who love to sing, led by the cutesy and irritating teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison). Here are some assorted thoughts I have after revisiting the series on its 10th anniversary (happy birthday, “Glee!”).
(For heightened reading pleasure, please read every time I write “Glee Club” in Sue Sylvester’s voice.)
First, there are some episodes that stuck out as too important not to mention on their own. The peak of the show’s self-awareness, the pilot, is what made me sit up and wonder, “Huh, did ‘Glee’ have hidden depths? Can I laugh with it as opposed to just at it?” Then there was “Vitamin D” (episode six), where Will’s insane, fake-pregnant wife (perhaps in itself a misogynistic plot point to allow him and Emma to end up together?) drugs the Glee Club. Mash-ups ensue, leading to a truly an unbeatable combination. This was followed a couple episodes later with “Mash-Up” (episode eight), where musings on the core aspects of coolness meet… more mash-ups. Need I say more (mash-ups)?
Then there is the ever-momentous “Sectionals” (episode 13), the first face-off between the Glee Club and the real world. Inspiration and powerful vocals ensue. There’s “The Power of Madonna” (episode 15), an episode for which the entire plot is contained in the title, combining Madonna and empowerment in one! The episode devoted to Lady Gaga covers, “Theatricality” (episode 20), shows another form of empowerment-through-artist, and the perfect mother-daughter pair of Lea Michele and Idina Menzel; one unnecessarily slow duet of “Poker Face” stands out. And, finally, “Journey to Regionals” (the season finale), which rounds off the whole shebang, features an absolutely unmissable mishmash of everything that makes “Glee” season one great with the crowning glory of a “Journey” medley.
The main question that I come away with upon re-watching season one of “Glee” is this: Do they know? Do they recognize that most of the content of their show is ridiculous? Sometimes I think yes—when the camera zooms in on a “priority one: help the kids” sign as Will blackmails Finn into joining the club, or whenever Sue creates a meticulous and specific insult for Will’s hair. Sometimes, I think they must—when Finn sings “You’re Having My Baby” to Quinn at the table with her two parents who don’t know she’s pregnant, and the “hot tub pregnancy” in the first place.
Mostly, though, I’m not so sure—when the club members are forced to use wheelchairs for a week to understand how their friend with a disability feels, when we find out Tina has been faking her stutter. I could go on and on about Emma’s “OCD,” Mr. Schue’s aca-fellas group, Quinn giving birth to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Everything seems completely serious and simultaneously nothing does.
This serious-yet-not-so-serious attitude is the aspect of “Glee” that becomes most questionable when the show tries to deal with “real” issues; the issues it places front and center as it forms a club based on “misfit” identities, yet seems to want the audience to ignore when it isn’t convenient to the plot. The show almost seems to embrace what many scholars have identified as the most problematic aspects of portrayals of disability (used only as inspiration, portrayed by actors without disabilities, used as plot points without purpose, etc.), race (calling a black woman racist for saying that white people don’t understand funk music, embracing stereotypical portrayals of the “diva” oftentimes without depth, etc.), and more. Does this make “Glee” a product of its time, a self-aware mockery of the worst sides of identity politics, or a scathing mockery of so-called “PC culture?”
One thing that “Glee” portrays moderately well, though, is discourse around sexuality. Kurt’s dad (Mike O’Malley) shines as a parent coming to terms with his child’s sexuality as something new to him but intrinsic to a person he loves. There are some pretty regressive attitudes showcased but dare I say… they deal with them? Of course, I haven’t reached the point in the show where they bring in the abusively-homophobic-person-is-gay trope, but I also haven’t yet reached the point where they (from what I can recall) have a very poignant storyline about coming to terms with your own sexuality with regards to a close friend. So it’s definitely a theme I’ll be keeping an eye on.
But there is something you get from “Glee” that just doesn’t exist in a memory, a compilation video or a playlist. It’s that sense of disbelief that you’re actually watching it, yes. But there’s also the confusion over which of the songs and actions are deemed “good” within the world of the show and what makes them different from others. But it’s also that magical quality of “Glee,” that quality you can only get with the combination of plot, songs, dialogue and characters, the magic that ranges from incredibly tone-deaf to heartwarming to deeply ironic. Like Britney, the show’s best character, “Glee” is dumb, fun and pretty gay.
So, for anyone who finds themselves clicking on “Best ‘Glee’ Performances” or “Top Ten ‘Glee’ Mashups” videos on YouTube, for anyone who finds themselves nostalgic for a time when one Ryan Murphy show reigned confusingly supreme, I recommend clicking over to Netflix and starting “Glee” once again. Join me, and we can “Glee”-watch season two together! Final words: Mercedes needs more solos.