If you were conscious from 2009 to the early 2010s, you will have probably heard the Glee cast version of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ at least a few times. An international chart-topper, and the only Glee song to be nominated for a Grammy, it was almost impossible to miss. It was recorded a total of six times within the shows long, long six seasons, with Entertainment Weekly’s Ali Semigan stating that ‘Fox’s Glee put the ultimate earworm back in its rightful place’.
Of course, when it comes to what is arguably Ryan Murphy’s most infamous creation, the hit Journey cover is only the tip of the iceberg. One need only look online to see the legacy the show has left behind on our collective pop-cultural consciousness, with something of a Glee renaissance recently occurring across social media. On Twitter, fans of the show (‘gleeks’) discuss how they’re glad the show has ended, predicting the plotlines and covers we would have been subjected to had the series been allowed to continue (‘Have you thanked the Lord today that Glee was cancelled before we had to hear Kurt Hummel sing Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts”?’ asks Twitter user @RussellFalcon). On TikTok, a common trend includes users rewatching the show, showing their shocked reactions at the lack of foresight, absurd plot lines, and blatantly offensive dialogue.
The premise was simple: Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), a Spanish teacher at William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, takes over the school’s failing glee club in an attempt to restore it to its former glory. The musical comedy-drama focused mainly on the group of teenagers within the glee club: their relationships, their struggles, their hopes and dreams. It was marketed as satire with a progressive veneer; a defining feature being its not-quite-seamless oscillation between irony and sincerity. To some, this is the show’s greatest strength; to others, its greatest weakness.
Glee’s attempt at a socially conscious high school drama led its plot into many forking roads with somewhat questionable results. Writing an exhaustive list of Glee’s failures would be a near impossible job, but it’s worth reiterating that these failures are there, and they’re continuous. In the words of Twitter user @francisforevers, ‘what i respect about glee is they literally tackled every issue possible but not a single one of them was done well’.
What many see as quintessential of the Glee experience is its handling of gender and sexuality. If you went back in time and visited any playground in the early 2010s, you probably would’ve heard the show pejoratively labelled ‘gay’, and not just because of the showtunes. Glee’s sizeable cast of LGBT characters and refusal to shy away from explicitly dealing with LGBT themes has been largely credited as ushering in a new era of inclusivity on television.
Central to this was the character of Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), whose early coming out and subsequent relationship with Blaine Anderson (Darren Chris) resonated with many. Through Kurt, we not only witnessed a gay teenager live openly, have a strong support system, and enjoy his first romance, but also the rough reality of homophobic bullying. This representation was only strengthened with the addition of many other non-heterosexual characters, such as Santana and Brittany, whose on and off romance mirrored Kurt and Blaine’s across the show’s six seasons.
Transgender characters are also present in the show’s cast. Unique Adams (Alex Newell) was a powerful addition to the fourth season’s regular cast, and Newell’s cover of ‘If I Were a Boy’ following an incident of bathroom intimidation gave us a heart wrenching performance. The trans choir in the show’s sixth season similarly made for an uplifting show of solidarity between Unique and Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones), the school’s coach, after he comes out as a trans man.
Yet Glee’s positioning as a show of radical queer acceptance becomes questionable in retrospect. Whilst Kurt and Santana represented for many a validating portrayal of LGBT youth, Kurt and Santana’s biphobic comments are ultimately left unchallenged by their respective narratives. Likewise, Sue’s transphobia towards Unique is never fully addressed and condemned in the way Kurt’s homophobic bullying was. An especially offensive season six plot twist sees Blaine, after breaking up with Kurt, date Karofsky, Kurt’s ex-closted high school bully.
Glee’s treatment of race is particularly egregious. Characters of colour, whilst abundant, are frequently sidelined in a way that is self-consciously mocked with little resolution. ‘Why is it that no one ever wants to hurt her feelings?’ asks Mercedes (Amber Riley) of Rachel (Lea Michele), in a surprisingly meta fashion. ‘It’s always been the Rachel Berry show around here, but it’s not gonna be for me,’ she protests. This hinted at a new beginning for Glee, in which Mercedes, and, ultimately, Riley herself, would finally be given due respect after being so frequently overshadowed by her white peers. That is, until the writers continued to focus the show on Lea—er, Rachel—soon after the fact. The show’s two main Asian characters, Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) and Mike (Harry Shum Jr.) are also simultaneously ignored and exploited for jokes in the show’s early seasons. As Alex Jung writes, ‘rather than actually renege that notion [that the show exploits diversity] and complicate its characters of color, Glee furthered the jokes of tokenization’.
Despite the excellent addition of Becky (Lauren Potter), a student with Down’s syndrome, the show’s treatment of disability is surprisingly tactless. Not only is the character of wheelchair user Artie (Kevin McHale) played by an able-bodied actor, but Quinn (Dianna Agron) also resumes walking only four episodes after a near-fatal car accident. This extends to mental health, too, with Marley’s (Melissa Benoist) eating disorder disappearing almost as soon as it appeared, and her recovery left largely implicit.
The truth of the matter is that despite its genuine successes, Glee’s attempt at exploring these issues frequently fell flat, with Will Schuester’s gauche ‘You’re all minorities, you’re in the glee club’ forever remaining a preferred line at which critical gleeks love to cringe.
Glee is known for its absurdity. Who could forget the episode in which Rachel Berry sent newcomer Sunshine Corazon to a crackhouse to avoid having to face genuine competition? Or when Blaine, high on fumes from a gas leak, hallucinated that the rest of the glee club were puppets? The show’s absurdities reach their apex, however, in the character of Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch). The character that won Lynch multiple awards perfectly embodied Glee’s ethos of near indistinguishable irony and sincerity.
Through Sue, the writers frequently delivered self-aware (and self-deprecating) jabs at the show, spliced between her vicious insults at other characters, and Sue’s continued antipathy towards Will is one of the show’s driving plot points. As the seasons progressed, however, and the writers scrambled to find new ways for Sue to hate the glee club, some critics, such as Vulture’s Margaret Lyons, argued that her characterisation became tired and overdone.
But sometimes the absurdity just works. Perhaps the most ridiculous season six moment includes Sue revealing that she has a secret shrine to Klaine (the pairing of Kurt and Blaine), and lamenting her, and our, heartbreak over their breakup through voiceover: ‘When they broke up, I was devastated. Why?! They seemed to be doing so well and then suddenly it’s over? I hereby pledge to do whatever it takes to get them back together and achieve my ultimate goal: to be flower girl at their fabulous gay wedding.’ In the next episode, she traps them in a fake elevator, Saw-style puppet and all, threatening to only release them when they kiss. The writing is ridiculous, but arguably genius, almost Shakespearean—‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ repackaged for the postmodern musical.
Even after its 2015 finale, the mark the show has left on television is ubiquitous, much of which is owed to Ryan Murphy. His most recent venture, The Politician, in which he’s joined by fellow Glee creators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, is polished in a way that Glee wasn’t. The plot lines are equally absurd, with each series following a political race in which the titular aspiring politician is involved. Through struggles—and scandals—Murphy et al. have been given a second chance to dive deep into the social issues they attempted with Glee, tackling sexuality, suicide, a similarly messy handling of racial issues, and even Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Despite its flaws, it is, by many metrics, a masterpiece. Whether it ends up meeting Glee as an iconic piece of pop culture, only time will tell.
Of course, any reference to ridiculous plotlines would be insufficient without at least acknowledging Riverdale, the teen drama based on the Archie comics. Infamous for its descent into absurdity far removed from the high school drama many signed up for, the cringe-worthy lines, hateable characters, and musical numbers remind many of Glee. As a fan of the latter, it’s easy to dismiss these comparisons by appealing to Glee’s self-awareness, its willingness to self-deprecate. But what these comparisons ultimately forget is that, even without irony, the zeitgeist has shifted; what felt completely normal in the age of Glee feels passé in the age of Riverdale. It’s tempting to say that Glee walked so Riverdale could run, but that would be an understatement. Glee walked so Riverdale could crawl. In the words of Sue Sylvester, Riverdale is a sloppy, sloppy baby.
As with all iconic media, the phenomenon of Glee reaches far beyond the show or the soundtracks. Controversies, scandals, and tragedies are like fossils when it comes to the show, lurking underneath the surface in high abundance, waiting to be unearthed. Some are juicy, such as Ryan Murphy’s alleged ‘no hookup rule’ on set. Some are ridiculous, such as rumours of cast members not showing up to Heather Morris’ (Brittany) baby shower. And some are downright disturbing, such as Mark Salling (Puck) being arrested and charged with possession of child pornography, and subsequently committing suicide prior to sentencing.
But if Glee is a galaxy of controversy, Lea Michele is the sun. Michele dwarfed her cast members when drama was concerned; past rumours suggest feuds with other cast members and diva-like tendencies that haunted set. Most hilarious, and a personal favourite of mine, is a conspiracy theory manufactured by podcast One More Thing claiming that she is illiterate.
Most recent are the allegations made by Samantha Ware, who detailed the racist microaggressions Michele had subjected her to, including telling other cast members that she would ‘shit in [Ware’s] wig’. The responses of many other cast members seem to confirm the rumours that had floated around Michele for a decade, suggesting that the lines between the character and the actress may be more blurred than viewers previously assumed.
And yet, there’s still a lot to love about Glee. The endless celebrity cameos, the feel-good tunes, and, yes, the delicious absurdity of it all, make Glee easy viewing, and the frisson of seeing the glee club compete at competitions and work together as a team is unparalleled. ‘The Quarterback’ remains a heartfelt send off to Cory Monteith, who passed at the beginning of the show’s fifth season. Similarly, cast and fan tributes to Naya Rivera in the wake of her recent passing stand as a testament to the love Glee managed to foster.
A lot of people, myself included, like to theorise about where Glee went wrong, but what we frequently forget is that it was never going to be right. Ryan Murphy’s bastard child was doomed from the start—but maybe that’s okay. Needless to say, Glee deserves the fierce criticism it gets; after all, hating the show is a large part of being a gleek. Ultimately, Glee is a cultural relic, a window into what we assumed we knew and what we wished we had all along. It’s awful and it’s great, and I’ll never get tired of rewatching it, Journey covers and all.