Last Friday, “Glee” ended not with a bang but with a whimper. Okay, not a literal whimper; the show’s final moments were filled with the typical blend of skipping, twirling and electronically processed diva-belting. But in the broader pop culture galaxy, the “Glee” finale was not an astonishing supernova but a hard-to-spot wink. The show’s final season had only netted about 1/10 of the viewers who had once tuned in week after week to be serenaded by New Directions.
How did this happen? I can’t answer that objectively. But what I can do is tell you a subjective story: the story of how I fell out of love with “Glee.” What follows is the tale of a love-hate relationship, followed by a scathing breakup.
Like every other theatre kid in America, I tuned in to the 2009 premiere. And, like every other theatre kid in America, I was spellbound. And understandably so: the show’s pilot is still one for the books, juggling comedy with drama, and appreciable subtlety (“Where Is The Love” from “Oliver!”) with outright, unabashed crowd-pleasing (“Don’t Stop Believing.”) The show’s vocals were (and are) overproduced, sure, but it was clear that it would still provide a serious, sonic sugar rush.
It was also clear that the show would give us something more substantive to chew on””an exaggerated, yet often brutally honest, depiction of what it was like to go through high school as a social, sexual or ethnic minority. As a bisexual, Jewish theatre kid, I found this story intrinsically appealing. I loved it. I ate it up. My theatre friends and I were so obsessed that we actually made our producer leave her office TV on so we could watch it when we weren’t onstage.
But then, around season three, something began to change. The fun music became insipid (Mr. Schuester’s rapping). The serious stuff started to come off like a “special issue” episode of a soap opera (“Shooting Star,” anyone?). And Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry officially became less of a Barbra Streisand homage and more of a Barbra Streisand parasite, living off of the various triumphs of my musical idol. By season four, I was done. The later seasons had their finer moments (especially when the Warblers were involved), but it was never enough. I’ve watched parts of the successive seasons and most of the finale, but “Glee” and I never got back together. C’est la vie.
Part of the problem, I think, has to do with longevity. More than any other show on TV, “Glee” depended on a delicate, emotional balance, and, over a prolonged period of time, that balance was just hard to sustain.
Crudity slipped over into meanness. Fun slipped over into ticklish nonsense. The genuinely moving became maudlin. What’s more, the show never fully recovered from “graduating” its original cast: they had a unique chemistry that the replacements, for all their respective (and respectful) efforts, never captured.
In the end, “Glee” crashed and burned. But that doesn’t change its status as a trailblazer, as a show that cleared the way for musicals on television, and that burst open the closet to welcome diversity on TV.
It also doesn’t erase the little file of great TV moments that I’ll forever keep in my memory bank: Jane Lynch’s exquisite bitchery, Chris Colfer’s powerful vulnerability and the pitch-perfect musical numbers that the show pulled off when it really put its mind to it.
In short, I did eventually stop believing in “Glee.” But I’ll never stop appreciating what it did for television.