Since roughly the midpoint of its first season, Glee has been a train wreck. Which means that despite the show’s endless onslaught of WTF moments—like when Rachel and her estranged mother bond, love glue gunning all over the place, during a bizarre take on Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”—I have not been able to tear my eyes from it.
For a while, I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly why the derailment happened. Mostly, my concerns have been about Glee’s slow transformation from a smart send-up of the High School Musical films (and teen dramas more generally) into a heavy-handed, humorless public service announcement. I held off on passing judgment on that transformation because the show did, once upon a time, seem innovative in its attempts to explore topics like physical disability, queerness, and interracial teen relationships. Excepting the wheelchair stunt double kerfuffle, Glee’s writers exposed those issues with equal amounts of satire and sincerity.
I’m thinking here of moments such as when Kurt comments that he and Mercedes, as a gay male and black female, “create culture”, or his coming out scene—one that was (initially) not fraught with all kinds of daddy-issue psychodrama. Sure, certain episodes would come off like the United Colors of Benetton ads of yore: “Hey look at all of this cultural difference we pack into our show which, at the end of the day, is really just selling you a bunch of stuff”. But just like those Benetton ads, those moments were necessary to drive home the larger tensions that the show was excavating.
Then season two’s “Grilled Cheesus” episode concluded in a church, which has me thinking that, yes, the writers are preaching to us.
Emerging alongside of Glee’s frustratingly pronounced sermonizing has been its increasingly exaggerated product placement gestures. Again, these gestures initially seemed just the standard fare of our current moment in television—and media—history. Viewers could always see the logos on the various cell phones that Jack Bauer used throughout his eight-day career, just like viewers can easily spot the Chevrolet emblems that adorn virtually every car in the new Hawaii Five-0. In that light, Glee’s eager willingness to move units for Journey, or Kiss, didn’t seem egregiously commercial.
I was comfortable with offering Glee that particular allowance, until the show’s writers unveiled this season’s highly publicized “Britney/Brittany” episode. My only recourse after that debacle was to issue the following stern lecture. No worries, Glee. I’m doing this for your own good.
As I’ve mentioned before, the “Britney” episode brings Glee’s major weaknesses to the surface like so much sweat on a leather chair. In essence, the show’s writers just cannot seem to push their themes far enough to meld Glee’s cultural touchstones—and cultural criticism—into something wholly original, something that doesn’t simply reproduce the social order that it is attempting to reorganize.
By writing an entire episode based on Britney Spears’ music, the writers had an opportunity to complicate both the music history that they draw upon, as well as the way the show configures queer sexuality, which is obviously its focal point at the moment. Rather than continuing to think of each separate episode in isolation, as merely a series of separate moments to plug different artists, the writers could have, and should have, looked back to their previous Madonna episode to draw upon her work at upsetting gender and sexual norms, a move that could have complicated the way that music, embodiment, and sexuality are deployed and understood by all of the students and teachers at William McKinley High.
In other words, Britney and Madonna made out during a live musical performance. It does not speak well of Glee’s writers that they did absolutely nothing with that one moment in time, preferring instead to trot out commonplace understandings of both performers: Madonna is a paragon of “empowerment”; Britney sends teens into hysterical sex riots.
This kind of hackneyed writing has plagued the show since the beginning. McKinley is awash in archetypal American high school characters: “popular” jocks, quirky teachers, cheerleaders who only own one uniform that they wear every day of their lives. Sure, part of the function of these stereotypes is to reveal the social structures that, it would seem, the show is trying to subvert; but again, how successful can that subversion be if it’s coming from a collective authorial imagination that can’t even fathom the possibility that the Cherrios (ding!) might also have away uniforms?
Take, for instance, the recent plotlines surrounding Finn’s exile from the football team and Artie’s pleas to try out for the same team. Finn, essentially the show’s protagonist, is, of course, the quarterback. Though we see him struggle repeatedly with his responsibilities to his team and his goon teammates, he still remains steeped in traditional markers of (masculine) adolescent heroism. While Artie’s attempts to secure a football tryout are ostensibly intended to upset the dominance of the able-bodied football players, they really just reaffirm that dominance.
Despite whatever challenges Artie might present to the social structures around him, football still remains the key to success—social and romantic—for him. Rather than the writers imagining a high school where the disabled might not feel disenfranchised because they can’t play football, the best that they can do is incorporate him into the hierarchy as it currently stands—instead of completely upending that hierarchy.
This heavy dependence on stereotypes similarly sabotages Glee’s attempts to question the role that religion plays in its characters’ lives, an interrogation that—shocker!—has also become one of the show’s central concerns. Like with the bulk of the show’s pedantic moments, this particular interrogation is founded entirely on a troubling series of premises that we must accept uncritically.
To start, of course, we must accept that these teens find religion incompatible with their lives, except for, of course, Mercedes, who sings at church. Then, of course, we have to accept that the only person who can ever possibly get pregnant after engaging in premarital sex is the outspoken (naturally hypocritical) Christian cheerleader. Next, of course, we must accept that said cheerleader’s baby bump will make things very complicated for her during her celibacy club meetings. Also, we must accept the apparent universal existence of such clubs, which probably meet in the same room that all the band geeks patronize for their unhinged orgies.
Along these same lines, we have to accept, apparently, the notion that religious and existential crises can be solved simply by eating some good ol’ comfort food—a grilled cheese sandwich, to be specific. To be fair, the ripped-from-the-headlines premise of “Grilled Cheesus” was hilarious, and, as is often the case, it seemed to present the perfect opportunity for the writers to lambaste organized religion, as well as the media-saturated world Glee’s characters inhabit. But then they went and sent Kurt’s father to the hospital, leaving him clutching onto life with both hands, which is why Kurt wants so desperately to hold them.
Was that cruel? If so, then, that really just proves my point: the major plotline of that episode was so constraining, for the characters and for the viewers, that it left no room for humor, satire, irony—all of the things that can make Glee fresh, disruptive, and potentially threatening to the social order it represents. Instead, “Grilled Chessus” introduced a variety of worthy, weighty topics—tense father-son relationships, religious crisis, the fragility of life—and then wrapped them up as simplistically as a single slice of Velveeta. As Finn sits, prayer-like in his kitchen, consuming the sandwich that he once thought contained visage of Jesus, we, the viewers, are left gazing at the absurdity of his character’s behavior, not the alleged absurdity of religious faith, which, it seems, was what we were supposed to see in that episode.
To put it another way, Jesus Christ, minutes out of the desert, wouldn’t even eat that sandwich. Not, that is, because the sandwich contained an image of his face, or because doing so would signify the ultimate excretion of religion from his body—a point that the writers, who are not particularly shy about using gross out humor (c.f. the aforementioned butt sweat), could have made. No, no. Jesus wouldn’t eat that sandwich, most likely, because it was so darn old! Besides, every right-thinking believer knows that God communicates to us through snack food,not through grilled cheese sandwiches.
As a result, “Grilled Cheesus” concludes with Finn looking more like a starving doofus than anything else, which, once again, is in keeping with the way that so-called jocks are traditionally portrayed in this genre. Stereotype maintained. Challenge not thrown down. Look forward to the Rocky Horror episode. End. Of. Story.
It is downright painful to see a show that, at least in name, alludes to an ultra-literate publishing group rely so heavily on clumsy writing and innumerable illogical banalities: “You know, Kids, just be yourselves, by emulating the posturing of a mainstream pop star like Lady Gaga, who is constantly changing who she is. Then, life will be swell!” If those concerned are unaware of that literary allusion, and the expectations that it establishes, then they should really start doing their homework. Glee’s writing will only benefit in the long run.