To Sir, With Love?: ‘Glee’s’ Will Schuester Problem

Since the first season, I’ve been indecisive about Glee; the writing is inconsistent, the episodes are uneven, and enjoying Glee always raises questions about whether or not the show is good or simply a shiny object. But now, in the show’s second season, the cracks in Glee’s construction are becoming more apparent. While season one tried to juggle the desires to be both a snarky critique of high school and a musical, season two has become about the set list, with obvious, underdeveloped vignettes disguised as plot to pad the hour. Character development, consistency, and pushing boundaries seem to have been sidelined in some unnamed quest to become a candy-coated crowd pleaser that throws a mildly risqué wisecrack in the mix to remind us that it’s clever.

The weak moments related to the show’s infrastructure could probably be ignored if they didn’t emphasize what’s arguably the most troubling aspect of Glee: the struggle to figure out what to do with Will Scheuster’s character. As the episodes increasingly focus on big performances and simple stories, the problem of developing the show’s central adult character has created a troubling, strange relationship between the students of New Directions and their advisor.

Teacher-student relationships on television are always unusually close; in real life, they’d likely set off parental and administrative alarm bells. Through the magic of television, however, viewers find a non-sexual type of romance in the supportive, mutually fulfilling teacher-student relationship. Teenagers become young adults and their parents’ roles become smaller, but the teacher-student plot reassures viewers that these almost-adults still have guidance. Over the course of a successful show, the fictional mentoring relationship takes on a new level when it takes a familiar plot turn: the insightful television teacher who preaches self-actualization finds that he or she is not above making mistakes and being a student him or herself.

But this fictional relationship is one of the more delicate ones depicted on television and must be carefully crafted by writers; in this relationship between attractive young people and slightly older attractive people, intimacy and appropriateness levels have to be carefully managed. Slippage beyond certain unseen boundaries can create awkwardness within the overarching narrative of the show and alienate viewers. At Glee, this television wisdom seems to have gone unheeded. And, in this season, these moments of slippage and inappropriateness have been occurring regularly.

In season one Will Schuester was over-sharey with his students, but that was easily excused by the cheeriness of the show, certain plot points (like Terry Schuester’s involvement with Quinn Fabray’s pregnancy), and fact that teenagers – televised or not – always seem to sniff our gossip about their teachers. The second season finds Will Schuester not only over-sharing with his students as he flounders at the hands of writers who can’t decide whether he should have his own adult story and whether or not that story should intersect with the lives of his students. As a result, the current trend on Glee is depict Will Schuester running around like a sex-obsessed, self-centered man whose colleagues must constantly state is “a good guy.”

And this has been the big problem – and an increasingly severe problem – with Glee all along: the show tells more than it shows. In this case, in which a character’s onscreen actions run counter to the rhetoric about him, a strong narrative conflict arises within the show which can quickly turn audiences against that character and the show as a whole. Compounding this problem is the fact that that character is, by most accounts, the center of the show.

The search to find Will Schuester a story and direction has resulted in a pattern of erratic, strange, and fully inappropriate behavior based around the conflicting impulses to depict Schuester as a model educator and a sexual being. For example, in the episode, “The Substitute,” Will Schuester nearly loses his job to the fun-loving but irresponsible substitute teacher Holly Holliday. But before his termination is complete, he’s rescued from unemployment by the collected testimonies of his students. In a well-cut and clever montage, the members of New Directions speak to Schuester’s strengths as a teacher and person.

Within the arc of season two, however, this moment rings hollow and verges on self-parody. Where are episodes where Will Schuester teaches Brittany the alphabet or counsels Rachel and Finn? Rather than show him as a teacher, we’ve been given the Will Schuester of season two’s second episode, “Britney/Brittany,” who made us uncomfortable by joining his students onstage at an assembly to do a raunchy version of Britney Spears’s “Toxic.” And two episodes before Holly Holliday rolled into town, Will Schuester used his students, school resources, and his position of authority to stage a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in order to impress the woman he would like to sleep with and steal her from her boyfriend.

What ends up happening is that the moments dedicated to plumbing the depths of Will Schuester’s libido resonate as weird and memorable (in the bad way) while the moments when he sits on the sidelines and guides his students puts him at an awkward distance from his actual narrative function. As a result, Will Schuester becomes a different character every episode while the show’s villain, Sue Sylvester, has become the show’s mouthpiece of pedagogical wisdom and common sense. And really, where’s the fun in that?