Happy Memorial Day, kids, and welcome to my summer replacement Glee-wind column! There’s no new episode until season 5 debuts on August 29, so I’m climbing into the Wayback Machine to see where it all began. Every Monday and Friday, I’ll be posting new recaps for your reading pleasure. So all aboard the crazy train, and fasten your seat belts; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!
Unless you’ve been living under under a rock for the past three years, you’ve heard of the musical juggernaut that is Glee. The little musical TV show that could has spawned two live concert tours, a limited-release feature film from the second of these tours, several musical and karaoke apps and games for various platforms, young adult novels, clothing, and even accessories. And then there are the iTunes store sales. Oh, the iTunes store sales. Between the online singles released with each week’s episode and retail CD exclusives, there are 390 individual Glee tracks that have been performed on the show and offered for sale. (I know this because I own them all. Bought and paid for, much to the chagrin of my poor debit card.) The cast has sold more than 43 million songs worldwide, and holds the record for the most charted songs by a single act in the history of the Billboard Hot 100.
Clearly this show is popular, but why? What is it about a motley group of high school losers, rejects, theater nerds and drama queens that engenders such fierce loyalty from its fans? Certainly it doesn’t hurt that Glee debuted in May 2009 after the final performance show of that year’s American Idol season. It had a built-in audience who were already willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of music. A happy coincidence for Glee that year was that the Idol contestant who was generating the most hype (Adam Lambert) was a former Broadway baby who was not-so-secretly gay. Both Lambert and Glee seemed to be part of a cultural zeitgeist that put LGBT issues front and center in popular culture.
Glee was initially only picked up for 13 episodes, so the show’s creators wrote a story arc with a midseason finale that could have served as a series finale if necessary. This meant that the action went at a pretty breakneck pace, and you didn’t dare blink or you’d miss a one-liner or a salient plot point. The pace also meant that the show couldn’t pull any punches creatively, and this is a show with a lot on its mind. For instance, nobody who watches the character of Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) for more than 2 seconds would mistake him for straight. He’s not, for the record, but he does have a single dad who has grease under his fingernails and wouldn’t know Alexander McQueen from Steve McQueen. And there the predictable tropes stop. Kurt turns out to be an excellent place kicker who earns the jocks’ respect by winning them their first football game of the season – in just the fourth episode! He also comes out to his dad quietly but calmly after that game, and is rewarded with the best television dad in history. (Seriously, I think Burt Hummel is probably second only to Lorelai Gilmore as far as TV parents go.)
The rest of this initial story arc concerns parallel pregnancy story lines (a teen pregnancy with the kids, and a faked pregnancy by the glee club coach’s wife) as well as the club’s attempts to place at a Sectional competition and keep from being shut down by the school principal. They win the competition and live to fight another day. I was also really impressed to see that the writers didn’t take the standard TV “will they or won’t they”, Sam and Diane dynamic with series’ teenage leads, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) and Rachel Berry (Lea Michele). Even though Finn is the quarterback dating the head cheerleader, he manages to kiss Rachel by the second episode. It was nice not to be kept artificially guessing by writers who sometimes seem to just enjoy toying with their audiences.
Once the series returned from the midseason break, the glee club was back to rehearsal and working towards competition at Regionals. Club members were also having to learn how to work together and tolerate one another if they were to be successful. After all, as Rachel says, “being part of something special makes you special”. Therein, I think, lies the secret to Glee fans’ amazing loyalty. Anyone who’s ever felt out of place, or rejected, or bullied or just invisible in the high school herd has a place and a voice in Glee. As of the fourth season, viewers can see characters who represent ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities, as well as characters with physical and developmental disabilities. The Glee family may be dysfunctional, but it’s still a family. It’s still that special something that makes you special for having been part of it.