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Glee: A Study in Imperfection, Optimism, and Hope

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Glee is, above all, a completely unique pop artifact. When it burst onto the television and music scenes in 2009, it seemed like a truly terrible idea. Television musicals had been attempted before, of course, but never successfully, and it seemed as though Glee was just riding the waves of successful Disney Channel products like High School Musical. This was a show about teenagers in a high school singing and dancing, after all. To say that the show could have been a colossal disaster is an understatement, and it certainly doesn’t describe what Glee was and what it became. It also doesn’t make sense to call Glee a tremendous success, as it would have been easy to label it following its first and maybe even its second season. From there, the show dovetailed and more than occasionally became a parody of its earlier success. Make no mistake though, when Glee was succeeding, it was hard to find better television. The sixth season, essentially designed to bookend the show’s remarkably strange saga, was perhaps the most successful Glee has been since its first season. Not commercially, but as a show that existed to remind us of what it can be so easy to forget: that the world is a better place than many of us think it is.

The problem with Glee has always been its self-awareness as a piece of pop culture. Though it started as a humble show about a group of misfits, it quickly became conscious of its own success. With this consciousness came a kind of self-indulgence and pride at the show’s ability to give every issue attention, whether it be school shootings, bullying, or any number of other PSA-related issues. Now, this is not to say that the show never addressed these issues with class or care. Though some were thoroughly botched, others, like the story of how gay teen Kurt Hummel rose from class freak to a  completely accepted member of a close family, were consistently engaging, rich, and meaningful.

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Paradoxically, the self-awareness that could make Glee so frustrating was also a source of some great moments which function both within the context of the show and as a meta-commentary on its place within the pantheon of television. Glee consistently posited itself as a counter to the “doom and gloom” era of television represented by shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. It was aggressively optimistic, arguing that, despite what other shows may suggest, there is still hope and optimism to be found in the world. This was true of both the series itself and the little Glee club that existed inside of it. This show presented itself and its characters as almost counter-cultural, and while this could lead to some incidents of self-congratulation, it also proved to be a welcome change from the norm.

Is Glee as good as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad? Though art is subjective, few would argue that this is the case. Game of Thrones and Breakign Bad are much closer to being masterpieces than Glee ever was. They are consistently engaging, brilliantly written, and work on both emotional and, more frequently, intellectual levels. Glee wasn’t this kind of show and for what it’s worth, it never seemed like it wanted to be. Instead it was a show that worked on its viewers almost entirely emotionally. It wanted those who watched it to feel the joy of every musical number and sought to move its viewers with moments that, though occasionally overly dramatic, were usually earned largely because of the show’s wonderful cast.

On the whole, it’s hard to determine exactly what Glee’s legacy will be. It wasn’t a great show and it wasn’t even always good. It didn’t create a winning formula for future television shows. Glee was messy, full of energy and charisma but also earnest to a fault. Still, Glee ultimately proved itself to be a show worth watching. For the die-hard fans who love it, it’s a show that encourages not just optimism and hope, but also promotes diversity and sheds light on issues that, even in the modern television age, are underrepresented. It earned its place in TV history, even if only for its impact. Sure, the show had a habit of patting itself on the back. It believed itself to be important and as a result, progressively became less and less so. Despite this, the show really did make a mark on the lives of its viewers, encouraging them to think outside of their boxes and telling them to follow their dreams. Cliches, sure, but ones based in truth.

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Season six of Glee was an exercise in humility. In it, we watched the show’s characters rebuild themselves completely after suffering from the overconfidence that plagued the show only to emerge happier and more boisterous than ever. The series finale saw the show’s various characters achieving goals and dreams that they have been working towards for the entire series’ run. Whether it be Kurt’s new musical or Rachel’s Tony Award, wish fulfillment ran rampant in Glee’s final episode. It could be argued that all of this joy is undeserved and that the unabashed happiness of the show’s final installment is indulgent, the show going overboard with its themes. And this would be true, if the pall cast by star Cory Monteith’s demise were not hanging over the proceedings. Watching the finale, it’s clear that this is not how the show was supposed to end. The show-runners adjusted the ending following Monteith’s tragic death.

As devastating as the loss of both Monteith and his character are, these tragedies also give added life and meaning to Sue Sylvester’s final sentiments about the Glee club she has so desperately tried to destroy. “It takes a lot of bravery to look around you and see the world not as it is, but as it should be.” This may be the show patting itself on the back one last time for existing in an era where that sentiment is not common, but it’s also true. Particularly given Monteith’s death, it becomes incredibly important to understand how brave the show is. They lost their leading man, their heart and soul, and they still ended with the same wide-eyed hopefulness that they had when the show first premiered. There’s certainly something impressive about that. Glee was not great TV, but it was brave. Not creatively or even musically, but because it had the courage to see the darkness in life and acknowledge that while it’s there, it can be overcome. The show ended its finale with “I Lived,” a song by One Republic. Glee did what life so often does. It was good, then bad, then sad, and finally good again. Personally? I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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