Friday, April 1, 2011

A Very Glee Blog Post

Regular readers and personal friends will know that I like watching Glee almost as much as I like complaining about Glee. There's just so much to complain about! Lately all my thoughts on Glee have been channeled to my best gals Emily and Erica at the awesome GleeKast, thus depriving my lovely readers of many wise insights and/or fangirly squees (unless you listen to GleeKast, which you should, because it is, as I said, awesome).

My love for Glee is like the Grateful Dead's back catalog: vast, inexplicable, and deeply confusing. Each episode entertains and delights me; each episode offends and annoys me – and my feelings about the show in any given week tilt with the balance of these two axes. Even the better episodes always have a number of elements that need fixing, and the worst ones are downright unpleasant to watch. Nevertheless, Glee has a genuine wildness at its heart, a disconnect from reality and a compelling originality that maintains its status as appointment viewing.

Last time I blogged about the most annoying show on TV was in November. At that time, Glee was really getting on my tits. The ten episodes of Glee's second season that aired before Christmas included the delights of “Duets” and the uneven pleasures of “Grilled Cheesus”, “The Substitute”, and “Furt”, but there was also a slew of truly awful episodes: “Britney/Brittany”, “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”, and “A Very Glee Christmas”. In 2011, the good/bad balance has been more to the positive side, with lots to enjoy about “Silly Love Songs” and “Blame It on the Alcohol”, while “Sexy” and “Original Song” featured enough fanservice to counteract their problematic parts.

My assessment of TV's finest musical dramedy depends not only on my aesthetic response to each episode, though, but also on how much it offends me politically. From the outset, Glee declared its political intent: it was to be an all-inclusive rainbow story of diversity, embracing the bullied, the outcast, and the marginalized kids – per its tagline, it's “for the underdog in all of us”. How it's actually handled diversity, however, has varied wildly.

First, the evidence for the prosecution:

Example 1 – Blaine thinks he might be bisexual. I think there is a chance for the show to offer a thoughtful, nuanced story about adolescent insecurity regarding sex and sexual identity. We actually get a flip resolution and an apparent reinforcement of Kurt's biphobia (“Bisexual is a term that gay guys in high school use when they wanna hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change”). N.B. I still hold out hope for a slightly different exploration of adolescent sexual insecurity now that Blurt is a real, honest-to-God thing.

Example 2 – Mercedes. Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes. For God's sake, Glee writers, can't you give poor Amber Riley something to do? If you need some lessons in writing for a woman of color, I'm sure the writers of Community would be able to school you; perhaps in exchange for a nice ratings-boosting in-show plug. When Mercedes told Mr. Schue, in “Original Song”, that her song was good, and he said it wasn't regionals material, I felt that his comment bore the unspoken subtext “because it doesn't foreground the white kids”. Note also the near-total silence of Tina and Mike Chang this season. For a show that started out trading on its Benetton-ad diversity, Glee is really quite amazingly racist.

Example 3 – Quinn gets a personality transplant every five minutes. One day she's the closest thing New Directions has to a feminist; the next all she wants is to be prom queen. And there's the whole virgin-whore thing, where every female character is one or the other; the way a male character can lose his virginity (and even regret it, as Finn and Artie both do) without suffering in any discernible way, but when Quinn loses it she has to go through the oldest punishment in the book to earn her way back to (pseudo-)virgin status; the way, as The Funny Feminist points out, the hetero relationships are focalized through the male party. Sometimes I think that Glee just hates women.

Example 4 – the kicker; in my opinion, the absolute worst thing that has ever happened on Glee. I speak, of course, of Cyborg Artie in “A Very Glee Christmas”. A lot of PWD (that's people with disabilities to you non-PC brigade) find the casting of able-bodied Kevin McHale to play wheelchair-using Artie deeply problematic, because so few parts are available to actors with disabilities (google “crip drag”, y'all). The storyline with Artie's robot legs was the nadir of this show's neverending parade of offensiveness: “Hey, kids using wheelchairs, if your gym teacher is a gazillionaire, then maybe one day you too can walk again like a REAL BOY! It’s a ~*~Christmas miracle~*~”... I hope I don't have to explain why this is so very, very offensive. (If I do, then seriously, google “crip drag” and get self-educating.) The prosecution rests.

None of these things are defensible, of course, so the defense counsel can only hope to outweigh them with counterexamples. Step up:

Counterexample 1 – Coach Bieste becomes a BAMF. As you know, her treatment in “Never Been Kissed” turned my stomach, and since then the writers have wisely stepped back from the 40-year-old virgin territory. For a moment in “Blame It on the Alcohol”, I was terrified that they were going to go there, which would have undermined a truly awesome sequence of her and Will having a buds' night out at the roadhouse (Patrick Swayze sadly too deceased to cameo). At this point, their friendship is almost the only thing I like about Will. Long may it continue.

Counterexample 2 – Lauren Zizes. Oh, she is wonderful. A character who was initially nothing more than a delivery service for mean-spirited and offensive jokes (the AV nerd is fat! The fat girl is always eating! Ha ha!) has transcended this role to become one of my favorite characters in the whole ensemble. Lauren doesn't buy into society's prescriptions for women's body-image; she knows she's beautiful; she doesn't truck with standard Glee self-congratulatory footling around minority characters, telling Puck to cram it when he's being offensive; and, hell, I know a woman doesn't need a hot guy to validate her, but I really do love the Zizes/Puckerman pairing. They're just such a fun couple.

Counterexample 3 – Burt and Kurt's father-son relationship goes from strength to strength. Their every interaction nails it so hard that it's almost as if they've been airlifted in from a different show, one that values things like consistency and believability. The After-School-Special aspect of Glee has been handled really quite well lately, from the Kurt/Karofsky business to a teen-drinking episode that was reasonably realistic and not too preachy. Despite its frequently cartoonish nature, Glee has an ability to totally commit to its PSA-like aspects, with an endearing, My So-Called Life-ish earnestness.

Counterexample 4 – you knew this was coming! Brittana. Santittany. Whatever you choose to call them, they are another terrific instance of Glee's capacity to flesh out one-joke stereotypes far beyond what anyone could have predicted, into one of the best things about the show. Objectivity will never be a part of this for me, because I've been shipping this portmanteau with every atom of my being ever since that first fateful one-liner back in December '09, but I am super-chuffed with how this storyline is unfolding so far. We're not getting straightforward fanservice (well, except where body-shots are concerned); we are getting a long-term story arc, deep emotional truth, and one heck of a lot of processing. Could it get any more lesbian than that? The defense rests.

Noble internauts, fellow Gleeks, you are the jury. What is your verdict?


  1. Hello!

    I agree with so much of what you've written here! I've long ago accepted that "Glee" will always be a disorganized mess and that the show's many, many missteps are just part of the viewing experience. The show is tough to review sometimes because each episode will be all over the place in terms of tone, and scenes that feel all wrong are interspersed with ones that feel just right. Dianna Agron's performance as Quinn is one of my favorite aspects of the show, for instance, but the writing for her character is (as you point out) maddeningly inconsistent. Her personality can change from scene to scene WITHIN AN EPISODE, as we saw during "Original Song." I sincerely hope the writers drop this silly "prom queen" storyline and start writing Quinn as a strong, smart, sensible young woman again.

    There is far too much to comment upon in this one article, but I share your concerns about how Artie, Bieste, Mercedes, and others are depicted on the show. All I can do is tune in and hope the writers "get it right."

  2. The fun thing about serialized TV is how different your week-to-week opinion can be from your overall assessment. Sometimes I wonder what we'll be saying about this season of Glee in a few years' time.

    Thanks very much for reading and commenting! I hope you didn't find it too annoying and whiny...

  3. Yup, my token statement on when people ask me if I love Glee is "I love what Glee could be and occasionally is." It's a show that has the potential to do things and explore areas no other television program has or can, particularly with the same broad reach and diverse fanbase. Unfortunately, it's also often a mess.

    Some things I agree with:

    Poor Mercedes. I want to believe the writers will eventually figure out something for her. I want to believe, that is.

    Yes Lauren! As you know, I HATED the early presentation of her and found it positively offensive to overweight teenage girls. How they've turned her around and give her and Puck that romance has been wonderful.

    Santittny, Burt/Kurt, Bieste's slow development, perfect. And I agree with Wayne that Dianna of Aragon is probably the best of the young actors, but I don't know what the show is doing with her. As an actress, she always sells it, but what is 'it?'

    And my only contention is the ARtie xmas storyline, because it really didn't bother me to see a wish fulfillment ep where he gots his magic legs. Not like we'll ever see them again!

  4. I've only seen parts of that show, but the other night, I was working on an art project and needed something to watch, had Fox on and... "There's a kid praying to a grilled-cheese sandwich, I've got to watch this."

    So, yes, the only full episode of the show I've seen and paid attention to was "Grilled Cheesus."

    That said, I did like how a sensitive subject (religion) was handled. There was some poking of fun and tension among the characters, but in the end, it wasn't preachy, no "side" was shown to be completely "wrong" or "right." At least that's how I took it. This is something I found refreshing in a Fox program since the odiousness of the last few seasons of "Family Guy" (UGH. I used to laugh at that show but cannot watch it anymore).

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