Last September, I swore Glee represented the future of teens on screen. The musical dramedy seemed to have everything going for it: an excellent cast, a unique premise anchored in Middle American economic anxieties, and a tart, slightly surreal sensibility—not to mention cross-platform marketing potential that could make it a cash cow even if it only attracted small, devoted audiences. But FOX didn't need that backup plan. Glee has become a smash hit, its cast in demand at events ranging from the Human Rights Campaign's fundraising dinner to the White House Easter Egg Roll and increasingly on the hot list for record companies and casting directors working on other projects.
But since the show returned from a lengthy hiatus last month, it's suffered a marked decline in quality, even as its ratings have skyrocketed. It hasn't even taken a full season for Glee to become a cautionary tale in how to drive a promising television concept solidly into the ground. Writers and directors should note a number of lessons Glee's creators seem to be ignoring.
1. Be True to Your Setting. One of the most appealing things about Glee in the beginning was the decision to set it not in one of the cities that are the corners of the Hollywood Triangle—New York, Miami, and Los Angeles—but rather in small-town Lima, Ohio. And the show was clear about the economic circumstances of both the school and the characters. The school district's strained budget meant the nascent show choir was in believable peril and fueled intelligent early plotlines like the school's inability to finance a handicapped-accessible bus to accommodate Artie, a member of the choir who uses a wheelchair. His teammates' initial willingness to accept those circumstances, and his pointed explanation of their prejudices, fueled one of the show's best episodes.
Similarly, the individual characters' financial straits fueled believable plot developments. Will Schuester, the choir's likeable director, took on part-time work as a janitor to support his family, only to find himself in closer proximity than he expected with the school's pretty guidance counselor. Finn, the football team's quarterback, also needed extra money to to help support his pregnant girlfriend, Quinn, but was unable to find a job. So Rachel, the show choir's star, swallowed her jealousy of their relationship to find a novel solution to his plight.
But in recent episodes, those financial woes seem largely forgotten. A subplot where a former student endows the auditorium solely for the club's use after the cheerleading team tries to steal their practice space lacked the bite it might have had if it had seemed like real salvation. But the club's gone through so many fancy costume changes and elaborate sets that the story just seemed like a tired retread of the choir-cheerleading rivalry Glee has come to rely on all too heavily. And as Mr. Schuester's divorce and Quinn's pregnancy have progressed, questions of money have largely been forgotten. The stakes in both plots have declined dramatically as a result.
2. Use All Your Assets—And Make Good Use of Them. One of Glee's greatest virtues and accomplishments has been the spotlight it's placed squarely on Jane Lynch's volcanic talents. As demonic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, Lynch has created a character for the ages. There's just one problem—by relying so heavily on Lynch, and Lea Michele's Rachel and Cory Monteith's Finn, and underdeveloping large swaths of its big and talented cast, the show is at risk of making its leads boring and overexposed.
Take Mark Salling, who plays Puck, the show's resident Lothario. The show revealed his pipes on a fantastic cover of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline"—turning the song back from a stadium anthem into a wooing song—and promptly forgot all about them. He hasn't had a solo since, and after Glee revealed that he was really the father of Quinn's baby, the show promptly forgot about him, too.
Even when the show makes better use of its actors, it runs the frequent risk of turning them into clichés. Amber Riley, who plays Mercedes Jones, and has by far the biggest voice of any of the cast members, started off promisingly enough with fantastic covers of Jill Scott's "Hate On Me" and Jazmine Sullivan's "Bust Your Windows."
But as the show's progressed, she's been siloed off into Big Black Girl Standards. She's soloed on "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" (a performance that notably got cut from the team's competition roster) and has been brought in to provide a hint of soul on other tracks, a pattern the show memorably and unfunnily, attempted to turn into a joke (the show has a nasty habit of acting like its marginalization of its minority characters is cute). A real low point came when an episode devoted to Mercedes turned into an after-school special about high school and body image, capped off with a rendition of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." It's a real comedown—and an incredibly boring development—for a character who declared that she didn't wear a cheerleading skirt because she was afraid of "starting a sex riot."
3. Believe It Or Not, Continuity Matters. In recent weeks, Glee has whipped through plotlines with the jittery energy of the choir's members doped up on pseudoephedrine, and lots of storylines have been lost in the process. Is Quinn, kicked out by her parents for getting pregnant, still living with her ex-boyfriend? Who was making harassing phone calls to Kurt, a gay glee-clubber's, father? What happened to Finn's worries about a college scholarship? And Rachel's desire to have sex, so memorably articulated in early episodes? Also, are her dads just never home? How old are these kids anyway? And when is the next round of show choir competitions? Because that is the frame device for the show, right? Glee has another season locked up, and with numbers and music sales like this, it'll be around for the long term. There's no reason for the show not to take a deep breath, relax, and develop its plotlines clearly and coherently. The show's secure future is a luxury, not an excuse to go crazy.
None of this is to say that Glee is past the point of no return. But the show should have the same aspirations as its main characters: to be very good, instead of simply being very popular.