Last night was a very special episode of Glee.
It was about religion. And spirituality. And faith. And *beliefs*.
The themes, you see, were hardly subtle.
The episode begins with Finn discovering a rendering of Jesus burnt onto his grilled cheese—a Grilled Cheesus. He undergoes a sort of spiritual awakening, and develops a Bruce Almighty complex where the things he prays for seem to come true. He shares his new faith with the glee members, sparking a club-wide discussion and debate about each person's personal faiths—a conversation that escalates when Kurt's father suffers a heart attack and the teen refuses to accept his friends' prayers.
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Before last night's show aired, creator Ryan Murphy said, "This episode starts off our arc about tolerance and respecting other points of view." The quote is indicative of a recurring problem with Glee: it sets out to be controversial. In its attempts to "push the envelope," Glee has become clichéd. A public service announcement. An after-school special.
It wasn't always this way. When Glee began, it blew audiences and critics away with its ability to both lampoon high school culture and address the social issues its characters dealt with. It set out to tackle modern topics—homosexuality, pregnancy, body image, religion—and explore them with self-aware snark, comedy, and a brutal honesty.
After some first-season misfires in addressing adult regret (the episode "Acafellas") and an overtly soapy foray into teen pregnancy ("Preggers"), "Wheels," the ninth episode in the premiere season, marked a turning point for the show. Wheelchair-bound Artie was thrust center stage to deal with the loneliness of being a handicapped teenager, singing a poignant version of "Dancing With Myself." Kurt fought for his right to belt a showtune meant to be sung by a theatre diva. Sue allowed a girl with Down syndrome on her cheerleading squad. She didn't wax poetic about why her cold heart has a soft spot for special needs children. She just visited her own special needs sister and read her a book—a scene that spoke volumes.
The episode was still hilarious—there was a subplot about pot brownies being sold at a bake sale, and Artie clarified which parts of his lower anatomy still technically work—but managed to address the serious issues without being saccharine, sentimental, or trite.
But as quickly as the show found its footing, it lost it. The obtuse way it has subsequently taken on controversial issues is almost disrespectful to viewers, as if subtlety would go over our heads. In order for us to understand that even when suffering from minor annoyances—channeled through Rachel briefly losing her voice—we are still blessed, a quadriplegic former football player is introduced. There also seems to be the assumption that we can't possibly understand that a character is maturing, or that there's a lesson to be gleaned, unless it is narrated in a monologue.In the episode "Dream On" at the end of the first season, Will tries to rediscover his passion for performing, but gives up a part in a play in order to keep the glee club running. "The way I see it, I'm trading my one dream for the chance that all 13 of you might find yours," he says. At any moment you half expect Bob Saget and an Olsen twin to appear to help him deliver this very special Full House-esque monologue, twinkly music and all. Is the writing that bad? "You got it, dood."
It's a shame because the schmaltzy dialogue often times thwarts opportunities the show has head to address button-pushing issues in a refreshingly modern way. "Theatricality" has some truly touching, nuanced moments in which Kurt's family and friends struggle to accept his sexuality. But then the episode ends in a very stereotypical manner, with two tubby jocks in letterman's jackets pushing Kurt against a locker and threatening to beat him up and Kurt speaking the cringeworthy line: "I will never change. I'm proud to be different. It's the best thing about me."
But no episode so far has trumped "Grilled Chesus" in the sappiness department. In this week's show, Kurt finds himself at a crossroads. As a gay teenager he feels shunned by religion, but when his father becomes ill he doesn't know where to turn for faith that he will get better. It's a topical issue, and one that I was excited to see treated with Glee's boundary-pushing comedy. But the episode was completely devoid of humor, and the dialogue was so stilted, wooden, and earnest that the treatment of the subject was largely ineffective and far too easy to make fun of.
The episode featured a host of dramatic clichés: a montage flashback of father and son playing together, a teary-eyed hospital scene, a slow motion run through a hallway to deliver bad news. The ways the glee clubbers expressed their views on faith—dialogue like "It seems to me that true spirituality is making the most of the life you've been given"—were not only untrue to the ways the show's characters speak, but to how any teenagers, anywhere, voice their opinions.
It's admirable that with 13 million plus viewers, Glee is seizing its opportunity to say something. But there's a fine line between making a statement and crossing over into PSA territory. The series once showed promise of staying on the right side of this line, but now it all too frequently crosses the boundary. "Grilled Cheesus," a manipulative attempt to explore religion, was the capstone in a series of episodes that come off as after-school specials. It's time to stop giving Glee a free pass when it comes to its poor dramatic writing.
These are the same genius writers who come up with those biting Sue Sylvester one-liners and the uproarious Brittany non-sequitirs. But lately they have rarely been capable of translating that scene-chewing line-writing into dramatic dialogue with a semblance of nuance. The show has shown the potential to deliver on both grounds: blending sarcastic Sue with social commentary. It's for it to start delivering again. Let's pray on it.