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.