Once fresh and irreverent, the Fox series is now tiresome and preachy. A fan suggests eight ways to save it.
Fans of Glee are the same people who are most tortured by Glee. Season one of the show was irreverent and smart, at once deliciously outlandish and extremely relatable. McKinley High was a school filled with archetypes and clichés, but the show was nuanced just enough to maximize both hilarity and poignancy. From start to finish, Glee's first season was a breath of fresh air.
Now as it winds down season two, Glee is heaving, gasping, and choking for that same fresh air. The subtle line that it once so brilliantly toed—lampooning high school culture on one side and intelligently addressing real social issues on the other—has become a crazy zig zag.
Maybe it's a result of adding too many characters (New Directions now numbers 12 members) or becoming too reliant on themed episodes, but fans can't help but get the feeling that Glee is the unpopular kid in high school who suddenly gets a lot of attention (Emmys! National tours!), and then starts trying to become something it's not. In fact, we liked the show just the way it was.
So how do we fix it?
Let the teenage characters act like teenagers
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In season one, Rachel developed a crush on her handsome show choir teacher, and it was endearing. Queen bee Quinn hilariously tormented Rachel for stealing her boyfriend. These are things that real teenagers go through, and Ryan Murphy and his Glee team set them to music, sharp one-liners, and occasional tears. It was fantastic.
It's no coincidence, then, that the best episodes of season two were the ones in which the teenage characters acted like actual high schoolers. In "Special Education," Rachel experiences teenage heartbreak to the soundtrack of "Dog Days Are Over," and it was her character's most believable moment all season. The Valentine's Day episode featured the first signs of Kurt's twitterpation over Blaine, and loads of energetic, cleverly written romance gossip. "Blame It on the Alcohol" was the season's funniest outing, a comedy of errors truthfully detailing a rite of passage for many high schoolers—something "Prom" also did so well.
But in a 22 episode season, these examples are too few and far between, with the characters spending the most of their time as vehicles for socio-political messages or taking a back seat to drama from the adult characters.
Stop trying to save the world
If the characters are going to start acting more like teenagers, the show as a whole needs to stop taking itself so seriously. Right before Kurt's gay bullying storyline began mid-season, Ryan Murphy said, "This episode starts off our arc about tolerance and respecting other points of view." Oy. The thing is, Glee always promoted open-mindedness. The fact that everyone in the glee club accepted Kurt in of all of his flamboyant glory—hardly ever mentioning it, even—spoke volumes about tolerance.
Sure, Chris Colfer expertly acted the bullying storyline, and that Ryan Murphy used his 13 million viewers-a-week platform to illuminate such an issue is inspiring. But the subtle ways Glee once handled such important issues somehow evolved into overly heavy-handed, maudlin public service announcements. In season one's "Wheels," Artie dealt with the loneliness of being handicapped by singing a poignant version "Dancing With Myself," which said more about the pain of life in a wheelchair than any of Kurt's long-winded speeches about tolerance said what it's like to be a tormented gay teenager. When he was crowned prom queen, the look on Kurt's face before he ran out of the room was the heartbreaking "teaching moment," not the soap box monologue he delivered in the hallway.
There's a way to address important social issues without making viewers feel patronized and preached to—Glee has done it, and, occasionally, still does. "Rumours" was this season's most successful themed episode for many reasons. The Fleetwood Mac album appropriately surfaced all the romantic entanglements and gossiping that plagued the members of New Directions, allowing them, again, to deal with teen issues. But its winning moment was the way it dealt with Sam's homelessness. Yes, it was another Issue that Glee was going to conquer. But instead of having each glee club member deliver a speech about why they love Sam before settling the matter with a big group hug, they bought back the guitar he was forced to pawn for money.
It was a heartwarming gesture that delivered the show's "message of the week"—friends will stand by you in a time of need—but it didn't feel overwrought. And, unlike a schmaltzy monologue or politically-fueled rant, it rang true to something that teenagers would actually do.
Return to continuing plot lines
The success of the Fleetwood Mac-themed episode was rare. But from outings focused on Britney Spears and Rocky Horror to episodes revolving around religion and football, the "theme of the week" model has failed the show this year.
Though some criticized the first season storylines for being too soapy—Quinn's baby daddy plot, in particular—those arcs were developed over the course of several episodes. Glee's season two has more in common with Law & Order than its own first season. Each episode could be viewed on its own with little confusion, as plots are introduced and resolved often in the same hour.
There was an emotional truth to those season one plots because they had the time to develop. It's part of why the Kurt-Blaine romance was so popular this season. Unlike the other season two blink-and-you-missed-it character hook ups, their relationship was teased over the course of the season and came to fruition at a believable place. The care the writers took in fostering the relationship was almost jarring considering the whiplash pace at which viewers grew accustomed to seeing plotlines come and go. Even the Regionals/Nationals competition narrative was lost for the majority of this season, a simple story structure that focused Glee's first season and could easily have steadied season two.
Cut down the characters
Before this season began, I created a Glee relationships web, which detailed the incestuous nature of the characters' love triangles, quadrilaterals, and various other geometric figures. This season introduced six new regular characters, not to mention countless guest stars, and has already nearly exhausted romantic pairing options with them. Mercedes and Puck? Really? That's not to mention the impossibility of developing plot lines or fully-realized personalities and stakes when there are so many characters to be addressed.
Give all adult characters less screen time
It's telling that five of the major adult characters from the first two seasons were either written off the show or made recurring: Terri, Coach Tenaka, Principal Figgins, Coach Bieste, John Stamos (that was his character's name, right?). It's also remarkable how welcome and funny Terri was during her recent short stint, considering how grating the character was by the end of the first season. The scattered appearances by Emma has also done a great service to that character, whose OCD tendencies and waffling feelings for Will can quickly veer from cute to just awful.
Even Sue Sylvester, whose razor-sharp barbs helped carve a place in the zeitgeist for Glee, is benefitting from a lighter work load this season. Occasionally taking whole episodes off, Sue's absence gives us a chance to actually miss her. But as Sue's connection to the glee club becomes increasingly tenuous, writers are forced to invent ridiculous plot lines in order to bring her back into the New Directions fold. Reducing Sue's presence would eradicate the need for "Sue joins the glee club" insane plots, bringing her around for much welcome laughs only when it services the story line.
Which brings us to Mr. Schu, perhaps the most insufferable character on television. Yes, New Directions needs a leader, which is why it's understandable that we must endure those stilted "buck up, gang!" speeches he gives each week while doling out assignments. But make it end there. We're already at the point where we can't remember the name of the Asian character who isn't Mike Chang, and Mercedes only talks out loud when she's introducing a song. Desperate attempts to cultivate an interesting love life for Schu have all failed, and distract from more interesting storylines about the kids. The character serves a purpose, but a limited one. It's time to make his presence on the show similarly limited and focus on the kids.
No more Finn
How many rivals for Finn's male lead role have been introduced now? Jesse St. James, Puck, Artie, Sam: All of these characters can sing and dance better than Finn. It's at the point where writers can't decide whether to make him the endearing Willard-in-Footloose character (Jesse: "You dance like a zombie who has to poop.") or continue to try to fool the audience into thinking he really is the most talented male member (Rachel: "You're the star!") It's hard enough to buy that New Directions doing a box step and a twirl during a song beats the intricate choreography of rival groups like the Warblers at show choir competitions. But saying that Finn's strained voice is what carries them to victory is ridiculous.
No more original songs
The creation of original songs was an interesting experiment. It made for an exciting episode. But boy were those songs bad. Bad: "I'm not thinkin' 'bout you haters / 'Cause hey, I could be a superstar, I'll see you when you wash my car." Worse, it turns out the original songs episode wasn't a one-time deal. There are more coming in tonight's finale. It's time to stop this.
Part of the appeal of Glee is tuning in to hear what songs will be covered, or, better yet, get the show's patented mash-up treatment. Show choirs cover songs. It's what they do. A motley crew of 16-year-olds certainly don't compose a dance track overnight. Furthermore, NBC's musical drama Smash, set to premiere next year, features original music by the songwriting team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The show's trailer previews one of their new songs, and it makes "Loser Like Me" sound like "It's a Small World After All."
Glee knows what works. It's time to learn what doesn't.
Glee's creators have proved to be very astute when determining what works with their show. When guest stars Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, and Gwyneth Paltrow made big splashes, they were brought back for encore arcs. After routinely stealing scenes in season one, Brittany and Santana were promoted to series regulars in season two. The Glee writers have wisely kept Darren Criss's Blaine, the breakout TV star of the year, on the show as long as possible. But a smart showrunner can also flag what's not working. Glee can return to greatness if it addresses some of these problems. I won't stop believing.