'Glee' Shoots and Misses

Ryan Murphy and the rest of the Glee writers are seemingly determined to make at least one Very Special Episode for every current issue affecting America's teens. And so it glumly came as no surprise last night that Glee tackled the terrible and all too real issue of school shootings. Not surprising, but certainly not welcome, either.

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Ryan Murphy and the rest of the Glee writers are seemingly determined to make at least one Very Special Episode for every current issue affecting America's teens. We've had bullying, coming out, weight issues, all of that. And so it glumly came as no surprise last night that Glee tackled the terrible and all too real issue of school shootings. Not surprising, but certainly not welcome, either. In typical Glee fashion, the show strived for of-the-moment profundity while also copping out, tying things up tidily, because nothing too bad ever happens to the kids at McKinley High. Tone deaf and verging on offensive, Glee's "Shooting Star" (yes, that was the actual title) was in many ways its most exploitative episode yet.

A while back I argued that the school shooting scene in another of Ryan Murphy's shows, American Horror Story, crossed a line, exploiting very real and very recent tragedies in the name of titillating entertainment. Many readers disagreed with me, saying that the first season of AHS's whole raison d'être was to echo horrible real-life crimes, and a school shooting, however ghastly, certainly falls under that rubric. I can go along with that, I guess — AHS is a decidedly grim show for a decidedly adult audience. But on Glee? Do we really need a school shooting on dumb, gummy Glee, just because they arrogantly want to cover every topic under the sun in their self-righteous, ham-handed way? No, no we do not.

The shooting came when most of the kids were in the rehearsal room. There was no moment of questioning or investigation, everyone just dropped and scrambled to hide at the sound of two gunshots. I suppose this could be seen as a sad commentary on the frequency of these real-life incidents, that it's become almost rote and expected, but to me it just played as the writer — or writer, Matthew Hodgson — wanting to skip right to the scary dramatic bits as quickly as possible. All the actors got a chance to cry and tremble, to show off their really serious sides, while the camera went into wandering, shaky handheld mode. It was going for a very you-are-there, almost documentarian feel, but considering that this is Glee we're talking about, it instead felt effortful and out of place, this sudden veering into verite real-time terror. Glee has never been a show that recognizes its many thematic and narrative limitations, and this was perhaps its biggest and most unsuccessful reach yet.

Style and and tone issues aside, what really troubled me about this episode was, like so many Glee episodes before it, how blithely it handled such a grave and potent topic. In the end it turned out that Becky, the cheerleader/Sue Sylvester acolyte who has Down syndrome, was carrying a gun to protect herself, and simply dropped it while showing it to Sue, causing it to go off and incite the panic. So this was all the girl with a disability's fault. It was an awfully convenient and oddly shaming way to handle a Scary School Shooting, without of course actually having a Scary School Shooting. This is Glee's frequent M.O., to run up alongside a serious issue but never actually make contact with it, to peel off at the very last minute back into the safe and cozy and toothless world that Ryan Murphy has created. I'm not saying that we needed to see carnage in the hallways to drive home a point about school shootings, but if there ultimately wasn't going to be a point, then, well, what was the point of doing the episode at all?

Even worse, the shooting was barely given primary focus. A lot of time was spent with one of the new twink-hunk kids trying to figure out who was catfishing him. Yeah, not satisfied with having just a School Shooting episode, they had to go in and add a Catfishing story on top of it. And then Beiste confessed her love for Will, and Chord Overstreet gave Brittany a cat. It was your typical Glee jumble of random plotlines intersecting awkwardly, with one of those messy plotlines just happening to be a school shooting. That's a bit careless, isn't it? Treating a big and tragic and very real topic as a marketing hook and then dismissing it so easily, having the blame fall on the girl with Downs syndrome, and giving Jane Lynch a chance to leave the show nobly. Oh, yeah, Sue covered for Becky, so she's out. Will she be back? Who knows. And honestly, who cares.

I don't know that any series drama needs to cover school shootings, but if they want to, if they must, then I think it's not asking too much that the subject be afforded the gravity and solemnity that it merits. The late, great My So-Called life did a "gun in school" episode five years before Columbine, a half-decade before the notion of school shootings was firmly implanted in the national psyche. All that got shot was a soda bottle, and yet it handled the subject with more delicacy, grace, compassion, truth (and odd, scary prescience) than Glee, with its wealth of terrible contemporary history to draw from, even came close to mustering last night.

It comes as no surprise to me that a show as lazy and unfocused as Glee would fumble on this, casually tossing the subject into the mix because, hey, it's a thing that happens, right? But it still bears mentioning that they did, in fact, fumble badly last night. Oh, sure, some of the acting was good, and it was hard not to feel a bit of tension when the kids were all hiding in the band room, but ultimately this was an insulting, slapdash waste of time. The episode concluded with cellphone camera footage of the kids, fearing the worst, saying goodbye to their loved ones. What could have been a moment to reflect on the terribleness of young people facing possible death was instead filled with silly jokes. As if the show was telling us that, in the end, there really is nothing to worry about. Wouldn't it be nice if that were true.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.