Glee hits the wrong notes

Glee needs to find a new tune.

This week I caught the fourth episode of Glee, a show that FOX is putting all its chips on the table for. Commercials and extended promos were playing on television and in the movies long before the show hit the air, and the anticipation alone was attracting a cult following among those who more or less wanted to see High School Musical become a 22-episode sitcom.

Glee, like High School Musical, is about kids defying stereotypes. In Glee, a hunky football player sings his heart out to “Don’t Stop Believin.'” A bespectacled boy in a wheelchair rocks out to Kanye’s “Gold Digger.” An Asian goth girl gyrates to “I Kissed a Girl.” Bravo!

But for a fresh new show about defying stereotypes, the entire show is a stereotype.  There’s the black diva singer, a homosexual music teacher that’s fired for sexually harassing a student and a Celibacy Club president who becomes pregnant. The cheerleaders even don their uniforms 24/7. It’s unfortunate that this original show is so unoriginal. It isn’t for lack of talent – many of the actors come from Broadway backgrounds – but the script and the character development are so uninspired that the only part that brings me any glee is when the glee club actually sings.

The most obvious comparison to Glee is MTV’s The Real World, where each person is designed and edited to fit a certain stereotype. “The black one.” “The anorexic one.” “The promiscuous one with a boyfriend back home.” “The gay one.” Without fail, each season has these people.

Most TV characters do fall into certain categories: the popular kid, the band geek, the teacher’s pet. That’s how a show can quickly establish a character in a viewer’s mind. But in Glee, the characters fail to exhibit anything but their one-dimensional roles. Rachel, who is supposed to be the main protagonist, is completely unlikeable; although the show attempts to evoke some sympathy by establishing that she is a misunderstood outcast and that Glee Club is the high school’s bottom feeder, all Rachel does is whine whenever her day in the spotlight is given to the other glee members. No depth exists — the mark of poor character development when a viewer can’t even relate or like the main character.

The most painful Glee character is Kurt, who wears corsets to class and fears that bullies will mess up his Dolce & Gabbana sweater. In other words, “The Gay One.”

This week’s episode opened with Kurt in a black, skintight leotard shimmying side to side and bending over to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”. His father, an average joe, is mortified when he walks in to discover this debacle. Kurt quickly covers up, saying this is how the football team gets warmed up. Because he’s a kicker for the team. Dilemma. Now Kurt must join the football team and invite seemingly homophobic Pops to the game. Kurt, obviously, is an incredible kicker and there just happens to be a vacant spot on the team. He makes the team about two seconds after realizing he needs to try out. Fast forward to game night. To make a long story short, with the pressure of the final kick upon him and breathless fans hanging on his every move, he goes on to win the game by sashaying his way to the ball and kicking in time with “Single Ladies.” Granted, if they were going to do this, at least they picked the song with “the best video of all time!” Right, Kanye?

Later that night, as Kurt goes through his nightly skin care regimen, Dad walks in to congratulate him. “I’m proud of you, son. I wish your mom would have been there … alive.” (As opposed to being there dead? If you missed it, that was another blatant plot device smacking you in the head.)

Kurt works up the courage to say football isn’t for him — and shock — he’s gay. Dad, who previously gave off the vibe that he would beat Kurt to a pulp if he heard Kurt ever utter the words “Liza Minnelli” (which, by the way, he does in a previous episode), smiles and tells him the cat was actually out of the bag when Kurt asked for “sensible heels” for Christmas at age 3. Dad says he accepts Kurt and loves him, and all is right in the world.

Give me a break. This was by far the greatest oversimplification I have ever seen about what it means to be gay and the difficulty of coming out to one’s parents. If anything, this is perpetuating a bad stereotype—not breaking one. However heartwarming it was that what first seemed like a dad-in-denial turned out to be an unconditional, loving father, the surprise element didn’t cover up the fact that what could be the real conflict – not finding acceptance even within your own family – was glossed over, packaged and tied with a pretty bow. FOX evades tackling a serious issue and the ratings win. Score.

Here’s a clip from the episode:

Glee isn’t the only show attempting to tackle the gay issue. A lot of shows geared toward teenagers either feature one gay character or at least have some of its characters experimenting with their sexuality, if only for a short while, as if it’s a decision made on a whim. Television shows are missing the mark, because they try to prove a point (and get ratings too, because let’s face it, ratings equal money) by saying it’s OK to be gay. But then, they fail to capture the essence of what it’s all about. The gay character’s dilemma is always something associated with being gay – because gays presumably don’t have other issues other than the fact that they like someone of their sex. Other characters struggle with keeping good grades, or have sibling rivalries. But not the gay character. The gay character worries when his friend accidentally outs him, or is concerned that the guy he’s secretly dating hasn’t told his girlfriend he’s into guys now. (That last example was straight out of this week’s GREEK episode on ABC Family.)

Shows like Glee hang up a thin veil that suggests they are trying to tackle the great social issues and concerns of the times — that they have a grasp on high school and the personalities it comprises, but in actuality, these shows are just putting up a facade of diversifying its cast in order to attract audiences of all types. The media is a great platform for gays to gain acceptance, and if it is handled the right way, could really make a difference. But these shows aren’t handling it the right way.

One show that did get it right was Will and Grace. Two out of the four main characters are out and proud. But you’ll notice the show isn’t always about being gay because of it. Sean Hayes’ character – Jack McFarland – is the gay of all gays. (Although he faces some harsh competition from Kurt.) But each episode doesn’t focus on the pains of being gay and being accepted. They go about their day and they date guys, but it’s just a matter of fact.

In my opinion, that’s how television should be handling these serious issues. Neither by trying to break stereotypes nor inadvertently perpetuating them…but rather, to say: They’re here. They’re queer. Now get over it.

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10 Comments

Filed under The Public Square

10 responses to “Glee hits the wrong notes

  1. Can’t agree with you more about Glee, Taylor. I watched the first few episodes, but I had to give up because it’s just painful for me. Along with no idea how to portray gays, Glee can’t really deal with any other facet of high school. Somewhere down the line, Hollywood got together and created this vision of a high school experience we all had, and it turned into a high school experience that none of us had. Take away the musical numbers, and you’re just left with a poorly written, poorly conceived “high school” television show.

  2. katie

    I definitely agree too. I watched Glee with my roommate for the first time this week and apparently I have been completely isolated from all advertising, because I had no idea what it was about. Five minutes later, I felt like I could predict the plot.
    But then again, FOX, like any other TV station, is just trying to make a new show that will attract viewers and therefore profits. The stereotypes, while unfair, help viewers recognize and potentially identify with the characters. Their predictable traits allow the producers to define them in just a few episodes.
    Of course, situations like the football team needing a kicker and Kurt conveniently being an amazing kicker are completely unrealistic. But while unrealistic, the scene with the football team dancing to “Single Ladies” is no doubt amusing.
    All these shows attempt to accurately portray high school, but really, they only further the established stereotypes.

    My personal favorite show about high school was Freaks and Geeks, but apparently it wasn’t stereotypical enough to stay on-air.

  3. I love this show! I was literally in tears with laughter as the football team performed the dance from Beyonce. Jane Lynch’s character is priceless. I get that actually coming out of the closet is a million times harder than the show portrayed, but if I wanted to see that I could watch MTV reality shows. I am beyond happy that the show does not portray the reality of high school because in that case my tears wouldn’t be from laughter. Its suppose to be stereotypical and unrealistic–the essence of TV sitcom comedy. To me, its actually refreshing that it IS a written sitcom rather than another reality show. As for the stereotypes, the most Christian girl from my gradeschool was the first of our class to get pregnant. It happens.

    • Lora Larson-Miller

      I enjoy this show too. While I agree about the show tries to defy stereotypes but ends up being stereotypical its characters, I think viewers are taking it too seriously. It is supposed to be fun and use its stereotypical characters to poke fun at society. I think its also great how it keeps up with current pop culture, such as incorporating the single ladies song and dance, which makes it relevant to viewers and today.

  4. S. Hummel

    While Glee may not be the most original story concept to pilot a hopeful new franchise on, it seems to be all the more safe. Especially since FOX already has their token medical drama in House.

    From a viewership standpoint, the executives at FOX may have been smart to capitalize on the very tween audience that established franchises like High School Musical as an overwhelming cash cow– and translate that success from cinema to television.

    The stable viewership ratings seem to say that Glee is here to stay, but maybe the buzz that’s been built up by the first few episodes is bound only to wear off soon. Tweens seem to be more into vampires these days anyway (great work in this department CW).

    But at the end of the day, network executives at FOX aren’t concerned with depicting progressive portrayal of characters and breaking down stereotypes; and they don’t give much weight to originality unless it’s sure to drive up interest and increase viewership. FOX isn’t looking to win any Emmys with this one– the focus is on the TV ratings.

    The American viewer seems content to reward this simple formula.

  5. josiejenkins

    As much as I love Will & Grace, I’m not sure it’s the best example to use in your argument, especially if you’re specifying the use of the character Jack McFarland. Fans of Will & Grace should know that half, if not more, of the show’s comedic value comes from Jack and his over-the-top flamboyancy.

    So, one has to ask, what’s better? A series devoting one episode to a gay high schooler’s insecurity about his sexuality, or a series that earns laughs from a homosexual character’s stereotypical “gayness”? Isn’t Will & Grace technically poking fun at the fact that Jack is gay, and, in turn, isn’t that offensive as well? In my opinion, Will would have been a better character to use in your argument, because he not only defies most gay stereotypes, but perpetuates others in a more subtle, more real way than Jack does.

    To be fair, the big problem here is that mainstream media still hasn’t figured out how to handle homosexuality despite the fact that it really shouldn’t be an issue in this day and age. I agree wholeheartedly with your last statement. I’m excited for the day when television produces something where viewers can say, “Oh, hey, that character’s gay,” and carry on.

  6. anitalittle

    Wow, I watched the ‘Preggers’ episode of Glee this week out of pure boredom, and even though it does fit into the traditional formula of the high school drama with all its one-dimensional characters, I still loved it. I was cracking up when the entire football team did the ‘Single Ladies’ dance, which is no easy feat, and amused with the douchebag antics of Puck. Were the characters painfully stereotypical? With the flamboyantly gay guy who struggles to come out, the hot cheerleader who get impregnated by the hot football player, and the jerk jock who secretly is the father of the cheerleader’s baby, yes, it’s pretty stereotypical. But I feel like the entire high school experience is stereotypical. That might have just been my Texas high school, but I could easily think of someone from my hometown that would easily fit the mold of a Glee character. In high school, when people are struggling to form their identities and decide who they want to be, I feel they can easily fall into one-dimensional typecasts. Most high schools have the nerds, the jocks, the goths, and the potheads, and I could easily imagine the Glee episode I watched playing out at my high school. The funny thing about some stereotypes is they don’t come out of a vacuum, some of them are grounded in truth.

  7. muckrakeable

    This is not going to be a long, intellectual reply, but just wanted to say that I’m glad to see other people share my apathy about Glee.

    I think it’s not sure exactly how campy it’s aiming for, and just comes off feelings somewhat annoying.

  8. Tim Shundo

    I’m gonna risk looking like a hype-riding sheeple when I say: I love this show. I don’t expect much from primetime television, but Glee has stuck to me. It has great actors, good music, and passable plots. Predictable, but passable.

    As for it’s representation of gays, I suppose it’s just not that big of a deal. Kurt is hysterical as is any stereotypical gay guy. He’s not faking that voice either. Hell, even I dance around in my apartment doing the Single Ladies dance. ;)

    All in all, it’s just good entertainment. Is it “HBO Original Series” good? No. But for a primetime show next to “Cougar Town” and “Defying Gravity,” it’s pretty darn good. :)

  9. Gary

    I love the show with all of it’s flaws….the sub-plots get tedious…but the musical numbers are great. And this from your cousin Gold Gary…your mom will explain.

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