I have a lot of bad things to say about this show, but I also believe it was one of the best things to happen to popular music in the modern era. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first, starting with the show’s crippling script problems.
First, there is the show’s smug, condescending tone. The writers often seem to be doing bad work on purpose for their own amusement, and seem to invite the audience to be amused at their condescension, too. They also apparently think that acknowledging a problem with their writing and making a joke about it is the same thing as fixing it, particularly regarding things like racist, sexist and otherwise offensive content, which is often included just so it can be treated as a joke.
The second problem is that the characters aren’t very likable: it’s often hard to understand why we should care about these people. Matthew Morrison’s Will Schuester is portrayed as a hypocritical sleaze whose positive influence in the kids’ lives is frequently announced but rarely borne out by what we’re actually shown. Lea Michele’s Rachel is the embodiment of the diva-as-rottweiler archetype, ready to throw those who care about her under a bus anytime if she thinks it will help her career. Gay-rights poster boy Kurt comes off as a manipulative narcissist perfectly willing to use his minority status to get away with his inappropriate behavior. And so forth through all the major cast members. This problem only gets worse as time goes on and the characters do horrible things that the show generally expects the viewer to just forget about.
Then there’s the fact that each of the show’s writers is essentially working on a different show, and they don’t make the slightest effort to integrate them from episode to episode. As a result, the show swings wildly between inspirational afterschool-special territory and mean-spirited black comedy, which is incredibly frustrating and unsatisfying and makes it impossible to get emotionally invested in the characters. This is particularly harmful to what could been the show’s most effective character, colorful villainess Sue Sylvester. Instead, she constantly vacillates between a sympathetic antivillain with integrity and a hidden tender side, and a sadistic psycho who does most of her evil for her own amusement. Either version of the character, individually, is highly entertaining and the funniest thing about the show, but Sue just keeps switching back and forth depending on which is more useful to the current episode’s plot, making her character merely a construct rather than a person.
On top of the script problems, the show has a seriously uneven acting pool. The three main adults, Morrison, Jane Lynch and Jayma Mays, and the three most important of the kids, Michele, Chris Colfer and Cory Monteith, all range from good to superb in their acting, but several of the other kids (Amber Riley and Kevin McHale being two of the most severe examples) were pretty obviously hired for their vocals, and leave a lot to be desired on the acting front. All this is in the first three seasons alone—after that, the show went off the rails entirely, with an awkwardly forked narrative and a bunch of new characters who were simply modified retreads of the original cast.
But for all its problems, the show has one enormous strength that makes it hard to simply dismiss. The vocal performances on the show are incredible, and anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong. Morrison and Michele were practically Broadway royalty long before they appeared on this show, and several of the other performers, particularly Chris Colfer and Amber Riley, are almost good enough to match them. Granted, the show’s attempts at original songwriting have mostly fallen flat, but the show tunes and covers that make up the bulk of their output are often spectacularly done, and their covers of contemporary pop songs routinely surpass the originals. There is the occasional misstep, like Mathew Morrison’s awkward attempts at rapping or Kevin McHale’s insipid performing style, but, at least during its heyday, the show featured far more good performances than bad.
In addition to their sheer merit as music, Glee’s covers have had a genuine positive effect on popular music as a whole. Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You”, Fun’s “We Are Young”, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” and Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” were all launched into hit status after being covered on Glee, and it’s arguable that the Indie Rock crossover trend of 2012 would never have happened without the show’s support. The show was on life support by the time it ended, and even at its peak it was never good television, but it was, for the most part, good music, and it served an important role both in launching Indie Rock onto the pop charts and in helping bring modern Broadway into the mainstream consciousness, so for all its flaws, I’m deeply grateful that it exists.
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