Glee was my first hot-to-cold experience as a big fat bona fide TV critic.
Like just about every other reviewer in the land (and like the fans who would eventually turn on Glee), I belted out my praise with the lung strength of Rachel Berry when the show debuted in 2009. I wasn't alone in putting the show up there with John Hughes, Square Pegs, Election, and all we held commonly dear, bestowing upon Ryan Murphy and his caterwauling imps an iconic, cultural juggernaut status. I also felt that Glee gave today's teenagers something to call their own, instead of watching The Breakfast Club again.
Shit, I reviewed it twice—the first time to kvell about it, and the second time to jangle the faintest alarm about Glee's grating redundancies, its ejaculatory sense of plot pacing. This was around the time that Murphy and company were starting to accept accolades for Glee from the Official Gays (who love handing out plaques and other translucent objects too big to be sex toys yet too worthless to hock on a meth binge), giving the show a meaning and a social import that it wasn't even seeking.
It was around that time that a high school in Mississippi canceled the prom rather than let a teenage lesbian attend it with her date, which led to an Ellen-era culture skirmish and ended with the lesbian attending the school's hastily arranged short-bus prom with the usual—though not yet viral—good wishes of "It gets better, honey!" Meanwhile, the nefarious cool kids had their own secretly arranged prom. Oh, wasn't it just all so Glee-esque in theme and scope! Those goddamn jocks and cheerleaders—we'll show them. We'll sing "Don't Rain on My Parade," but we'll mash it up with some Gaga. Then they shall be vanquished.
Watching Glee in those headier times, I kept wondering what I might have done if a show like this had been on circa 1983, when I was in high school. What would it have done to me, for me?
Ruined me, probably.
This is what's insidiously wrong (and tiresome) about Glee and the gays: Its modest ambitions for a little provocative high-school camp were fun to watch up to and until the moment I realized that gay kids (and grown-ups) were taking it seriously.
The show does gay and other grandiloquent teenagers everywhere no great favors when it portrays the gleeks as talented. Like, really fucking talented. People say that's the charm of Glee—when Mr. Schuester's students break into song, an escapist make-believe takes hold, that familiar magic of movie-musical artifice that's as old as the MGM back lot. The piano, drums, and guitar become a fully mixed soundtrack. The voices soar. The choreography is perfect. It was always this way from the first episode of Glee, and probably will be until cancellation (in 2014, I predict). And I'd be fine with that if Glee didn't take itself and its message so seriously in the broader cultural realm. In public and across the media, Glee and its makers and stars conduct themselves as if they're saving the world. But if you're teaching marginal (and marginally talented) kids that they're going to be the next Katy Perry, then it makes my life harder, as someone who has to tell them they aren't.
If you watch Glee with disllusionment instead of boundless hope, you suddenly realize that all those musical numbers merely appear to be that perfect in the minds of the characters. No teenagers anywhere can sing and dance like that, unrehearsed. Glee never stops to underline that fact for the audience or make use of it. If Glee was in touch with the reality of being gay—which can have its dark side—it would make the cruelly honest decision to switch off the Auto-Tune and razzle-dazzle and show a bunch of kids in a choir room singing badly but believing they're great.
If the producers of Glee were interested in helping gay kids, the New Directions glee club would never make regionals; about 25 people would come to their concerts. Instead of reveling in Glee's musical numbers, adult viewers would enjoy the cringe of it all, while teenagers—already trained by YouTube to worship the cringe factor—would for once get a show that sincerely looks and acts as awkward as they are. Not pretend awkward, but the real hurt of mediocrity. The only sacrifice in this would be the loss of millions of iTunes downloads and ticket sales for the Glee Live! concert tour currently packing arenas.
Instead, Glee has become locked into the modern American delusion that anyone can sing, that we are all somehow stars, and all that Katy Perry "Firework" especially-you nonsense.
As we all know, everyday people aren't talented, and that goes special for everyday gay kids. How can fate be so cold, to deprive the one demographic that so desperately yearns for stardom on stage and screen of the voices, demeanors, and moves to achieve it? I get that, because, like a lot of teenage homo boys, the stage bug bit me, too. And like 99 percent of gay men (Neil Patrick Harris being the very rare exception), I had no business being onstage. I had no business auditioning for everything from Curly in Oklahoma! to Danny Zuko in Grease to Jesus in Godspell. No one was buying it. I had bad posture and used my hands too much when speaking; when it came time to sing, I summoned Robert Goulet and got Ethel Merman. I needed to be painting sets or picking the fonts for the posters and programs, while the director went to the athletic department to beg some real boys to try out. Still, I took to the audition stage each and every semester with the certainty that I was leading-man material, that my voice was strong and masculine (not cracking, not off-key), and that I could do this. Because in my mind, I could.
The reality was different. Onstage, no matter what sort of emotion the lyrics were meant to convey, I could only convey one thing, the thing conveyed by nearly every boy like me who joined drama clubs and glee clubs and show choirs: I am a gay teenager who can't sing or act, but really wants to, so work with me. A kid like that gives it everything he has and still the audience sits there thinking (subconsciously, if they are kind), That guy singing that duet with that pretty girl doesn't know yet that he's gay.
Glee has tried to circumvent this by being about 21st-century high-school kids like Kurt Hummel (the increasingly insufferable Chris Colfer), who was in the process of coming out to his friends and family, and would face down a menacing (closeted, self-loathing) bully and then transfer to some kind of imaginary prep school for boys where homophobia no longer exists and cute boyfriend potential awaits. And he's still singing like a cartoon bird.
The time approaches for America to see Kurt lose his virginity, something else I'm sure Glee will get almost right but also somehow wrong. I hope it's awkward and disappointing for him. I hope there aren't songs, except maybe Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" And I hope, when it's over, that the cruel realities of sex will somehow open Kurt's eyes to his actual reality. At his next glee club competition, he will recognize the sour notes and bad harmonies of a bunch of kids trying way too hard and annoying the crap out of everyone around them. That is the delicious sound of being truly gay. That is the sound that leads real men—some of them gay—to become directors.
Or TV critics.
Hank Stuever is the television critic for the Washington Post.