When I was at university, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the cool television show of the time. It was almost impossible to get through any subject of an undergraduate Arts degree without a week on Buffy, genre and postmodern aesthetics. But I didn’t really get it: I never watched it outside of uni and I didn’t really like it. Admitting this, though, would have rendered me an Arts outcast, so I said nothing. The only episode of Buffy that I could stand to watch – and did in no less than three subjects – was Once More, With Feeling, the hilarious musicals parody episode from season 6.
I’ve mentioned my affection for musicals before, especially those of the ‘backstage’ variety, where the song and dance numbers derive (semi-)naturally from a theatrical type of setting – e.g. a singing club. So I was very hopeful in 2009 when the television show Glee premiered on Channel Ten. At centre stage is a motley bunch of ambitious kids in a glee club (a singing group) at McKinley High, who are encouraged along the way by their kind-hearted teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), and regularly assailed by wily cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch). A backstage musical comedy and genre hybrid, Glee takes its cue from the high school movie: in its setting, its rite-of-passage storylines, and its fidelity to the idea that, as coach Sue says, ‘high school is a caste system’.
Given that every episode of Glee is essentially about a bunch of misfits devising a show, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself near-gagging and reaching for the off switch in its first episode. As with Buffy, I didn’t get Glee – and not only did I not get it, I hated it. However, unlike Buffy, where I could at least see the appeal of its self-reflexivity and humour, I couldn’t understand what viewers might gain from Glee beyond a karaoke-style pleasure in singing along to some auto-tuned, diluted versions of pop songs.
What especially turned me off Glee was its overly polished, High Concept look and the obviousness of its references. Rachel (Lea Michele) was clearly based on Reese Witherspoon’s precocious, overachieving character, Tracy Flick, from the 1999 film Election, but with the barb removed. (In fact, the style of the series itself owes a great debt to the much darker and anarchical Election.) There is an underlying niceness to all the referencing: Glee only ever presents songs from a fan’s perspective so as not to offend the integrity of its source materials or, potentially, its audience.
It was only when I came to writing this column about why I don’t like Glee that I grudgingly sat down to watch a few more episodes. I watched the pilot again and then the second, third and fourth episodes. About halfway into episode 6, I realised that my notebook and pen were wedged down the side of my couch, abandoned. I ended up watching the entire first season and most of the second, back to back.
I had become hooked on the high (school) stakes drama that the characters are thrown into in every episode: interpersonal battles, identity and sexuality crises, betrayals and revenge, and social and familial pressures are just the start. And that Glee negotiates all this with an absurd streak of humour and over-the-top musical numbers gradually softened my cynical psyche. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I might just be a ‘gleek’ after all.
Essentially, it is the show’s emphasis on gleefulness and self-realisation through performance that draws audiences to it. Indeed, Glee fully realises film theorist Richard Dyer’s assertion in Movie magazine in 1977 that musicals as entertainment have an ‘intensity’, which is the ability to ‘present either complex or unpleasant feelings … in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct and vivid, not “qualified” or “ambiguous”’. Glee’s emphasis on ‘intensity’ can be frustrating, though, as it takes much of the bite from some of its more hazardous source materials (for an example of its sterilised subversion, see the Rocky Horror tribute episode from season 2). Nevertheless, it is the show’s unmistakable optimism that finally makes the show joyful to watch.
In the ‘Mash-Up’ episode from season 1, Finn (Cory Monteith), the school quarterback and all-round Mr Nice Guy, says to coach Ken Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher): ‘I see a future where it’s cool to be in glee club; where you can play football and sing and dance and no one gets down on you for it. Where the more different you are the better.’ Glee’s dream of singing and dancing the world into a better place through friendship, loyalty and acceptance of difference is unashamedly, almost naively, utopian. But, if you can stop yourself from vomiting long enough to immerse yourself in Glee’s sparkly, auto-tuned idealism, you’ll realise that all it’s asking is for people to be given a chance.
I’m afraid I might have to revisit Buffy…
Kate Harper is a Killings Film and TV columnist. She studied cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.