For someone who likes Glee as much as I do, I’m remarkably willing to admit that this is a legitimate question. When questioned about what I really think of Glee I usually respond by saying that I think that it is a deeply flawed show, but that I love it anyway. This is an important point: I love it despite its flaws, not because of them. Almost any complaint you could make against Glee I’d be willing to agree with. And I’d admit that it bothers me a lot. But I’d also admit that it doesn’t stop me from loving the show. But what exactly do I mean when I say that Glee is “deeply flawed?” I’d like to explore that a little.
To adequately answer that, we have to go way, way back. Way back to “Pilot,” which I watched because a friend told me, “You should watch this, it’s terrible.” In many ways, it is. It introduces a lot of characters who are either broad stereotypes (Sue, Terri, Quinn, Rachel, Kurt, Puck, Emma, Mercedes) or completely blank slates (Artie, Tina, Santana, Brittany). The only characters that we can really identify with in “Pilot” are Finn and Will, which I guess is appropriate because the story of “Pilot” is really about Finn and Will, despite the script’s alternating attempts to convince us that it’s about Will and Terri, or Finn and Rachel, or Will and Emma, or Finn and Puck.
Will is a kind of bitter, depressed man, caught in a loveless marriage that he doesn’t even realize yet is loveless (on both sides). The only time of his life that he can remember being happy is when he was in McKinley High’s championship glee club back when he was a student. The fact that the enormous tragedy of this is underplayed in the episode either means that the writers were way better at being subtle back then or that they didn’t recognize it as tragic. I honestly think it’s a tossup which. Either way, Will, who in some alternate universe I could imagine ending up in some kind of American Beauty-type scenario, instead decides to reinvigorate his life by taking the helm of the school’s glee club, which has fallen on hard times. This is Will trying to relive his old high school glory days, in the same high school, in the same activity. This is the kind of thing that’s virtually guaranteed to be a futile effort, except insofar as he can live through the kids. The alternative, however, is Terri’s attempts to get Will to take a job as an accountant, which would be much more lucrative and would fund her extravagant self-centered lifestyle. Still, as long as Will is bringing home some kind of bacon, Terri will be willing to live with it. Stuck as he is in this marriage (and, despite the temptations of Emma, Will’s marriage never shows as much as a crack until the whole baby plot comes to a head), reliving his old high school glory days, vicariously through his students, and remembering the only time in his life that he was happy seems like his best option.
Finn, on the other had, is, as Will points out at one point, a lot like a young Will. He plays football while Will was a singer, but in Will’s day glee club was the popular thing to do. One could almost imagine that Will was, in a bizarre reversal, originally in glee club because of social pressures. Finn is even trapped in a loveless relationship with Quinn, just as Will is with Terri (and Finn/Quinn even shows no cracks until their own baby drama eventually comes to a head). Because Will needs star power in his club, and a leading man for Rachel if he wants any chance of having her stay in the club, he crosses a not-at-all ambiguous moral line, planting marijuana in Finn’s locker and blackmailing him (with the threat of the loss of his college education, incidentally) into joining the glee club. Finn is still dealing with the loss of his father, even if it was over ten years ago, and is trying to deal with his relationship with Quinn. Will has been with Terri so long that he can’t see any other way, but Finn is young enough that he is able to sense that there’s something wrong with his relationship, even if he can’t put his finger on it. His attraction to Rachel confuses him, because she’s not the kind of girl he’s “supposed” to be attracted to. He’s the star quarterback, he should be with the captain of the cheerleaders. One can sense the parallels, as Will was star of the glee club back when it was popular and Terri was captain of the cheerleaders. Anyway, Finn fits in well enough with the glee club until Will, upon being informed by Terri that she is pregnant, decides to quit his teaching job and take the accounting job, because he has to think about his family. That’s actually an incredibly selfless thing to do, as he loves teaching, he loves the glee club, and he hates his wife (even if he doesn’t know it yet), and, even if most of his extra money would go towards Terri’s extravagant and weird tastes, it would still end up giving his baby a better financial upbringing. The trauma of growing up in a loveless household can’t occur to him yet, obviously.
Anyway, with his blackmailer gone Finn sees a way out of the glee club, until he has an epiphany while saving Artie from being locked in a porta-potty and tipped over (something that frankly could cause serious injury or death, especially to a paraplegic). Finn realizes that life isn’t all black and white, you can’t subdivide the world into good guys and bad guys. He can be a football player and a member of the glee club, and if his friends don’t like it, they can shove it. This is punctuated by the reappearance of a man from Finn’s past, an ex-boyfriend of his mom’s who he remembers fondly as a friend. A man who betrayed his mom in a heartbreaking way, leaving her for a younger, prettier woman. Finn has to feel some resentment towards this man for what he did to his mom, but at the same time there are just so many good memories there that he can’t help but feel a little hope for seeing him again. Is he good? Is he bad? He’s both, as we all are. Finn is kinda stupid and insensitive, but he cares about his friends and he thinks a lot more about his future than a lot of high schoolers do. Will is idealistic and optimistic, but he’s shortsighted and has a blind spot for his terrible wife, and is willing to cross blatant moral boundaries in order to get what he wants. They play off each other in interesting ways. Will, by trying to stay in his comfort zone, actually pushes Finn out of his. Will, by acting selfishly, actually does Finn a huge favor. These two are, at least in “Pilot,” what you call characters. They have some depth and complexity, they have a dark side and a good side, they have believable motivations, and we the viewers are interested in their fate.
Finn decides that the glee club can continue even without Will, even without any teacher at all, as he steps up as a leader for the first time. He knows his fellow singers well enough to know that they have enough talent to get together a show. They all work together and get music, a band, costumes, and choreography, and start to rehearse on the high school stage. And this leads into what is one of the best scenes ever put on television, and most of the reason that I watched every episode of season one. The song they sing is “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The choreography is simple but elegant, the music is good but not overwhelming, the performance of Finn and Rachel is good but filled with subtext. All in all, the performance gives the exact impression of something cooked up by extremely talented high school kids who are really motivated and are trying the very best they can. It’s good without being too good. The costumes match, but they don’t match exactly. The performers look confident but just a little wide-eyed. And, of course, the song choice is perfect.
As Will is about to leave the school forever, he’s stopped dead in his tracks by the sounds of “Don’t Stop Believin'” starting up. He reacts like he’s hearing a ghost from the past, wandering, almost as if hypnotized, towards the sound that he hears more with his heart than his ears. The look on his face when he enters the theater is something that speaks more than anything the Glee writers have ever come up with, and Matthew Morrison deserves a ton of credit. He’s shocked, he’s amazed, he’s saddened that no one else in the school can possibly appreciate the beauty of what he’s seeing and hearing, he’s afraid of what will happen when he decides he’s staying at the school after all (and make no mistake, the decision was made the instant he heard that muffled music in the hallway), and he’s filled with love for students that he now sees truly understand the real beauty and power of music.
That scene was so amazing that I was willing to give Glee almost unlimited goodwill, just watching and watching, waiting for them to them to equal or even approach that level of greatness again, like the Wandering Jew waiting for the Second Coming.
So if “Pilot” was all that good, why did I agree above that it could be described as terrible? Because the synopsis above is only a little bit of what happened. We also have Rachel being crazy and awkward, Sue being over-the-top and maniacal, Quinn and Terri being separately devious and bitchy, Emma being eccentric, Puck and company being dicks. And nothing that happens outside of the Will/Finn dynamic (with the partial exception of Finn/Rachel) works at all. The episode is populated with characters that I assume are intended to be funny, but are actually just annoying, like Sue, Terri, Quinn, Sandy, and even, to a large extent, Rachel. No one else is even given enough development to care about. I could understand that if they just wanted to introduce those characters and develop them in short order, but the fact is that very little character development happened in season one. If you remember the first few episodes of the series (especially “Acafellas”) Glee tried for a while to convince us that this show was about Will. And, without the tragic element from the pilot and the dynamic with Finn, that didn’t really work at all, so the show ended up being an ensemble. In season three, Will is almost a side character, and his dark side is pretty much gone. It’s really a shame that the dynamics from the pilot were never seriously picked up again.
And that’s pretty much been Glee to me ever since. When it’s good, it’s very very good. At its best, it’s among the best shows on TV. At the same time, when it’s bad, it’s really bad. Not only that, but it’s often both really bad and very good within the same episode. In the hands of writers who could exercise some restraint and know what to cut out and what to leave in, Glee could be a truly amazing show. As it stands, it’s both an amazing show and a terrible show, a grotesque Siamese twin that at this point can never be separated. So I accept the bad with the good. I’m okay with all the bad things that Glee throws at me because when it’s good, it’s so good that it makes it all worth it.