Thoughts on the death of Cory Monteith, part 2: where does Glee go from here?

Many people are still mourning the death of Cory Monteith: his family, his friends, his fans, his former co-workers and employers. It’s these final two for whom things are going to get so much worse before they get better, because they have to figure out how to continue Glee without Monteith, and how to write him out of the show. Ryan Murphy reportedly allowed Lea Michele, Monteith’s girlfriend, to decide the future of Glee, telling her that if she wanted off the show or even if she wanted it to end, he would stand by her decision. Michele gamely decided that they should push forward and get back to work. Glee‘s fifth season premiere is being delayed by a week, but they are going ahead with filming. Their plan is for the first two episodes, which have been long-planned, to be Beatles tributes, slightly re-written to remove Finn. The third episode, leading into the hiatus for baseball programming, will deal with Finn’s death.

Other shows have dealt with the death of an actor, and it’s been handled many different ways. Glee‘s plan echoes what 8 Simple Rules (John Ritter), News Radio (Phil Hartman), Dallas (Larry Hagman), and The West Wing (John Spencer) did, by taking an episode to deal with the death of the character before moving on. Barney Miller took an interesting route when Jack Soo died, airing a retrospective episode that allowed the actors to be out of character and talk about both the actor and the character who had been lost. Not all shows choose to make a big deal of it. After Freddy Prinze’s suicide, Chico and the Man wrote Chico out by saying he was vacationing in Mexico, otherwise continuing as normal. When Nicholas Colasanto died, Cheers had Coach die as well, but the characters mourned mostly offscreen. Only a line or two was dedicated to the subject of Coach’s passing, though it was done in such a way that it was clear that the characters were hurting.

Glee‘s approach, of course, will be to make Finn’s death something larger than life (because Glee), but real-life concerns are going to play a big role here. Murphy has said that he doesn’t want the actors to have to “recreate” what they went through when they got the news that Monteith had died. That might not only be a lot to ask the actors to go through, but would create something very heavy by Glee‘s standards. Glee has tackled death before (“Funeral“) and even attempted suicide (“On My Way“), but never so directly and never with a man cast member. Even the very heavy school-shooting episode (“Shooting Star“) ending up not going with the heaviness, but rather undermining it. They can’t do that with Finn’s death, and I’m positive that they won’t. Murphy wants Finn’s tribute episode to be “upbeat” in some way, but, with the death of one of their own and very real feelings involved, I think that they will manage to avoid farce while still allowing there to be a foundation of happiness. The characters can look back on how much Finn gave them, how much he positively affected each one of their lives, and what a wonderful legacy he left behind. The theme can be how lucky they were that he lived, not how horrible it is that he died.

How will Finn die? Having him OD may be a bit too close to home, and it would be easy to just have him get killed by a drunk driver or something. It also could easily violate Murphy’s wish to avoid having the actors recreate reactions, as Rachel could easily blame herself for not recognizing Finn’s addiction, as Michele no doubt feels some modicum of (undeserved) guilt for not understanding the extent to which Monteith was still addicted. On the other hand, as I’ve said, Monteith never shied away from putting himself into Finn, and if someone like Cory Monteith could succumb to addiction, it makes it all that much easier to believe that Finn could. Finn also found out in season three that his father, far from dying in the Gulf War, was actually dishonorably discharged from the Army and died of drug addiction.

Murphy would like for there to be some kind of teaching point in Finn’s tribute, something to learn, something positive for the audience to take away from this whole tragic affair. Having Finn’s story parallel Monteith’s would allow for a lesson about the power of addiction. It’s all too easy for us, as a society, to dismiss addicts as weak or irresponsible or simply as incurable criminals. I’ve been guilty of that myself, on more occasions than I’d care to think about. Cory Monteith’s death from drugs was a major shock to me because I didn’t think that he was anything like the kind of person to whom that would happen. I knew he had struggled with addiction in his youth, but I thought he was past it. Even when he bowed out of season four early to enter rehab, I just assumed it wasn’t that serious: I figured it was painkillers or something relatively benign, certainly not heroin.

We can fall into the trap of thinking of drugs as the scourge of the poor and the lower classes, not relevant to us. But human suffering is relevant to all of us, and addiction is an awful, terrible thing. Cory Montieth was not poor, or depressed, or unemployed, or friendless, or homeless, or mentally unstable. He was a happy, successful, wealthy, popular, well-liked, apparently well-adjusted person with an unspeakable affliction. He wanted to get better. From all accounts, he tried as hard as he could to get better, for over ten years. And in the end, it still got him. No matter how much he wanted to escape, no matter how much he tried, in the end, it got him. He signed his own death certificate when he started taking drugs at thirteen years of age. Echoing many similar sentiments, Demi Lovato said “He didn’t choose to die. It was the disease.” Is addiction literally a disease? Of course not. But it’s much deadlier and more insidious than many “real” diseases, and in many ways it makes sense to think of it as one.

If Glee can capture something like that, get one iota of that message across, make even one person understand that addiction is not a choice and that it kills people who deserve much better… Part of me wants to see them try, even knowing their track record with such things, because it’s so close to home, it’s so important, and I think that Monteith might want to reach out and try to help people one last time.

At the same time, I understand if it would just be too hard for them to face.


Thoughts on the death of Cory Monteith

What a way to start the morning, finding out that a young man whose work I respected, just a little older than I am, has died, suddenly, unexpectedly, and, so far, without explanation (and I will refrain from pointlessly speculating). Now I will continue, keep right on getting older, while Cory Monteith will be forever frozen at 31 years old, and remembered as playing a confused but earnest kid. Finn had yet to really find peace. I’m not sure if Monteith did or not, though I know he struggled. But he’s at peace now, one way or the other.

From the beginning of Glee, much of it was centered around Finn (see Why do I like Glee anyway?, in which I discuss how “Pilot” is about Finn and Will more than anything else), and Monteith’s performance was a big part of what made both the show and the character of Finn work. Finn’s awkwardness was believable because it was Monteith’s — he was famously an uncoordinated dancer, a struggle that was written into the show. Finn’s reluctance to sing was Monteith’s as well — he did not sing on his original audition tape, and had to be cajoled into it by the producers. He was not a great singer, and if his numbers were a bit abused by autotune in the first two seasons, he made up for it with his fearless performances, and he had some fantastic numbers, including the best number of season three and, of course (with the ensemble), the best number of the series. Monteith’s weak singing was eventually written into the show as well, as Finn in season three struggled with his own lack of star power, realizing that his voice might be able to take them to a national championship in high school, but would never take him to a professional career.

Monteith almost built Finn out of his own weaknesses, his own fears, his own awkwardness, never shying away from putting himself into a character who was not always appealing. Even if he didn’t have always have star power, he had that essential part of the soul of an actor.

Glee will go on without him, but there will be a time to talk about that and what it may entail later. For now… RIP Cory Monteith, an actor as earnest as Finn Hudson.

Glee season three overview; or, it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

(Spoilers lurk below.)

You can say a lot of things about Glee, but no one can say that it’s stagnant. Season one was a dark comedy that led to uncomfortably violent confrontations between loved ones and a barely-averted tragically loveless marriage. Season two was almost a soap opera, as characters played relationship musical chairs with each other, we faced the near death of a main character’s father, and the drama of Santana and Dave trying to get comfortable with their sexuality while refusing to leave the closet. Season three was, in many ways, a hybrid. It turned with wistful nostalgia to season one, as Beth and Shelby re-entered the picture and Quinn, Puck, and Rachel had to face their past, and we had the bizarre, farcical-yet-tragic spectacle of Quinn completely at rock bottom and doing anything and everything to try to get her baby back. At the same time, we had the soap-opera drama of Santana and Dave’s journey out of the closet, as well as the issues with Rachel/Finn and Kurt/Blaine trying to work out their long term relationship plans. Divorced from both those worlds, we had the theme of change and saying goodbye, as, for the first time, we establish who’s leaving the school when the end of the season rolls around, something that weaved in and out of storylines, growing in importance and finally taking center stage as the season wound to a close. And, next season, we have the promise of a series split between the students left as WMHS and the new graduates moving on with their lives.

No matter what you think about this show, you have to admit that, for a hit show, they have a lot of balls to screw around with their formula so much. If it’s annoying that they’re kowtowing to fan and network pressure to keep some of the graduates on the series, you have to admire that they let them graduate at all, and that they’re spreading them all over the nation in a way that will make their efforts to keep them on the show interesting at the very least. It may end up being an interesting failure, but it will not be is the same old stuff that many series give their audience season after season (see House).

As with last year, I will be using “the good, the bad, and the ugly” as my format for this overview. “The Good” section will include things that season three did well. “The Bad” section will include things that it did poorly. “The Ugly” will include the things it did that made me go “What the fuck?”

The Good

When Glee has focussed on the real feelings associated with being in high school and dealing with the requisite problems, it has always been at its best in terms of having that strong emotional core to it. Nowhere is that more true than in season three as they explored the reality of graduation. They took it from every angle, as couples try to figure out how to maintain their relationships, students try to figure out where the hell their future lies, friends deal with what they know will be the end of their friendships. The emotions the graduating seniors display range from joy to despair, from trepidation to terror, often within a short period of time. Even Rachel backs off from her life’s dream to stay in Lima when push comes to shove and she has to face the prospect of either leaving Finn behind or dealing with a fundamental change in the way they relate to each other. She goes from wanting the life beyond graduation more than anything to believing that she doesn’t need it.

This theme of change is best encapsulated to me in the scene between Rachel and Quinn in “Michael.” Quinn’s suggestion that, in a few scant months, Rachel might not even remember why she loved Finn might come across as cruel, but it would be even crueler to try to sell Rachel a lie. Quinn is right: the emotions that teenagers feel are incredibly powerful, and it’s wrong of adults to brush them aside or belittle them just because they seem silly or misguided, but they are also often transitory, and no one is better able to deliver that message than Quinn. She’s a woman of extremes whose passions have been all over the place the entire series. The most powerful feeling in the world today may end up being a vague memory tomorrow. That doesn’t mean that it meant anything less in the moment it was felt. In fact, it makes it all the more difficult to make decisions, as you have no idea if what you feel is one of the few high school experiences that is permanent rather than transient.

Speaking of Quinn, her messy story arc was one of my biggest complaints about season two. Well, they made up for that in spades with season three (with one major exception). Her journey from rock bottom to redemption was pretty well done, and it described an actual arc this time relative to how all over the map it was last season. When she found redemption by refusing to turn Shelby in for her mistake, it dovetailed nicely with the overall theme of the season. Quinn didn’t necessarily do it because she didn’t think that Shelby deserved it (I don’t think that consideration ever entered Quinn’s head) but because of two reasons: she realized that Shelby would be a better mother to Beth than Quinn could possibly be at the moment, and she decided that she didn’t want to give up her childhood just yet. Ironically, by embracing her childhood Quinn managed to make the most adult decision of her life and become more mature than she has ever been.

Her temporary paraplegia, while it came completely out of nowhere, did provide a nice subplot with Artie in “Big Brother,” and I really wish that they had done a little more with it.

When I closed season two’s overview, I said that I hoped the writers would let Finn and Rachel “be happy” for a while, so that we wouldn’t have as much of their drama in the series. Well, they stayed together as a couple the entire season, so, while there was a fair amount of Finn/Rachel drama, I guess that’s close enough. Their near marriage, oddly, almost parallels Emma’s near marriage to Ken in season one. Emma was settling for Ken because she never thought she would find anyone else. Finn and Rachel are settling for each other because they don’t care to look anywhere else, despite being so young. The fact that everything seems to be working out for them ignores the fact that they’re in high school, and there are so many major changes around the corner that it’s nearly impossible to predict what’s going to happen. Finn realizes this at the end of “Goodbye” when he sees that their interests are already drifting wide apart. Their tearful farewell was a perfect end to their relationship and well-earned.

Overall, I liked the attempt the season made at longer plot arcs because it shows evidence of planning, something that Glee has never been great at. I also liked the references to continuity, which were all over this season but quite rare in previous seasons (though it cropped up more in the second half of season two). If nothing else, it proves that the new writing staff respects the universe and wants to play by the already-established rules (which is more than can be said for even the big three from time to time).

The Bad

When a writing staff came on board for season three, I was hoping it would lend the series more coherence by giving them some breathing room to stop and plan. After all, having three different writers tag-teaming your series’s scripts doesn’t seem like the best path to consistent characters and a storyline that hangs together under scrutiny. Unfortunately, while the additional writers may have brought with them more consistent characterization and the ability to plan things out a little, they also brought with them a grab bag of subplots that apparently all had to be used before they hit their expiration date. In the podcast that my friend J. and I started, J. brought up the concept of the “pass the paper” writing technique sometimes used in English classes. One person starts the story, then passes the paper to the next person who continues writing the same story, etc. That really is what a lot of season three felt like, as they picked up, dropped, revisited, ignored, and resolved plot threads often apparently at random, without rhyme or reason as regards what else was going on in the episode either literally or thematically.

The most egregious example to me of an utterly pointless plot thread was the one that began with Santana being kicked out of the glee club in “The Purple Piano Project” for playing double agent with Sue. This had the potential to be a fantastic plot device, as it would force Santana to examine her dual loyalties at the same time that she’s struggling with coming out the closet. However, Santana just rejoined the club with minimal explanation two episodes later. It was as if one writer put the plot thread in, but none of the people he passed the paper to cared to take it up.

The most egregious example of a plot thread dropped unceremoniously for no good reason was the Mercedes/Rachel feud that began in “Asian F.” Unlike in season two’s “A Night of Neglect,” Mercedes had a real point here about Rachel always getting to be the star because she whines and moans until she gets her way. She also had a legitimate argument that the directors’ plan to let them share the starring role was a cheat. This split between the two strongest female characters on the show had every appearance of being deep and full of bad feelings, and it became so serious that it caused a split in the glee club itself. The clubs eventually merged back together with minimal, though acceptable, explanation, but the rift between Mercedes and Rachel was never healed. It’s absolutely unforgivable that they would build up something like that and then just ignore it instead of resolving it.

Dave’s attempted suicide was one of the most powerful scenes of the entire series, but his fate was dropped after “On My Way.” Even a single scene depicting how he was dealing with what he was going through and what his plans for the future were would have been welcome.

Then there are little things, like the West Side Story and election arcs feeling like they ended early and with little payoff, the fact that they tried to force Sam/Mercedes on us despite the fact that they never took the time to develop it enough to make it worthwhile, the fact that they did so little with Rachel/Shelby when they were such a big deal in season one, how Shelby vanished from the series without explanation, and the short shrift that Kurt and Rachel’s NYADA audition storyline got in “Choke” after leading up to it for an entire season.

Almost none of the individual episodes this season, aside from the competition episodes, had any focus at all, just leaping from subplot to subplot. Too often, it didn’t feel like I was watching a story. It felt like I was watching a bunch of stuff happening. When this was first done in “The Purple Piano Project” I thought that they were just setting up the season’s plot arcs and that by the second episode we would be back to traditional storytelling techniques with main stories and one or maybe two subplots related by theme or narrative. But, no. What we got were episodes that, for the most part, just consisted of several unrelated subplots. When they managed to find some kind of thematic focus, as in “Saturday Night Glee-ver,” “Dance With Somebody,” and “Asian F,” it really worked quite well. However, that kind of thing is hard to do, and they usually failed. That led to episodes where you could recognize what should be the main plot (as in “Big Brother,” which should have been about Quinn and Artie, or “Heart,” which should have been about Santana and Brittany), but were forced to sit through an unfocussed mess of subplots, some too long, some too short, and many completely unrelated to the situation at hand.

Quinn’s character arc for the season was ruined in “Prom-asaurus,” an episode that saw her backslide almost an entire season of development as a character. The payoff was weak and Quinn learned a lesson that she already learned, so it just showed that the writers of Glee are still capable of destroying a plot arc even after they’ve finished getting it right.

Though the season started pretty light on the Finn/Rachel stuff, it got pretty heavy in the mid to late season as their “wedding” subplot ramped up. I would have preferred it if they had left the two of them in the background more often and lent more focus to Santana and Brittany, for example, both of whom were criminally underused this season. There was not a single good scene with Santana and Brittany alone, despite the fact that their confrontation over the “Lebanese” shirt was one of the best scenes of season two and that very plot thread was continued in season three.

As the show has continued on, it’s felt like songs have been less naturally inserted into the story. This may have something to do with the fact that we had multiple episodes with nine musical numbers in them, which has to be pushing it no matter how you slice it. On the other hand we had “I am Unicorn,” which only had three songs, which I believe to be a record low. They need to learn, especially in tribute episodes, to insert songs where they work thematically and narratively, not just wherever it would look cool. Even a musical has to tell a story, and a musical has to use songs to tell it. If a song has no point in the story, it shouldn’t be there.

The Ugly

Roz. Roz, Roz, Roz, Roz. Why on earth did they feel like they needed to add a villain for the show’s already-unneeded existent villain? Roz is loud, she’s mean, she’s egocentric, she’s everything that Sue is except for the least bit humanized. She even makes up nicknames for the kids like Sue does, and is referred to as “Black Sue” by Sue herself. You’re not supposed to rip your own selves off, folks, especially when you’re ripping off a character that probably should have been dropped after season one.

Sue’s pregnancy plotline seemed to serve no particular purpose other than to give us a glimpse of the fact that she actually has some respect for Will. It also doesn’t jibe with her “career woman” attitude, and it just looks utterly ridiculous at her age. And I hate babies on television shows. They’re not characters, they’re props, which is what usually leads to Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, something that also really annoys me.

I probably said everything I wanted to say about “The Spanish Teacher” in my review, except perhaps for “What the holy mother of fuck?” To take a character and utterly rob him of all the dignity that you’ve imbued him with over the course of two and a half seasons is utterly and completely unforgivable, and also rage-inducing. There may be some possible universe where this story worked, but personally I would have chucked it in the garbage as soon as I saw the concept. What they did to Will here was worse than killing him. It killed all his previously established characterization, destroying all work that had been done up to that point. I just don’t understand it the least bit. Does Will possess moral ambiguity? Of course: see season one. Is he a fraud? Fuck, no.

Glee has always had something of a desire to teach moral lessons, but it became ridiculously overt in season three. Quinn’s paraplegia as a lesson against texting while driving was obvious, unnecessarily, and came out of nowhere, but at least they didn’t throw it in our faces aside from Quinn’s brief lecture to Finn against the evils of texting while walking. Shannon’s subplot in “Choke,” however, went against all logic. It had nothing to do with what came before, it had nothing to do with what was going on in the episode, none of the other characters involved had any reason to be involved, and the emotion they wanted the audience to feel wasn’t earned because the story wasn’t shown, just told and implied. I can think of absolutely no reason for the existence of this subplot except that the Glee people thought that they needed to teach a lesson that domestic violence is bad. If they want to legitimately develop a story arc that includes domestic violence, fine. But don’t trot this out suddenly in a single episode just because you want to feel good about teaching everyone something.

As always, Glee had problems with tonal inconsistency this season, as high drama occurred right on top of farcical comedy. I won’t bother to list all the times it miserably failed, but the lowlights are Will’s meeting with Emma’s parents in “Asian F” and Cooper’s acting master class in “Big Brother.”

The bottom line, I suppose, is that Glee was all over the map this season. It didn’t have the focus of season two, but it did have some strong elements working for it, and when it succeeded, as always, it did so in spectacular fashion. But, since it’s Glee, their failures are always of the same quality. Next season I have literally no idea what will happen, but it’s bound to be interesting either way.

I’ll be back in another week or so with my top ten musical numbers of the season.

How many characters are on Glee, anyway?

In the first episode of the TV podcast that my friend J. and I started (shameless plug), we spent some time talking about Glee. While discussing the pilot, we agreed that a major issue with it was “all the other characters,” and I got to thinking: how many characters does Glee have, anyway? There were a ton introduced in the pilot alone, and almost all of those are still with us, plus a lot more. An early first season episode made the mistake of establishing that to be competition-legal, a glee club has to have at least twelve members. Just consider that for a moment: there have to be twelve students in the cast. Imagine if there were twelve sweathogs in Welcome Back, Kotter, or twelve members of the study group on Community, or twelve doctors on House (well, there was the fourth season). Not all of them have to take the forefront obviously, but that is a lot of fucking characters. And that’s not even counting the adults or incidental characters. I think we accept this from Glee because it was sprung on us fairly slowly. After all, the show originally spent a lot more time on Will and his home life, and there were originally only six student members of the club who didn’t get a lot of focus. Then the show switched its focus to the kids just as the size of the club grew to a competition-legal size. And we were left with this multi-headed beast of a cast that can never be slain.

Seriously, I want to list all these characters. It’s been a while since I’ve done a list, so cut me some slack. This will be done from memory, in no particular order, and it refers to the current cast as of “Choke.”

1. Rachel
2. Finn
3. Kurt
4. Puck
5. Mercedes
6. Blaine
7. Sam
8. Quinn
9. Joe
10. Rory
11. Sugar
12. Santana
13. Brittany
14. Tina
15. Mike
16. Artie

17. Will
18. Emma
19. Sue
20. Roz
21. Shannon

I could have stretched the list to include people like Burt, Becky, and Figgins, but I’m only including characters that had significant screen time in season three and are at least semi-regular.

So, good God. That’s over 20 characters. No wonder people just look at me quizzically when I try to talk about specific characters or relationships on the show (well, that, and I’m trying to talk to them about Glee). None of them are what you would call background characters either. Almost all of them have had at least one story. How can a show possibly expect to do justice to this huge a character list? I don’t think it’s possible, and I think it’s a big part of the reason that multi-episode arcs are coming, going, disappearing, and reappearing so randomly this season. They’re doing things with so many characters that you can’t keep up with all of them, especially when they spend so much time on Rachel and Finn alone and when so much of every episode has to be taken up by musical numbers.

Funniest of all is that Tina, a character who has been with the show ever since the very beginning, still isn’t fully established! In 62 episodes, she hasn’t had a single storyline of her own! Sure, she’s played relatively significant roles in episodes like “Wheels,” “Theatricality,” and, most recently, “Asian F,” but all those stories were about someone or something else, with her as a supporting character. We already know more about Wade than we know about Tina, for God’s sake. This show just has no idea how to handle this many characters. I don’t think any show would.

And you know what’s even worse? If season four really creates a show split between New York and the kids back in Lima, the cast will grow even more.

What they really should do is write the graduating seniors out of the show for real, and pare down the season four cast into one that has a core group of main characters that we can concentrate on. Unfortunately, that won’t happen because Glee is a runaway train at this point, and it’s going to stay on this track until it crashes.

(I keep predicting the demise of this show, despite the fact that I love it. I have a strange relationship with Glee.)

Why do I like Glee anyway?

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.