Glee: What Might Have Been

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*Contains season six spoilers*

Quite how Glee managed to limp through its mostly-awful fourth and fifth seasons is anybody’s guess.  There were times when it seemed that the whole thing would just grind to a halt and no-one would be bothered to even turn up to write, direct and act in it, let alone watch it.  And yet, since the death knell has been sounded, and the sixth and final season has started, this most erratic and frustrating of series has finally found its feet once again.  At its very best, Glee does not just entertain but it can also move its audience and send out a message like virtually no other programme.

I actually came to Glee in the first place about four years ago because a couple of my students were writing an essay on it, and I needed to see a few episodes.  Even back then, in its first and second seasons, the writing was erratic – brilliant one week, bloody awful the following week.  And yet one thing shone through despite the bland writing, forgotten narrative threads, bizarre characterisations, and awful song choices:  Glee had heart.  There were times when it became a little preachy to say the least, but at least it was preaching acceptance.  But the erratic quality of the programme saw viewing figures fall (understandably), and the third season could easily have been the last.

But still it carried on, trying to dig itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, trying every trick in the book to win back viewers or, at the very least, keep the ones it still had.  The idea to have what were essentially two parallel narratives running through the fourth and fifth seasons was interesting, but doomed to fail.  Glee got more and more silly and irrelevant.  It had been forgotten that the show was at its best when it was also at its simplest, but still there were moments when Glee’s best qualities shone through despite everything.

Now the show is at the midway point of its sixth and final series of just thirteen episodes and, somehow, it has returned to very near its best.  Surreal humour that makes sense to no-one is mixed up with genuinely moving storylines and songs that are actually there for a reason.  There are no fireworks as Glee comes to an end – no big attempt to win back viewers, but just an eagerness to let this once-loved show close out with some dignity.  But this simple aim has resulted in some wonderful moments – and as a forty-one year old man, I really shouldn’t be saying that given that the target audience is probably about fifteen.

Dot-Marie Jones has been nominated three times for a Prime-time Emmy for her performances in the show and, given her performance in recent episodes that have centred around Coach Beiste’s decision to live life as a man, it’s highly likely that a further nomination will be forthcoming.  Excusing the fact that his decision was made and surgery taken place all in a matter of four weeks, this storyline has resulted in one of Glee’s best episodes in years, entitled Transitioning. It’s a simple episode, in which a number of storylines get moved forward, but Jones’s performance as her character returns to work for the first time as a man is remarkable.  It’s been mentioned in various places over the last few weeks that the transgender community gets forgotten or ignored when it comes to LGBT representation and politics, thus making this current narrative arc particularly welcome.

OK, I admit it, just like a Hallmark afternoon movie starring Lindsey Wagner, the climax in which transgender former student Unique sings a message of acceptance to the rather lost Coach Beiste, backed with a 300-strong transgender choir, is obviously intended to pull at the heartstrings and get the audience either crying like a baby or puking as a result of saccharine overload.  And yet it’s done so well (and is so out of the blue) that even the most-hardened watchers would struggle not to be moved by the whole thing.  Yes, it’s manipulating the viewer without apology, and, yes, it’s unadulterated feel-good TV – but that’s not always a bad thing.  And yes, I cried like a baby.

Glee has tackled numerous issues over its six-season run – some were done remarkably well and in depth, while others were handled so appallingly that the writers should be ashamed (most notably when Ryder admitted that he was molested as a child).  And, yes, there are “issues” that have, for some reason, been avoided.  In a series aimed at teenagers, why did the producers seemingly go out of their way to avoid storylines relating to drugs or mental health?  But the one thing it has consistently done, and done well, is ask for acceptance of the LGBT community, and this sixth season is no exception to that – quite the opposite in fact.  And, as a gay man myself, I understand the importance of that message going out to a core audience of the age that is just starting to understand who they are and  their purpose in life.

This final season of Glee has felt more like a beginning than an ending, and no doubt the show’s constant viewers will be watching it thinking of what could have been had the programme had been of this standard over the previous three seasons.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and the series has run its course.  In 2009, when it started, it was fresh, vibrant, funny and different.  Now it’s viewed by most as tired and cliched.  But I for one, even as a grumpy middle-aged man, am pleased that Glee has been allowed these thirteen episodes to get its arse in gear and finish with its head held high and to demonstrate just what it achieved over the last six years rather than where it failed.

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This Week’s TV: Supernatural & Glee

 

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Contains minor spoilers.

I’m not quite sure when it happened – at the end of season seven, I think – but Supernatural lost its way.  I remember looking forward to each new episode during the period when it was, first and foremost, a monster-of-the-week type of show, a Scooby-Doo for grown-ups.  Then it all got a bit convoluted with the introduction of angels, but we went with it.  Then there were angel wars and it all seemed to be getting a little bit silly.  Then there were leviathans and, despite the fact we never really understood what they were and never really found them such a menace, we went with that too. 

But season eight found Supernatural doing something I have yet to forgive:  it simply got a bit shit.  The scripts got weaker, the stars were at times looking visibly bored, and the whole thing was like watching Supernatural through a frosted window.  The first half of season eight wasn’t helped by the awful flashback structure or the introduction of Benny, a character it seems most fans didn’t warm to.  The second half was passable, but only because it was a TV series the fans loved and didn’t want to let go of. 

Now we have season nine – four seasons more than the original intention.  The way forward might have been to go back to the monster-of-the-week format, but this week’s first episode doesn’t point towards that happening as  one of the Winchesters is again at death’s door (literally).  How many times can they die or nearly die before us not shouting at the screen “just die and be done with it?”  We know they’re not going to die.  Or, if they do, they won’t stay dead.  There’s no suspense in these scenarios anymore. 

To be fair, the first episode of season nine was better than the first episode of season eight, but that’s not saying much.  There’s no inspiration here anymore, and certainly no logic – just scatterbrained ideas with no rhyme or reason to them.  It’s almost as if the writers have got together in a panic having learned yet another season is on its way and they have no idea what they are going to fill twenty-two episodes with.   I’m not even sure they understand the storyline anymore and how we landed up at this point.  Even the re-cap at the beginning of the episode gave up on reminding us of the story so far, it was just 60 seconds of snippets that could have been thrown together by a kid at a computer. 

To be fair, there were some highlights of S09E01.  Ezekiel seemed like a nice chap, but it doesn’t look like he will be around on a regular basis.  Castiel is present and correct, but he’s gained and lost his powers more times that a recurring guest star has found themselves filming a death scene.  And it’s always nice to see Bobby (killing him off in season seven was hardly the programme’s most sensible decision), but his appearance seems to have been to delight fans rather than to serve any great purpose.  Finally, there was Castiel recreating a famous laundrette-set advert – the episode’s highpoint and one reminding us that the surreal humour that used to a be a trademark of the series has been sorely lacking of late.   Castiel with his kit off, though, actually makes us realise he now looks younger than Sam (who hasn’t had a haircut since the last season, in case you were wondering).  

I wanted to be drawn back into Supernatural, but I now sit here and wonder if I can really be bothered anymore. 

I talked about the return of Glee a couple of weeks back, and last night saw the broadcast of the anticipated episode dealing with the passing of Finn Hudson, following Cory Monteith’s death in the summer.  Reviews of the episode have ranged from luke-warm to very favourable.  Glee might miss the mark quite a bit these days but, unlike Supernaturalit does seem to be trying its best.  There have been comments that there was no explanation for Finn’s death, and that the series could have force-fed us a drugs-related issue-of-the-week episode.  But this probably wasn’t the time or place for a drugs-related episode (although the absence of such a storyline is a mysterious omission over the last four seasons).  Instead, Glee played a blinder dealing with an issue that effects more teenagers than drugs does:  grief.

The episode starts three weeks after Finn’s death, with both old and new members of New Directions coming together for a private memorial to Finn.   The supposed leap in time from the last episode makes one wonder why this wasn’t the first episode of the present season, as it would have made more sense given the summer break.  Even so, this was played to perfection…mostly.  The teen audience was told that there was no right time or right way to deal with grief when someone close to you passes away, and that is something of a valuable (and rarely mentioned) lesson.  

The sequence near the beginning of the episode where Kurt returns home and he and his Dad and step-Mum (Finn’s mother) start to go through Finn’s things, deciding what to keep and what to not keep, was superb.  Romy Rosemont gave a stunning, heartbreaking  performance, and the writing was spot-on as those of us who have been in similar situations will know all too well.   Amber Riley’s vocal performances reminded us of just what a fine singer she is.  Perhaps the big mistake was affording so much screen time to Puck – Mark Salling’s acting was never exactly stellar, but seems to have got worse since he has been away from the show, and his performance seemed to be the only weak link in the episode.   The show didn’t forget it was a comedy at heart either, and there were some unexpected but welcome comedic moments (most notably when Tina goes to grief counselling).   It’s hard to imagine how the episode could have been dealt with better, especially remembering this is, primarily, a show for teens.   It would have been all too easy to pull at the heartstrings every thirty seconds but, oddly, the whole episode seemed less manipulative than normal – and that was a welcome surprise. 

 

Glee Returns

You may ask yourself why a man of nearly forty is watching Glee in the first place.  Well, the easy answer to that is that a couple of students I was teaching decided they wanted to write an essay on it, and so I watched the first few episodes to get an idea of what the series was all about.  Since then, it has been something of a guilty pleasure.  During the rather appalling third season even the pleasure element disappeared.   Viewing figures tumbled and, at one point this spring, there was even doubts as to whether the series would be renewed for a fifth season.

But last night it did return, and for the first time in a couple of seasons, all eyes are on Glee, if only for the saddest of reasons.  The death of Cory Monteith during the summer will likely result in higher than normal viewing figures for the first few episodes of the new season.  Those who no longer watch the programme may well tune in just to see how the program deals with the situation, which will apparantly be addressed in episode three.  Is the wait until the third episode a heartless attempt to hook viewers back into the series before showing them the episode they’re actually interested in, in the hope that some will stay with the programme once again?  Or am I just a cynic?  Not sure on that one, but reviewers of last night’s first episode have commented on the absence of Finn, the character playing by Monteith, and the fact that he wasn’t mentioned even in passing.  This seems a little odd considering he didn’t feature in either the beginning or end of the last season, and was barely mentioned during those periods either.  Had Monteith not have passed away and simply not featured in last night’s episode, most wouldn’t even have noticed that he wasn’t present.

I have said it before elsewhere and I will say it again: Glee is one of the most infuriating programmes ever to reach TV screens.  One episode can be pure unadulterated joy, and the next can be difficult to even sit through.  Last night’s season opener actually had elements of both extremes.  The McKinley High scenes were generally very good, and those following Rachel’s attempts to star in Funny Girl were rather tedious (with her version of A Hard Day’s Night being really quite awful).  Glee works best when the songs are fitted in around the script, rather than when the script works around the songs.  The Beatles catalogue allowed for a better script on the whole – much better than previous themed episodes centred around the music of Madonna or Britney Spears.

Glee can often switch between surreal, often stupid, humour and saccharine sentimentality and, again, last night’s episode had elements of both.  But there is no doubt that Glee‘s heart is in the right place.  It can still make a grown man cry like a baby when it wants to, and focussing much of the episode on the Blaine/Kurt romance certainly allowed for much tugging at those heartstrings.   As it has previously, the programme touched upon an issue currently very much in the news (gay marriage), and wasn’t shy at making political comment, with a clear dig at Russia’s treatment of homosexuals.  In fact, last night’s episode could possibly be the one most dominated by gay characters and themes in the series’ history and, even in 2013, this is unusual in a programme predominantly aimed at youngsters.   The well-publicised finale was genuinely touching and, once again, Chris Colfer managed to act everyone off the screen.

The opening of season five was, for the most part, a welcome return to form after the rather lacklustre finale to season four.  Only the coming weeks and month will tell whether the programme has indeed found itself a new lease of life, and whether it can overcome the problem that has plagued it since day one: lack of consistency.  If it can, then it might retain some of the rubberneckers who are tuning in just to see how the programme deals with the passing of one of its stars.  If it can’t, then there is little doubt that the series will be axed at the end of the current two-season deal.