In order to contextualize my impending review of last Tuesday’s (4/17) episode of Glee, I thought it prudent to share my experience with the show as a whole.
The first season of Glee captured my attention in a way that only a select few television series ever have before. There were some obvious appeals to my prejudices with its positive portrayal of and often empowering messages about diversity issues. Issues portrayed in this light included race, gender, and–a comparative rarity for mainstream television–sexual orientation.
Although this may have been the reason I initially decided to watch Glee, it is not the reason it captured my attention for the entire first season. The credit for this lies with the fact that the first season of Glee is a tightly constructed narrative with a clear direction. Every single episode, though satisfying on its own merits, contributed in some way to the overall direction of the season. Every single character had their role in the larger narrative. Some shined brighter in particular episodes, but none ever completely disappeared. There was always something “going on” with them. The idea of any character going an entire episode without meaningful lines was, frankly, laughable.
The emotional momentum of the first season was clearly driving toward Regionals. Although it was, frankly, one of the best season finales I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing, what would happen in the subsequent seasons really made me wish New Directions had achieved victory in their first attempt. While the second season could have had a clear direction (New Directions being hungry in light of their Regionals loss, and perhaps struggling to gain a more “gritty” sense of determination without losing their original identity that made them special)… that didn’t happen. Instead, the second season largely rehashed the first season, except it didn’t do nearly as good of a job.
The show had lost its emotional momentum and sense of direction. But that wasn’t all it lost. One of the original elements that drew me to the series was its complex portrayal of diversity issues. Very few episodes on this topic had simple resolutions, and when the resolutions were simple they were always positive in that diversity issue’s favor. Though I will not go into great detail, in the second season the producers apparently discovered the two diversity issues they didn’t want to portray positively: bisexuality and atheism.
In the category of “credit where credit is due,” the season’s only truly standout plotline did restore some of the show’s credibility in the diversity category. It featured a frank portrayal of gay bullying in which Kurt Hummel, one of the show’s brightest stars, is forced to move to a different school to avoid increasingly threatening bullying. Far from falling “out of sight, out of mind,” however, we follow Kurt at his new school as he finds mixed success. He clearly doesn’t fit in with the Warblers as much as he did with the New Directions, where his individualism was allowed to shine. But he does find love. The gradual development of this romantic subplot was, frankly, one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever seen on television. I’ve been begging for a same-sex romantic subplot where the romance was a much bigger deal than the fact that it happened to be a gay romance, and this show delivered it.
Unfortunately, the second season also represented a loss of the structural elements that made Glee such an excellent series in the first place. Characters did more than fade into the background to allow other characters to shine: they disappeared completely. Many characters (especially Rachel and Finn) underwent completely personality changes toward the beginning of the season for no apparent reason. While they recovered eventually, it was so jarring that it was difficult to shake.
I made it through the second season in its entirety, largely owing to Kurt’s subplot; I made it about two episodes into the third season. In addition to once again featuring bizarre shifts in characterization, the beginning of the third season dealt a final blow to what drew me to the series in the first place: it completely lost its “lifelike” quality. I’m sorry, but in real life your boyfriend doesn’t change schools just because you want him to. Did Blaine’s parents (who were presumably paying for him to go to that fancy private school) have anything to say about his abrupt decision to attend public school? Did Blaine himself put more thought into it than, “I want to be with my boyfriend”? It just isn’t the sort of change that happens as easily as it did in the show, if it happens at all. And when things start getting “too easy,” it’s a sign of sloppy storytelling.
But we don’t even really need that sign. Thinking about Glee made me consider other shows that have had similarly tantalizing first seasons. Examples from my personal experience include Babylon 5, Stargate Atlantis, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes. Unlike Glee, a couple of these shows managed to maintain this exceptional level in subsequent seasons (Babylon 5, Battlestar.) As frequently, however, the results were the same as Glee (Atlantis, Heroes.) Why is this? What makes the difference between a consistently exceptional series and a one-season wonder?
The difference is actually shockingly simple: long-term planning. It’s clear that Stargate Atlantis and Heroes had exceptionally well-planned and well-written first seasons. Like Glee, however, both seemed to lose their sense of direction entirely after the first season. What sets series like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica apart is that their equally spectacular first seasons were part of a well-structured plan for an entire series. Things happen in the first season that you don’t fully understand until the third season or the fourth season. In both cases, the writers and producers had a complete story to tell, and they told it.
Glee had a story to tell, and that story was about a season long. As I already mentioned, there were other directions they could’ve gone in season two to maintain similar quality, but they didn’t. Instead, they tried to rehash the first season but didn’t have as much of a story to tell, and didn’t have a way to consistently involve every single character, which is when ensemble shows start to fall apart. The rather obvious motions the show is going through now (season one: lose Regionals; season two: win Regionals, lose Nationals; season three: win Regionals, win Nationals?) in order to drag things out and stay on the air just doesn’t do justice to the tight, compelling season-long narrative we had in the first season.
I’ll always remember Glee for its exceptional first season, but also for the enormity of its unfulfilled promise. That being said, when a coworker of mine described the plot of “Saturday Night Glee-ver,” I realized immediately that I needed to see it for fairly obvious reasons. In my next entry, I will discuss how that went.