“Being a part of something special makes you special, right?”
That was the question Lea Michele’s perky, rabidly competitive Rachel Berry posed in Glee‘s pilot episode, as she lays out exactly why she needs William McKinley High’s glee club to keep going. As a series that once occupied a unique place in our pop culture comes to a close, the question now lingers over every character, every song and every moment of its crawl to the end. Since the show was part of something special, that makes it still special, right?
Glee was never a show about a campus choir. It was a never a teen melodrama where the competitions mattered in spite of how specifically folks explained or agonized over the rules. It was never about high school, really. Even when characters sobbed their way through two graduation ceremonies, the end of all that never really mattered. Instead, Ryan Murphy’s weekly musical revue was a story about the great lengths people go in order to be anybody’s somebody, be it a spouse or a star.
They were a motley crew of weirdos who found themselves stumbling into the New Directions choir room: Barbra Streisand-wannabe Rachel (Lea Michele); quarterback Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith); nerdy and wheelchair-bound Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale); stuttering goth Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz); flamboyant fashionista Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and big-voiced diva Mercedes Jonas (Amber Riley). Their sanctuary then turned into a warzone once popular cheerleaders Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron), Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) and Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris) joined the group, bringing football bully Puck (Mark Salling) along with them. Through these characters, the little show that loudly sang its way into the Top 10 kept dissecting what fuels the desperation to be loved and the desire to be needed — a desperation that, ironically, ended up being the actual series’ downfall.
Make no mistake: When Glee was great, it was truly great. The first season, universally loved by fans, had been a near-perfect satire of student pecking orders. Yet what separated Glee from other attempts at channeling Heathers-level darkness as it poked fun at the hierarchies of the teenage kingdom was its unique sense of tenderness. Rachel Berry, a theater-brat nightmare straight outta Fame, is introduced in the first episode explaining the gold star stickers she places at the end of her signature. (It’s a metaphor for her stardom.) She’s a creature of intense cheeriness and ego — one who, we soon discover, is being perpetually bullied by the pretty and perfect “Cheerios.”