“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.”
Handling those loser/popular kid dichotomies was where Glee thrived. The head cheerleader Fabray joins the club in an attempt to keep her perfectly popular boyfriend Hudson; he’s being blackmailed by the club’s new coach, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) to come on board as its male lead. Later, those people she had tormented ended up being her only support system when she finds out that she’s pregnant. Back-up Cheerio Santana slowly grows out of her henchman role as its revealed that she’s dating another cheerleader; beneath her meanness is a confused young girl falling in love with her best friend and afraid of the bigger-picture consequences.
Even Cheerios coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the cartoonish adult villain of the show, became more than a stock evil figure, especially when details of her sister’s struggle with Down Syndrome provide context to her tough, brash exterior. Still, she’s the most consistently brutal, setting out to torment her “archnemesis” every single season. Plus, Lynch always gave the most consistent laughs as Sylvester got away with the most tactless jokes given her characterization.
At the heart of it all was Finn. The sweetly goofy gridiron star had been groomed from the start to be the most complex, looking uncomfortable as he’s forced to bully the effeminate Kurt Hummel in his first scene. Until his end, Finn’s imperfections became the ones most worth unpacking. The fact that his boyish homophobia towards the beta male grows into an affectionate sense of brotherhood as their parents prepare to marry is a testament to his growth. Even his final season played up his mistakes, following an honorable discharge from the army. He finds himself back at McKinley High School as a glee coach, thriving as a mentor in the same way he thrived with mentorship from Schuester.
Glee lost its touch long before Cory Monteith passed away between the fourth and fifth seasons. Like the characters we grew to love and sometimes hate, it became addicted to its own adoration, starting around the beginning of the second season. Because the mix of biting humor and exciting performances worked so well at first, the show drew in big numbers, serving as prototype to what has made a show like Empire and movies like Pitch Perfect so successful. Nearly 10 million viewers tuned in for Season One, increasing to nearly 13 million for Season Two. There were two successful live tours, chart-topping soundtracks, a spin-off reality show and a powerful fan base (“gleeks”) who kept it all thriving for as long as they could. Now, as its sixth and final season draws to a close, less than three million are watching series sanctioned off to a Friday timeslot — essentially TV’s graveyard shift.
There are countless elements to the downfall of Glee as a cultural touchstone. It began eating its own tail, trying too hard to keep up with pop culture references and hit songs in an attempt to stay on top of the charts. Between Gaga-centric episodes and a lesson devoted entirely to twerking (no, really), most of these attempts to soak in the mainstream were ill-conceived. Worse, as Glee began to stray from its satirical roots, it found itself delving more and more into After-School Special territory. Kurt’s coming-out story was a highlight and a highmark, but the other attempts at saying something meaningful about headline-ripped issues, like a school shooting in the fourth season, were poorly developed. The stories were rushed and adjacent to the plot, trying to create spectacle as opposed to developing the very worthy stories already at the writers’ fingertips.
While the show sings its swan song, it inevitably do so as a semblance of what it once was. Rachel, Kurt, Blaine and Sam Evans (Chord Overstreet) — another add-on groomed to be the new Finn Hudson — have all returned from New York to the show’s Ohio locale. All are back in the choir room, eager to teach following some real world failures. They are working with a truly charming crop of new kids trying to feel as loved as they once did. Season Six has, in many ways, felt like a return to what made the series special: how the teens in that choir room connect with each other. Though so much has been packed in to the final episodes as it tries to wrap up loose ends, the return of Berry and Co. gave the series its rhythm back. Like its characters, Glee became a star only to fall back down. Then, when no one was looking, it slowly but surely found itself again, never having stopped believing that it could.