I’ve watched Glee from the first season. From the beginning I loved the snarky tongue-in-cheek writing. Remember that line about moving to San Francisco or New York or some other place where they eat vegetables that aren’t fried? Biting witticisms punctuated the episodes and found their perfection in Sue’s sharp commentary and amazing voice-overs. I observed gleefully as the show’s writers, instead of attempting to bash stereotypes with denial, embraced and traveled through stereotypes to make them unnecessary. Of course, they didn’t do this for all the characters and the fact that the show left some of the most insidious stereotypes unengaged is one my bigger complaints (we never really got to know Mercedes as a whole person, for example). And then the music – the way that they took songs we already knew and gave them life within the context of the show’s plot was great.
I know many of the first fans gave up on the series after season 1. I have been frustrated by the decline in the hilarious dialogues and voice-overs, the fraying plotlines, the revolving door of characters, the way that the top-40 economic juggernaut the show became seemed to upstage enjoyable laughingly-appropriate conglomerations of assorted tunes that favor the cheesy songs of old as much as the hits driving the charts. I developed the opinion that the show might work best if they put more emphasis on the “lesson for the week” and returned to the sit-com format of days of old (before the original 90210) – the days before story arcs, the days in which episodes were largely self-contained and you watched because it was enjoyable not because you just had to know if, for example, Kurt and Blaine ever get together.
I thought all of these things but, still, I stuck with Glee. For me the show came to be about Burt (the perfect dad and regular guy) & Kurt (his nonsequitor son) and Finn (the perfect boyfriend and regular guy) & Rachel (his improbable match). It was about remembering first loves and revisiting big dreams of old. It was about reconnecting with the memory of growing up feeling out of place and destined for something different and special. It was about experiencing again the joie-de-vivre that characterizes the years before you understand that there is no such thing as having it all and even the most interesting life can come to feel ordinary to the person living it.
Even though I found the Glee’s youthful dreams compelling, I’ve grown uncomfortable with the normative orientation of the show. Mr. Shue is basically propped up as a negative example – someone whose own life holds no joy because he did not dream big. Early on Finn expressed an inclination to follow the same path by staying put and taking over his stepdad’s tire shop. In response he was told that was a fine choice but he was “better than that.” There was some line recently in which one of the characters basically summed up the average life as lived by people who can’t recognize themselves in who they’ve become and don’t even bother to dream. When Rachel briefly flirts with the idea of being an ordinary person from Lima Ohio instead of a Tony award winner, she is quickly disabused of the notion – she is too special for such a future. When Finn mourned in advance the loss of being and feeling young, he was told that the real problem was that he was afraid to dream. Is it really necessary to run down average adult lives and mischaracterize the people who live them as folks without joy and aspiration? I left after high school but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the things that I lost as well as the things I gained. I feel that I live a fairly charmed and amazing life but that doesn’t mean when I go back and see the folks who are still there that they are unhappy in their lives. It doesn’t mean that I don’t envy some of the things they have because they stayed. Although I am not surprised the kids of McKinley don’t know this yet, I would hope that the writers do.
The finale of Glee’s third season aired last week. The episode featured the graduation of many key characters. True to the emphasis on big dreams, an unlikely number of the glee kids are pursuing lives as performers. Of the rest, one is headed to Yale, another off to the army and one aspires to be a pool-cleaning magnate in L.A. The last 8 minutes of the show were gut-wrenching. Finn, whose dream of acting turned out to be a dream denied, broke off his relationship with Rachel because he knew that she was special (while he, it is implied, is not) and should not be held back by their relationship. Instead Finn was heading off to the army to restore his dead father’s honor and to sacrifice himself by going the “one place” where Rachel could not follow. Saying that they needed to “surrender” to the inevitability of the future, Finn suggested that they “let the universe do its thing. If (they) were meant to be together (they) would be together.”
As the episode drew to its conclusion, I sat in my office stifling my sobs and hoping that none of my students would come looking for me before I recovered. I realized we are through, Glee and me. The show has taught us again and again that dreams must be pursued and guarded relentlessly but relationships, the finale suggests, are to be left to the fates. It’s not that I believe that such a scene is unrealistic. In fact, one of the reasons that I found it so difficult to watch was because it felt painfully similar to a cold winter day many years ago. It was the day my high school boyfriend drove me to South Station in Boston so I could catch the train back to Chicago for the spring semester. We had navigated the long distance thing for one term. Out of the blue in the car he suggested that we end it. It was too hard, he said. It was holding us back. If it was meant to be, it would happen later. I think I spent the whole train ride sobbing but, like Rachel, when I stepped on the train I sealed the lid on the coffin of my first lost dream – the one that believes completely and without cynicism in love that is inevitable, perfect and able to withstand anything.
Although the scene may by realistic, I didn’t watch Glee to experience reality. I watched it because it was a quirky, joyful fairy tale in which folks lived their fantasies, especially the ones about relationships. Rachel is off to New York. She’ll probably make it in the theater. Why wouldn’t she? She is talented and driven and doing exactly what she needs to do. Her future is no longer fantasy. Now it’s elbow grease and a little bit of luck. Rachel’s broadway career was never the long shot. Her ability to be more than an out-of-place and “annoying Jewish girl” with lots of talent was her high school dream and the Cinderella story that kept me watching. She needed Finn for that. Finn started out as a regular guy with no particular big dreams beyond winning the state championship in football. He needed Rachel to find the confidence to step outside the mainstream and do something different. In concluding the season, however, Finn is sent right back to the life he would have had anyway. In other words, for both characters the future holds only what you would have expected it to from the very first episode.
Some fairytale. Glee and I are through because childhood is over, love is lost and dreams are sacrificed to the apparent inevitability of future-oriented practicality. What follows is the everyday of becoming, happily or not, recognizably or not, people who are living their erstwhile futures. I don’t need a television show to experience that.