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Glee captured all of its wasted promise in one character

<i>Glee</i> captured all of its wasted promise in one character
Photo: Fox Image Collection/Getty Images, Graphic: Rebecca Fassola
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Note: It came to our attention that a longer version of this piece was published the same day at the site /Film. Neither site was aware of this prior to publishing, and we apologize to our readers for not upholding the standards you’ve come to expect from The A.V. Club. The editors at /Film chose to remove the article on their site. —Laura M. Browning, Executive Editor

One can imagine that a perfect version of Glee would have looked like a gayer, cattier serialized iteration of Alexander Payne’s Election. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have confessed as much. But Payne never exerted the kind of sadism and masochism that Murphy (and Falchuk) seem to dole out onto and into Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), the show’s de facto lead and Tracy Flick spiritual sister. True, both the first season of Glee and Election were satires of ambition and power, and both Rachel and Tracy had affected manners of speech, and both took to heart how “special” they thought they were, and how badly they wanted that to matter to everyone else. But Election was unambiguous about the abuse of power that pervaded its high school setting, and though it painted Tracy (and everyone else’s) fluctuating levels of self-awareness with irony, it never relished her loss of the election. Not, at least, in the way that numerous hurdles are thrown at Rachel over the course of Glee’s six seasons for no reason other than to cut her down to size, only to raise her back up again. Election lets Tracy be successful without being a monster; Glee lets Rachel get away with murder.

Glee, in its brief explosion as a cultural phenomenon, was packed with contradictions and paradoxes and evidence of laziness about its tone, style, intent, characterization, habits, and tropes. But its most startling flaw and source of frustration was in Rachel: ravenously spotlight-hungry, egotistical, victim and villain.

Although it has faded from cultural memory in the short time that has passed since its premiere (in May 2009, to the tune of 9.6 million viewers), it’s strange to forget a show that spawned a concert tour, a concert movie, a reality competition show, merchandising, mobile apps, and many a parent’s gas bill to rise as they drove their children to and from show choir practice. As a whole, it was a brand that was, not unlike Berry herself, a supernova that burned bright, sucked up everything around it without remorse, and burned out quickly. And the brand that was Glee—the way it would shoehorn a mix of ironic bigotry and earnest sentimentality about issues of diversity and inclusion and its inability to decide if it wanted to be high school melodrama, special of the week, or a satire of those modes—might have been one of the most influential products that has shaped what television looks like today and how we talk about identity politics on TV.

The problem was often that its politics and didacticism often felt glib and/or halfhearted, that what mattered was not, beyond the pilot, giving losers a sense of empowerment beyond brand strategy, that what really mattered were stars destined for the stage and screen and who would do anything to get there. This perverse “believe in yourself” rhetoric was what Rachel spewed, and we were supposed to both root for her and relish in her almost-undoing.

In the first half of the first season, Rachel’s hunger for fame is written with enough thought and complexity to pass her off as amiably caricatured, enough to be venom-spewing cheer coach and aspiring Glee Club destroyer Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch)’s bête noire, while also giving Rachel a respectable amount of pathos. “You know that girl in drama club,” the show seems to say, elbowing you in the ribs. In the pilot, her earnest fears of being forgotten in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to annotate her life, is winsome and relatable. That the pilot of Glee stands not only in such contrast to the rest of the series, but is also arguably one of the best episodes of television produced in the last decade, is a testament to the show’s infuriating paradoxical qualities: How can Rachel be both a funny satirical sketch of an archetype with campy inflections as well as an interiority worthy of audience empathy, and yet turn into a hollow shell of that idea of a character so quickly after? Her performance in the pilot’s grand finale of “Don’t Stop Believin’” is legitimately magical, star-making, a blazing burst of beauty, talent, and presence. But, noticeably, she takes up most of that spotlight.

Perhaps the most crucial question to ask of the show was if Glee really cared about anyone other than Rachel. The show was technically an ensemble with a group of capital-D diverse misfits: Rachel; the equally ambitious Mercedes (Amber Riley); the aimless jock, Finn (Cory Monteith); the gay kid, Kurt (Chris Colfer); the disabled kid, Artie (Kevin McHale); and the goth, Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz). Calling them the “New Directions” meant 1) constructing a purposefully identifiable lake of dweebs and 2) calculating the possible internal tensions. Mostly, people cared about the first part. The show had other priorities.

As its ratings declined season after season, Murphy would work harder not to maintain a balance of two contradictory tones, but to make the casting more inclusive, or the storylines more diverse. Trans and gender nonbinary characters would be introduced, arcs regarding domestic abuse, sex work, and general adolescent stagnancy would come up in later seasons. But these characters, especially if they weren’t members of the original cast, never felt designed to succeed in a way that Rachel was. Even when she was failing, she was supposed to be loved and hated in equal measure, to be in the spotlight that the other New Directions so longed for.

It was Rachel, though, who is painted as the one who suffers the most, both ironically and unironically. And it is Rachel who is written as if success, no matter the risks, is her destiny, and everyone else who suffers or lives on the margins of her world, or society at large, are valuable insofar as the visibility of their trials and tribulations. Artie’s disability, for example, matters only for a vampiric audience. The more Glee tried to mean something real, as opposed to the escapist fantasy it once allegedly intended to be, the more it was on the brink of falling apart.

Stardom, for its characters, was both fantasy and reality, often encompassed by one particular persona. Rachel Berry is called Barbra Streisand’s “heir apparent” throughout the run of the show; it mostly does not have a wink attached to it. When she originally performs “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl at sectionals in the first season, she says she’s been working on the number since she was 4 years old. She decides to perform it for her audition for the fictional New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts toward the end of season three. She’s performed “Don’t Rain On My Parade” four times in the series, but here, on her fateful audition, she chokes. She forgets the words. And on a second chance, she forgets again. She’s given 16 bars when she only deserved eight, says NYADA’s dean, Ms. Tibideaux (Whoopi Goldberg). Rachel’s chance to get out of Ohio and go to Broadway is smashed in one fell swoop. Except that it’s not.

The show frequently fixated on plots where Rachel throws a tantrum because her so-called talent is being unrecognized or squandered, and it is not only the show’s worst obsession, but also its calling card for latent misogyny. All dimensionality to Rachel falls away during these episodes and repetitive arcs. Glee’s characterization of Rachel is at once doggedly obsessive and cruel, a character whose actions can’t be described as textural to her character, or complex or nuanced, but simply reductive, an indication that Ryan Murphy’s work and writing of women (in American Horror Story, or Feud: Bette And Joan) should be scrutinized more. His treatment of Rachel is no less sadistic than how Lars von Trier treats the female characters of his films—but it is more aggrandizing.

So what does Rachel choking on her audition really serve? On the one hand, it’s supposed to be a little schadenfreude. But because we know the show would never take away Rachel’s star, its effect is lessened because she gets a third chance and gets admitted to NYADA anyway.

It became standard practice to build Rachel up and briefly knock her down, and the fall from grace never felt like it would leave much of an impact because we knew she would come out on top. Even if it was somewhat amusing trying to discern where Rachel Berry ended and Lea Michele began, the probably apocryphal reports of animosity between her and co-star Naya Rivera dripping with a mixture of misogyny and a seed of believability, she began to embody a sort of nightmare star child. It’s hard to describe her as an antihero because it was difficult wanting her to win. Her anxiety about her future never resonates as authentic because the show makes it obvious that the odds have always been stacked in her favor, so that tension of whether or not she’ll be successful is virtually nonexistent. She is the worst kind of mean in that she doesn’t think she’s mean, and, well, if she is, you probably deserved it because it would have gotten in the way of her stage presence.

Glee accidentally made all of its villains fairly interchangeable and blandly mean. Rachel’s dance teacher at NYADA, Cassie (Kate Hudson), might be the only exception only because she’s mischaracterized as a villain. Her criticisms of Rachel’s dance moves are no more or less harsh than any other serious dance teacher. The misjudgment once again suggests that the show is so heavily and so blindly in Rachel’s favor that normal (if occasionally questionable) teaching practices come off as bad or unusual, because they forced the beloved lead to be challenged for once.

Rachel has a sniffly attitude in her first dance classes, experiencing, for the first time, that she is not necessarily the perfect golden child she’s been told she was. And when her light insubordination gets the best of her, Cassie gives Rachel a taste of what’s to come: the Lady Gaga/Jennifer Lopez mashup “Americano/Dance Again” is fairly inspired, loud, and brash. It’s like the show’s editing: flashy and bombastic, hiding its lack of skill and savvy. “Americano/Dance Again” is a much-needed assertion that Rachel isn’t the only girl in the world. If only the show actually believed that.

Is Rachel Babs’ heir apparent? No, but in the end, it never mattered what we think. Glee was going to do with Rachel whatever it wanted, even if it meant having her quit school in the fifth season to play the lead in a Funny Girl revival on Broadway, shaping “I’m The Greatest Star” into something devoid of irony. Honestly, Rachel is only interesting when her parade is rained on.

At least that arc was followed by a final season that’s maddening in inventive ways. Everyone goes crawling back home to Ohio: after breakups or alienation or Rachel leaving Funny Girl to pursue a pilot that tanks. She returns to McKinley to revive its art programs, which Sue dumped when she was promoted to principal. Rachel resuscitates the glee club, juggles her own aspirations again, and brings the New Directions to sectionals with the help of Kurt. Hanging on to the mystery of whether the new glee club (now in its third generation, following a turnover in season four) won sectionals is satisfying, as is the mirror episode “2009,” which switches perspectives to the characters who weren’t highlighted in the pilot. It’s almost perfect in an unfussy, almost honest way, a quasi-Rocky answer to what winning means. It could have ended that way.

But it didn’t.

The series finale, “Dreams Come True” is all of Glee’s laziest and half-baked habits in one episode. It is wish fulfillment when no one really deserves it. There is a time jump between the season’s 11th episode, “We Built This Glee Club,” and the finale, and the New Directions have not only won regionals, but they’ve gone on to win nationals, too. McKinley gets turned into an art school. Everyone is successful, and Rachel, still never quite learning with any significance what a monster she’s been in the past without feeling sorry for herself, wins a Tony Award, is married to former rival/flame Jessie (Jonathan Groff), and serves as a surrogate for Kurt and Blaine. Additionally, the auditorium they always performed in (with frequently astonishingly gaudy sets with money from I don’t know where) is named in memory of the late Finn. Didn’t you read the title? Dreams do come true!

“‘Dreams Come True’ is a bumper sticker, not an episode,” wrote Brandon Nowalk on the finale at The A.V. Club. It’s an apt truth that applies to much of the series, and Rachel is driving the car bearing that bumper sticker. In 2019, it is striking how much of a product of its cultural era Glee is, even if that era wasn’t so long ago: despite the rose-colored lens through which we look at Barack Obama’s presidency, his strikes against teachers and their unions have had a lasting impact, and when measured against his wins for some marginalized groups and healthcare, his legacy embodies the same paradoxical, strangely enticing qualities the show embraced. But as white suburban liberalism began to lose its sight on concrete terms, its tendency to fancy amorphous, abstract ideas about “hope” and idealism, that same white liberalism became a reflection of perhaps what makes Glee so frustratingly inconsistent, particularly in the aftermath of its sixth season (which aired in 2015), the 2016 election, and the current political climate. What was once exciting and progressive regardless of its cohesive qualities now fails to resonate, the material progress notwithstanding. As its sixth season aired, Jeff Jensen wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “Glee might be one of the quintessential expressions of the Obama era. It arrived so full of progressive fire, representing change and promising hope for more; it now moves toward the exit dogged by criticism of inconsistency and unmet ambitions, framed as a disappointment.” Rachel was a perfect encapsulation of those ideas: the thought of progress that was ultimately safe, self-interested, and shapeless.

It isn’t that Glee’s cultural impact does not exist, but perhaps it was both too derivative and too divergent of Election for any of its legacy to have a remotely legible impression on the culture. Its 20th anniversary precedes Glee’s 10th. But while Tracy Flick is still a recognizable archetype, an ambitious goodie-two-shoes that thinks she’s living in a meritocracy and for whom success is “destiny,” Rachel is not. Is it because Rachel is too much a successor or because of the paradoxical flatness and wild inconsistency in her characterization? Tracy had something Rachel never had; she was endearing, and however irritating she was, even at her most manipulative (she tore posters down, who cares?), she felt human. Rachel was too much of a camp caricature to be rendered with empathy beyond the pilot episode.

While I was a Kurt in high school, and ambivalent about the designation by my peers, I originally jumped ship, as I tell people, midway through season three, because I knew when Glee failed to live up to what its pilot promised: It could not figure out the kind of distance it must have between ironic detachment and emotional investment in its characters and situations, it could not figure out how to care for its audience, and it could not make its characters face even a satirical version of reality. Ultimately, it could not figure out who Rachel was supposed to be: to herself, to the show, to us. Glee was not only about nostalgia; it was nostalgia. Maybe in its desire to be and do a lot of things, it just never figured out what its actual dreams were, singular, unified, explicable. Maybe it just ended up drifting the halls, like a general studies major, a bit lost, floating on other people’s dreams, and hoping the music would help Glee find its way.