It's always a little funny, isn't it, when you pay a visit to the elderly.
Glee turned 100 last night. Rather, Glee aired its 100th episode last night, and visiting the series again on this milestone of aging was a lot like anytime you visit someone so elderly. You realize the person's become hopelessly senile, a fact you have to forgive if you ever want to enjoy your time with them. You see that they've lost their sharp wit and edginess, but you've long come to terms with that. And visiting them, as was the case with Glee Wednesday night, often turns into a walk down memory lane when, let's face it, things were a whole lot better.
Because while Glee's 100th episode was just the right amount of wistful and wacky and overflowing with crisp and expertly executed musical numbers, it was also really freaking sad. Not, like, sad because its content was particularly emotional (though a nod to the passing of former star Cory Monteith did cause those rusty tear ducts to spring a bit of a leak). But because it was a depressing reminder of how the steady, certain march towards death—only one more season of Glee left!—only illuminates the vibrancy and vivaciousness of the good ol' days: youth!
(In this case, "youth!" refers to "Glee seasons one and two!")
But alas, there we were, all sitting around the community room in the old folks' home—excuse me, the McKinley High choir room—knowing we were in for an awkward visit, but determined to grin and bear it and find the joy in it. The song-filled, tightly-choreographed joy. Mercedes (Amber Riley), Quinn (Dianna Agron), Brittany (Heather Morris), Mike, (Harry Shum, Jr.), and Puck (Mark Salling) were there. Hardly functioning—but buckets of fun!—drunk April Rhodes (Kristin Chenoweth) was there, too.
For us, the reason for the visit was Glee’s official entry into old age, the 100th episode. For the alumni of New Directions, it was fact that glee club was being canceled, for some godforsaken plot reason that's not worth typing out here, and each of them thought the dissolution of their high school chorus was occasion enough to drop hundreds of dollars on plane tickets to fly back from college and leave every obligation behind for an entire week. Glee!
Determined to make this a nostalgia-fest, the returning cast members sang songs that were their characters' favorite in earlier seasons. And they nailed it. They really did! Lea Michele and Amber Riley served up a Fourth of July's worth of vocal pyrotechnics singing "Defying Gravity," while Naya Rivera (Santana), Dianna Agron, and Heather Morris torched the screen during their scorching version of "Toxic." As Kristin Chenoweth pranced around the choir room with the glee kids like a deranged Maria leading a parade of emotionally needy Von Trapp children during the "Raise Your Glass" opener, it was impossible not to smile and bask in the nostalgic, well, glee of it all.
But as much as Glee's 100th episode cannily celebrated two important pillars of what makes the show special and worth watching—fierce talent and unabashed expression—it reminded us of all that's crumbled around those two remaining pillars—what we used to like so much about the show, what the show used to be, and what it used to represent.
Kristin Chenoweth pranced around the choir room with the glee kids like a deranged Maria leading a parade of emotionally needy Von Trapp children.
It was a stark reminder of better times with Glee: the diva-offs between Rachel and Mercedes, the interplay between Brittany and Santana, the just-right balance of nonsense and perfect sense that was the romantic pairing of Puck and Quinn. The times when the show was aggressively ridiculous, but clever enough to be self-aware about it, addressing its own idiocy through dialogue. Last night, when telling Mr. Schuester how he burnt through the club's entire multi-million dollar budget, Sue says, "I have here a line-item budget of the jungle set you constructed on stage a few weeks back so the glee club could perform a Katy Perry song, literally, for just you." Or there's this one, too, when Santana reacts to everyone's misguided happiness when Mr. Schuester starts waxing nostalgic: "You all cheer now, but wait 'til he starts rapping."
Yes, the episode was a bittersweet reminder of all those better times, from the uncomfortable-yet-heartwarming hilarity of watching the actors trying to make themselves cry (yikes, Quinn) to that one very specific moment in time when we all collectively were on board with and kind of liked Gwyneth Paltrow. (Holly Holliday was back, too!) It was also a reminder, though, of how far the show has fallen.
When it premiered, Glee was a breath of fresh air. It was a candy-colored teen comedy that cut the usual sugar-sweetness with tart dialogue and sharp writing. It was as smart as it was sudsy, letting us relish in its outrageousness because its singular directive—let your freak flag fly—was carried out with a rare blend of intelligence and irreverence. We used to talk about Glee the morning after it aired the same way we talk now about Girls. It was that culturally important. It tackled issues with that much creativity and honesty and uniqueness and bravery. Watching Glee now, this elderly little thing that can barely croak out a song and an engaging plot line without needing a rest, it's hard to imagine that we ever held it in such high esteem.
While the early seasons of Glee were so great because each character's arc and each episode were little pieces that collectively built this rambunctiously chugging train—destination: self-acceptance, with stops along the way for reflection through musical number—subsequent seasons saw that train veer hopelessly off the rails. Suddenly, collective greatness was sacrificed for individual silliness, with each week marking a Very Special Episode. The winking political incorrectness Glee used to subvert how we think about hot-button social issues and portray them on TV—homophobia, bullying, religion, racism—was replaced with soapy schmaltziness.
As Vulture painfully, but hilariously, points out, in the 99 episodes that preceded Wednesday night's 100th outing, Glee has addressed 294 issues and dramatic situations, ranging from "fitting in, belonging and acceptance" and "living with Down syndrome" to "attempted fetal kidnapping," "initiating a sexual relationship with the mother who adopted the child you gave up for adoption," and "canceling Christmas to pay for eating disorder therapy." Never did Glee lose its commitment to spotlighting sensitive issues. Somewhere, though, it lost its damned mind while doing it.
So here we are, looking at our elderly friend, Glee, smiling as we remember the old friends we share, humming to ourselves as we remember the 600+ songs its covered over the years, and cringing as we remember the more ludicrous of the 294 issues it obtusely tackled ("being prevented from playing Rizzo in Grease because you are transgender"). Perhaps angered by how the show has thwarted all the cultural goodwill and commitment to quality it once had, it's tempting to throw a spiteful slushie in its face, a token of our disappointment. But we're too afraid it'll make a Very Special Episode about it.