It may be too distant a memory to recall clearly now, but once upon a time, Glee was the greatest show on TV ever. It was the first of its genre, the modern train-wreck masterpieces, messy, fun, and ambitious shows like Empire and Scandal and Orange Is the New Black and, of course, American Horror Story that we have come to love.
That first episode of Glee was perfect. Even those of us with the foggiest memories will remember the chills and goosebumps from the final notes of "Don't Stop Believing." The rest of the season was delightfully deranged in its brazen plotting—hysterical pregnancies, fake stutters, eating disorders, virginity, wheelchair choreography, gay beards, tributes to Lady Gaga. Some plotlines were executed convincingly, others which made you face-palm yourself with those kids' jazz hands.
But the balls to fail occasionally on its mission to be brilliant and say something each week made watching Glee something rare for television at the time: absolutely exciting to watch.
“The high school musical comedy occasionally flies off the rails,” wrote People’s Tom Gliatto in his initial review. “But maybe that’s to be expected from this aggressively inventive pop fantasy.” USA Today’s Robert Bianco echoed the sentiment. “It’s not perfect,” he wrote, “but in a sea of procedural conformity, Glee is its own weird, often enchanting little island escape.”
“Cynical,” “sweet,” “adventurous,” “inestimably funny”: these are words that echoed across all Glee’s initial reviews, all of which were summarized with one definitive ruling: “the best new show of the season.”
The musical numbers were fun, sure. (And they were really fun.) But Glee was great because it shamelessly stood for something, at a time when social responsibility was as uncool as, well, being in your high school show choir.
It proved that TV really can't be too crazy for its own good. It celebrated the young misfit in an age of fetishized perfection. It was a nerds-shall-rise moment for musical theatre fans who had been waiting for their turn on the pop-culture kick line. And it was a haven for a community of indescribably talented, but not quite classically telegenic, Broadway stars—theatre fans used to have settle for geeking out over when they played the murder suspect of the week on SVU.
Moreover, amid its schizophrenia of crazy, it provided landmark attention to a number of social issues, ushering in an age in which TV was allowed to teach lessons without resorting to After School Special broadness or Very Special Episode treacly crap.
Admittedly, Glee didn't always succeed at this, but it swung hard. As Louis Peitzman praised over at Buzzfeed, while critics and audiences have, at some point during its run or another, abandoned the show, it never faltered from what seemed like its singular directive, to be “unabashedly queer.” The past season alone featured joint weddings of a gay male couple (Kurt and Blaine) and a lesbian couple (Santana and Brittany), as well the coming out of a second trans character on the show, Coach Beiste, in a storyline that was heralded for its nuance and care.
In one episode, an entire trans choir performed the song “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray. Together, this all proves that Glee, even while singing for a smaller audience, has stuck to its guns. “Those who have stuck around are witnessing something genuinely transgressive for major network primetime television,” Peitzman says. “It’d be challenging to think of another network series that has celebrated the beauty of difference better.”
The truth is that there is a lot to remember Glee for. There's the fountain of quotables from Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester, as radical of a domineering supporting character if there ever was one. There's the way it reinvigorated a national passion for the arts in schools, with brassy teens across the country clamoring to be their hometown's own Rachel Berry, or resident Finn Hudson jock-types finally comfortable embracing their musical proclivities—and, finally, parents across the country encouraging them to do so.
But what really made Glee the best show ever—both for those of who knew what was happening at the time and for those who were clueless they were bearing witness to a TV revolution—was, as Peitzman rightfully points out, how soooo gay it was.
More, for all the talk of the role a show like Will and Grace played in changing the minds of the nation when it comes to gay rights, Glee broke down another barrier: making them comfortable with the idea of gay teens.
It's interesting to think how a character like Kurt might be embraced if he was debuting on TV now, as opposed to six years ago.
Diversity on TV today is all about normalization, creating a fictional mirror to reality that reveals, as in life, people of all colors and sexualities exist on a spectrum as varied and complicated as white, straight people have always been allowed to exist on for decades. The groundbreaking thing about Kurt, and Glee in general, was that his flamboyance and fabulousness was meant to set him apart. It was because he was different that he was embraced.
His message was to design your own, absolutely fierce freak flag, and proudly wave it high. An act so simple, while polarizing, is enough to change people perceptions about you and your fellow freak-flag waving brethren.
Funnily enough, considering how progressive his storyline was at the time, Kurt might actually seem retrograde today, when the Jamals of Empire and the Conors of How to Get Away With Murder are out to prove they're not defined exclusively by their gayness. Kurt never was either, but there's a discernible difference between what we hoped for in our LGBT characters then and what demand of them now. Of course, no gay character currently on TV could exist the way they are if it were not for Kurt paving the way.
And it’s impossible to talk about the gayness of Glee without bringing its blessed love for all things camp, and the almost unfathomable output you receive when you give a gay man—in this case Ryan Murphy—an outlet to express all of his wildest creative dreams, most of which he, or we, had never seen realized on TV.
As we live for shows like Empire now, series that are guiltless about their campier elements and heralded for accomplishing wild feats like featuring original music each week, we should remember that Glee was an indomitable trailblazer when it comes to sheer creative ambition. It was among the first series in the soap-dramedy revival to so nimbly dance between tones and levels of sincerity, dialing up and down seriousness and satire with, at least at the start of its run, remarkable dexterity.
Then there's this fact: Glee has staged no less than 700 musical numbers over the course of its run.
Attempting full-scale production numbers multiple times an episode, week-in and week-out, was a fool's errand when Glee launched. But they pulled it off, and the audacity of such a venture paid off as showstopper after showstopper exploded the buzz for the show, songs performed in each episode began surging on iTunes, artists whose music was covered saw their sales spike, and even concert tours and an accompanying concert film were launched. Best of all, they were so good.
Sure, Jennifer Hudson knows how to torch a song on TV, as she proved in Wednesday's Empire finale, but the Oscar-winner doesn't hold a candle to the take-me-to-the-church salvation that is Amber Riley when she is at her best performing as Mercedes, or as spine-tingling as Lea Michele when she nails the harmony between her jaw-dropping belt and heart-tugging emotional clarity. Jussie Smollett might be the coolest singing actor on TV right now, but Naya Rivera's Santana was the crooning badass first. And forget "Drip Drop"—no TV musical performance has ever taken over the zeitgeist with more irresistible omnipresence than the Warblers' a cappella rendition of "Teenage Dream," led by Darren Criss.
You can’t look at TV as it exists now and not see the influence of this slushie-soaked teen dramedy about a band of singing misfits. Glee was never perfect. At times it was even bad. But it accomplished something. It lasted six whole seasons. It made music. It changed minds. It was never embarrassed, not by its choir filled with weirdos nor by the messages those weirdos wanted to send. Hell, it even saved Gwyneth Paltrow’s career.
How do you overcome the implausibility of all that? It’s quite simple, really. You don’t stop believing.