For the Love of Glee

April 15, 2010
By | 18 Comments

Regardless of whether you are a Gleek (if you don’t know this term, read on), you may have noticed the buzz surrounding FOX’s musical comedy, which returned Tuesday to the second-best ratings of the night after a “Gleek Week” of promotional appearances and news coverage.  Created by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy, Glee focuses on a diverse group of teenagers participating in a high school show choir, treating the participants in “New Directions” with alternating doses of warmth and snark.  It also is one of the first series in the last few decades to successfully incorporate musical numbers; its music has become a lucrative cross-promotional element of the Glee phenomenon.

The series has garnered ardent fans, or Gleeks, around the world — evident in the many websites dedicated to it, such as Gleeks United, Glee Club Online, Forum Français de Glee, Glee Brazil, and my favorite, What Would Emma Pillsbury Wear?, inspired by the fashions worn by the eponymous guidance counselor with a penchant for all things sterile and for sexy-librarian sweaters. Just as notable, it appears to have been embraced as particularly American. The cast was invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to sing at the White House’s annual Easter egg roll last weekend, and they followed that up with a Glee-themed episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show (she praised them as the “hardest working cast on television”).  News coverage on the return of Glee and spoilers have followed in most major news outlets—including two dueling reviews in The New York Times—and in scholarly forums (a shout out to In Media Res, which recently hosted a Glee-themed week).

What is it about Glee that has inspired this phenomenon?   Based on my own experience, as a Gleek and as a scholar focusing on the series in my research, I find the show’s play with diversity equally satisfying and frustrating, and always compelling (arguably, it is “post-racial” and reinforcing of traditional racial stereotypes). And it seems that for many fans, the show’s focus on underdogs overcoming challenge, sly satire, and feel-good musical numbers are clear pulls.  With respect to these and other appeals, Glee is a prime illustration of what Valerie Wee has described as hyper-postmodern media culture. A mash-up of generic influences, intertextual references, music, and ideological content that is both eerily nostalgic and forward-thinking, the series can be read and enjoyed by fans in multiple and diverging ways.

This week’s episode, “Hell-o,” provided a full helping of these and other pleasures.  We witnessed cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch)’s return to the high school and renewed mission of obliterating the glee club and the long-awaited blossoming of two romantic relationships, Mr. Shuester and Emma and Rachel and Finn, although difficulties naturally arise for both couples. In these and other entanglements as New Directions looks toward regionals, the timing and humor are spot on, not the least of which was the limiting of the musical numbers to songs with the word “hell” in the title. The hilarious mix that ensues includes “Hello, I Love You,” “Highway to Hell,” and “Hello, Goodbye.”

And the narrative may not be important as the sum of Glee’s parts; they include the hyper-postmodern mash-up described above, exciting and talented performers, upbeat music that can be enjoyed in other arenas, sweetly geeky fandom, and the overall ethos of embracing the loveable loser in all of us.

Are you a Gleek, and if so, what do you think encourages its appeal?  What do you make of the series as a contemporary television, music, or theatrical text? In response to this complicated series we plan to follow Glee, its paratexts, and its fandom on a weekly basis as it continues to air this season.  We hope you’ll take part in the discussion.


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18 Responses to “ For the Love of Glee

  1. Derek Kompare on April 15, 2010 at 10:06 AM

    I’m an unabashed Gleek. The show hits in many ways, but I think what I appreciate (nay; love!) most about it is its unapologetic playfulness. Unlike most other TV (and films, for that matter), it’s not trying to be anything that it’s not. It’s joyful, melodramatic, witty, and excessive. It does exactly what it says on the label.

    In this way, it’s in very exclusive company: light, exuberant, brazenly self-conscious TV shows for media-savvy viewers that consistently deliver on their promise. Off the top of my head, this group would include the likes of Arrested Development, The Simpsons (at its 90s peak), the early seasons of Northern Exposure, and the Darin Morgan episodes of The X-Files. In other words, series and episodes with an immense and obvious fount of joy at their cores.

    Doing this consistently is a tricky act. Glee, like the best musical theater, tries to also keep a toehold in less fun emotions as well, with a bit more mixed results. Though a few missteps leave me uncertain at times (e.g., the failure to lift the “rainbow” quartet of Kurt, Mercedes, Artie and Tina out of the background on a consistent basis thus far), as long as it’s produced with such panache, I’ll always give it the benefit of the doubt.

    • Annie Petersen on April 15, 2010 at 11:14 AM

      I think you touch on something crucial: it’s unabashed ‘glee-full-ness.’ It’s trying to do too much, the music numbers are over-produced, the cultural politics are confused, but hell if watching them do ‘Don’t Stop Believin” doesn’t reliably make me happy. I think the fact that it’s a.) a TV show and b.) invoking/playing with identity politics sometimes cloaks the fact that it’s a *musical,* and what makes us happy about the best musicals, from Singin’ in the Rain to A Star is Born, is unembarrassed, infectious exuberance.

      Someone on Twitter suggested that we could think of Breaking Bad, and the anxiety it produces, as part of a new ‘body genre.’ I think we can think of Glee somewhat similarly: when watching the show, it’s nearly impossible to avoid a hugely ridiculous, almost unconscious smile.

      Now, whether or not that gleefulness is allowing us to ignore the more problematic aspects of the show is another question altogether…..

      • Erika Johnson-Lewis on April 15, 2010 at 1:53 PM

        The musical numbers, for the most part, are a thrill to watch. They’re fun, energetic, brightly colored, and full of fantastical fun. But, for me, all that gleefulness hasn’t been enough to sideline the problems I have with the series. The representational issues and the fact that the main characters are completely unlikeable people, make it hard for me to stay interested. Plus, and this is a personal thing, Lea Michelle’s voice, while amazing, isn’t really my cup of tea.

        I want desperately to love this show because musicals are few and far between nowadays. I did really enjoy the sneak peak of Sue doing Vogue and am looking forward to the Lady Gaga episode because it will feature Kurt in the McQueen getup from the Bad Romance video, and Tina’s in the bubble dress.

      • Erin Copple Smith on April 16, 2010 at 12:09 PM

        Ah yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly, Annie! In fact, the Glee flash mob video you posted on Facebook (this one: ) precisely demonstrates the gleefulness the series inspires in others…and in me, when I see stuff like this. LOVE.

        • Mary Beltrán on April 18, 2010 at 10:38 AM

          Thanks, Erin and Annie, for that link! What awesome, purely happy inspiration to see a massive group of people tap into and perform this music together. It reminds me of the pleasures of joining in, singing, dancing, smiling…

    • Martyn Pedler on April 15, 2010 at 5:23 PM

      Derek, I so want to be as convinced as you! I find Glee to be one of the most frustrating shows on television… well, now that BSG is over, anyway. Every episode successfully sucks me in and then leaves me wishing it didn’t seem so haphazardly put together. As Mary suggests above, “the narrative may not be important as the sum of Glee’s parts”; maybe it’s that, for me, those parts don’t add up. Like you, though, I find myself giving it the benefit of the doubt – even if I’m not sure it deserves it.

      Forgive the blog-pimp, but I wrote about the concerns I have with Glee’s constant lip-service to “underdogs” a little while back:

  2. Myles McNutt on April 15, 2010 at 10:17 PM

    As I put it in my own review of “Hell-o,” there are two types of fans of Glee: those who drink the Kool-Aid, and those who taste it like a fine wine and discuss the ratio of sugar to water. I’m happy that Antenna will be offering another location for the latter to gather (although the former are always welcome), and thus will be gleefully taking part in these discussions.

    To speak to the question of the series’ Americanness, I would make the simple argument that its extremely heavy use of American pop culture make it specifically beholden to the nation’s cultural identity. In fact, it makes me wonder if other countries in the world could potentially create their own versions of the show that use their own popular music and adapt the archetypes to fit their own cultural mould.

    • Erin Copple Smith on April 16, 2010 at 11:48 AM

      I really like your Kool-Aid bit, Myles, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that the latter is exactly how I feel about the show. I enjoy it, yes, look forward to it, yes, but am still very interested in discussing the sugar-to-water ratio. Although, I admit, I’m closer to Gleek than not…but still not exactly chugging the Kool-Aid.

      I’m also looking forward to talking about the series over the next several weeks here on Antenna with fellow Gleeks of all degrees…

    • Sharon Ross on April 18, 2010 at 6:41 AM

      Nice observation per the applicabilty to being adapted in other countries! I am certain a huge aspect of this show’s success is American Idol and perhaps even its waning–Glee as a replacement?), which of course has been adapted world-wide after is start in Britain. And certainly part of the appeal is a mesh with the depressed economic circumstances of many viewers right now, looking for some joyful watching and a sense that one can climb their way to success…

  3. Kit Hughes on April 16, 2010 at 7:43 AM

    I couldn’t agree more with the above comments on pleasures and problems I have with the show with regards to its progressive potential vs. its execution. The end of each episode often leaves me dissatisfied and thinking of abandoning the show. However, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in with what Mary has outlined as the show’s hyper-postmodern qualities. (To be clear, that was a Sopranos reference, not a Godfather part III allusion. Maybe Annie got me thinking with her mention of Journey…)

    As has been commented upon above, I believe the show’s rewards for media-savvy and culturally aware viewers is a big part of the show’s draw. I don’t think it’s unfair to note the other (relatively) successful contemporary television musical, Flight of the Conchords, trades on similar stylistic and narrative elements. There’s also a crop of recent and contemporary television shows to feature psychics and their visions that employ similar music-video-like moments that play on style, intertextuality, and genre–a phenomenon I took up in a column over at at If anything, I think we’re going to see more shows that use these types of pleasures to draw in young, media-consuming viewers. At the same time, as Mary mentioned, the sheer mass of cultural materials invoked in each episode offers a veritable potpourri of pleasures for a multitude of different audiences. It may be interesting to consider the extent to which these formal structures can be (or have been) used within the show’s marketing strategies and who exactly the producers of Glee imagine they target.

  4. Derek Kompare on April 16, 2010 at 12:33 PM

    Reading the replies it seems that Glee is a show we find ourselves loving more than liking. The former suggests a kind of unconditional, warts-and-all embrace, while the latter would suggest something we admire more from a distance. More to the point, maybe it’s “mad love”: we love it despite trying to convince ourselves not to!

    This love complicates our perceptions of its problems. Many of us (me, for example) are willing to forgive to an extent, while others (e.g., a friend who confesses to being a Glee anti-fan) aren’t willing to forgive any more. The show carries a very particular burden in crossing over issues of culture and prejudice within musical comedy, and I think many of us ask too much from it in that regard. It seems odd to me that there seems to be more complaining about how Glee deals with race and class when series like Gossip Girl get let off the hook even though they exist in this fantastical New York of only cool rich white kids.

    Yes, I hate the fact that Kevin McHale is actually fully abled. Yes, I hate how Kurt and Mercedes are generally only rendered in primary colors. I hate how all the romantic relationships have thus far been juggled (and how all the women are coming off badly in them, across the board).

    But then I remember that Glee isn’t The Wire, nor is it trying to be, and that what it does offer (excess, theatricality, wit, style, and sheer exuberance) is a reward in itself. No TV series is a complete meal; I’ll gladly take Glee as a weekly Michael’s Frozen Custard Turtle Sundae.

    • Erika Johnson-Lewis on April 16, 2010 at 2:51 PM

      Sure, Glee is meant to be a fun, light comedy that wears its self-conscious *wink wink* media savvy postmodernism on its sleeve. It also tryies to retain a kind of sweet emotional quality, that butts up against its more over the top ironic pomo positioning. It’s not quite camp, or maybe not quite conscious enough about how it misses the boat on issues like the prevalence of harpy shrew women and the sidelining of Mercedes, Kurt, Tina, etc even as it adopts an ironic stance like making jokes about “Asian” and “Other Asian.” More Heathers, less Clueless.

      Annie’s point below about the utopian function of the musicals is spot on, and I guess the numbers have been less able to do much smoothing over for me.

    • Christine Becker on April 17, 2010 at 4:13 PM

      You’re right that Glee isn’t trying to be The Wire, but it is clear that the writers are trying to deconstruct stereotypes (or they think they’re trying), so I’d say that’s why it draws more attention for this. I don’t have any hope that Gossip Girl will complicate its racial and class representations. I do hope that Glee can, especially since the showrunner has claimed that it’s something he’s setting out to do. So it bugs me when the show doesn’t deliver on that and leans back on the same old tropes, like featuring the white kids at the expense of everyone else. It makes me question either their sincerity or their ability to deliver.

  5. Annie Petersen on April 16, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    I think there’s an inclination to try and think of Glee as a teen show….and forget its genre (in the selfsame breath that we laud the resurgence of the musical). Put differently, we forget that part of the way that the musical functions, as highlighted long ago by Richard Dyer, is by creating unnatural and unearned moments of utopian perfection through song — and that those moments of utopian bliss are crucial to its appeal.

    • Kit Hughes on April 16, 2010 at 1:28 PM

      Annie, I think you’ve hit it on the head. If I remember correctly, musical moments not only appeal, they ‘smooth over’ rough spots (in the narrative, for instance). With this structure (and a narrative that is widely considered to be flawed), it’s no wonder that the show elicits such ambivalent feelings. I routinely find myself in the “sure I hate the show’s politics, but oh do I love choreography” camp.

      • Mary Beltran on April 17, 2010 at 7:39 AM

        You’re all raising interesting points; thanks for the lively discussion which has me looking forward to the Kool-Aid of next Tuesday night… To jump in on the topic of genre, I’ve been thinking about how the series has a legacy not only in the teen film/show and the musical, but also in the military platoon drama and its later incarnations, in which the narrative is necessarily about a group of people overcoming differences and their own character flaws in order to fight a battle/learn to play baseball/put on a show. As part of the platoon, some characters are sacrificed, which fits what we see here, too. What’s especially interesting to me is how the musical numbers can both rupture and reinforce our notions of “whose story this is” at varying moments. Aside from learning that dolphins are just gay sharks, that is.

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