There’s something really cool about how the last episode of Glee (“Bad Reputation”) unintentionally engaged in a call-and-response with previous Antenna posts that offered viable critiques of episodes this spring (as well as critiques from other pop culture infused TV shows: “Jeff Hates Glee,” Community 1.18.)
Figures I would end up with the one that “packed it all in” (damn you, Mary Beltran!)… Just when Glee makes you think you’re indulging yourself as a viewer lost in the joys of song and dance, it taps into a range of emotions and provokes thought—so a disclaimer that there’s no way I can cover it all in this column. (Have at in the comments!)
There are 4 key themes that struck me the most in this episode. The first is how “Bad Reputation” offered up an insightful commentary on current YouTube culture (and also the show’s YouTube/iTunes culture). The “Glist” that propelled the narrative asked to think what it means to live in a world in which being ranked and literally counted is what matters most, regardless of the “content” of what/who is being viewed. This appears to be somewhat generational at first, as Sue is pained when her singing and dancing is made public…But the episode quickly turns something culturally and historically specific into a series of universals.
Thus theme 2: the universal pains of invisibility—including a lack of voice and being desexualized/oversexualized. The foiled attempts of the “off-Glisters” (Arty, Tina, Mercedes, Kurt, and somehow, in a screamingly funny way, Brittany) to become visible to the point of being willing to be expelled meshed beautifully with Emma’s public flogging of Will as a slut and Rachel taking advantage of “her boys” to soothe her own ego (and what a charming gender role reversal that was!). Even Sue showed vulnerability as she struggled with slow-motion laughter and how to deal with her wave of conflicting emotions.
Thus theme 3: Here we saw some genuine character development, really reminding me of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its gentle, incremental character growth. Emma’s final speech to Will about needing to come to know each other as they truly are was a much more real step than the claiming of her sexuality that occurred in the Madonna episode, as was Rachel’s “too late” awareness of her self-centeredness as being rooted in an insecurity that ultimately hurts others as well as herself. And who would’ve thought the line “You’re a really great teacher, even if everyone is saying you’re a man whore” (from Quinn to Will) could carry such weight in representing the severe pain of Quinn’s situation as a pregnant teen? But of course, the moment I cried (oh, yes, I cried) involved Sue’s heartfelt moment with her sister Jean—the only content character in the episode, who is perhaps the most invisible in terms of societal knowledge. A simple story about two bears leading to a simple yet tremendously powerful declaration and promise of eternal sisterly love. It was, quite frankly, the kind of moment I live for on TV.
And thus theme 4. Here was the episode that dared to challenge the central appeal of the series: that there is pure pleasure to be had in the joys of music and dance. The idea of context and intention mattering ran strong through the show’s musical numbers; performers don’t always send the message they desire and audience members should from time to time think through why they love and hate what music (and TV) they do. I found Rachel’s story goal of “musical promiscuity” to be the most telling in the end. There is a “dark side,” if you will, to the arts of song and dance and TV…a tendency towards exhibitionism and aggrandizement (that even Olivia Newton John noted in regards to her “Let’s Get Physical” video). Just because something/someone is popular and fun doesn’t mean it/they are important or unproblematic. And, just because something/someone is popular and fun doesn’t mean it/they are not important or valuable. I think this is the essence of Glee’s appeal: It “mashes” together the old and the new, the shallow and the deep, and in the end asks us to appreciate that our lives are much like popular culture—sometimes bad, sometimes silly, sometimes painful, and sometimes a little ridiculousness that can lead us to something sublime.