'Glee' Turns 5 Years Old: A Look Back at the Good, the Bad, & the Critical
Love it or hate it, consume it with fervor or curse the heavens at its very continued existence, sing along to its covers or pretend you've never given second thought to their version of "Poker Face" — Glee has reached its fifth anniversary. And oh, it's been a hell of a ride. The show ends next season, and when it does it will be the cap on a series that truly did make its own unique mark on television. It's been intriguing, inspiring, infuriating — Glee's run the gamut.
Glee started as a phenomenon. Though many people have jumped ship throughout the years, it really hit it big with the masses for a while there. It could be argued that those who remain are the most loyal and resilient of the bunch — those whose enjoyment of the show's verve couldn't be shaken by the inconsistencies that have been its downfall for many.
Heading out of the show's penultimate season, hitting its fifth anniversary, and heading into the show's final episodes, there's hardly a better time to look back at the ups and downs than the present. And though one day we're sure an in-depth anthropological documentation of every single ebb and flow will exist as an archive of the public sentiment surrounding the series, for now we'll conduct our reminiscences through snapshot. Critical snapshot, to be specific, but snapshot nonetheless. Because as A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff put it in his review of the pilot, "Glee, despite its smalltime high school show choir trappings, feels huge." And it was. In a lot of ways it still is.
Glee's pilot — and a lot of the first season — had a lot of people flipping. All it takes is a glance towards pilot reviews like Ken Tucker's for Entertainment Weekly to see the specific brand of baffled optimism (or at least curiosity) that followed Glee around in its early years.
Has there ever been a TV show more aptly named than Glee? It both embodies and inspires exactly that quality. Yet if I tell you the show is about a high school glee club and features bursting-into-song musical numbers, you might react as I did initially: I wanted no part of that. I'm not a musicals kinda guy.
But this comedy from creator Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck) is so good — so funny, so bulging with vibrant characters — that it blasts past any defenses you might put up against it. Glee will not stop until it wins you over utterly
It didn't win over every critic, of course — many saw the cracks that would define it right from the beginning. But it had enough magic to bloom into the full-on It Show, launching itself into a place in TV's top ten most-watched shows in its first season (and getting picked up for a second and third pretty damn quickly), as well as earning Emmy and Golden Globe nominations (and some wins) for the show and some of its cast. Glee would tick between being beloved and being ridiculed seemingly by the week, by the moment, by the episode. In fact, that still seems to be a pattern between the show and the fans its retained: Glee has long been a show that lived firmly on the television rubric while simultaneously rejecting it completely. Hell, that's probably why it's so good — and so bad.
As VanDerWerff put it in his review of the show's Season 2 opener:
I know that when Glee is playing at its absolute level best, there are few shows on TV that can even go where it goes. To watch Glee is to be bashed over the head until you care, sometimes, but once you do care, oh, it's a helluva show those kids put on.
And the complaints about the show near the beginning — such as in VanDerWerff's recap of "Dream On" — tend to hold true to what has long drawn people to (and away from) the show:
The pilot suggested there were many different kinds of shows the series could become. It could be a semi-realistic look at the life of high school performers, always striving for something more and always being kind of cognizant of the fact that this could be it. It could be a heartwarming sentimental sapfest, always ready to give us a scene where the underdogs overcame the odds and made it in the end. It could be a fanciful musical, where the performances were more important than the story and took care of most of the emotional subtext (by making it text and, also, SONG). Or it could be a sarcastic take on after-school specials that occasionally veered into a REAL after-school special, a weird blend of sneer and smile that wore its heart on its sleeve but coated it beneath a layer of acid.
The answer, as we know now, is that Glee tried to be all of these things, often within the same episode, but more often from episode to episode.
By the time the show hits its second season it had a lot of people exhausted. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz lamented in an article for Salon in 2011:
I hope Glee gets a grip on itself and returns to some semblance of consistency and sense. Right now it's the network TV show as brilliant cokehead pal — lively, charming and funny, but also manic, scattered and inept; the sort of friend who would show up during the last 10 minutes of your birthday party looking like he just rolled out of a dumpster, and regift you a present you gave him last year — with the shrink-wrap still on it. You look at a friend like that and think, Deep down, he's still the same person he always was — and even at his worst, he has his moments. But you also wonder if those moments are worth the trouble.
By season three many more had jumped ship. In fact, quitting Glee loudly and publicly was practically popular enough to make its way into the zeitgeist on its own. A modern-day, campy, high school-set Lost, if you will: Lots of love, lots of dejected sighing.
When the show sent some of its characters to New York at the start of the fourth season, though, some critics braced themselves for a possible Glee resurgence. Seitz wrote about it for Vulture, nicely summing up the show's power of retention:
Yet here I am, still watching [Glee]. Why? Because Ryan Murphy’s shows — made in collaboration with writer-producers Brad Falchuk (Glee, AHS) and Ian Brennan (Glee)—represent TV’s virtues and faults in their most heightened form. Scripted TV can be as tonally elastic as literary fiction, cinema, and pop music; it can be “realistic,” exaggerated, even figurative or fantastic, within the space of one episode. Yet few shows indulge that freedom, going anywhere their imagination takes them, and accepting the fact that the results will be hit-and-miss.
It seemed Glee's tackling of the twentysomething experience in New York City (hardly uncharted territory) could be almost as intoxicating as those first gusts of high school angst (also hardly uncharted) were back in Season 1:
But I’m willing to live with Glee’s irritants because, at their most raw and calculatedly naïve, the New York scenes remind me of what it was like to be on the cusp of twenty: sensitive and horny and ambitious; wanting to hold on to the person that you were, even as you strive to become the person you think you’re meant to be.
The downfall was, of course, that Glee tried to juggle a rehash of that high school angst while simultaneously taking on that New York frontier. In other words: Glee's highs and lows have never once distanced themselves from their place by the show's side, and complaints and rage-quits raged on.
Despite my personal best efforts to remain above the fray (hint: That's a lie and I very much live in the midst of the fray) my Glee viewing habits have very much reflected what seems to be the critical norm: Love, then hate, then meh, then love, then hate — then some loud announcements that I'm quitting, then some "accidental" catching-up that you only reluctantly admit to, and here we are. And Glee, in many ways, has transformed enormously over the years: Kurt Hummel, for one, went through a magical Matthew Lewis-like puberty, and Rachel Berry is hardly the underdog these days. Fifth season Glee is a far cry from first season Glee.
But at some weird amoebic level, Glee is still what it's always been: Loud, try-hard, endlessly messy, offensive, and simultaneously acerbic and sappy. Glee is just...Glee. And it's never really learned how to be anything but.