This week I got myself all caught up on the latest season of Glee. That’s right, I watch Glee. “But Thadra,” says anyone who knows me even the slightest bit, “I thought you hated musicals.” It’s true. I really do. I have a very minimal capacity for willing suspension of disbelief. I’m the one who watches the movie and asks questions like, “how can he afford those $400 shoes he’s wearing if he’s so broke,” or “wouldn’t his hearing be damaged after he fired a gun inside the closed trunk of a car?” So when people burst into song arbitrarily in ordinary moments where in real life they would be stared at awkwardly, I get a very twitchy eye.
Cabaret, I can deal with, because it’s set in a place where people do song and dance numbers, and all the people who sing in it are entertainers in the story. But Kiss of the Spider Woman makes me sort of angry. I read the book. It’s set in a South American prison, for chrissakes. I’m not alone. There are other people like me. I have a dear old friend who probably dislikes musicals more than I do. Once when he was in town on a visit, we went to see Sweeney Todd. Now in my defense, I had no idea what it was about, just that it was the latest Tim Burton movie, and we like Tim Burton. And Johnny Depp was in it, and I like Johnny Depp in an idyllic, almost supernatural way. So the movie starts, and the first thing we see is this young guy on a boat, and he bursts into song right off the bat, and my friend turns to me, with a shocked, reproachful look on his face, nostrils aflare, and he says, “You just took me to……A MUSICAL?!?!?”
Nonetheless, for some inexplicable reason, I watch Glee. I don’t know how it started. I suppose enough people I know mentioned it enough times for me to see what all the fuss was about. That’s typically why I would watch anything, unless it’s recommended by someone who’s opinion I trust, which I’m sure didn’t happen. I do after all hate musicals. But I like this show. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t love it. The characters keep singing and dancing, which is very irritating, but if you look past that, it has some novel charm.
Here’s why: The most clear-headed, self-assured, articulate character on this show is a gay kid. And it’s not overemphasized in a “hey look, we’ve filled our gay character quota. We have a gay guy on the show” kind of way. He’s just a kid, and he’s really smart, and he’s frequently the voice of reason. This kid’s dad loves his son. He’s a mechanic. He likes football. And when he finds out his son is gay, he has to teach himself to support him in a way he hadn’t expected. He screws up a bunch, but he loves his kid. There are girls on this show who are overweight, and boys have crushes on them.
And probably the biggest reason I like the show (well, actually it’s tied with the gay kid) is the cheerleading coach. She is a woman in her fifties who is snarky as hell. She spews epic convoluted insults in a clever steady stream. Her commentary is so off color, it ridicules the very show she is on as well as any character, of any creed she encounters in very risky ways. I am deeply impressed that this character exists at all on network television. And I am very happy that it is played by Jane Lynch, who knocks it out of the park.
And yes, all the girls are walking advertisements for clothing designers, and sure, they all wear like 5-inch spiked heels that they dance on with abandon as if their ankles will never break. And sure, the skirts on the more anemic of the feminine cast members, who vastly outnumber the normally proportioned are so short that as those treacherous heels kick and jump and splay, you feel the constant, looming danger of a view that would not pass the censors. And OK, at least a half dozen times per episode, I wonder how their spontaneous musical numbers manage to look so choreographed and perfectly synced, if in fact they are so spontaneous. But there’s that willing suspension of disbelief again.
So I watch Glee. I overlook the musical numbers and ignore the insufferable teenage-ness of it all and appreciate how television has changed since I was a kid. Back then, characters of color were mostly caricatures. There was only room for one gay character on all of television, and he was played by Billy Crystal. Older women were wives and moms and none of them had any lines. And if anyone chubby was getting any action, it was a guy. And while I acknowledge that there are far better shows out there doing a much better job, this one is just so mainstream, it impresses me. Also they sang Journey, and, don’t tell anyone, I kind of liked it.
Anyway, this week I got myself all caught up. I don’t have television reception, so if I watch something, it’s on the internet. This means I never really know when a season has started or when episodes air. So I watched all of the latest season in a few days, because I am very obsessive compulsive, which is a subject for another column.
It’s the season that began after the death of their male lead, Cory Monteith, who overdosed on heroin last July. It was maybe 3 or 4 days after his death that I watched an episode of Glee, thought, Hey, that kid’s cute and talented. What else does he do with his life? Then I googled him and discovered he was dead. This guy was 31 years old. He was just starting his career. He wasn’t oscar bound any time soon, but he definitely shined. I heard after he’d been found that the creators of the show struggled with what to do. Should they put off shooting the next season? Should they cancel the show? They decided to postpone shooting for a few weeks. And they made episode three into a memorial for his character, who they had killed.
When I watched this episode, alone in my living room, Out came the waterworks. I sat there, streaming tears like I’d sprung a leak. I’m not a particularly sappy person. I’ve always considered myself to be a bit macho. I don’t ask for directions. I like to be in control of stuff, and I rarely cry. But every once in a while something gets to me. It usually has to do with the sheer pathos of the situation. Like when I was a kid, all my baby teeth refused to come out on their own, so they had to be surgically removed. And every time they put me under, right before I lost consciousness, I would start to cry. It was the sight of all those people; the doctor, the nurse, my mom (did they let my mom in there?) watching me as I drifted away. And every time I see Harold and Maude I cry right after Maude kills herself. It’s not that she’s dead. It’s the moment after where you watch Harold’s heart actually break. See, that’s the thing. It’s the hole these people leave in the world that really gets me.
A couple of years ago, a very dear friend of mine died. I was in Boston at the time, and I woke up to a barrage of text messages and phone calls telling me he’d been found dead in his bed. I was shocked, of course. I asked all sorts of questions, like did they know how he died, and how was his dad doing. I remembered that the last time I’d talked to him, I hadn’t been very nice. But it didn’t really hit me until a little while later, lying in my hotel room, it occurred to me that if I dialed his phone number right then, he wouldn’t answer. He always picked up when I called, but he would never do that again. That’s when it really got me, the thought of this recording of his voice saying he’d return my call. There was a space now in the world that he’d once occupied, and it was empty. The end of this week is my birthday, and I know there will be a very bittersweet moment on that day, as there has been every year since we lost him. The last time I saw him was my birthday. And every year since we met, even before there was a Facebook to remind you of such occasions, he was the first one to call me. So once a year, I imagine until my years come to an end, he will not call, and I will notice.
So when they memorialized this kid on Glee, it wasn’t that I’d loved the character that much. And it wasn’t that the episode was particularly touching. It was OK. It was that this guy had been all over that show, being all cute and pale and humble, belting out his numbers like some ’80s rockstar from a band like Foreigner or Chicago, or….well….Journey. But now he just wasn’t there any more. And later in the season, when they dug up some archival footage of him, it was too much. I had to stop the video and walk away to do something else for a while.
So what’s my point? My point. Hmmm…..well, I guess it’s this: If you asked me to make a list of my favorite television shows, it would include shows like The Wire and The Kids in The Hall. Glee would not be on the list. I do not consider it to be particularly artful or groundbreaking or even funny. But there are things that we appreciate because they impress us. There are things that challenge our intellects, stretch the boundaries of art, amaze us with their craftsmanship, or knock us to the floor with laughter. Glee does none of these things for me. But there are also things that just hit us for some inexplicable reason. And just as Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was the most hilarious movie I had ever seen on that summer night in college at that drive in theater piled in a car with my roommates, somehow this show comes at just the right time in my life to effect me. It’s characters have impressed me. It has made me cry. Hell, it even made me torture my coworkers one night when I couldn’t stop singing, “Don’t Stop Believing.”
While I do not consider myself to be a gleek, yes, it’s a term that’s been tossed around, I keep myself updated, albeit sporadically, on this show. I watched Blaine’s epic musical Beatles cover proposal to Kurt twice. I hate Rachel, because she’s a selfish little princess. I think Mr. Schue looks like a ’90s boy band member. And Coach Sue Sylvester always makes me smile. It’s a guilty pleasure, like the occasional Twinkie or anything having to do with Vin Diesel. But don’t tell any of my cool friends. We’ll just let them keep thinking I spend my time reading Neil Gaiman and listening to Tom Waits.