Forever Yours, Faithfully: A Farewell to Glee

12:00 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

Tonight marks the endpoint of a cultural phenomenon that has had one of the oddest, most talked-about trajectories in modern television. Glee began as a bright, innovative, biting comedy, adored by critics and audiences alike. By tonight's finale, it accumulated enormous baggage and became almost abandoned entirely. Glee's legacy will be mixed, no doubt. But in some ways, if one looks past the controversial plot "twists," fractious fan wars, and increasingly off-the-rails storytelling, there is a real legacy of making the arts relevant and safe and even cool, especially embracing the quirky young people who saw themselves in Glee's wonderfully strange characters. And that's worth being proud of.

In May 2009, I was in the middle of my high school career when I stumbled across the first airing of Glee's brilliant pilot. It was musical, darkly funny, and unlike anything else on TV, and yet it was so honest about what it was like to be quirky and artsy and ambitious in high school. I was lucky that I went to a small school where everyone did everything: athletes were also actors were also in service clubs. But as Glee exploded, so did the arts, and I could see the effect even in my smaller circle, and certainly at larger schools. Suddenly, everyone thought singing and dancing was cool. Suddenly, the arts were at the forefront of conversations about education. I got to watch this from the front row, feeling like the world of music and theater that I had always been a part of was finally being recognized for its immense worth.

Let's be honest for a moment: Glee peaked in Season 1. That magical first season was the perfect combination of what Glee could be at its best: full of sharp, deadpan humor that tiptoed along the line, characters who weren't always likable but who you rooted for anyways, a strong sense of the ridiculous alongside a healthy dose of optimism, and ragtag musical numbers with spectacular performances that were perfectly suited for the situations, the emotions, and the comedy. This is the season of "Somebody to Love" with Amber Riley's glory note, of the funny but musically clever original mash-ups, of Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele harmonizing on "Hello", and of Journey covers that lifted the soul.

Subsequent seasons cranked up the crazy (anyone want to talk about Sue marrying herself? How about Puck's creepy affair with Shelby? No one? Good). Infamously, it also sparked vicious shipping wars amongst its most obsessed, passionate viewers, giving the show and the fanbase as a whole a reputation for infighting and over-the-top obsession. Even worse, the music selection slowly evolved away from a true blend of styles and a focus on story towards a weekly Top 40 cover concert with stories forced just to shoehorn in popular hits. On some occasions, this worked, giving us such iconic moments as "Teenage Dream."

But these were the exceptions that proved the rule. Indeed, many of Glee's worst moments come from attempts to build a story around a hit song (the Bieber episode? "Roar"?). This, combined with an unfortunate number of jump-the-shark moments, often turned Glee into a punchline. But this ignores the fact that, whatever its quality, Glee attempted to do a lot, and that ambition ought to be remembered.

Glee was always far from perfect. Its later seasons spiraled into increasingly frenetic, outlandish storylines. Attempts to integrate new characters failed miserably, and the supporting cast became an ever-revolving door. Having to deal with the sudden death of leading man Cory Monteith was the last straw, although "The Quarterback" was one of the most raw, beautiful, beautifully imperfect episodes of late Glee.

But it dared to take on issues that real teens faced and understand their importance and complexity: sex and gender and sexuality, ambition and failure, bullying and assault and even suicide. Sure, the quality of addressing these issues varied wildly, and I doubt any one storyline was universally praised. Despite this, the sheer bravery of attempting to address all of these issues should be applauded. More than anything, Glee made it cool to be weird. It carved out a space in popular culture where anything goes, where anyone who tries to be a good person, no matter how quirky they are or how many markers of "otherness" they have, can be accepted and praised and loved. And it's for that reason that I will never stop believing in the legacy of Glee.