“Glee,” Fox’s hot new musical comedy, is set in a small town in western Ohio, and that is the source of everyone’s woes. Viewers should, of course, know better than to ask what specifically is wrong with small towns in western Ohio. What isn’t wrong with them? They’re bleak, boring, intolerant dead-end streets. The inhabitants of such places love football, marry their high school sweethearts, carry their teenage pregnancies to term, and while away their adult lives as assistant managers at “Sheets ’N Things,” or, worse yet, as high school Spanish teachers. The only thing for thinking people to look forward to in these prisons is finally escaping them for someplace where their talents will finally be appreciated and Glenn Beck won’t be blaring from the living room. And such thinking people, sometimes embodied as TV critics, have found in “Glee”’s cloying combination of underdog elitism and progressive cynicism a ballad that speaks right to their hearts.
These are the tired and tiresome tropes on which “Glee” is built, and the show reveals its elitism early on. In the pilot episode, Finn (Cory Monteith), the popular captain of the football team with a secret singing talent, joins the Glee Club, much to the derision of his teammates. When they demand that he stop hanging out with the club’s loser members, he retorts, “We’re all losers! Everyone in this school. Everyone in this town. Out of all the kids who graduate, maybe half will go to college, and maybe two will leave the state to do it.” Going out of state for college—that is the kind of success that “Glee” affirms. One might recall that Ohio is home to at least a dozen respectable colleges, but that would be completely beside the point. College here is not about education—it’s about status. The narrow, dull, cowardly person—the “loser”—stays home for school, but the person who rejects parochial attachments and renounces the small-mindedness of his neighbors in order to pursue prestige far and wide, this is the kind of person who is an example to us all.
The only problem with this view is that small-town Ohio seems, despite the repeated insistence of “Glee”’s characters, like a pretty exciting place. The school’s arts program is incredible even by wealthy suburban standards; it can apparently afford a full band and multiple costume changes for each of the club’s performances; a short-lived male a capella group becomes an improbable hit; and it takes hardly any convincing to get that popular archetype of hypermasculinity, the football team, to recruit a flamboyantly gay kicker and perform a dance to “Single Ladies” on the field—to the wild applause of the entire town.
“Glee” is not the only show that has found itself trapped between the conflicting imperatives of deriding the narrowness of small towns, and creating an interesting plot within its self-imposed constraints. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” also featured a miraculously expanding small town whose only landmark was a single all-ages club in the show’s first season, but was discovered to be home to an entire University of California campus by its fourth.
But “Buffy” took a different view of its setting—its stifling narrowness was only a matter of perception. The show’s antsy adolescent cast felt it more acutely at the beginning, but the real culprit was their own teenage ennui and the oppressiveness of high school social life, which would have pained them in equal measure had they grown up in nearby Los Angeles. In reality, Sunnydale was very nearly the center of the world, located as it was over the Hellmouth, out of which regularly emerged demons who threatened apocalypse, and the town seemed to grow as the characters discovered their place in it. Everyone in “Buffy” thought they wanted nothing more than to get out of Sunnydale, but all of them ended up staying out of a sense of obligation and attachment (and, obviously, the exigencies of plot continuity).
Such charity towards rootedness is hardly to be found in “Glee,” at least so far. Western Ohio is not only suffocating to the teenage members of the Glee Club, but also to the adults around them, who are, except for their age, almost indistinguishable from the students. They are all damaged people who have made Bad Life Decisions—the club’s coach Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) impetuously married his high school sweetheart before realizing she’s a manipulative harpy (Jessalyn Gilsig); the OCD guidance counselor (Jayma Mays) agrees to marry the fungus-infested football coach in an effort to forget her crush on the married Mr. Schuester, the cheerleading coach (Jane Lynch) uses her fiendishness to mask the pain of romantic rejection. For adults, this is a satire on soap opera, but what is soap opera for adults is didactic after-school special for its younger audience. (The show’s popularity among kids is attested by its three nominations this year for the Teen Choice Awards.)
Indeed, one episode features the high school re-enrollment of a washed-up alcoholic former Glee Club star (Kristin Chenoweth) who behaves even more childishly than the students, plying them with alcohol and pornography. The premise is uncannily reminiscent of Amy Sedaris’s old late-night show, “Strangers with Candy,” which was straightforwardly and unapologetically camp. “Glee” is in large part camp as well, which is what underwrites its mockery of “small town values,” its stylized, overdrawn characters (the cheerleaders and athletes spend so much time in their uniforms that they become their uniforms, a throwback to MTV’s excellent ’90s caricature of adolescence, “Daria”), and its over-the-top flamboyance. But it is a confused brand of camp, trying at once to send sincere messages to kids and to wink at adults.
The show’s main contradictions grow out of the pregnancy of the head cheerleader, Quinn (Dianna Agron), girlfriend of—you guessed it—the quarterback of the football team, Finn. The catch is that this is Small Town America, so the school’s most popular couple is also its biggest proponent of chastity, and heads up the most popular club—the celibacy club. In the second episode, we get a glimpse of a club meeting in which the whole ruse is exposed as a female conspiracy to sexually manipulate and shame the males—“It’s all about the teasing, not about the pleasing” is the girls’ motto.
It’s all good campy fun until Rachel (Lea Michele), the self-important Glee Club diva and speechifying representative of Real Adolescence, turns to the celibates and offers this bizarrely-placed PSA: “Did you know that most studies have demonstrated that celibacy doesn’t work in high school? Our hormones are driving us too crazy to abstain…The only way to deal with teen sexuality is to be prepared!” Ostensibly this is aimed at the youthful audience, who are presumed to have missed the writers’ comic wink about the real motives behind abstinence education because they still need to be told the facts of life. But the facts of life according to the writers are preposterous—sex is likened to an unprovoked natural disaster, say, an asteroid falling straight out of the sky. If the ideal of television sophistication is to tell two different stories in the same show—the sincere, PC kids’ tale of peer pressure and puberty, and the devilish adult mockery of such high school tropes—“Glee” manages only to find the untenable middle ground between the two—the sincere mockery of high school loserdom. And so we learn that the purpose of contraception is to thwart the evil schemes of women, who are always looking to impute paternity to the nearest patsy.
Since “Glee” wants to show up abstinence, Quinn must fall victim to that ubiquitous scourge of ’80s after-school specials—the unplanned teen pregnancy. She tells Finn he’s the father although they’ve never had “complete sex” because she prefers him to the real father, Finn’s good-for-nothing best friend and teammate, Puck (Mark Salling). The last stand of Small Town Values comes when Quinn refuses to consider an abortion, a decision we’re supposed to believe is not only disadvantageous, but positively immoral. “I don’t agree with the choice you’re making, but you’re gonna need Glee. You have seven months of your youth left; you should enjoy it,” Rachel tells her.
But here camp gets in over its head. Susan Sontag, in her classic essay on the genre, wrote that, “It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.” Camp can fuse the wife-swapping soap opera and preachy after-school special into a playful stylized musical, but it can’t also presume to teach anything about love or childbearing, or even sex ed. It can’t skewer touchy issues like disability (the cheerleading coach counts up the Glee Club’s members as “five and a half—one’s a cripple”) and then subject its audience to straight-faced treacle in a Very Special Episode informing us that disabled people have feelings too.
For adults, “Glee” is a classic campy satire (set to music) about manipulative women who use the strictures of monogamous relationships, lies, sex, and babies to keep men under their thumbs. But it intends a different, more sincere message for its younger viewers, and it can’t quite keep the two aims distinct. The result is condescension and muddle. The New York Post’s Robert George has criticized the show’s portrayal of women, claiming it sends “the message that the devious gender will use every trick to lure and trap its mate.” George is wrong to think the show is serious, but he’s hardly to blame for confusing the sincere and satirical, the moralizing and the cynical.
Perhaps the most emblematic moment of “Glee”’s identity confusion came after the touchy-feely disability episode aired, when the show’s co-creator Ryan Murphy told the Los Angeles Times that, “This episode is the turning point for the show…Writing this made me feel the responsibility of showing the truth of the pain that outcasts go through… If anything else, I hope kids who are that age can see that episode and maybe realize how hard it is for some people that they make fun of or tease.” And, with that, Wednesday evenings on Fox have become home to reruns of “The Facts of Life” with a few snappy musical numbers.
Rita Koganzon is associate editor of Doublethink.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles