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Glee Isn't Living Up to Its Promises

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When Glee started in 2009 it was fresh and, in its way, bold. An assemblage of misfits and malcontents, galvanised by their collective marginality and the vocal ability they (fortunately) had in common, were going to forge their own legitimacy outside the social mainstream of an American High School.

There wasn't going to be a narrative of assimilation or betraying individuality to be popular, culminating in an acknowledgement of the futility of being someone you aren't and a liberating return to quirky selfhood. The plots of Mean Girls and Clueless are essentially impossible, pace Jane Austen: any gay, fat, dorky, disabled or just unpopular schoolchild will tell you that transformative altruism is rarely extended to them from within cliques (whose boundaries are in any case reinforced from within and without). A show depicting kids who were going to carve a niche for themselves was laudable and valuable.

"In this life you have to be your own hero", Jeannette Winterson tells us, and "by that I mean that you have to win whatever it is that matters to you by your own strength and in your own way": this is essentially what Glee promised, and that promise is still adumbrated, unevenly and haphazardly, in its third series.

Glee is still dithering, 2.5 seasons in, about what it wants us to think about our own ambitions. Faith in the value of your own originality is too infrequently presented, and usually lost in the monetised alliance between the show and current chart music (which these days often includes cast recordings). The show is too responsive to current tastes, and insufficiently focused on what will or could endure - namely, an effective strategy to survive being different. In this it falls short of its own first intention and is seen to deviate from the moral trajectory it envisioned for itself, but how surprised should we be given that marginalisation, stemming from the recognition of difference, is such a very old problem?

Glee has only offered luminous optimism in a world where it frequently gets worse, and not better, and is often a great deal worse already than the most desperate scenario on Glee. Sexuality and ethnicity, and the marginal character of unexpected choices in life and love, receive treatment that is respectful and open to an unprecedented extent, but disability is a theme dealt with in a notably cack-handed manner. Characters in wheelchairs sing 'I'm Still Standing' by Elton John, or are given the gift of walking motility at Christmas through robotic leg splints. Irony and hope are emotions best construed with a lightness of touch, not with cartoonishly unsubtle weight.

Glee's hardcore audience, the kids who look to popular culture because life there is different, better or incredible in the light of their own difficult experience, are being led astray by some nauseous mission creep. Being a child or an adolescent unable to fully take the wheel involves many shades of trauma, very little of which is relieved by froth unless your particular trauma is the absence of impossibly talented, tolerant and attractive people in your life (and we shouldn't underestimate that).

I, personally, would direct a lonely, thoughtful child to art that is less tethered to socio-political narratives and the referential perspective of a single generation: musicals, music, books, and TV that precede that emergence of that child's critical and commercial sensibility (to which I explicitly add Buffy) are generally a good place to start. Fantasy is an ancient consolation, and Glee shouldn't be allowed to think that it can have the last word on consolatory appeal.

Unevenness is the central problem - in the current series, the Christmas special was bad, but the episode dealing with virginity against a backdrop of West Side Story was an unequivocal success in terms of structure, musicality, and message, and showed Glee at its best - and overall, Glee fails to fall so laughably short of its solemn intentions that we must dig out Notes on Camp.

However, I can't criticise Glee too much. I started thinking about Glee for this piece with every fierce critical intention I could muster. I was even going to call it 'It's time to stop believing (that Glee has anything to say)', but, if not the author of an entirely constructive message, there's an unimpeachable core of goodness beneath the commercialism, sloppy plotting and the relentless optimism.

Glee will bequeath little to the cultural memory of a generation, except for those covers that are remarkable either in their innovation or their happy eroticism (Friday and Teenage Dream, respectively and for example) but the sensitivity to difference that it encourages is valuable, because its effect is diffusive and lasting. Confection, artifice and impossibility ought never to be in short supply if they can stretch the imagination to a point at which life promises more.

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