How Bad Ideology Destroys Good TV: Why Glee Crashed and Burned
So I was watching Glee the other day (yes I watch Glee, okay?!), and man has that show jumped the shark. It’s frustrating, because Glee went down in flames the way a lot of good shows do: it got too busy constructing a leftist fantasyland to tell a decent story. It’s another victim of what I like to call “liberal backslide.”
Bear with me here for a second. I realize Glee was never an elegant allegory of fiscal conservatism. And no one could claim that it ever had an ironclad grip on reality. The show takes place in an underfunded Ohio public school whose auditorium looks like it was sponsored by a generous grant from the Shah of Persia. The band students instantaneously arrange and perform professional-quality backup accompaniment whenever someone so much as walks down the hallway humming a tune. This is obviously not a show about the real world.
But it used to be a show about real people. Glee got its start as a sharp send-up of teenage life in the Midwest, a bubblegum caricature of self-indulgent angst and high school politics. So it spoofed all those kids you hung out with in public school: the pristinely polished cheerleader. The wan, sensitive artist. The befuddled jock. The neat trick was that those well-worn stock characters all had a slightly edgier secret to make things a little less cut-and-dry. The cheerleader cheated on her boyfriend and got pregnant. The artist was straining hard against the closet door. The jock belted out “Can’t Fight This Feeling” in the locker room showers when he thought no one was looking. The whole picture was just a shade more complex and “real” than you expected, one degree more nuanced than a show like Saved by the Bell.
That meant the characters were allowed to have their own beliefs and opinions — more or less the ones they might have had in real life. Mercedes, the choir’s queen of soul, was also the head of the Christian club, the “God Squad.” Quinn, the cheerleader, was in the Squad too. Pretty standard for an Ohio high school: think Youth for Christ. When Quinn got pregnant, she was devastated and terrified, but determined not to abort. Also not impossible to imagine. Kurt, the artsy kid, came out to his dad, a rough-spoken mechanic who wrestled manfully with his prejudices for love of his son. Look, I’m not saying it was Shakespeare, but this was imaginative, thoughtful writing — a glitzed-up version of some distantly plausible reality. Everyone got made fun of, and for the most part everyone got a fair shake.
Fast-forward to the current season, in which the entire architecture of the show has essentially been abandoned in favor of a ceaseless stream of inchoate progressive propaganda. In one recent episode, the glee club alumni march triumphantly back onto their old stomping grounds to save their beloved show choir. To beef up the choir’s membership, all the glee clubbers from conservative backgrounds reach out to their high school’s “Tea Party Patriot Club.” Our virtuous heroes come bearing muffins, and their message is a touching one. Quinn helpfully begins with an inspiring story of personal growth: “before I joined glee club” (i.e., “when I was a conservative,”) “I only hung out with people that were exactly like me.” But it’s all better now, Quinn explains, because getting pregnant out of wedlock fixed all her problems! “Point is, nerds,” says bad boy Noah Puckerman, “you need to take the three-cornered hats out of your loser butts and join [the glee club].”
But for some incomprehensible reason, those ignorant tea partiers (or “teabaggers,” as they’re called in the show, to their faces) aren’t won over by this thoughtful outreach campaign. Their leader, a pencil-necked bigot in a starched shirt, has some kind of crazy hillbilly idea that the Obama administration has been an economic disaster. And for no discernible reason, he isn’t keen on joining a choir whose members just strode heedlessly into the middle of his meeting to openly mock and insult him and his friends. Mercedes nobly scolds the entire club for being a bunch of “ignorant, backwards, lily-white, gay-hating Obama bashing clubbers,” and all the stars march out in a huff, taking their muffins with them. Yay glee club! Diversity! Inclusion!
Glee always skewed left, but it used to have a real sense of humor about itself. Sadistic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester was the perfect anti-PC mouthpiece, cutting deftly through the show’s self-satisfied über-sensitivity right when it got too saccharine. But season six has been a relentless, tight-lipped progressive tirade against conservatism without so much as a glimmer of mirth from the other side. Needless to say, since progressivism is predicated upon a string of complete fantasies, the show is now utterly disjointed and incomprehensible.
It’s also utterly unfunny. Indiscriminate satire is hilarious. A series-long harangue is not. Take, for example, the storyline in which an all-male a cappella group is blasted for being “sexist and discriminatory.” The debate rages for an entire episode, with barely a mention of the (entirely legitimate) musical reasons for forming a men’s choir. The issue is treated with the kind of ferocious humorlessness that only progressives can deliver with a straight face.
Liberal backslide: it’s happened before. I wrote about it when it happened to the once-brilliant Parks & Recreation. It happened to 30 Rock, too. It’s always the same process: smart, tight, observational humor, slowly abandoned in favor of preachy nonsense. American TV comedies feature some of the best writing around, when the writers just get out of their own way. More often than not, though, they can’t keep their mouths shut, and their untenable worldviews cloud their comedic vision. It shows, too — there’s a reason Glee’s ratings are lower than ever. There’s a reason it’s going off the air. The only thing less funny than politics is stupid politics.