TV, 2009, 4 stars
Created by: Ryan Murphy
First Run: 2009-2015 (6 Seasons)
(Spoiler alert - for real. If you care, do not read if you haven’t seen Glee right to the end.)
Is Glee the most important television show that’s ever been created for and about gay teenagers? It certainly is in for a good shot at that title.
I had to update this review. The sudden death by drowning of Naya Rivera feels as shocking to me as (coincidentally) the same day in 2013 when the world learned that Cory Monteith had died of a drug overdose. There’s also Mark Salling, but that’s much more fraught to dive into (google it if you don’t know). Still, as we rewatch these classic episodes of television now, there’s so much sadness there. Three talented, shining stars gone, just like that.
Despite being dismissed by many, it’s difficult to overstate what Glee meant to a lot of us, particularly queer people. It was a show focused on the innocence of youth, and the power of “following your dreams”. It was also a show that dared to tackle queer issues head on. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender… Glee gave them all a good shake. It also tackled teen pregnancy, religion, grief, poverty, teen suicide, social class issues, drug abuse, bullying, and school shootings, all with various degrees of success. That’s a lot.
Most of all though, Glee was addictive, immersive, glorious fun. It was about a bunch of talented kids who start out as disconnected losers forming a high school glee club who go on to be Show Choir National Champions and taking the tentative steps towards achieving their adult dreams.
In the beginning, Jane Lynch was the biggest name, unless you were a serious musical theatre buff who knew Lea Michele or Matthew Morrison. Kevin McHale had been in a moderately successful boy band. Otherwise, it was a cast of shockingly talented unknowns. Collectively they got Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild awards, billboard chart hits, and played sold out tours. Glee was nothing short of a phenomenon. Which also means a lot has been written about it that I won’t repeat here.
What I will do is talk about Santana Lopez and Brittany S. Pearce.
The characters had minor but punchy cheerleader roles with the occasional song up until two important things happened.
1) Everyone (the critics, the fans, even the writers) figured out that Heather Morris is a comic genius.
2) The writers caved to fan pressure to seriously explore the obvious chemistry between Morris and Rivera and expanded their romantic storyline.
And what a storyline it was! From what was initially a throwaway joke about casual teenage sex, they grew from best friends to teen lovers, through angsty coming outs and breakups, to an eventual wedding. I particularly loved Brittany, not just because she was hilarious, but because she never wavered from her bisexuality. She revelled in sexuality in all its forms. In fact, I think she just lived on a different plane of existence. (Yes, I agree that Glee had some major issues with bisexuality. I can’t write it better than this person did.)
Santana’s coming-out journey was more harrowing, and Rivera was wonderful sometimes, and a little wobbly at other times. The in-joke was that she was so afraid of her feelings that she could only express them in song. From an unlikely duet of “Landslide” with Gwyneth Paltrow, through the classic “Songbird”, to weeper “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, disco classic “If I Can’t Have You”, and Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move”, Santana Lopez spent years dedicating some of history’s best love songs to Brittany S. Pearce. Not to be outdone, Brittany’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’” rendition is an underrated Glee classic.
Even when lesbian fans and bloggers were going nuts for the lesbian storylines, the writers still seemed to be missing the point. So much was made of Chris Colfer’s portrayal of Kurt Hummel (for good reason, it was brilliant), but the popularity of the “Brittana” pairing refused to play second fiddle. Finally, the writers just caved and gave us what we wanted, a full Brittana romance.
The relationship was uneven - I don’t think even the writers could keep track of where it was at in later seasons. It was also passionate, sexy, heartbreaking, and in the end triumphant - all the things lesbians are usually not allowed to be on TV, especially in the Fox 8pm slot. The actresses understood how important it was for them to ride this wave with authenticity, despite constant efforts by the writers to undermine it. (Seriously? Brittany and Sam? WTF?)
Plus, adding another dimension, there just aren’t that many stories about queer teenagers, much less queer teenagers of colour. Not since Wilson Cruz’s role in My So-Called Life can I remember a comparable character of colour. Glee had two, Santana Lopez, and Wade Unique Adams, played superbly by Alex Newell.
So now we are left with 6 seasons of flawed but still-amazing television, some of which has now been rendered impossibly painful to watch. The Quarterback episode for Monteith broke all tearjerker records. Even before her own tragic death Naya Rivera’s soul-shattering performance of “If I Die Young” was difficult to watch. Now I cry just thinking about it. Or, I dare you to rewatch Finn’s rendition of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” to comfort a distraught Santana in the season 3 episode I Kissed A Girl. Monteith’s and Rivera’s beautiful moment together is the epitome of fan heartbreak.
Let’s focus on the positive. I’m glad that Glee’s fanbase demanded more from the writers. Brittana might never have happened otherwise, and certainly not in the way it did. I’m glad Ryan Murphy (apparently reluctantly) listened. I’m glad we can watch and re-watch this show, because it was so important for our visibility, and it feels like a warm, sustaining hug for the soul. I’m glad gay teenagers have this to watch now and in the future.
Lastly, I hope Naya Rivera was proud of playing Santana Lopez, with her wicked tongue, soaring voice, and “generous heart” as Brittany put it. Not every actor has the chance to be a part of something this special as their life’s work. She was a passionate supporter of the queer community, and she will always hold a special place in our hearts. I think it’s time for a song.
RIP Naya Rivera. RIP Cory Monteith. RIP Mark Salling.