I was recently writing something about Faking It, the new MTV show about best friends mistaken for lesbians who run with it, and was thinking about the programs it reminded me of. Awkward, its time-slot companion, is the obvious comparison. I also thought of Gilmore Girls, especially the first two years. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized the show made me feel as charmed and inspired as I once was by a very different show, one I abandoned long ago.
That show was Glee. Messy, nonsensical Glee.
As a still-closeted senior at a conservative high school – one hopelessly crushing on his straight friend, no less– Glee gave me the musical theatre-flavored dollop of hope I needed to make it out. It was a life raft. And it was good! At least, it was at first. Those first ten episodes or so plus the midseason finale (people forget how terrible “Hairography” was) were sharp, with a voice unlike anything else on TV.
That made Glee‘s descent into mediocrity – and, eventually, unwatchability – all the worse for me. It wasn’t like any of the other shows that just petered out of my TV schedule. It was painful. It made me embarrassed to have ever assigned it importance in my own life.
On a whim, I rewatched the pilot episode of Glee – first aired five years ago this month – just to see if it was as good as I remembered it. If anything, it’s better. In fact, it’s great. Yet watching Lea Michele, Cory Monteith and co. fresh-faced, unaffected by the ills that would befall them and the show over the next five years, is strangely heartbreaking. It’s a bit like watching a horror film backward.
Now, there are major issues with the pilot – issues that would go on to plague the show for years. As Terri Schuester (remember her?), Jessalyn Gilsig is clearly lost with her character. Terri’s pregnancy – which, you’ll recall, is revealed as a fake merely one episode later – is an arbitrary obstacle created solely to give Will more importance.
Speaking of, while Will Schuester isn’t as problematic as his wife, the pilot throws up a few red flags as to how difficult at time the writers wound up having with him. He’s clearly a selfish guy, almost a well-intentioned extremist in how he gets Finn to sign up for glee club (planting weed in his locker, which is significantly less funny in hindsight considering Monteith’s battle with drugs). Sure, he does good in the kids’ lives, but almost every decision he makes in the pilot is entirely self-centered. When the kids finally get it together, it’s entirely because of Finn, yet Will coming back to glee club is supposed to be this sensational news. (There’s also this super melodramatic sequence where Will sings “Leaving on a Jet Plane” that I have no memory of being in the original airing of the episode.)
Couple the Schuesters with one-note adult characters like Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) and, yes, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, doing Herculean work within this role), and Glee‘s first Achilles Heel becomes obvious: The adult characters were abysmally written.
But that only makes the fully realized teen characters stand out all the more. Rachel is insufferable and passionate in equal measure – like most teenagers – and her regular MySpace video posts make her feel like a prescient take on the YouTube wannabe star that would become so popular in the years after. Michele has gained one hell of a reputation in the past few years, but what’s often forgotten in the gossip rags is how fucking talented she really is. Finn’s character details are so specific, in a way that you can’t imagine him living anywhere but fictional Lima, Ohio. And it must be said that there’s something really naturally charismatic about Monteith – I’m sad I didn’t really appreciate the nuances of his performance before his untimely passing.
Even the characters who aren’t as well-drawn as they will be soon – Quinn, Mercedes, Kurt, Artie, Tina – have real spark. The original glee club members’ audition performances are flawed, yes, but full of personality. It’s easy to see why Murphy and his team got carried away with the sprawling cast.
Of course, if Glee was just about the story, it never would have become the phenomenon it was. The moment Glee won our hearts was the three minutes of music that closed the show:
“Being a part of something special makes you special,” Rachel tells Schue earlier in the episode, and watching “Don’t Stop Believin’,” it feels inarguably true. Maybe the reason it was so hard for us, the creators and FOX included, to let the show fail was because of how truly unique Glee felt in that moment. Watching six young misfits perform their hearts out – not perfectly, and not with elaborate costumes or staging, but with true gusto – wasn’t something you found on network TV much in between all the crime procedurals.
Glee would become a bloated, emotional train wreck in the years after, full of unnecessary characters and preachy, condescending plots. That’s what makes the pilot so hard to watch in a way – I can’t help but think of all the different roads it could have taken instead. In listening to all the fans’ voices, creator-writers Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk failed to stick with their artistic vision, and Glee suffered. The show that made fans feel like they could be a part of something special lost its specialness.
But no matter how awful it became, Glee never stopped attempting to recapture the genuine spark of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The cast even reprised it three more times in five years. But it was no use. The show never recaptured that magic – and that’s a shame, because it truly was magic. It made us believe. Glee was never better than in that moment. It may be cheesy or naïve to cling onto that long gone sign of life, long after I stopped watching, but I choose to remember Glee at its best.
I choose to believe.