Unless you’re an executive at NBC, it’s been a great fall season for TV. Despite the many editorials earlier this year heralding Jay Leno’s primetime talk show as the death of scripted television (some of them quite convincing), this season has seen a number of new shows become breakout hits: NCIS: Los Angeles, Modern Family, Cougartown, The Cleveland Show. And the debuting show that’s generated the most pop-culture buzz is easily FOX’s Glee. On the surface it’s about the misfits in a high-school glee club as they train for a national competition, but it’s really a delightfully bizarre hybrid of teenage soap opera, musical melodrama, larger-than-life comedy and meditation on the unrealistic dreams of kids and the sad compromises of adults. In style and substance it feels like nothing else on television, but unlike most oddball, one-of-a-kind shows, Glee has managed to pull off the hat trick of achieving critical praise, a passionate cult following, and most importantly, impressive ratings. Although it’s aired just ten episodes thus far, it’s already earned a cover story in Entertainment Weekly and its cast members recently performed the national anthem at the World Series.
I hate to admit it, but a part of me is uneasy about Glee’s success. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show (and I’ve got the songs on my iPod to prove it). But I almost wish it was struggling in the ratings and that its creators were scrambling to wrap up the plotlines before the end of the season in case renewal wasn’t a sure thing. After all, how long can Glee last? Can this show sustain its strange vibe of whimsy and melancholy for five years, or even two?
What’s even more frustrating is the show’s barn-burning pace, its tendency to think up interesting storylines and character arcs and ditch them after a single episode. Take “Mash-Up,” which depicted an unexpected romance between bad-boy jock Puck and fame-seeking diva Rachel (they fall into each other’s arms after Puck casually asks her, “wanna make out?” during a break from practicing a song). It’s a coupling that’s rich with dramatic potential, since both Puck and Rachel are in love with other members of the glee club, and their attraction at first seems like a way to stir up jealousy. But their relationship brings out the tenderness in both of them, particularly in a scene in which Rachel washes slushee out of Puck’s mohawked hair (getting a slushee to the face is repeatedly portrayed on the show as the social cost of being lame enough to join glee club).
By the end of the episode, though, they’ve already broken up, and we never get to find out the full implications of their hook-up, like what Puck and Rachel really wanted out of it or how their crushes responded to it. I get the feeling that the two will never acknowledge their brief relationship to each other again (and if they do, I’ll stand corrected), which leads to another problem with Glee: It’s not yet clear that the overarching story is cohering into anything larger than a series of interesting character vignettes. I’m not sure I can blame Glee too much for this. The boom of serialized dramas in the wake of Lost’s success yielded too many duds, reinforcing the maxim that television episodes must be self-contained stories in order to find an audience (this is a crucial reason why procedurals have come to dominate the major networks’ lineups). Glee has worked around this problem by rotating different cast members into the spotlight on an episode-by-episode basis and examining their personal lives (a shy girl deals with a hopeless crush, a teacher forms an a cappella group for adults, etc.), with a few recurring plotlines like the road to the national competition providing the framework of the series. So far so good, but some of these character-based stories, though well-written, seem too quickly resolved and forgotten, which is preventing the show from really exploring who the characters are.
Fellow House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff pointed out a fascinating behind-the-scenes aspect of Glee in his recaps for the A.V. Club: Unlike most television shows, which tend to be plotted by a staff of writers working together, Glee appears to be a collaboration between three creators working independently, each of whom have very different takes on what the show should be. That likely accounts for its wild tonal shifts, as some plotlines are too ridiculous to be taken seriously (primarily, a wife faking a pregnancy), while the teen drama is played for pathos. Strip away the musical numbers and the kids feel like they’re in an episode of Freaks and Geeks, while the adults are in an episode of Arrested Development.
I realize it seems like I’m harping on the show endlessly, so let me repeat: I’m a big fan of Glee. The show has so much going for it. The premise is gold, their budget is large enough to pull off some pretty impressive song-and-dance numbers (even if they have yet to top their cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which closes out the pilot), the cast is phenomenal from top to bottom, and the writing, at its best, is sharp, insightful and very funny. But Glee is still only really good, and I think it has the potential to be great, to enter the same league as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars, two shows that mashed up adolescent angst and genre tropes and used that weird synthesis to drill deeper into the sometimes nightmarish pain of growing up.
Both shows took universal problems—having your heart broken, the fragile trust between parents and children, betrayals from close friends—and elevated them to an operatic level. Nowhere is this more apparent than in similar plotlines on Buffy and Veronica Mars that explored how our first sexual experiences can make us feel confused and terribly vulnerable. The most iconic storyline on Buffy was an arc from the second season in which the main character loses her virginity to her boyfriend, a reformed vampire named Angel, only to discover that sex removes his soul and turns him into a sadistic monster. Angel spends the next few months taunting Buffy, terrorizing her loved ones, and eventually, murdering someone in her circle of friends (this entire arc feels both more resonant and darkly hilarious after Twilight reimagined vampires as studly, chaste boyfriends), forcing Buffy to get over her heartache and take the fight to him.
Veronica Mars examined this same theme through the lens of film noir, casting Veronica’s first time as a horrific mystery she must solve after she’s drugged and raped in her sleep at a house party. But in the end, she learns that the liquid ecstasy she consumed wasn’t meant for her, and that her rapist was actually an ex-boyfriend who didn’t know she had been drugged and misunderstood her behavior as consent. A shattered Veronica realizes there may be no one she can seek revenge on for what happened to her; in a noir world, things are never black and white.
Glee has its own storyline in the same emotional vein, in which cheerleader Quinn loses her virginity to Puck and gets pregnant, but tells her actual boyfriend, none-too-bright football quarterback Finn, that he’s the father (they haven’t had sex, but she convinces him that a grinding session in a hot tub is to blame). Quinn’s actions are selfish and cruel, but they’re also almost understandable: Even if she agrees to give the baby up for adoption, she still must deal with her parents’ disapproval and the ridicule of her peers, and she desperately needs the support of her boyfriend. Yet while this plot puts everyone involved through the ringer—Finn, Quinn, Puck, and even Rachel, who’s fallen in love with Finn and is crushed by his devotion to Quinn—I’m not sure that Glee will be able to use the format of a musical to hit the same emotional peaks that Buffy managed with gothic horror or Veronica Mars with film noir. Glee is more of a drama interrupted by musical numbers than a drama that expresses its character development through music, probably because it has to use recycled songs rather than original material (and a recent announcement that the show will be pulling stunts like an all Madonna episode does not seem like a step in the right direction).
In spite of this, Glee does have one massive advantage that Buffy and Veronica Mars can no longer claim: It feels extremely timely, tapped into our current attention-whoring culture that’s given us reality television, Balloon Boy, viral YouTube clips and celebrities famous for being famous. Even as it deals with the same rites of passage as its predecessors, Glee is fundamentally a reflection of how the Internet, and its potential for giving us our 15 minutes of fame, has taken over our lives. Indeed, the three shows form a rough timeline of how our relationship with the Internet has evolved over the last decade and a half.
It’s inevitable that every television show becomes a period piece, yet it’s shocking that Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which only debuted in 1997, already looks like it takes place in another era. The characters make pop-culture references that are pretty dated, of course, but it’s even stranger to watch them track down their friends when they’re in danger rather than call their cellphones.
More than that, Buffy is a defiantly pre-Internet show. That’s not to say that it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the Internet, or that the characters never use it at all. There are a few instances when Willow, the book nerd of the group, is required to hack into a website in order to find out more information on demonic conspiracies. (Remember when just about every thriller in the ’90s used hacking into a website as a shortcut for its characters to discover crucial information? I’ll bet a lot of screenwriters are pissed that audiences are too computer savvy now to find that believable.) But what’s missing is any sense that the Internet can be used as a medium for social interaction, or more accurately, that you can use the Internet to communicate and not be a total weirdo.
The show makes clear its Luddite point of view in the first-season episode “I Robot, You Jane,” in which a centuries-old demon gets uploaded onto the Internet after a spellbook is scanned into a computer. The episode gets off to a clumsy start with a scene in which a computer geek brags about the power of the Internet: “The only reality is virtual. If you’re not jacked in, you’re not alive!” In other words, the only people who spend their time online are raving lunatics.
Meanwhile, Willow begins talking on the Internet with a boy named Malcolm who’s smart, caring and genuinely interested in her, but Buffy and their friend Xander are alarmed that Willow is developing feelings for someone she’s never even met. Once again, the dialogue sounds incredibly dated: When Willow admits that she met Malcolm online, Buffy replies, “on line for what?”
As the episode progresses, Willow gets increasingly wrapped up in her cyber love affair, blowing off classes to chat with Malcolm and ignoring Buffy when she argues that it’s dangerous to trust someone online. And while it’s no surprise that Malcolm turns out to be a malevolent demon, what’s striking is that the show seems committed to making the Internet look not just like a potential tool for deception, but as something sad and lonely.
In all fairness, “I Robot, You Jane” is considered by fans to be one of the weakest episodes in the show’s seven-year run, and Buffy was still figuring out its identity in its first season and can be forgiven a few awkward, message-of-the-week stories. Yet for years afterward, the characters rarely used the Internet for anything other than research on the occult, and by the time the final season rolled around five years later, they were just as computer illiterate. In the episode “Help,” which aired in October 2002, a high-school student is convinced that she’s going to die soon, and Buffy, who’s since become a guidance counselor, tries to find out more information on the girl. Apparently no one thinks to check the Internet until Willow suggests, “have you Googled her yet?” Cue Xander with the punchline: “Willow, she’s 17!”
The Google search leads to the girl’s personal website, which is filled with dark, death-obsessed poetry, natch, and Xander in particular is convinced this is proof she’s suicidal. While Willow defends the girl, arguing this is just a phase everyone goes through, the show obviously still believes spending your free time on the Internet is worrying behavior.
Buffy creator Joss Whedon has admitted in interviews that he’s not very adept at using computers or the Internet (ironic for a guy known for his pop-culture savvy), but the other major reason why the show feels so dated is because it went off the air just as another sea change was taking place. Its finale aired in May 2003, about a year before the launch of Facebook and two years before YouTube came into existence. By contrast, Veronica Mars debuted in September 2004, just 14 months after Buffy ended, but it clearly feels like it’s on the other side of a dividing line in our culture.
The pilot episode of Veronica Mars sets up the mystery that would drive the first season—the murder of Veronica’s best friend, Lilly Kane, who was also the daughter of a local computer-software tycoon. There’s a brief but telling moment in the episode in which a crime-scene video of Lilly’s dead body, her skull bashed in, is uploaded onto the Internet and viewed by the students at Veronica’s school, transforming her death from an abstract idea into grisly reality. This detail is echoed in plotlines from later in the season in which two different students are humiliated to discover that compromising videos of themselves have been posted online. In one, a boy is seen organizing a series of bum fights, while the other shows a girl performing a sex act for the viewing pleasure of her boyfriend. (The series finale also deals with Veronica getting revenge on someone who posted a sex video of her online, but by that point it’s unclear if the show is examining a recurring theme or merely recycling old material.) The characters of Veronica Mars, unfortunately, have to learn that there’s no such thing as privacy in the age of the Internet.
It’s not surprising that a film noir would be interested in how difficult the Internet makes hiding secrets, but the hugely underrated second season of Veronica Mars twists this theme even further into something deeper and more heartrending. At the time, the season was heavily criticized for centering on a mystery with less of a personal connection to Veronica: Instead of obsessing over the murder of her best friend, she investigates a bus crash that killed two adults and six students onboard, only one of whom was a friend of hers.
As Veronica searches for clues as to who planted an explosive on the bus, she’s forced to learn more about who these students were and why somebody might have wanted them dead—she becomes closer to them in death than in life. And the key to her investigation is what they’ve left behind on the Internet. One of the deceased boys, Marcos, is remembered as a wallflower who never said a word, but it turns out that he was the host of a pirate radio show (clearly a series of audio podcasts, although never identified as such) that aired the dirty laundry of everyone at school. (A typical dig from one podcast: “So it seems Taylor read the fine print on her abstinence pledge and found a few loop-something. Oh right, holes.”) Another student on the bus was a frequent contributor to a password-protected message board for gay students to discuss their thoughts, which is later infiltrated by a blackmailer threatening to out the posters unless they pay up. The Internet has, in effect, turned everything upside down: Online we can say how we really feel and embrace our true identities, but in reality we’re expected the play a stereotypical role or face the consequences. The Internet has become in some ways more real than the real world.
Yet there are also limits to what these online journals and podcasts can ultimately reveal about us. Desperately seeking a breakthrough in the case, Veronica takes to carrying around her iPod all day at school and listening to the pirate-show podcasts, but in the end she realizes that’s she’s still no closer to understanding who Marcos was, much less why anyone might want to kill him. Her frustration carries with it a scary message: We might think that we’re baring our souls to the world, but once we’re gone, maybe no amount of autobiography can tell someone else who we are.
If Buffy dismissed the Internet as weird and unimportant and Veronica Mars depicted it as a medium for self-expression, then Glee sees it as a medium for confirming our self-worth and seeking the fame we so richly deserve. Telling other people who we are on the Internet has been replaced with telling other people why we’re important.
More than any other character on Glee, Rachel believes in this philosophy, stating in the pilot episode that “nowadays, being anonymous is worse than being poor.” To that end, she spends much of her free time recording videos of her singing and posting them to YouTube, in the hope that someone will notice them and elevate her to the level of a celebrity. Not all of her fellow glee-club members are this obsessed with fame, but they’re aware of how easily it can be obtained and that fame has, in many ways, replaced wealth as the true yardstick for success in our culture. Finn, for instance, vows to become famous in order to do right by his single mom, who has been lonely ever since his father was killed in the first Gulf War. If it’s not exactly clear how fame will solve this problem, that’s the point—it’s become a catchall for our troubles.
Nor have the adults escaped from the influence of the Internet. The new director of the glee club, Spanish teacher Will Schuester, justifies restarting the club by telling the principal, “these kids all feel invisible. That’s why they all have a MySpace page!” Yet only a few episodes later he’s trolling on MySpace himself, looking up a popular girl he had a crush on in high school in order to find out what she’s up to now. The school guidance counselor looks at Will sadly as he acts out a scene that’s become commonplace in real life: he attempts to get over his insecurities from high school by “reconnecting” with someone he’s never said two words to before. How many of us have done something along those lines?
It’s not yet clear if Glee will continue to explore these themes on a regular basis—the show already has 12 main characters and an ever-expanding number of subplots to focus on, so it’s possible that it could all get lost in the shuffle. But that would be a real shame, since no other television show on the air feels quite so tapped into the zeitgeist. Very few TV shows or movies have tried to understand how the Internet has changed our social lives, arguably because it’s not very cinematic (or telegenic, as the case may be) to show someone updating their status on Facebook. Yet in many of its smaller, quieter moments, Glee has captured a shift in not just how we interact online, but how the potential spotlight of the Internet has changed the way we think about ourselves. While the show’s detractors claim that the characters of Glee are nothing but a bunch of caricatures, I think they look much more like us than we want to admit.
Jack Patrick Rodgers is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. His work has been published in Slate, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Geek Monthly and Popmatters. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him via email at RestlessJack@comcast.net.