Gleek out

I love Glee. I hate Glee.

It’s not unusual for those two thoughts to flit through my mind simultaneously as I watch Fox’s top-10 show about a ragtag band of choral club singers.

Glee made its first big splash in 2009 when Fox aired the show’s debut episode after its American Idol finale. Glee fever hit full stride by the time the show resumed the following fall, and the show’s first season excelled as it mined equal parts earnest coming-of-age emotions, heartstring-tugging melodrama and kitschy comedy.

Initially, critics compared Glee to the likes of High School Musical, but unlike that squeaky-clean, cheesy Disney franchise, Glee explored teen sexuality, school politics and friendship by taking its archetypal characters—the jock, the cheerleader, the nerd, et al.—and giving them depth and heart, although rarely (thankfully) at the expense of over-the-top, sassy humor.

The love triangle, for example, between Rachel, the ambitious outcast, Finn, the slightly clueless jock, and Quinn, his pregnant cheerleader girlfriend, worked because it largely sidestepped clichés in favor of true teenage emotions dressed up in sparkly Christina Aguilera and Rihanna songs.

Likewise, glee club director Will Schuester’s ongoing feud with cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester deftly played up the club’s underdog role while avoiding trite after-school-special territory.

Glee worked because it managed to be at once silly and subversive—nothing says twisted gender politics like watching the football team take to the field to tackle a fearless, unironic rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”

Now, deep into the show’s second season, Glee is more popular than ever—indeed it’s practically reached icon status, pulling in such megawatt guest stars as Britney Spears and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Too bad it’s in danger of abandoning the very qualities that once made it so endearing.

Glee has always been about rooting for the scrappy and disadvantaged—the motherless, Type A diva; the mousy guidance counselor; and the wheelchair-bound nerd—but lately it’s pushing that concept at the expense of the edgy spark that initially made it so popular.

Take, for example, the show’s recent treatment of Sue Sylvester. Last season, Sue, played by the wickedly talented Jane Lynch, stood out because the show essentially refused to give her a heart. Aside from a small, subset story line about the coach’s relationship with a sister, who has Down syndrome, we were allowed to root against (or for—that’s OK, too) Sylvester’s deliciously callous personality.

Now, however, the show, perhaps in a bid to appeal to an even bigger audience, is forcing a new-and-improved Sylvester upon us—one with a conscience.

I can watch Mad Men for complex anti-heroes; just give me a relentlessly mean Sylvester voguing to Madonna tunes—I don’t need to empathize with her to like her.

Worse, though, is a recent episode that centered on a topical subject: gay bullying.

That show, which revolved around the show’s lone gay glee club member, Kurt, and a bullying football player, had the potential to use the power of Katy Perry to poke fun at gay stereotypes. Instead, it delved into psychodrama territory, suggesting, for example, that the homophobic football player is actually gay.

Bold and subversive? Not really. If anything, it seemed cheap and conventional, and the result was a show that trivialized and oversimplified an important, timely issue.

It was, frankly, a disappointing turn for a show that’s spoiled us with its relationship between two brashly liberated bisexual cheerleaders.

Do we expect too much of Glee?

Is it wrong to demand that the show be at once campy and fun—a lighthearted romp directed only by the notion to smile! Sparkle! Shine!—and an earnest, honest champion of social and civil rights?

Probably, but as long as there’s a world in which a Bon Jovi/Usher mash-up is not only logical but magical, I’ll continue to dream of a show that succeeds by being fresh and original, not pedestrian, predictable and ratings-hungry.