Sunday, July 14, 2013

My love/hate relationship with Glee: An ode to Cory Monteith and the fleetingly great series he helped build

I can't even count how many times I’ve written off Ryan Murphy and his consistently manipulative TV show, Glee. And that always made me sad, since the first 13 episodes of the first season were a masterful mix of parodic humor, genuine emotion, and the euphoria of a perfect pop song. That same season got derailed a bit by misguided “theme” episodes--hours of programming that gave credence to the critique that the show was all style and little substance--but a strong finale and a promising set-up for a second season had me hoping for the best.

Unfortunately, that second season was, on the whole, a disaster. Make no mistake, there were always a few showstoppers lurking at the fringes, moments of emotional bombast waiting to lure me back in when I least expected them, but there were also some of the worst episodes of television I have ever endured, writing so painful and misguided that the show probably managed to “jump the shark” six times in one particularly bad week. The third season was no more consistent, dropping at times to heinous lows of plot development and song choice that tarnished the entire soul and legacy of the program and its characters. Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennen, the creators and primary writers of the show, have a tendency for pretension when it comes to their program, believing they are obligated to make certain “grand” statements throughout the course of a season. They also consistently brings in idiot characters who serve no purpose, stick around for a few episodes, and then vanish without a trace. But dammit if the three of them don't have a knack for pathos. At its best, Glee has always been a show about dreams, about how they flourish or how they fall, how they can come true or how they can fade away, and Glee’s best moments have been tied to its characters’ big milestones: their victories, their failures, their trials of growing up, of love, of friendship. And Murphy and his fellow writers built season three up in such a way that, when everything finally exploded in the final two episodes, it was nothing short of glorious.

There’s a reason that The AV Club awarded Glee’s big Season 3 finish (a two-episode arc) with a pair of “A” grades. The same season had produced two “F” episodes, causing readers in the finale’s TV Club review to speculate as to whether or not there had ever been a more inconsistent show on television. I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do know that those final two episodes were among the best television I’ve ever witnessed. Sure, I enjoyed the big emotional pay-off of watching these kids win their big championship and achieve their dreams after three consecutive seasons of build-up, failure, and missed opportunity. But what was truly great was that the writers, instead of making the competition the season’s finale like they had two times before, pulled a head fake and left it for the penultimate episode. That gave the show the proper amount of time to close things off, wrap them up. It could have been a series finale, and on the night of the airing, I was actually planning on it serving as just that. I had seen these kids finally succeed in the thing they had been trying to do since I started watching this show, since some late weekend night during my freshman year of college when I was bored and alone in my dorm room and decided to stream the premiere off the internet. I was ready to finally say goodbye.

But then a funny thing happened. No, it wasn’t theSpringsteen song that the cast was singing along to as they graduated high school, or the double-take moments the writers generated by leaving Kurt and Finn, two of the show’s primary characters, rejected by their post-high school institutions. No, it was the last ten minutes. It was Rachel (Lea Michele) getting in the car with Finn (the late Cory Monteith), supposedly on their way to their wedding, and him pulling up to the train station instead. She wasn’t going to defer her acceptance to arts school to be with him; she was getting on that train and moving to New York, saying goodbye to him. Why? Because he loved her enough to let her go, set her free. It was the best scene I’ve watched on TV in ages, a tumultuous whirlwind of emotion, a master-class of writing, and a terrific showcase of two actors who never got enough credit. I’ll get to the latter bit in a moment, but first, I have to say that, for all of its excesses, errors, and pretensions, when Glee chooses to set off the emotional fireworks, it does so in a way that is impossible not to relate to. We’ve all had moments like this one, moments where we finally have to draw a line in the sand between the person we used to be and the person we are going to become. It’s how we felt when we drove away from our hometown for the first time on the way to college, or how much it hurt to say goodbye a few years later when that goodbye was for good. The final song choice, a sweeping ballad called “Roots Before Branches” and sung solely by Rachel as she embarked on her new and uncertain journey, was the greatest song choice in the show’s history. And they’ve had some good ones.

In the aforementioned AV Club review of this episode (which, for the record, was called “Goodbye”) Todd VanDerWerff offered a perfect summation of this perfect scene, and his words capture the essence of it better than I think mine ever could:

“Cory Monteith and Lea Michele kill this scene. They kill it. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year, and it’s so good that even if everything else had sucked, this would have been at least a B. It’s the emotional equivalent of my much-beloved “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence, especially for how it goes on and on and on, and never seems like it’s going to come to an end, because you can see one whole set of dreams dissolving in front of these kids’ eyes, replaced by another, much more uncertain one. That’s the way the dreams you have at 18 are, though. They gradually fall apart, and then you build new ones. Or maybe you get caught up in the old ones and wish for a way to go back, to punch in the code on the time machine you don’t have. To quote Springsteen again: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

Moments of television like this one only come along once in a great while, these all-encompassing moments of overwhelming emotion which seem to sum up perfectly the feel and the themes of the show they come from. And usually, these moments only come along in series finales. Most would cite the painful-but-beautiful fast-forward effect that the creators of Six Feet Under employed for its final minutes; I would go for the gang’s last lesson from Mr. Feeny in Boy Meets World or the grandiose triumph of the “I got off the plane” scene that came at the end of a long ten years for Friends. But with “Goodbye,” Glee came remarkably close to that hall of fame. It should have been the end, right?

I thought so, I really did. But then, when my girlfriend and I were house-sitting this past fall, we decided to work our way through the first four episodes of Glee’s fourth season, from the season we vowed never to watch. And if I’m being honest, it finally felt, consistently, like the same show I was watching back in the fall of 2009. The writers in particular felt creatively re-energized, like they finally had stories to tell and didn’t just have to fill up the months between the premiere and the inevitable Nationals-based finale with glee club nonsense. No, remarkably, the show moving beyond its high school conceit and expanding into the real world, into a layout where it would have to jump back and forth from one location to another, proved to be the best thing that could have happened to it. Season four eventually squandered that potential in a series of absurd plot twists and the aforementioned “grand statements,” but for a few episodes at least, Glee was at the creative peak it hadn’t seen since 2009.

The best episode of the season (and one of the best in the show’s history) was the fourth episode, an hour-long emotional tour-de-force called “The Break-Up.” As the title suggests, “The Break-Up” saw virtually every relationship the show had spent three seasons building fracturing and folding in the face of a post-high school bluff. When you graduate from high school, everything seems limitless. You look at your friends and you see people who are going to be successful and happy and good. You look at yourself and you see endless possibilities and dreams before you. And you look at your relationships or the relationships shared between your classmates, and you think of them as constants, pieces of love and friendship that will live and thrive eternally. “The Break-Up” took that misconception and shattered it. It showed how easily distance and miscommunication and stupid decisions could destroy the connections that, only months before, meant the world to you, how the places you go and the people you meet after high school change everything. Near the end of the episode, Monteith and Michele meet in the auditorium of their old high school, where their relationship had begun and grown, and there, it ends. Lea Michele has always been viewed as the secret weapon of Glee: the best actress, the best singer, the key to its success. But while she kills the scene, it’s Monteith, with subtlety and nuance, who so perfectly captures the devastation of a young man left behind by a changing world and the people moving forward with it.

Those scenes were the pieces of the Glee legacy that ran through my head this morning when I read about Monteith’s shocking and heartbreaking death. At only 31, the actor was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room, leaving behind his family, his real-life relationship with Michele, and the television program he helped build all in one fell swoop. Watching those scenes back, it’s clear that Monteith was the heart and soul of the show. He was never the best singer—that’s evident from the ending montage of “The Break-Up,” where all of the show’s broken characters appear on a dimly-lit stage and sing Coldplay’s “The Scientist” as catharsis—but that never mattered. His character was always the most believable to me: a decent singer made great by more talented co-stars and a mediocre student made outstanding by his participation in the inspirational extracurricular activities that define so many high school graduates. When all of those things fade away, he’s left behind, broken, alone, and unsure of which direction to take, like a character in a Springsteen song who realizes that the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At the end of that episode, when everyone is singing “The Scientist” up on the auditorium stage that has served as the setting so many happier memories, it hits hard. The writers for Glee have always claimed that most of these musical numbers aren’t actually happening, but that they are playing out cinematically in the characters’ heads as concrete proof of the way that a perfect pop song at the right moment can feel like so much more than words and music. But that scene is one of the only times where the imagination bit feels like it’s serving a higher purpose. And it’s fucking devastating. Because Finn isn’t up on that stage with all his friends, singing in another show choir competition; he’s up there alone, in the dark, remembering the better times and the past glories and his own broken future, and he’s imagining that everyone is there beside him again because it hurts less than acknowledging that he’s been left behind. Glee may have fallen miles from what it once was, but moments like that one still rank among the most durable television of the past ten years, and Monteith was the emotional ballast that held it all together. He will be missed.

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