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Why a humbled 'Glee' is a 'Glee' worth watching

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Glee
Tyler Golden/Fox

The final season of Glee began last week as a bittersweet symphony of heartbreak, busted dreams, wary hope, and risky but possibly rewarding change. To these eyes, the two-part premiere was as much about the franchise itself, a story about Glee‘s own rise and fall, and the aftermath of that fall.

The ascending star of Rachel Berry (Lea Michele)—arguably the show’s defining arc—has crashed, much like the show itself as a pop phenom. Lovers Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss) are consciously uncoupled, their relationship ruined by too much combustible chemistry and too many petty irritations. Many former fans of this volatile, idiosyncratic enterprise can relate. Everything that the New Directions—and Glee—stood for is in flux or imperiled; the club’s very legacy is in question.

Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) now rules McKinley High with an oppressive fist, a track-suited Fascist running a re-education/re-orientation camp. She champions better living through body shaming, better minds through mandatory computer training. The misfits have been tamed and assimilated; the arts and humanities have been marginalized, if not purged. New Directions is no more, easily forgotten or painful to remember. The football team’s “post-modern gay” star quarterback—he identifies as “arrogant jerk” first, jock second, homosexual third (or maybe lower)—rejects Kurt’s assertion that he owes his privilege of self-expression to the culture change produced by the glee club. Instead, he gives all the credit to Modern Family.

Glee implying its own cultural irrelevancy was met with indirect agreement by its fans. Which is to say, few of them watched the show last week. The numbers: 2.3 million overall, and 0.7 among the money-maker eyeballs. That’s not as bad as the zero-share That’s So Rachel—but it’s bad. This, from our James Hibberd: “Any show shifting to Friday night tends to coincide with a ratings drop (last season aired on Thursdays), but that rating is down 65 percent from last season’s premiere. It also stood as the lowest-rated regular episode for a series on a major broadcast network last night; obviously, it’s easily Glee‘s weakest premiere ever.”

But the many who didn’t watch missed out. The two episodes that began Glee’s last act are the best Glee has been in awhile, IMHO.

Granted, I haven’t been a faithful viewer since the days when “IMHO” was actually a thing people said; it’s been a few years. Still, everything that has always been entertaining about the show—the musical numbers, the energy and commitment of the cast, the nerve and inventiveness of the allegory, Sue’s scabrous cuts, the subversive wit and dogged optimism of it all—was in full effect. Everything that has always been frustrating—the cartoonish heightened reality, the lack of cohesiveness, the preachy speechifying—wasn’t. Or at least it was muted, as in the scene when Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) told Rachel the parable of the bow. (Maybe this was because Glee has become keenly aware that a show so few people believe in anymore can’t get away with “Don’t stop believin’!” sermonizing.)

Glee, a coming-of-age saga about underdogs, returned with its tail between its legs, and the posture did something for the drama, imbuing the whole with a flattering maturity without compromising any spunk. The show wears its humbling well.

Glee deserves a place in the time capsule describing the contents of the early 21st century as much as Modern Family. I don’t know if it’s an all-time great show—I don’t really think in those terms anymore, anyway—but it is definitely a great show of its time, about it time.

Launched in the spring of 2009, Glee‘s very existence was an achievement. A weekly musical! A pop pastiche musical in the Moulin Rouge mode, sure, but a musical nonetheless. That’s no small or easy thing. It was also a welcome thing, a blast of snappy fun and idealism at a time when so much of the television around it was (and remains) glum and gloomy, overstuffed with lone-nut anti-heroes, blue moon bastards without a song in their hearts, violence and cynicism. Glee wasn’t alone in this: The show was the theater geek sibling to movie nerd Community, another post-Lost examination of live-together/die-alone can’t-we-all-just-get-along plurality that entertains with canny appropriation and winky, hyper-linky homage. Both shows were at the forefront of our meta-pop moment where mix-master samplers and sublimaters rule, making “Uptown Funk” out of their influences.

Glee flowed out of the shared American Idol and Disney tween-teen musical moment (see: High School Musical, the Jonas brothers, Miley), yet critiqued the values of the former (more on this in a sec) and splashed acid on the plastic pop of the latter. It was a trailblazing transmedia pop phenom for the social media age—and risked exhausting itself playing the part, what with the albums and the tours and the spinoff reality show. It captured and carried forward so many other cultural energies and causes, too, like geek chic, gay rights, and bullying awareness, and it challenged those (like me) who have spent most of our lives blithely and obliviously enjoying the privilege of being a straight, white male, urging us to wake up and check ourselves.

Glee was winningly irreverent—but it also contributed to the snarkification of everything. And last week, I couldn’t help but wonder if Glee was taking just a little bit of responsibility for making the mediaverse a slightly meaner place by showing the gay quarterback flaunting his “arrogant jerk” identity, and giving all the credit for his exaltation to an era rich with gay representation and let-your-own-freak-flag-fly messaging.

Glee might be one of the quintessential expressions of the Obama era. It arrived so full of progressive fire, representing change and promising hope for more; it now moves toward the exit dogged by criticism of inconsistency and unmet ambitions, framed as a disappointment. But there’s still time for one more story, and it could be a good one.

According to Glee lore, the final season of Glee would have had Finn (the late Cory Monteith) running New Directions. Its last scene would have culminated with Rachel—”fulfilled yet not,” in the words of co-creator Ryan Murphy—walking into glee club and declaring, “I’m home.” Monteith’s death in 2013 from a drug overdose blew up that plan, and Glee nodded to this last week when Will mournfully recalled Finn, saying he always imagined his former student would follow in his footsteps.

In place of that tale, Glee gives us a Rachel who’s been rudely ejected from the Hollywood limelight she considered her birthright. (Her performance of “Uninvited” was a tonally perfect expression of her dramatic sense of rejection.) She returns to Ohio deflated, then finds a new, selfless purpose in collaborating with Kurt to revive the glee club, recruiting a new generation of freaks and gleeks to continue its redemptive mission. (You might call her a community organizer. If Hollywood doesn’t work out for her, maybe Washington DC?) She consecrates her new direction by singing “Let It Go.”

That’s a provocative note to hit as Glee plays its Taps at the end of the American Idol era—and, in a way, for that era. (Not that the dream of showbiz success itself is bad. In fact, I wonder if Rachel’s journey this year will bring her a new crack at stardom, but will also change her in a way that emboldens her to do something different with it. That’s So Rachel! deserves a second chance, with a stronger, more mature Rachel.)

As much as last week’s premiere entertained me and captured my imagination, I confess I’m not crazy about the prospect of watching one more season of New Directions (led by Rachel and Kurt) vs. Vocal Adrenaline (led by Mr. Schuester) vs. The Warblers (led by Blaine). The twist of pitting the teacher against his former pupils has interesting thematic possibilities—Mr. Schue’s Gospel of Glee, spread throughout the culture by acolytes, now threatened by bitter competition and ambition—but this conflict is stale nonetheless. Ditto Sue doing her Grinch act, trying to subvert and silence the weirdo Whos living beneath her. There’s appeal in finishing a saga with a “coming full circle” strategy, with a story that echoes and riffs on the story that started it. It also plays to and even honors the core fans who’ve stuck with the series from the beginning. Still: Been there, done that.

But the show—which has secured its vast collection of characters for its swan song—is focusing on the right assets, the wisdom of which was borne out by last week’s overstuffed “Homecoming.” It was nice to see Artie, Puck, and the Unholy Trinity of Santana, Brittany, and Quinn again, and their collective presence had powerful resonance. But the storytelling strained to give each of them moments, and I hope the show doesn’t feel obligated to serve them for nostalgia’s sake; most of them have been exhausted for plot and giggles, anyway. I’m looking forward to getting know the next gen of New Directions, a well-cast, immediately appealing fantastic four: super-tight, super-cheery, vaguely naughty siblings twins Mason (Billy Lewis Jr.) and Madison (Laura Dreyfus); lumbering and alienated yet strong and soulful Roderick (Noah Guthrie); and especially Samantha Marie Ware’s Jane, a human firecracker with an extraordinary atomic cloud of hair who laid claim to the center of the franchise with her performance of “Tightrope.”

There’s great chance that Glee can walk the tricky line of its final season with grace and verve, building to a rousing, respectable exit made possible by its own story of rising, falling, hurting, grieving, letting go, and reaching out for something new. If Glee is taking song requests for its last episode, I suggest “Purple Rain.”