A beloved series about quirky, plucky do-gooders ends its long run with teary, cheery flash-forwards for its characters. Gee, where have we heard that tune before? One month after NBC’s Parks and Recreation closed shop by peeking into the future and seeing individual fulfillment and continued community for Leslie Knope and co., Fox’s Glee concluded its six-year stint by singing the same swan song. Glee being Glee, the show chose an arrangement that hit all of its feel-good notes with more brass, sass, and messy gusto. The ballsy, blunt force optimism was inspiring and incredible at the same time. It was a radical act of daydream believin’ that was about pleasing loyal fans and provoking everyone else. You’d have to be a grumpy critic, a Republican, or a natural born Glee hater to resist it.
Glee’s final hour took us five years into the future. Everyone was a stellar success of some sort, rising or peaking, local, national, or global. Most of them lived in New York. Sly pop and political pokes abounded. Artie (Kevin McHale) was a filmmaker whose first feature had just been accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival. Mercedes (Amber Riley) was touring and making hits so big poor Artie couldn’t afford to license them for his film. (Natch, she lent them up for free.) The dynamic duo of Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss) were lighting up Broadway in a smash LGBT production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Lincoln Center (I would like to see that) and preaching the good news of progressive tolerance and dream chasing to the kids at Harvey Milk Elementary. Klaine were also about to become parents: Rachel (Lea Michele) was serving as their surrogate. She was up for a Tony for her performance in Jane Austen Sings, directed by her husband, Jesse (Jonathan Groff), and she won, beating out the likes of Willow Smith, the apparently eternal Maggie Smith, and Anne Hathaway. (The latter was nominated for her all-about-her one-woman show Anne! Was that supposed to be a dig of some sort? I don’t truck with Hathahate, so I’m not sure how to read these things.)
Back in Ohio, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) was the principal at McKinley, now a groundbreaking and thriving performing arts high school, a model institution that was inspiring similar institutions all over the country. (McKinley’s reboot came after New Directions won Nationals five years earlier*, inspiring The Powers That Be to change course and fund the arts to the max. Cutting off funding wasn’t improving academic performance; why not try—wait for it—a new direction?) Sam (Chord Overstreet) was leading glee club, now the varsity team show choir.
And Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) was now the track-suited vice president of the United States. Seriously. She also served under President Jeb Bush. So maybe not everything turns out perfectly in the future. Then again, there was something implicitly, subversively hopeful in that bit of business. The final episodes established that Sue had undergone a Pauline conversion: The former persecutor of freaks and geeks had seen the light as a result of glee club’s faithful, unflagging witness. A few episodes ago, Sue claimed she had sabotaged show choir super-power Vocal Adrenaline—this season, the epitome of corrupt, intolerant straight culture—during her brief stint as its leader so that New Directions could flourish. (How very The Americans of her.) Perhaps Sue is doing the same in President Bush’s White House? All plots and points taken together, Glee covered all the bases for spurring social change: Daily evangelism, cunning realpolitik, and becoming huge stars or political players with outsized cultural influence and power. It’s just that easy!
I have mixed feelings about the flash-forward tactic in general as a strategy for producing a satisfying finale. It’s great fun, but also very sentimental. The choices can be quite clever, but also arbitrary and contrived, as opposed to proceeding from smart, sober, character logic. The intent is to inspire. (To quote the unforgettable Fleetwood Mac: Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow!) But the effect usually inspires incredulity. (To quote less memorable Shawn Mullins: “Everything is going to be alright, rockabye!” Come. On.) That said, I find these endings just as inevitable as, say, the rigged game pessimism of Breaking Bad or nothing-changes cynicism of The Sopranos. Glee and Parks were fantasies—albeit fantasies grounded in some reality—that proceeded from an optimistic, progressive worldview, designed to promote an optimistic, progressive worldview, Glee more so than Parks. So I accept Glee’s radically optimistic finale, even if I wish it had tempered the idealism with more of its salty, clear-eyed wisdom. I actually liked the two-hour finale’s first hour more than the second, a flashback episode that created a new creation myth for the characters, capturing a band of complex, needy personalities and wannabe stars clashing and meshing to create the community that would break them, re-mold them, fulfill them. How exhilarating was the final scene of that first hour, a reprise of the “Don’t Stop Believing” performance from season 1? It was touching to see Finn again, of course. But it capped a stirring hour that powerfully reminded us of some things that six years of accumulated storytelling inconsistency and incoherence make it easy to forget: For a brief period of time, Glee was just the biggest thing in pop culture, and those kids were—are—huge freakin’ stars who have had enormous positive impact on their audience.
The finale ended with Vice President Sylvester giving a speech to re-dedicate the auditorium at McKinley High. Its new name: The Finn Hudson Auditorium. In her remarks, she spelled out the lesson embodied by New Directions, and the example that Glee tried to live out during its six wildly ambitious, entertaining, and uneven years as a cultural enterprise: “It takes a lot of bravery to look around you and see the world not as it is, but as it should be.” With this, Glee seemed to be declaring itself to be (and commending itself for being) a counter-culture force to the dominant fantasies of the new century: Anti-heroes, dystopia, apocalypse. And so a season that started from a place of impressive humility about what Glee had accomplished (or not) finishes as a humblebrag. After the reformed Veep’s speechifying, glee club members and Glee stars past and present gathered on stage to sing One Republic’s “I Lived.” And that, Glee did. Often with stunning artfulness and boldness, more often with infuriating inconsistency, sometimes profound, sometimes alienating, sometimes arrogant and belligerent… even if it was correct, politically, about everything. (Except for Coach Schue’s rapping.) It leaves us as most burn-bright-and-fade pop phenoms do, with a sense that it was ultimately a failure. Maybe that’s unfair; we’ve been so spoiled with masterpieces this new century, it’s often hard to appreciate anything less. Glee was a brilliant mess. It lived. And I’m glad it did.
*The final season of Glee started strong but quickly became vintage spotty Glee instead of just vintage Glee. My biggest quibbles: Sue’s incoherent arc and meta villainy; and how the show underutilized a batch of promising new characters, the next gen New Directions.