Entertainment

Why “Glee” Still Matters

In its sixth and final season, the Fox series is queerer than it’s ever been, proving the one constant throughout the show has been celebrating difference.

Santana (Naya Rivera) and Brittany (Heather Morris) tie the knot on Glee. FOX

At some point during this season of Glee — perhaps when a trans choir performed “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray, or the episode that managed to include not one but two same-sex weddings in the space of an hour — it became clear that the LGBT-heavy musical dramedy series had, while no one was paying attention, reached unprecedented levels of queerness. Yes, Glee has been gay from the get-go, but its final season is more focused on the spectrum of sexual and gender identity than ever before.

While critics and audiences largely abandoned Glee — which ends its run on March 20 — at some point between its celebrated pilot episode and its truncated final sixth season, those who have stuck around are witnessing something genuinely transgressive for major network primetime television. It’d be challenging to think of another network series that has celebrated the beauty of difference better. After all, Glee is not just gay: It’s unabashedly queer.

And the show has never been queerer. Season 6 has seen the joint weddings of Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss), and Santana (Naya Rivera) and Brittany (Heather Morris), as well as Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) coming out as trans. The latter storyline in particular does a fair amount to make up for the series never fully exploring its last trans character, Unique (Alex Newell), who reappeared this season to offer Beiste guidance. And while we’re cataloguing Glee’s Season 6 queerness, it’s also worth noting how quickly New Directions addition Spencer (Marshall Williams) has snagged a same-sex love interest, Alistair (Finneas O’Connell).

At the same time, the sixth season has centered largely on passing the torch to the next generation of New Directions, something it has tried in past seasons with less success. It helps that the members of the new class — including soulful Roderick (Noah Guthrie) and infectiously energetic twins Madison (Laura Dreyfuss) and Mason (Billy Lewis Jr.) — are all quite likable and talented, a fine crop for Rachel (Lea Michele), Kurt, Blaine, and Mr. Schue (Matthew Morrison) to mentor.

Unique (Alex Newell) surprises Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) with a trans choir performing “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray. youtube.com

From the first episode, Glee reflected the (heightened) realities of life for those who don’t fit in — the eccentrics, the gays, the people of color — in conservative Lima, Ohio. And while there’s no denying that the series has made some missteps over the years, there’s also no denying Glee’s influence. When it debuted, audiences embraced the series not in spite of the queerness it championed, but because of it. And however many times Glee has fumbled or lost its footing — remember when Sue (Jane Lynch) married herself? — the final season reiterates a commitment to the show’s original mission statement: Be different, be proud, and don’t listen to anyone who tries to shut you up.

That relentless enthusiasm for the outsider is a stunning reminder of why Glee matters: It’s a series that, at its best, gave impressionable young people a reason to love being different. Many of our most sacred on-screen high school stories — The Breakfast Club and She’s All That to cite two flagrant examples for children of the ’80s and ’90s — are about conformity in the face of adversity. Glee refutes “normalcy”: Its overall lesson is to wipe the slushie off your face and continue letting your freak flag fly. “Be yourself” might sound trite, but on a show where the fluidity of sexuality and gender are being explored without shame, it’s a powerful statement.

Of course, Glee is no longer the pop culture powerhouse it once was, but it’s only fair to acknowledge what it did accomplish. Kurt summed it up well in the March 12 episode, called “We Built This Glee Club”: “You inspired more than just this group of kids,” he tells Rachel. “You inspired me, too. What we’re doing really matters. We have a profound effect on these kids and their self-esteem and what they go on to accomplish.”

In the end, otherness has proven to be Glee’s biggest constant, whether in the form of gay and bisexual characters, trans characters, characters with disabilities, characters of color, fat characters, or any number of characters on the series who weren’t straight white cis men. These representations were rarely perfect, but they happened. Without them, would we see two tween boys kissing on The Fosters, or Connor (Jack Falahee) doing something to a man’s ass that made his eyes water on How to Get Away With Murder? As we move forward toward, ideally, increasingly complex and thoughtful portrayals of diversity, let’s tip our hats to the shows that helped paved the way: Glee is high on that list.

Glee airs on Fridays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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