Let me be very clear, my three and a half year relationship with Glee has been volatile, but we’re finally in a very good place. I loved it, was angry at it for not living up to my expectations, hated it, hated myself for sort of still loving it, we took a break, and now I love it again, mostly. And I know it’s critically panned, but I’m invested. It’s high-octane, it’s ridiculous, it’s best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s too full of stories to properly tell one, but at least it’s entertaining. I’m emotionally invested and I’ve come to accept the over-the-top performances, the incoherent storytelling, the shifting tone from episode-to-episode, and the fact that the world Glee resides is some odd alternate universe made up in tv land, thus allowing me to suspend disbelief more often than not. (But Burt winning a seat in the US Congress?! And Will was his campaign manager?! That’s one thing I still can’t wrap my head around, but even with all its inconsistancies, this show is at its worst when it deals with the adults.)
Where Glee excels in fantasy performance, Friday Night Lights was a realistic utopia. Jace Lacob tweeted that Friday Night Lights was a bout “dreams found and postponed”, not football. And that’s true, and does so with the grace of small town charm. It allows moments to breathe and knows that sometimes a look is better than a monologue.
But Glee is also about dreams, the process of finding them and losing them, but in spectacular fashion, laser shows and jazz hands required. From the start, the failures of the adults in this world (Will Schuester, April Rhodes, and Shelby Corcoran all have had unsuccessful or stalled Broadway dreams) cloud the aspirations of the most determined divas on the glee club (notably Rachel Berry, but later Kurt Hummel shared dreams of Broadway stardom and Quinn Fabray inexplicably started desiring the stage and got into Yale’s school of performance arts – this show should recognize that many kids who are in their high school, or even college, theater problems don’t end up in the performing arts in adulthood). The dreams in Friday Night Lights are markedly more attainable than stardom. Coach Taylor is pretty content to be the head coach of a high school state champion football team in small town Dillon, Texas, and though we see the exuberance of college scouting with Smash Williams and Vince Howard, the goal seemed more about giving their mothers a better life than it was about becoming a NFL superstar.
It’s a show more focused on destination than the journey. This is one reason they are so awful at arcs. This season we’ve seen a political campaign fight and a production of West Side Story fizzle away after a handful of episodes, then off to the next spectacle. (Todd VanDerWerff of AV Club mentioned this Murphy-Falchuk habit in a review of American Horror Story.) Where Friday Night Lights is built on piecing together life’s small moments, Glee can’t seem to get away from them fast enough. For Glee, life’s just a succession of sprints, one not necessarily flowing into the next with the same context or history; Friday Night Lights treats life as a marathon, pacing events, working around disappointments and pitfalls, and celebrating successes.
If you’re watching Glee for consistent characterization, coherent storylines, or anything grounded in reality, you’re probably watching the wrong show. As much as it’s hyped as bringing awareness to bullying and GLTQ issues, it mostly fails, and too often falls into stereotypes. When it pokes fun at itself in that meta way that is so popular, it doesn’t feel so much tongue-in-cheek as it just brings focus on its flaws, which doesn’t necessarily make it better or make the problem disappear. It treats bullying as a sometimes-problem. (It’s bad, but not when it’s funny!) And I can’t be the only one who thinks it has an Asian/race problem (which is also ingrained in Hollywood), treating most of the minority characters, with the exception of Santana Lopez, as glorified extras most of the time, especially Tina Cohen-Chang, an original member of New Directions, who still hasn’t received an arc of her own, nor has she been given a solo without being interrupted or choking, and inexplicably vanished from one recent episode without notice.
Glee started out telling a classic story of boy meets girl. In this case, jock meets musical theater ‘loser’, and continued to use the athletics/performing arts comparison throughout, especially in the first season watching Finn wrestle between his growing feelings toward Rachel, and his responsibilities to the mother of his supposed child. Season two was kind of a trainwreck as far as story. The season felt like a reboot, devoid of history from the first. The third season has found it’s main conflict with Rachel Berry and her decision of love (in one Finn Hudson), career (school in New York, eventual Broadway), and whether she can balance the two at the ripe old age of seventeen (unless that has been retconned and she is now eighteen). The plan as of now, is to continue to follow a few of these characters outside the halls of McKinnley next season; something Friday Night Lights only did sparingly, sometimes to the point of just background shot of Smash Williams playing a game on the television as a treat for regular viewers. While we saw the first generation characters get cycled back in to touch base with Dillon, it was obvious they had lives outside of the town, and the show.
Even down to their casting choices, Glee prefers big names to unfamiliar faces. It likes to remind you that this is not the world you live in. Britney Spears! Gwyneth Paltrow! Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth! And most recently, Ricky Martin! (One of Rachel’s dads is Jeff Goldblum, and soon we will see Gloria Estefon as Santana’s mother.) This show does not do subtle, everything is heightened.
I think some fans’ and critics’ expectations of the show are different than the goals of the creators, which leads to disappointment. Not to say the show shouldn’t aspire for more consistency in plot and character development, because it would make for more enjoyable storytelling, but I sometimes wonder what some people expect when they’re watching the show. I’ve come to terms with the outlandish and enjoy myself much more for that. (I stopped watching after the front half of the second season because I was so frustrated and full of anger, and came back this summer with more open to what the show had become.)
I’m not telling anyone they should love Glee or that no one should complain. I have completely shallow, non-quality reasons I still watch this show. There will be many who think even comparing these two shows is sacrilege, one is a hearty soup and one is fluffy cotton candy, but why can’t you have room in life for both?
(And if you wanted, you can read this article by Heather Havrilesky in the New York Times a few months ago that also compares these two shows, but focuses on FNL.)