Glee — remember Glee? — the once enjoyable, then completely baffling, musical comedy about high-school glee club members ends its six-season run Friday, March 20, on Fox at 8 pm Eastern. The show ends with 121 episodes, seemingly every one a little more incoherent than the last.
I reviewed the first three seasons of the show for the A.V. Club and kept up fitfully with later seasons. The general consensus is that Glee's best season was its 22-episode first season, which is true. But I would go further than that. The best "season" of Glee is actually its first 13 episodes, produced in one chunk, before the last nine episodes of season one were produced later.
And I might go one further than even that. Though it produced better episodes, the best version of Glee is the one presented in the pilot — a story about high-school kids with big dreams and a teacher who screwed up all of his own dreams but wanted to give these kids a better shot.
Yes, it was funny. Yes, it was a little caustic. But it was, at its core, about sad, desperate people longing for a better life. It was the kind of conflict great shows are built around — think a sort of Friday Night Lights for kids who were really into show choir.
So if you want to know when Glee "turned bad," it wasn't somewhere in season two or three. No, it was in the second episode.
The moment Glee got bad
Near the end of the pilot, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), the teacher who never saw his own performing career advance past his high-school glee club days, learns that his wife (Jessalyn Gilsig) is pregnant. The two don't have a healthy marriage, and they're clearly trying to have a child to save that marriage.
Facing the birth of his child, Will decides to stop teaching and become an accountant, where at least he'll make more money, even if he finds the work less rewarding. Then he walks into the school's auditorium and sees this:
End of pilot.
It's a great TV moment, filled with hope and sadness and dozens of conflicting emotions. You know Will is going to stay. You know he's going to put his life on the line to stay. And you know that these kids and their teacher are going to push one another to their furthest limits.
In the very next episode, though, the series completely reverses itself. Will's wife isn't pregnant. She's faking a pregnancy to keep her husband interested, and she'll fake that pregnancy for most of those first 13 episodes. That fake pregnancy was an early example of some of the show's faults, like its propensity to stack up campy, melodramatic storytelling against honest human emotion and its occasionally awful attitudes toward its female characters.
But this moment signaled that Glee was always going to fall apart in a more concrete way, as well. It indicated this was going to be a show where the characters never actually had to make hard choices or do difficult things. Will wouldn't have to choose between his dreams and his child, because he wasn't actually going to have a child. It immediately diminished the dramatic stakes, and it was indicative of many other choices the show would make in this regard through the years.
TV shows can't succeed without stakes — dramatic, for the plot, and emotional, for the characters. Yes, having Will choose his own happiness over his child's financial wellbeing might have made him harder to "like" on a superficial level, but giving him exactly what he wants without him having to work for it eventually made him insufferable.
By its end, Glee did something like that with nearly every character. Rachel (Lea Michele) didn't get into the performing arts school of her dreams, until she did. Quinn (Dianna Agron) gave up her baby for adoption, then became a part of the baby's life. And so on. Sacrifice was only illusory at best.
There were plenty of great moments, but one choice in episode two indicated that everything that came next would always be a little hollow. And, ultimately, that's what happened.
The Glee finale airs at 8 pm Eastern on March 20, 2015. Previous seasons are available on Netflix.