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‘Glee’ Needs to Stop Breaking the Fourth Wall

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When Glee first came on the scene in 2009, it pretty much polarized audiences into two groups: those who thought it was ridiculous, and those who loved it because it was ridiculous. What creator Ryan Murphy gave us was a weird, unique little fantasy land. A fantasy land where people’s quirks were exaggerated, where everyone had moxy and chutzpah and would break out in song at the drop of a hat. A fantasy land where everyone was sincere. Murphy gave us an absurdly diverse rainbow of plucky misfits to cheer for, and proceeded to put them through a million and one insane adventures and outlandish obstacles. It was awesome because it was ridiculous, and ridiculous with utmost sincerity.glee

And so many years later, Glee is still ridiculous. It’s still something the most ardent fans relish, whether it’s the interminable season-and-a-half lead up to Nationals, the notion of an unknown actor getting the lead in a Broadway play, or the cast’s enduring ability to wander the halls of their high school singing in slow motion. In terms of believability, Glee still runs at about zero percent, and that’s a very good thing. But there’s been a shift in the way Murphy and the show’s writers have been handling the show this season that puts the show’s status as magical, ridiculous fantasy at risk: they’ve been breaking the fourth wall. They’ve been getting self-referential and snarky, and in doing so, they’ve been breaking the boundaries of the self-contained ecosystem of fantasy and sincerity that fans have come to love.

Sincerity and post-modernism don’t mix. Indulgent fantasy and metafiction are antagonistic to one another. Stepping into Glee‘s universe is supposed to be about letting go and suspending our disbelief for 42 minutes a week, not analyzing character conventions and calling out plot holes. And yet, it seems like every episode this season has made a point to snark at itself. Usually, the fourth-wall breaking comments come from über villain Sue Sylvester, like when she called out Tina and Artie for being background characters or comments on the show’s prolonged timeline. Sometimes it comes from elsewhere, like when Blaine comments on all the Glee Club’s weird hookups, when characters address the camera instead of each other, or when they worry aloud about what will happen to the Club when they all graduate. No matter where they originate, these breaches in the Glee perimeter are distracting. Half the time, we’re being asked to dive headfirst into something awesomely unbelievable, and half the time we’re expected to maintain a layer of detached analysis. The result is a muddy, confusing tone that manages to be neither properly self-referential nor properly self-contained. As a viewer, I’m not sure what to think. And I’m not sure Ryan Murphy even knows what he’s doing anymore.

Is Murphy trying to make the show look cooler? Like, more aloof? Like they’re in on the joke of their own insanity? I’m not sure, but I hope Glee finds a way back to its innocent, sincere roots soon – after all, its sincerity has been one of its biggest blessings. In today’s TV landscape of comedies about jaded millennials, anti-hero vehicles where it’s hard to tell which character you hate most, and dramas about tragically messed-up families, Glee has been a welcome respite. Sure, bad stuff happens, but it’s rarely believable enough to be distressing (save for Cory Monteith’s passing), and the rest of the time it’s all just harmonies, make-out sessions, dance numbers, and the excitement of competition. TV can’t stand to lose the shameless theatrics and singing-with-their-eyes-closed sincerity of Glee – especially when what Murphy’s exchanging it for is some flat one-liners about how silly his own show is.

When I’m watching teenagers sing pop songs under a laser show wearing head-to-toe sequins, I don’t want to be reminded how crazy it is. When I’m admiring Rachel’s star power as Fanny, I don’t want to be reminded that she could never land that role in real life. When I’m enjoying Sue’s creative insults and disturbing personal anecdotes (*cough*Michael Bolton*cough*), I don’t want to be reminded that she’s not a real person. Spare me the self-conscious, wink-wink, we’re-in-on-the-joke attitude that so many other shows indulge in, Glee; it’s not your strength. Instead, just give me the pure, unadulterated feels you’re so good at giving me – all those happy, sad, ludicrous, incredible, precarious feels. Sincerity may not be fashionable, but like Artie’s grandpa sweaters, it suits you perfectly.

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About Hannah McIlveen of Click Watch Write

Hannah McIlveen is a university graduate with a serious television obsession living in Sydney, Nova Scotia with her husband, Kevin, and their insane puppy, Levi. She blogs daily at Click Watch Write, and has contributed to publications such as Bitch Magazine and Lydia Mag.