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C'mon, 'Glee': Bring It Home

Rachel (Lea Michele) seeks advice from Will (Matthew Morrison) in the first part of the two-hour <em>Glee </em>season premiere, airing Friday night.
Tyler Golden
Rachel (Lea Michele) seeks advice from Will (Matthew Morrison) in the first part of the two-hour Glee season premiere, airing Friday night.

It's wrong, I think, to say that Fox's Gleewas only good at the beginning. It's certainly been inconsistent. It's certainly struggled with new cast members once the original group moved on. But against all odds, it's still managed to crank out an occasional really strong episode — one of my favorites is "The Break-Up," from the fall of 2012, long after the time it burned hottest, and I thought they did a fine job with the terrible task of addressing the loss of original cast member Cory Monteith almost exactly a year later.

And as it enters its final run Friday night, despite its drastically reduced ratings and maddening inconsistency, I'm rooting for it.

Because in the end, I'm still very glad and grateful that they made this often nutsy, tonally unpredictable run of TV that could be cloying, mean, uplifting, cynical, misguided, and really, really good. There were stretches when almost overwhelming earnestness and after-school-special-ish business was mixed with a level of willfully bad taste that almost nobody else was attempting on a broadcast show the way creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan were.

And it really waswhat it got credit for being, in that it did things that don't happen enough: it was a show where an actress with Down Syndrome had a real role in which she got to be funny, and where Chris Colfer sang in the first season in a way nobody was singing on television, and where gender fluidity and grief and loss got to be real. And while it's fair to question the fact that Kevin McHale, who played Artie, didn't use a wheelchair himself, the show did build stories around him on the assumption that Artie, too, had a love life, and it eventually at least made use of the fact that McHale can dance in a couple of fantasy sequences that were, on their own, moving.

But perhaps what's been most welcome through the show's run, and perhaps what I miss most about its best moments, is its refusal — as a high school show largely driven in the early going by the feelings of outcasts — to settle on any particular idea of what "cool" was or whether it mattered. Looking back, was it supposed to be cool when Matthew Morrison performed "Gold Digger"? Or when he performed "Bust A Move"? Both? Neither? Was one of those ironic? Were both of them?

Gleebecame a huge phenomenon at its height, shifting not just conversations about incorporating musical numbers into television but also conversations about revenue streams, given the luck they had for a while selling the albums. It was an enormous commercial success, but it's always felt proudly weird to me, too. It was always not just aboutnerds, but nerdy itself, by its very existence. It was a happily uncool show, always — how cool (in the traditional sense) can you be when your hugely successful first season builds to a performance self-consciously modeled on Barbra Streisand's version of "Don't Rain On My Parade"?

It's hard in retrospect not to salute the fact that for a couple of years there, they were making a very successful piece of popular entertainment that used Broadway and Burt Bacharach and out-of-fashion '80s music — not just the already rehabilitated retro work of Journey but the happily corny stuff like "Can't Fight This Feeling" and "Safety Dance." In fact, I've sometimes wondered whether some of the fading charm of later seasons was the result of Murphy running out old songs he wanted to use until it seemed much more reliant on very recent radio pop than it was at first.

The new season opens with Rachel returning to Lima following the debut of her TV show, only to find that her friends are struggling. Things have not gone as planned for Kurt or Blaine or Kurt and Blaine, Mr. Schue is not at McKinley, and Sue Sylvester — a character who's still got the stuff to be a lot of fun, despite having been jerked back and forth from villain to secret softie until her head's got to be spinning — is in full evil form, where she belongs. This, of course, gives all these people something to push against, which is what they had trouble getting back after the very first season when they went from losers to champions.

It's too early to tell about the new cast — which doesn't really arrive until the second episode, "Homecoming" — and it's probably time to stop bringing back the departed members of the original cast for guest appearances unless they have a little more to do. But if they're going to figure out a satisfying final run of 13 episodes, it's probably going to be like this: knock everybody back, screw everything up, break everybody's stuff, and give them 13 episodes to fix it all. That's ultimately what Gleeis, that's what it's for. It's never really worked as a story about people who are winning at life, particularly.

The fact that the first episode gives you Lea Michele singing "Let It Go" from Frozenis so on the nose, so self-evidently obvious, that it's practically a declaration of what this final run is about: this is the show. It's ballads and glory notes and high drama and songs you've heard a billion times, done by perky underdogs who emote to the ceiling; take it or leave it on those terms. Longtime fans frustrated by long creative dry spells can't be blamed for leaving it, really, but these two episodes made me willing, for the moment, to take it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.