Against a rival troupe’s high-gloss staging of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” New Directions’ soaring rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin'” has a winsome, homemade aspect. Near the end of the pilot for “Glee,” stepping forward one by one in their scarlet shirts, the “Lima losers” of FOX’s high-school musical uncover the hopeful core of Journey’s classic, a reminder that the series, which concludes its run this Friday, set the tone for its near-perfect first season from the start. “By its very definition,” as a commemorative plaque in the episode reads, “Glee is about opening yourself up to joy.”
Though the five seasons that followed periodically achieved the light, fizzy command of the first—for my money, the finest musical number in the annals of “Glee” is the second season’s swooning, all-male cover of “Teenage Dream,” which outdoes Katy Perry’s original by a country mile—the series has long since lost its affectionate glow in a mess of unsatisfying subplots, flashy numbers, and original songs. As Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan’s primetime melodrama comes to an end, however, those initial 22 episodes deserve reconsideration. The first season of “Glee” not only cleared the path for several descendants, including “Nashville” (ABC), “Smash” (NBC), and “Empire” (FOX), but also suggested that pop-inflected series need not treat unabashed sentiment as an object of snark.
“There’s nothing ironic about show choir!” full-throated ingénue Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) exclaims in the pilot on this point, and though “Glee” frequently plays with the sharp edges of teen angst—even its “previously on” montages are packaged as hallway gossip—it does so in the service of a far more earnest ideal. Particularly in those first few episodes, there’s a stripped-down bent to the performances that approaches the conventions of the Hollywood musical with reverence. In a heartfelt take on Queen’s “Somebody to Love” or an unrefined mash-up of “Halo” and “Walking on Sunshine,” “Glee” embraces the genre’s defining element, which is the expression through song of otherwise untapped emotions. “It’s gonna be choppy,” member Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.) says of an improvised dance in the brilliant mid-season entry, “Sectionals.” “Good,” male lead Finn Hudson (the late Cory Monteith) replies, as if to describe the series in the process. “We’re best when we’re loose.”
It’s in this unguarded vein that the first season of “Glee” finds its distinctive voice, marked by an exceedingly hopeful, wide-ranging determination to tackle each week the issues that other series might reserve for a “Very Special Episode.” Body image, disability, sex and sexuality all come in for the series’ stagecraft, which employs theatrical performances and music video-style fantasy sequences in nearly every genre—show tunes, country, classic rock, pop—to excavate the inner misfit in all concerned, from the pregnant cheerleader (Diana Agron) to the openly gay young man (Chris Colfer) to the self-described “closet diva” (Amber Riley).
Despite the adult characters’ oft-repeated advice to “just be yourself,” however, the first season of “Glee” cannily frames social currency as far too tenacious to be shaken by inspirational mantras. For glee club advisor Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) and guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), as for the youngsters in their charge, the challenge of achieving self-acceptance continues well beyond graduation, and if “Glee” can be said to offer a singular moral, it’s the notion that life is one long struggle to fly our proverbial freak flags in the face of institutions that prefer sameness to difference.
“Stories and music are the way we express feelings we can’t get out any other way,” Mr. Schuester says of ballads, and throughout the first season, the characters discover harmony between self and society in the plucky vernacular of song. At every turn, it’s in numbers without the shine of fame or success that the first season of “Glee” is at its most extraordinary, from the pilot’s auditions (“Respect,” “Mr. Cellophane,” “I Kissed a Girl,” “On My Own”) to guest star Kristin Chenoweth’s knockout interpretation of “Maybe This Time.” The tossed-off moments, such as a glimpse of the glee club boys carrying Artie (Kevin McHale) in his wheelchair up the auditorium steps, or an impromptu sing-along in the choir room, depict a profound kindness that is, in its own way, as revolutionary as any new terrain mapped by more prestigious series.
By the time New Directions reprises “Don’t Stop Believin'” in the season finale, “Journey to Regionals”—which, along with “Pilot” and “Sectionals,” comes as near to sweet, sincere perfection as broadcast television can—even the erstwhile villain, cheer coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), displays a soft spot for the underdog. “Glee” bids farewell on Friday a much-diminished series, perhaps too consumed by the need to make each performance a salable single, but “Journey to Regionals” is a potent reminder that the series spent its first 22 episodes redefining the TV musical in the terms of the series’ title. Unafraid of emotion, “Glee” at its finest opened us up to joy.
The series finale of “Glee” airs Friday, March 20 at 8 pm on FOX. The first five seasons are currently streaming on Netflix.