Glee revitalized musical theater through teenage drama
Revisiting Glee’s season one roots
2009 was a great year. Silly Bandz were everywhere, Justin Bieber had just released his first single “One Time,” and girls around the country wore skirts with capri leggings and colorful Converse All-Stars. But the real star of the early 2010s was on the rise: Glee.
Mixing pop hits with classic Broadway bops, Glee created a teenage drama meets musical theater show that captured the hearts of tweens across the country. While the show undoubtedly went sour after a few seasons, the first season of Glee defined a generation.
Glee’s core characters are highly stereotypical, from misfits to jocks, though they branch out of those stereotypes throughout the show. Rachel, the initial leading lady played by Lea Michelle, is a high-strung musical theater dork (as was most of Glee’s audience, presumably). Rachel’s character foil is Quinn, the ultimate cheerleader with long blonde hair, though her perfect life quickly crumbles. Their conjoined interest, Finn, played by Cory Monteith, is a way too popular football star.
While the characters all end up being lovable and unique, one of Glee’s major downfalls in the initial season was the blatantly tokenizing casting. Kurt is the stereotypical white, cis gay man; Mercedes is the token black girl; Santana is apparently the only Latinx person in the school. Each exudes stereotypical characteristics, even in their song choices. Kurt sings exclusively musical theater initially, while Mercedes is often paired with black musical icons, like Aretha Franklin. While the show is relatively diverse for the era, the way the characters are initially portrayed leaves a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.
But really, the showstopper of the entire season is Coach Sue Sylvester, played by Jane Lynch. Nearly all of the comedy in the first season stems from Sylvester’s hatred for the Glee Club and her idiosyncratic one-liners. She is so deeply horrible that the audience ends up liking her. In the first season, Sue does not sway from being offensive to just about anyone, which adds shock value to the show that prides itself on being all-inclusive. She is hateful, spiteful, and cruel, but her budding, motherly relationship with Becky, a cheerleader with Down Syndrome, shows her sensitive, human side.
The plotline of the first season is a standard mix of love quarrels and teenage identity crisis but with a few original twists. From teenage pregnancy to bullying, season one of Glee tackles some more risqué topics. But the picture of high school painted by Glee is one of extremes. The hyper-masculine football team and mean cheerleaders represent outdated stereotypes, making the show just far enough out of reality to remain interesting.
And of course, the music of the first season is an exciting amalgamation that appeals to its audience of screaming teenage girls. Somehow, Glee creatively combines Broadway classics, like Les Misérables and Funny Girl alongside chart-toppers like Lady Gaga and Rihanna.
After the first few episodes, Glee launched itself into a multimillion-dollar industry, inspiring a live tour and a multitude of record deals for the cast. Entertaining, heart-wrenching, and a little cringe-worthy, Glee truly captivated an entire era (and likely relaunched Journey’s musical career).