Glee’s new viewers probably had no trouble understanding the plot of the second season so far, since all episodes are essentially the same. An unlikely couple forms; a couple we all forgot about breaks up. Enter Rachel, trying to monopolize the spotlight while Sue Sylvester poses a threat to glee club’s very existence. Just as circumstances are looking glum, Mr. Shuester overcomes Sue’s (not so) secretly resentful conspiracy by enticing students to perform a brand new routine that makes them cool again. Meanwhile, Quinn struggles with her (now past) pregnancy, as does Mercedes with her race, Kurt with his sexuality, and Arty with his disability. In addition, Finn, after much contemplation and distress over a (not so) nebulous moral dilemma, decides to do the right thing. Voila — if you’ve missed every episode ever, you’re caught up.
But if this is the entire first season, why do viewers keep coming back for more?
Perhaps the show’s appeal resides disproportionately in Brittany’s one-liners, which can be so dumb that they sound deliberate. The screenwriters have picked up on this character’s popularity, which would explain why they granted her the aggressively poptimistic recent episode, “Britney/Brittany,” in which Brittany S. Pierce overcomes an identity crisis resulting from her name’s invited comparison to Britney Spears.
Or maybe Glee’s predictability comforts its fans. Maybe they want to remember — or experience, as the case may be for younger viewers — high school in black and white, or at least in school colors, with a stereotype for every character and every situation. The shallow, tidy bundles of qualities that form each character – the neurotic, theater-obsessed Jewish girl; the wheelchair-bound student who just wants to fit in; the large, confident black girl who can sing; the ball-busting, paranoid feminist; the selfless teacher — make the social dynamics universal. Nobody knows anyone exactly like a Glee character, but everyone is familiar with the stereotypes. These pigeonholes can be easily applied to our own high school experiences because, as much as we hate to admit it, they colored our perception of our peers at the time.
We create and remember the identities of ourselves and those around us based on the language the media provides. A program like Glee is not so much a reflection of reality as a tool to discuss it. The characters are so unspecific that we can project our own psyches onto them, the plots so formulaic that we can pretend social interactions are that simple: everything is remediable with a song, performed in costume coding for high school clique.
In reality, high school isn’t as musical as our collective 2-D-screen memory would have it. And Glee addresses the conflicts that arise among dissonant people and situations. But then it makes them harmonize.
Another explanation for Glee’s guilty pleasure status is that we really don’t care about realism or complexity. We feed our minds all week, and by Tuesday night, we’re craving empty calories. And if that brings us pleasure, why should we feel guilty?
After all, Glee takes responsibility for the sensitive cultural territory it treads on, utilizing simple characters and plot devices to address complex issues of gender, race, and popular culture.
Female viewers of the latest episode can cringe at the attention Rachel receives by dressing like the early Britney Spears – “They’re personifying you!” says Finn, who has finally become her boyfriend; “Objectifying,” she corrects him – and giggle in satisfaction at Sue’s cruel and unusual punishment of the worst offender.
The show also continues to deliver morals and sentimental moments. Once the glee club has finally gotten Britney Spears out of its system, Rachel dedicates the Paramore ballad “Only Exception” to Finn, confessing that she has suffocated him and wants to let him spread his wings. This brings tears to both their eyes, but Brittany is the most moved of all: “Finn can fly?”
Glee’s secret is that it knows its audience’s guilty pleasures, even the well-hidden ones. It even knows they have laughed at the expense of a drugged-out little boy in the YouTube sensation “David after the dentist,” which Rachel references after a trippy dentist visit, wondering aloud, “Is this real life?”
Is it? Not really. In real life, Britney Spears doesn’t spring from an entire high school club’s collective unconscious during dentist appointments. Nor do potential singing rivals confront each other through a spontaneous Lady Gaga routine in a public bathroom.
Do we care? Not really. The postmodern world is distant from abstractions like “real life.” Instead, representations – representations of representations, ad infinitum — construct our daily experience. It is these meta-representations that Glee does justice.