“2009”/”Dreams Come True”
March 20, 2015
When I used to write weekly reviews of Glee, it was during a period where I would often search through each episode looking for a quote to use as an anchor for my analysis. Glee was a show that wore its heart on its sleeve, and so it wasn’t a particularly difficult task with the show; in fact, the biggest challenge was choosing between the numerous moments where characters said exactly what the point of it all was.
It’s therefore not a huge surprise the same could be said for Glee’s two-hour finale. The last hour, in particular, was unabashed: whether it’s opening us up to joy, or Blaine telling Kurt that he’s “the only one I know who would do something like this,” or Rachel Berry standing on the stage of a 3/5 scale recreation of Radio City Music Hall telling all of the children to believe that dreams come true, Glee could never be attacked for a lack of synergy between the message it started with and the message that constituted its ending.
Glee could be attacked for many things, most recently a haphazard final season that understood its strengths and weaknesses and kept pretending they didn’t matter, but that central message has always been strong. Even as someone who wrote about the show critically, a task that will inevitably drive a person to madness, I always believed the core message of Glee was powerful, and I wasn’t surprised to see stories emerge this week that sought to celebrate those principles. I was emotional during this finale because no matter how many wrong turns the show took during its run, the place it kept landing in was a place of hope, and it was hard to root against that.
However, it was also hard to focus on it. During the final performance of OneRepublic’s “I Lived,” with a huge collection of past and present members of New Directions and ancillary characters, the show seeks to paper over a complicated history of characters it served poorly, characters who were ignored then forgotten, and plot twists that sought to fundamentally undo the good work the show was doing in other areas. It was a moment that understood the transcendent power of “hope” and human perseverance, but—like the final season as a whole—simultaneously reminded us how rarely Glee calibrated itself properly to be the beacon of hope it believed itself to be.
For those who didn’t watch Glee’s sixth season, you didn’t miss much. Thematically, the show explored no new territory, largely resetting itself to the start of the fourth season, when the graduated members of New Directions went their separate ways while a new class of McKinley High misfits, jocks, and cheerleaders started their journeys. This time, those graduated members—the “original cast,” if we were—were brought back to Ohio, each at a turning point in their respective journeys, and each reinvested in McKinley’s show choir future.
It was a chance for the show to do over the moment where it fell off the rails structurally. Creatively, the show was never on the rails, so scattered from the first season’s three different writing perspectives that it was impossible to keep its pulse. However, the structure of the show moved in a way where you could reliably feel that when they reached Sectionals, or Regionals, or Nationals, the show would bring its storylines together, and find its moments of triumph, and be the show of hope it wanted to be. But when the fourth season started, the attempt to hold onto the old characters while introducing new ones didn’t work. The New York storylines were considerably more interesting than the McKinley storylines, but they lacked the same structural clarity that let the show transcend its uneven storytelling; the McKinley storylines had the structural rhythms that used to be the show’s savior, but the characters lacked proper development, and the show never recovered (remember Marley’s original song? Neither did I).
When it was clear that the show was coming to a close, this final season has done a better job of keeping the characters we care about central to the storytelling. The shortened order meant that everything was too rushed, but the show’s return to one central narrative that intersects with multiple generations of characters is more reliable. The only problem, really, was that the entire “new class” of McKinley students were criminally boring, underdeveloped and basically props for the show to use to draw thematic parallels for the purpose of developing arcs for the original characters the writers and viewers are invested in. When the show tried to pretend they’d done enough to earn meaningful character moments, or triumphant musical discoveries, it fell flat on its face, with actors who never had a chance to build characters even if they had the capacity to do so, making even Jake, Ryder, and Marley look three-dimensional by comparison.
In “Dreams Come True,” those characters have neither solos nor speaking lines. And when they dance out during “I Lived,” you realize that they’re not really characters so much as they’re surrogates for the audience, kids whose lives were changed by this experience. The show knows that it didn’t develop them properly, but it also doesn’t care, because their presence—and their victory at Nationals, which opens the episode—is simply proof that the system works. If ever we have doubted the fact that show choir has the possibility to change lives, they ensured that the final season had its own kids who were transformed by the show’s central ethos.
That ethos remains potent, but it has no meaning when it’s attached to those nobodies. The beginning of “Dreams Come True” had me booing my television, and it began a “finale” that was a terrible outlet for the messages it contained outside of its musical numbers. Whenever the show let the music do the talking (outside of “Daydream Believer,” which couldn’t overcome its trite preamble), it was reflective and emotional, focused on characters and their impact on one another. Seeing so many of the actors legitimately crying throughout the scenes was powerful, and “This Time”—written by Darren Criss—is an on-the-nose but nonetheless resonant take on Rachel’s character and the show’s journey overall. Even “I Lived,” complicated by the papering-over of the fact so many of the characters involved were served poorly by the show on a week-to-week basis, nonetheless tapped into a vein of something not just hopeful, but also real.
It was tapping into something that I thought was particularly evident in “2009.” The efforts to turn back the clock to the beginning of the series risked eating its own tail at a few points, but the trip back in time was clear in its purpose. Although there were a few moments of retroactive continuity to piece things together (most specifically an illogical coffee shop cameo by Blaine), the ultimate goal in the episode was to flesh out each character’s journey to the moment that defined the show for almost its entire run. Tiptoeing around Cory Monteith’s absence for much of the episode, showing the entirety of “Don’t Stop Believing” became this powerful statement, reinvigorated by better understanding how Tina, Artie, Mercedes, and Kurt understood their own role in what became the show’s anthem. For so long, that song belonged to Finn, Rachel, and Will, and there is no question they remained at the heart of the show, but the work to outline its ties to the other characters involved brought the thematic work of the show full circle. It was exactly what they failed to do with so many characters during the run, and a strong tribute to the “original” characters who were there from the very beginning.
The best moments in “Dreams Come True” were the moments that tapped into that same sense of purpose, but everything leading up to those moments was a set of ludicrous, idiotic, wish-fulfillment happy endings that made me want to throw things at the screen. From the moment a victory at Nationals transforms McKinley—a public high school in rural Ohio—into a performing arts high school (which we later learn created a tidal wave of public arts schools), the show loses track of reality, and in the process loses track of its central theme. The point of “Don’t Stop Believin’” was not that Rachel Berry would win a Tony Award while serving as the surrogate for Blaine and Kurt’s baby, or that Mercedes would become the opening act on Beyoncé’s world tour, or that Tina is starring in Artie’s SlamDance submission that somehow got into a festival without having secured the rights to Mercedes’ music. The point of “Don’t Stop Believin’” is that the darkest moments were capable of being overcome through the power of singing while completing choreographed dance routines with your closest friends, which at times relied on but never fully lost itself to fantasy over the series’ run.
You may remember that I had a similar reaction to the wish fulfillment in the Parks and Recreation finale, and there are other parallels if we throw Sue Sylvester’s (ridiculous) Vice-Presidency into the mix. Both Parks and Recreation and Glee were shows that embraced the power of hope and optimism, but the difference was that Glee was pulled in too many other directions. It wanted to be edgy at the same time as it was heartwarming, and it wanted to make political statements without fully confronting the complexity of those politics. It wanted to use music to inspire, but it also wanted to make music that would sell. It was at its best when it embodied its belief that Glee club could change the lives of its characters, and that their lives could serve as an inspiration to others who saw themselves in them; it was at its worst when it used its optimism as a crutch, or when it hid behind its optimism in moments where it contradicted its core values to make a joke, or twist a plot.
Earlier today, former colleague Todd VanDerWerff and current colleague Joshua Alston each made their claims regarding Glee’s legacy. Todd, quite fittingly given the flashback structure of “2009,” returned to the show’s second episode to explore how the false stakes they created set a standard for the show undercutting its own optimism, pushing away from hard choices. With that in mind, it’s hard not to indict “Dreams Come True” for removing any and all stakes, suggesting through the past-tense in “I Lived” that whatever tension was facing these characters is behind them now. It’s an empty claim in light of how uneven and malleable those stakes were over the series’ run, and despite some severe self-awareness in this season’s “The Hurt Locker” two-parter the show never entirely understood the way that undercut their message.
But while Todd’s question of stakes was at the front of my mind watching the show give out happy ending after happy ending, I was also thinking about Joshua’s piece, which argued that “Glee’s promise as a television show was suppressed by the business interests surrounding it.” Glee’s status as a business has been fascinating to watch, peaking in the show’s second season when its recordings of “Teenage Dream” and “Forget You” emerged as its best-selling singles since “Don’t Stop Believin’.” But as big as the show was at its peak, it is limping to the finish line: although the show goes into the Billboard record books with 207 Hot 100 charting singles, none of them came from this season—the last tracks in October 2013, in fact. And so the music licensed for this season didn’t always feel like it was chasing the zeitgeist: yes, “Let It Go” felt like a grasp at relevancy, but mashing up Jagged Little Pill and Tapestry doesn’t have the same feel to it. The music felt random at times, but I don’t know if I’d say it felt particularly commercial; instead, it felt like Glee’s particular brand of musical idiosyncrasy, honed over six seasons and let run free in these final, uneven episodes, although often—as in the case of this “Time After Time” montage in resonant ways.
To Joshua’s point, though, this Glee finale felt like an ode to the brand as much as it did the show’s characters, but that isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw. My one contention with Joshua’s overall argument lies in the way he lumps The Glee Project in with his larger narrative. Yes, on the surface, the Oxygen-hosted spinoff was a dilution of the Glee brand, extending it into the realm of reality competition programming and buying into the brand full-force. However, in practice The Glee Project made Glee’s influence tangible, taking its narrative of musical uplift and making it accessible to people who wanted to share in that narrative. Its existence may have been predicated on the brand, but the show often found real emotion, struggling only when it came to putting a pin in the show’s own narratives to attempt to transition them over to Glee itself, where the honesty and emotion were more scattered by that point in its run.
When the characters introduced in Season Six were going through the motions of struggling with body image and weird incestual love triangles, Glee felt like a brand. And when those and other characters—including three Glee Project albums, who were given their own separate entrance—showed up in the show’s final musical number, the branding was evident. But when Rachel Berry stood on that auditorium stage singing about her journey, “Dreams Come True” transcended that brand, and even with all the wish fulfillment I felt the same during her Tonys speech as she spoke of the way Will Schuester changed her life. Rachel’s acceptance speech and Sue’s preamble to the final performance are both completing the same work, retroactively turning the journey of six seasons into a tidy statement of hope and belief and purpose, but when it’s tied to characters like Rachel it works. The brand means something because of its characters, and because the actors who brought those characters to life—through the very real tears throughout the finale—bought into that brand alongside the show’s devoted—if dwindling—viewership.
I was never that viewer who drank the Kool-Aid. I was always the cynical critic, pointing out the plot inconsistencies, decrying the show’s uneven tone, and hoping against hope that they would right the ship and be the show it was in the beginning. But I suppose it says something that I saw the show through to the end where others abandoned it, and that I cared enough to be emotional when the finale expected me to. The show never solved its Sue Sylvester problem, continually struggled to introduce new characters, and didn’t give me the episode told entirely from the perspective of Brad the Piano Player that I so desperately wanted, but there was always something I held onto that kept me watching. I don’t think it was hope, or belief, or any of the thematic buttons that these final episodes drive into the ground lest we ever believe that Glee was anything other than a long, slow, buildup to a happy ending.
Instead, it was seeing a show struggle with a fundamental crisis of identity in real time, right until the bitter end. Despite changing various parts of itself to take into account changes in popular music, its shifting relationship with popular culture, or shifts in its cast, Glee never wavered in its core mission, to the point where someone who watched the show in season one could tune into this finale and feel right at home. That insistence frustrated me so often during the show’s run, but in retrospect it is the show’s greatest contribution to television culture: when you create a show that becomes a phenomenon, and when creative decisions undercut the show’s ability to sustain itself, how do you make six seasons of that television show?
The answer involves a lot of misshapen television storytelling and some egregiously chosen musical numbers, but it also involves moments that overcome all of that to be legitimately emotional and affecting, and seeing people sharing their favorite Glee moments was a reminder how much Glee was a show of moments. It didn’t care about narrative coherence, or dramatic stakes, or comic consistency: it wanted to live up to an idea of hopefulness and change the world through a song, and there were moments where it got closer than I ever would have expected the other 90% of the time.
These final episodes were a microcosm of that Glee, filled with things that drove me crazy but finding moments to just sit back and let the characters do the talking. The happy endings embodied Glee’s refusal to accept its own messiness, buying into the brand in ways that definitively shut the door on the more interesting show under its surface, but the ups-and-downs of those six seasons created enough of a connection to these characters that the happy endings nonetheless resonated as post-scripts on a critical and televisual journey that through the show’s relationship to popular music and television culture feels like it embodies a lot of what has happened over the last six years.
It was a messy, uneven life, but Glee lived it, and this finale made that resonate more than perhaps it had any right to.
- Notably absent from the final scene: Melissa Benoist, who is set to be the most successful alumni of later seasons with her starring role in CBS’ Supergirl pilot, and her supporting role in Oscar-nominated Whiplash.
- The show clearly wanted to honor as many of its regular cast members as possible, but Jessalyn Gilsig being present for the final musical number was absurd and the show knew it was absurd. I enjoyed seeing Teri back in action in “2009,” but she didn’t need to stick around.
- My one question for the people who watched season six: if the endgame was always Rachel with Jesse St. James (Jonathan Groff), why bother with Rachel and Sam in a romantic relationship? Was that just a case of them hedging on Groff’s availability and then committing when he had a window? Or did they decide Sam and Rachel weren’t working? They had plenty of time to think about what they wanted to do with those characters, but their relationship never made sense, and Sam taking over New Directions was a meaningless footnote in a finale that had some meaningful moments.
- If you didn’t watch season six, just know there was a scene where Sue locked Blaine and Kurt in a fake elevator and had a Jigsaw—yes, from Saw—doll version of herself command them to make out or it was going to basically murder them.
- Interestingly, after having been doing simultaneously uploads to Spotify for the last few seasons, the show shifted to a two-month delay this season, instead pushing toward YouTube (where way more young listeners, especially, are consuming music). Nearly every musical number from the season is on the show’s YouTube channel, in stark contrast to past seasons where any such clips are from unrelated accounts. It’s just one of many questions about music licensing I have for the final season, which really seemed to be following new logics compared to the past few seasons.
- My thanks to anyone who has been kicking around the blog since when I first started writing about Glee back in 2009—a whole lot has changed in those six years, but this is yet another closed chapter for shows that were covered around that time, so thanks for being along for the ride.