Every generation has a television series that defines their coming-of-age experience. For us – generation Y, millennials, call it what you will – Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”) created “Glee,” a theatrical representation of the American adolescent experience. As young adults now, we may have spent the past few years repressing our high school identities. But ultimately, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, part of us has been shaped by the “Glee” phenomenon.
The series pilot first graced our screens in the spring of 2009 – for some of us, at the peak of middle school; for others, during our entrance into high school – for all of us, post “High School Musical” phase, right at the tumultuous threshold of the tween-to-teen transition. Almost immediately upon hearing the a capella notes of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (or maybe Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It”), we all dual-enrolled in our respective high schools and William McKinley High in Lima, Ohio.
But somewhere between that first moment and now, we grew older and forgot about “Glee.” The final season even had the lowest viewership and ratings of the entire series. Some former hardcore-Gleeks didn’t even know the series took its final bow and exited stage right as the curtain closed indefinitely this past Friday.
The two-hour finale, appropriately titled “Dreams Come True,” was first a flashback to the 2009 pilot, then a flash forward to 2020. The episode was just as perfect and just as flawed as the show always has been. And for one last time, it tried to tie up the loose ends at which viewers incessantly screamed.
In the present, McKinley is converted to a performing arts school, and the remaining alumni celebrate the exponential progress that developed before their very eyes over the seasons. In more ways than one, the episode wasn’t only the reunion of New Directions – it was the final union of this cast as they waved goodbye to an era.
Project forward into the future: all the characters have reached their theatrical and musical aspirations, as well as their relationship goals. Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer, “Struck by Lightning”) and Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss, “A Very Potter Musical”) are also expecting a baby, whom Rachel, finally a Tony-award-winning actress, is carrying as a surrogate. Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, “Two and a Half Men”) has managed to become vice president of the United States, but she also shows a softer, more mature side, in contrast to the jaded bitch we grew to know throughout the series. She makes sincere amendments in too-good-to-be-true monologues of inspiration and even rededicates McKinley’s auditorium to the deceased Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) – a noteworthy tribute to Monteith’s memory after he unexpectedly passed away two years ago. And everyone gives their greatest thanks to Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”), the man who started it all.
The finale, like the rest of the series, was not completely plausible – superficially glossing over issues of continuity and using coincidences for expository convenience. How could all the students have continued to be wildly successful? The despicable Sue Sylvester is future vice president of the United States? Almost every single high-school-sweetheart relationship worked out?
Most of us slowly lost interest in the third season and eventually stopped watching by the fourth, primarily because the plot increasingly became unbelievable. As we gained our own experiences and grew slightly more cynical, we began to realize how the show’s depictions of reality were too perfect and too simply resolved. The show grew cheesy as we grew mature.
However, “Glee” addressed this point in the finale, when Sue Sylvester repeated an iconic Finn Hudson quote: “See the world not as it is, but how it should be.” Not everything needed to be a replica of reality in order for it to be powerful and poignant. The show was never perfectly accurate, but it showed us the possibility of what situations could be – what characters have the potential to be – even if these representations may not be completely true in real life.
The fact is, we were also cheesy and tacky and unoriginal and hyper-overdramatic and pseudo-inspirational; a superficial sheath of makeup complexions and football jerseys, a mask of insecurities and inadequacies and idiosyncrasies. Our critique of and eventual disdain for the show was just a cringing reflection on the characters we were during our tumultuous teens.
Regardless of what “Glee” has become, we cannot renounce the fact that we grew up with it. From middle school, the show held our hand as we stumbled through our own high school’s dim corridors. Rachel Berry’s (Lea Michele, “New Year’s Eve”) voice soothed us to sleep after our first bad date or heartbreak. A little bit in all of us strove to be as effortlessly popular as Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron, “I am Number Four”), to be so naturally badass like Noah “Puck” Puckerman (Mark Salling, “Rocky Road”). However, for all the freaks and geeks, the outsiders and loners, we found solace among the other misfits of McKinley. What we all soon realized was that we all, in some form or fashion, had a big ‘L’ on our foreheads. We all struggled to fit in; we all cried over our identity crises; we all had our respective haters – but we all found our refuge in glee club on Tuesday nights after school.
“Glee” shined a direct spotlight on our lives, but it taught us how to stand tall and proud, to take command over our own stage-fight of adolescence. By guiding us with uncomfortable renditions of “Bootylicious,” and touching ones like “Cough Syrup” and “Imagine,” “Glee” gave us all the talks the adults in our lives couldn’t – or wouldn’t in high school.
“Glee” maturely addressed the nuances of sex, dating and relationships – miraculously providing progressive perspectives without making us cower in fear or scrunch our noses in disgust. The show demonstrated multidimensionality behind the most controversial issues: it showed humility in even the most loathsome of characters, urging us to examine deeper and disperse empathy to all characters equally. Being a homosexual buff football player, being an upper-class pregnant cheerleader, being a clumsy boy in a wheelchair – being in love with theater, song and dance – that was all ok, even if the real people in our lives never told us they were. Regardless of our identities, the series taught us how to tackle adversity with grace under pressure.
The fact is, “Glee” didn’t change – we did. “Glee” transitioned from the show we loved, into the show we liked ironically, then finally into the show we loved to hate. The show was never a piece of cinematic art or screenwriting brilliance; what made the show memorable and significant was its timing at the crux of our generation’s malleable adolescent years, right when we needed it most.
Even if we haven’t sustained our devotion to “Glee” for the past few years, it was almost impossible not to cry during the series finale. It was still difficult to digest the final end notes: “do-ba-do-ba-do-ba-dah-dahhh” as the credits rolled one last time. Regardless of how hard we try to bury our adolescent years, they are a period of life we can never negate. As awkward, confusing and uncomfortable as they were, they undeniably helped us define who we were – and who we are. As we turn from our teens into our twenties now, whether we like it or not, “Glee” had some sort of impact on raising us.
We are a Gleek generation.