Three years ago, I used to look forward to every episode of Glee, the Fox dramedy about an Ohio high school and their Island of Misfit A Cappella Singers. The first season was a fantastic work of television, with believable arcs, likable characters, and appropriately placed songs.
Now in its third season, the show couldn't be any more different than it was when it began. The characters aren't captivating, the subplots are becoming increasingly ridiculous and predictable, and the episodes often feel like they follow the logic of, "We have these five songs to use for this episode - let's build a plot around that!"
And yet, in spite of all of the scenes that make me roll my eyes and all of the moments that I wish Lea Michele would stop singing with that damn "cry face," I can't help but appreciate what Glee is doing on television right now. It is blazing a trail for shows that look beyond the idea that the "gay character" must be a stereotype - the laughable sidekick - and that there must only be one of them. This season, it feels like Glee has more gay characters than straight characters, and the clear emotional highlights of each episode are the ones that prominently showcase gay and lesbian issues.
In season one, we saw Kurt, a femme gay kid who loves fashion and musical theatre, come out to his blue collar mechanic of a father, who accepted and defended his son. It was an important storyline that isn't often played out on national television targeted at a wide audience range.
That was all well and good, but in the past few months, we've seen Glee incorporate even more gay characters into its storyline, allowing the writers to convey a huge number of gay experiences over the course of the season. We've seen how Santana, the cheerleading prima donna, was drug out of the closet thanks to a dirty local political campaign and rejected by her traditional grandmother, who says she won't forgive Santana for her immorality. We've seen Kurt and Blaine develop a happy-go-lucky, first love romance into one of the few relationship strongholds on the show. We've seen an asshole gay kid named Sebastian from a rival a cappella group try to seduce Blaine away from Kurt. We've seen Brittany emerge as a positive representation of bisexuality. We've met Rachel's two dads, who represent the idea of the U.S. same-sex power couple. If the show got any gayer, it'd be a PG-rated version of Queer as Folk.
One of the most jarring gay moments on the show came last week, in Glee's spring finale, when Kurt's old tormenter, David Karofsky, attempted suicide after transferring schools and being teased incessantly for being gay. In an emotional montage, Karofsky is pushed around by the guys at his new school in the locker room, some of whom have spray-painted "FAG" on his locker. Karofsky goes home, lays out his best suit, belt, and tie on his bed, changes into them, and looks up at a ceiling beam in his closet, committed to hanging himself.
Karofsky's attempt thankfully fails, but the show writers do a good job at grounding the suicide attempt in emotional reality, cutting to the teachers at McKinley High who must explain Karofsky's actions to his former classmates. The weight of the storyline - especially when it's viewed through the lens of the teen suicides and anti-LGBT bullying we've read about in the news multiple times each month - packs a powerful punch.
Storylines like this - and Kurt coming out, and Santana coming out, and Brittany being a proud, successful girl attracted to both men and women - are why I still watch Glee. In spite of the shitty dialogue, in spite of the sometimes-grating song choices, and in spite of the contrived "How Will They Do At Sectionals?" plots, I like this show because it is using its popularity to help gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth understand themselves. It's doing enormous things for positive media representation of the LGB community (and, yes, I realize that it needs to work on its portrayal of trans issues).
Instead of presenting one image of what it means to be a gay high school student or a gay adult, Glee is showcasing a variety of identities and telling the kids who watch this show again and again and again that it is OK to be gay. Its message is that even non-straight people can do awesome things, that there is always a reason to keep your head held high, and that you have every right to tell yourself that you are awesome and fabulous and worth it. It echoes back to the song that made the show famous: "Don't Stop Believin'." Even if everyone else in the lives of this show's young audience is telling them that they can't, Glee is showing them that they can and that they will and that they should. And for that, the show deserves to be commended.