Martinis, blackmail, five-thousand-dollar outfits: ah, high school. Why, it seems like it was only yesterday that I was walking to Monkey Bar during lunch with my friends — all wearing impossibly tall stilettos — while trying to decide: do I go to my mother's reception at the Met, or do I try and seduce the drama teacher to get that lead role in the spring production of Cabaret? Because I'm Sally Bowles or I'm nothing. Then we would all down a bottle of Patron and go to Bergdorf's. I think I had some classes, too, or whatever. Math? Maybe I had math once.
If that all sounds unrealistic, then clearly you didn't go to high school on the CW. The most egregious example of the high-school-as-Dynasty genre is Gossip Girl, but there are plenty of others — the updated 90210, The O.C., Laguna Beach, NYC Prep. I don't know when someone decided that the most universal high-school experience was a fashion show (actually, it was circa 2003), but the idea certainly caught on. And while this particular vision of high school can be good fun — and I will admit to watching many of these shows with great delight — I started to wonder if there were any realistic portrayals of teenage life on major networks anymore.
Which brings us to Glee — the new comedy from Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy. Fox made the odd decision to show the first episode in May, after the finale of American Idol, months before the actual series premiere, but the gamble seems to have paid off. Glee is perhaps one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows of the fall — and it’s still summer. Of course, it helps that the show has got talent to spare. Its ensemble cast features the ever-hilarious Jane Lynch (Role Models, Best In Show) as an abusive cheerleading coach, as well as one Broadway dreamboat (Matthew Morrison) and one Broadway ingénue (Lea Michele). Morrison made a (very shirtless) mark in the revival of South Pacific, and Michele amazed audiences while still in high school in the sexy Spring Awakening (with a performance that included an infamous on-stage sex scene).
The story of an underdog glee club in a small Ohio town, it is almost the anti-Gossip Girl. (The fact that a school budget, or any kind of budget for that matter, functions as even a minor plot point speaks to that.) Which leads me to wonder why that single episode of the show — which did have its flaws — was so roundly lauded when, like its own characters, it clearly does not fit in.
Of course, like these other shows, Glee has its own of heightened reality — no show that is part musical and all comedy could ever be completely television-verite. But in between the show tunes (at least some of which appear to be fantasy, while others are actual glee club performances), the kids we see on screen seem like real kids. The leading man of the series, football-star-turned-singer Finn (Cory Monteith), may be hunky, but you won't see his likeness strutting down the runway for Dior Homme. And his girlfriend, the head cheerleader Quinn (Dianna Agron), may be bitchy and beautiful, but she's the president of the abstinence club. I know, try not to faint: teens may be horny little hormone monkeys, but desires seldom translate directly into actions in high school.
And, much like actual teens, these characters are all worried about their futures and the paths that seem set for them already. While Blair may have lost her shit at the thought of attending an Ivy League school other than Harvard, the students of Glee are more concerned with avoiding a future of landscaping the school's football green. They live in a small town, and they know that many of them will never make it anywhere else. I was always pretty sure I would be going to college and setting out on my own, but even still, the fear of going nowhere, or being nothing special, seems a lot more relatable than the question of what to do with your trust fund. (Grand tour of Europe, or start a fashion line?)
While the characters may not be groundbreaking — as many critics have pointed out, the football star questioning his place in the world is not a new archetype — Murphy sharpened his teeth on the sly Popular, another high-school show that managed to be campy, cutting, and hilarious without placing its characters in a penthouse. And character is often the area where the current crop of teen shows goes wrong. While the best of the bunch give us some wickedly entertaining personalities (see: Chuck Bass, Seth Cohen), we often get ciphers in nice, frequently-shed clothes. Eventually, any sense that we're seeing ourselves on screen is bound to disappear. Could this be the reason that Glee attracted so much praise? Our appetite for glamour was finally sated, and we remembered, suddenly, that no: we did not ever wear Valentino to Social Studies.
It would be easy to connect this to the economic climate — when we were flying high as a culture, we wanted to see our aspirations on screen, without limits, etc. But I imagine that even without the recession, this change would have come. I'd missed seeing any of myself, or my own high-school experience, on screen. The kids of Glee are lame, small, large, gay, handicapped, non-white: all the things that Gossip Girl didn't bother to acknowledge, and all the things that can make high school each person's own private auto de fé. It was fun to watch models stalk down the hallways from science class straight to happy hour, but they should know best of all: nothing stays in fashion for ever.