The cast of Glee

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers Glee, which ran 121 episodes over six seasons. The finale airs tonight.

The successes and failures of Glee, Fox’s once-massive musical comedy, are perfectly embodied by a novelty item that’s available for $12.95. It’s the Glee Magic 8-Ball, a product of the show’s merchandise deal with Mattel, and one of many, many branded tchotchkes born of Glee’s early, stratospheric success. The Glee version of the old-school, fortune-telling toy couldn’t differ more from the original. It’s white, not black, with a sky-blue 8 and a colorful rendering of the show’s logo. There’s no die engraved with pithy forecasts and suspended in goo; it’s fully electronic, and responds to a shake with an audio clip from the show, including the Glee recording of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

The toy is a pale imitation of the original, like much of Glee’s music. With only 20 clips, it grows repetitive in a hurry—not unlike the show—and many of its quotes make little sense without context. Still, people bought the Glee Magic 8-Ball, along with plenty of other branded merchandise, CDs, DVDs, movie tickets, and millions of iTunes downloads. As Glee approaches the end of its 121-episode run, the cottage industry it inspired is the show’s most impressive legacy, as well as the root cause of its swift creative and commercial decline. Once the perfect marriage of art and commerce, Glee exhausted its goodwill as its value as a merchandising enterprise outpaced its value as a television show.

Early on, Glee was edgy, refreshing television. Its pilot rests comfortably among the best of the past decade, and Fox was so eager to show it off, it previewed the pilot for attendees of 2009’s Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour. There was a deafening buzz around the episode at the press tour, an uncharacteristic response for an organization infamous for its cool indifference to everyone and everything. The reaction from the viewing audience was similar: Fox shrewdly previewed the pilot in May 2009, attaching it to American Idol’s eighth season finale, then stoked anticipation for Glee’s proper premiere in September of that year.

To revisit the pilot now is to be reminded of why the show became such a huge hit. Ryan Murphy, who created the show with Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan and wrote the pilot, makes it his first point of business to establish the show’s caustic voice. The Cheerios cheerleading team is practicing a routine on the football field of Lima, Ohio’s William McKinley High School, and after running through the exhausting rehearsal, Coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) is less than impressed. “You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded, that’s hard,” Sue shouts through the bullhorn her character was seldom seen without. Quasi-protagonist Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) is introduced driving into McKinley’s parking lot, the dragging muffler of his junker symbolizing his ramshackle life. He passes McKinley’s quarterback Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) as Puck (Mark Salling) and his band of sadistic jocks prepare to toss foppish Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) into a dumpster: an introduction to the show’s primary theme of otherness and the hostility suffered by those who dare to be different.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” plays over the opening sequence, a rare example of Glee using an original recording as a cue. The song underscores Will’s fulfillment gap: he spends his aimless days serving as a dissatisfied Spanish teacher, then returns home to his shrewish wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) and laments his absence of direction. Through voiceover, Will explains his plan to bring the sense of purpose back to his life. He’ll take over the recently vacated position as head of the glee club, the organization central to his own fondest high school memories. When Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba) declines to fund the glee club, Will decides to do it himself, squirreling money away without Terri’s knowledge.

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Fame-obsessed, Broadway aspirant Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) also gets the inner-monologue treatment and shows off her sharp elbows, ousting the glee club’s former leader by saddling him with accusations of sexual impropriety with students. She’s eager to get started in a new glee club with Will at the helm, but refuses to participate until Will can find an equally talented male singer. The search comes up empty until Will discovers Finn singing in the locker room showers, then goes to extreme, despicable measures to secure Finn’s participation. He uses a packet of marijuana to blackmail Finn, claiming he found it in Finn’s locker and invoking the threat of prison time unless Finn joins the glee club, rechristened New Directions.

This level of scheming and guile aren’t characteristic of the show Glee became. Its tone became cheerier and the villainous behavior was funneled into Coach Sue Sylvester, who sought to destroy New Directions to prevent it from usurping funds from the Cheerios. But Glee became a hit precisely because it was transgressive, a network television show willing to show such treachery, mean-spirited behavior, and sexual indiscretion happening in a high school setting. The pilot is a flawless execution of the show Murphy described when he addressed the critics at press tour, who were eager to know what the show would look like beyond the stellar pilot. Murphy called Glee a show with “subversiveness and edge,” and talked about how the title of the show was meant to connote “joyful malice.” He talked about how Glee wasn’t going to be like most high-school-set television shows, how it would resemble something closer to Juno or Election, of which the latter looms largest over Glee’s pilot. Murphy, who also directed the pilot, cribs quite a bit from Alexander Payne’s film, including the essence of Will, Rachel, and Finn’s characters and their storylines, the use of roving voiceover to introduce them, and several of Election’s visual flourishes.

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As Glee’s first season progressed, the show lived up to the pilot’s promise, but the caustic tone grew milder for every character except Sue Sylvester, whose brutal insults and offensive tirades made Lynch the breakout star of the show’s adult cast. But a more important quality of the show also changed early on, evolving from how Murphy described Glee in its embryonic stages. At the press tour, Murphy mentioned Chicago as an influence, specifically director Rob Marshall’s decision to base nearly all of the musical numbers inside Roxie Hart’s head. Murphy said Glee would adhere to a similar formula so the show could maintain a “real-world” quality, rather than being a goofy, traditional musical in which characters spontaneously break into choreographed song and dance numbers. All the show’s songs, Murphy said, would be part of an actual performance or one set in a character’s imagination.

Murphy set an admirable goal to create a different kind of television musical, but the strict parameters he envisioned for the performances weren’t sustainable over time. When the more traditional musical numbers begin, it’s clear why Murphy originally had the right idea. In the 10th episode, “Ballad,” Finn dines at the home of Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron), his Cheerio girlfriend and Rachel’s romantic rival. In the middle of dinner with Quinn’s parents, Finn cues a boombox and begins singing Paul Anka’s “She’s Having My Baby,” a performance intended to inform Quinn’s parents he’s impregnated their daughter. According to Glee lore, it was a difficult scene to shoot because Monteith kept forgetting the words and Agron could barely contain her laughter, but accounts differ on whether his flubbing caused her hysteria or vice versa. It was the show’s first egregious misstep, a moment that worked neither as a musical performance nor as a scene.

The encroachment of the music into the narrative wasn’t enough to drag the show down at that point, especially when there were more pressing issues to fix, like the disastrous fake pregnancy plot between Will and Terri. But the “She’s Having My Baby” scene was the first hint of the product-first approach that ensured Glee’s decline. The second came in the very next episode, “Hairography,” in which Will buys the glee club wigs to help them add flash to their stage presence, and they perform a mash-up of the title song from the musical Hair and Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.” Will and the New Directions gang immediately declare the performance a disaster, while the students from another glee club mock it openly. But while “Hair/Crazy In Love” was deemed unworthy within the narrative, it was made available for paid download on iTunes, just like every other song from the season. Sure it’s an awful song, Glee told its audience, but it’s an awful song you can own.

Before Glee’s first season even finished, Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan were being asked whether the story was dictating the music or vice versa, a question that loomed larger as the iTunes download business became the show’s cash cow. Early on, critics scrutinized Glee’s conception and production because of the conflicted relationship between the music and the story, and because of the show’s remarkable inconsistency, for which it gained a reputation within season one. The massive audience wasn’t driven away—Glee was pulling audiences as big as 13 million—but the show’s inconsistencies drove the narrative around.

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The Office episode “Viewing Party” provides insight into the early response to and perception of Glee. The episode was oddity, a network television show featuring characters gathering to watch and frequently name-check a rival network’s hit series early in its highly anticipated second season. The best reference to Glee comes from an exasperated Kelly (Mindy Kaling):

That show… I mean first they say that Mr. Schu doesn’t know anything about choreography, and then, like three episodes later, he’s this fantastic choreographer? Pick a lane, people. And what was with Jesse’s sudden turn on Rachel between “Dream On” and “Funk,” where the heck did that come from? Honestly, that show… it’s just… it’s irresponsible.

A year later, Community did its own Glee take-off in “Regional Holiday Music,” which stars Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam as deranged glee club leader Mr. Radison, a.k.a. “Mr. Rad.” Mr. Rad binds the characters in his spell, turning them into singing automatons obsessed with getting to “Regionals,” a dig at how Glee’s season arcs are built around the arbitrary checkpoints of an amorphous championship journey. In another episode, Community took a subtler swipe at Glee’s lack of original music, which the show later addressed in “Original Song.” Neither show’s potshots come across as malicious. Kelly’s Office monologue is meant less as a criticism of Glee and more as a riff on nit-picking super-fans, as Kelly is later seen hanging on the show’s every word despite her complaints. Community is famous for its pop-culture cannibalism, and there was nothing personal about the jokes it made at Glee’s expense. Still, there was merit to the flaws both shows identified, and the parodies echoed earnest conversations happening around the show at the height of its popularity.

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The most common theory for the show’s rapidly fluctuating quality, tone, and narrative coherence was also the simplest. Glee’s trio of co-creators took turns writing the episodes, initially working without a team of writers. Each had his own way of preparing the same ingredients, and the differences were pronounced enough that by the middle of the second season, it was possible to match the writer to the episode without the benefit of the credits. Strongly defined characters like Sue Sylvester and Kurt tolerated the writing rotations well, but others did not, with the role of Will most impacted by the writers’ whims. Generally, Will is a sad-sack educator whose passion for glee club is both an effort to relive past glory and an investment in kids he believes are as talented and fulfilled by music as he is. As the show progresses, Will’s character becomes amorphous as he becomes a walking vessel for the episode’s musical theme. His personality bends and stretches depending on the needs of the episode, and when he isn’t insinuating himself uncomfortably into the students’ affairs, he’s pursuing a creepy relationship with guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) following his divorce.

Prior to its third season, Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan hired a team of writers to help craft the show, as Murphy and Falchuk began focusing on American Horror Story. The democratization of the writers’ room didn’t bring stability to the series, but by that point, Glee had already solidified its function as a commercial masking as a television show. Even as Glee’s viewership began to wane, the popularity of its wares continued, with the show’s music becoming as much a bowdlerized pop powerhouse for teenagers as the popular Kidz Bop series is for the tween-and-below set. It comes as no surprise the show’s reliance on musical numbers ticked up over its run. Glee’s first season contained a total of 100 songs spread across 22 episodes: Within the same number of episodes, the second season contained 131 songs; the third, 141; and the fourth, 127.

The increase in Glee’s song production stemmed from its increased reliance on artist or musical-themed episodes, a tradition beginning with season one’s “The Power Of Madonna,” and continuing with episodic homages to Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, The Beatles, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever. The themed episodes were usually built on flimsy premises, and were equally capable of bringing out the best and the worst Glee has to offer. Even when inspired episodes resulted from a more rigid musical framework, they still played better as commercials than television episodes, especially with the aggressive brand expansion going on around them. Glee spawned a concert tour and a 3-D movie based on the concert tour; three novels (five were planned); Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards; versions of the games Scene It?, Cranium, Yahtzee, and Uno; karaoke machines; mobile apps; and a clothing line. It even spawned The Glee Project, a Oxygen reality competition that ran for two seasons and gave young performers a shot at joining the show’s cast. The Glee Project was originally announced as a Fox project, then was quietly scuttled. Fox executives were reportedly concerned about contributing to the dilution of the brand, a process already well into its progression by that point.

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Glee’s overexposure and maddening inconsistencies took a toll on its viewership over the years. The show was drawing over 13 million viewers at its season-two peak. By the fifth-season finale, the live audience had shrunk to under 2 million, leading Fox to cut the episode order on Glee’s farewell season from 22 episodes to 13. Even in its weakened state, Glee showed signs of life and offered reminders of why it was once so popular. Season four’s “The Break Up” was among the year’s finest television moments. The elegiac episode charted the dissolution of Rachel and Kurt’s respective romantic relationships following their move from Ohio to New York after graduation. It’s also a tidy metaphor for Glee’s ratings drop, with some viewers unable to maintain long-distance relationships with the show’s most popular characters. Many defectors returned for season five’s “The Quarterback,” another latter-day highlight in tribute to Monteith following his fatal drug overdose.

Ultimately, Glee’s promise as a television show was suppressed by the business interests surrounding it. It’s hopefully a lesson Fox learned and will apply to its latest massively popular musical series, Empire, which also spawned a chart-topping soundtrack and sparked preliminary talk about a concert tour not unlike Glee’s. Television phenomena like Glee and Empire are increasingly rare. The urge to strike while the iron is hot is understandable, especially in an era when television networks are pressed for innovative ways to monetize their programming. But there’s wisdom to be gleaned from the rapid peak-and-plummet cycle of Glee, a stark demonstration of how quickly a show can go from being too big to fail to too big to succeed.