My assessment of the second season of Glee pretty much mirrors what the AV Club has concluded about the show: That, boldly and unconventionally defying all rules and mores of the hour-long dramedy (which most of us jaded TV viewers expect it to be), Glee seeks to operate as an hour-long sitcom instead.
Think of it like a more polished and longer Saved by the Bell, where storylines are mostly self-contained and nothing that happens in an episode ever has an impact on what happens in subsequent episodes. So long as characters remain somewhat recognizable (e.g., the jock is always the jock, the nerd is always the nerd, etc.), viewers will entertain themselves with whatever hijinks are in store for the characters during that half hour.
In the traditional hour-long drama, however, writers—the good ones, at least—generally plan arcs for each character so they can figure out where one character is at episode 1 and where he or she is at episode 22. Over the course of the season, those good writers sprinkle hints of character development here and there that culminate in milestones that the character needs to experience to get from Point A to Point B. (Most of these milestones happen during sweeps episodes in November, February, and May—when advertisers set their rates.)
If this planning happens and is executed well, you could conceivably look at the span of an entire season and neatly trace a character’s development from September to May. For example, Scully’s brain cancer storyline in season 4 of The X-Files was one of the most well-executed character development arcs on television at the time. And it transpired in 22+ episodes, not in a matter of one or two! The payoff for the viewer was tremendous: If you stuck around and were faithful to the show, you’d have noticed that Gerald Schnauzer pointed to Scully’s tumor in “Unruhe” long before Leonard Betts figured it out in “Leonard Betts.”
(Incidentally, if it’s not executed well, you get the slapdash insta-lesbian fiasco that happened a few years ago on Law & Order when ADA Serena Southerlyn’s immediate response to getting fired by Arthur Branch was “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” At that moment, you could hear the entire Law & Order viewership collectively go “Huh?”)
I don’t think that much character planning is happening on Glee. And I think that’s what has frustrated me the most with the show as of late.
I’m convinced that the great Glee triumvirate—creators Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk—are writing three different shows with three versions of each character, resulting in inconsistencies that often defy explanation. It’s like they don’t know their characters well enough so that they could plan longer and more dramatically satisfying arcs for each of them. The wannabe television writer in me is agonizing over the tremendous potential that’s being wasted by the creators of this show.
But maybe my expectations for Glee are too lofty.
In sitcoms, the rules of narrative and character development are less rigid, because characters are almost always archetypes. They don’t need further character development because they are who they are. They might get married or get divorced or have babies, but at the end of the day, Ross will always be Ross and Chandler will always be Chandler.
The formula is pretty much the same across most sitcoms. It’s the situation that inspires the comedy, not the characters. When you have six character archetypes (such as what we had in Friends), the funny happens when the characters are placed in different settings or different pairings (e.g., Joey gets laid off! Monica meets a millionaire! Phoebe gets pregnant with her brother’s triplets!). The absurdity of the episode’s plotlines is tolerated because viewers want to see how this type of character would react to this type of stressor.
It’s a basic “rule” of characters in improv: If you’re playing a straight man, you’d be fun to watch coping with the norms of a crazy world. If you’re playing a crazy man, it would be tremendously hilarious to see you try to function in a straight world.
In sitcoms, there’s not a fundamental change in the characters as a result of these events. For example, nothing fundamentally changed in the way the six friends interacted with each other as a result of Chandler and Monica getting married or Rachel having Emma. And even with all the plot developments, the ladies of Sex and the City never really deviated much from their character archetypes.
But we’re okay with the lack of clear, game-changing character development in a sitcom because we know that these same characters will be back next week, and they’ll be the same people they were last week. And there’s some comfort in that.
So I’ve been shifting my paradigm a little bit and have started thinking about Glee more as a sitcom and less as an hour-long drama. Doing this has helped ease my anger and frustration at the inconsistent character portrayals and story lines that get picked up and dropped like a hooker on 14th Street.
But every once in a while—like while watching Mr. Schuester be reduced to a wedding singer in last night’s episode—I get frustrated at the potential that Glee’s writers seem to squander. There are enough compelling characters on this show to warrant greater attention to development and consistency.
Don’t get me wrong: I still love Glee. I still consider it groundbreaking. And each episode still brings plenty of moments of smiles and “aw, shucks” that only musicals can. But like so many other viewers out there, I want the best for this show.
Maybe Murphy et al. are purposefully eschewing the “rules” of character development in an hour-long show. And maybe we as viewers need to change our expectations a little bit. Whatever it is, we just need to get on the same page—and fast. Otherwise, we’ll end up singing from different sheet music altogether.