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Glee Season 4 Takes the Series From Problematic Fave To Just Problematic

*sigh*

Boy, it’s been a few weeks, huh? You may have noticed from the scrollbar that this is a very, very long article, and as such it took considerably longer to write than the previous three and the podcast. Buckle up, buttercups, this one’s going to be very, very critical.


I knew going into this retrospective series that there was probably a good reason why I couldn’t remember a very large chunk of Glee’s fourth season, despite knowing for a fact that I watched it every single week, live, as it aired. Part of the issue is that season four and season five sort of blend together for me. Still, I do remember significantly more of season five.

This is odd, because I can also say with reasonable certainty that I didn’t actually watch at least a third of season five. I don’t remember precisely what the last straw was, but I do know I bailed on it maybe as early as the mid-season hiatus. When I sat down several Mondays ago to begin my rewatch journey through season four, I had this weird feeling of foreboding. I wasn’t sure if I had genuinely forgotten most of season four because it wasn’t memorable, or if I had actively repressed those memories because season four was just so awful.

I bet you can guess which it is.

No point in delaying the inevitable. Go grab yourself a glass of water; you’re going to need something to help you wash down the salt.

A Tale of Two Cities

Right off the bat, season four features a humongous change to the show’s narrative structure, and one that proved to be the show’s ultimate downfall: splitting the story between Lima, Ohio and New York City. I’m not going to go into detail about the contract disputes and network issues that contributed to Glee not being split into two separate shows, as it should have been. Primarily because a lot of it is hearsay and not really verifiable, but also because I really just don’t care. I don’t need to know who’s fault it is to hate it.

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

In New York City, we follow Rachel’s first year at NYADA and her crash course in Adulthood 101. She is joined by Kurt at the end of the season premiere, and the two of them get a flat together in Bushwick, because this show is nothing if not ridiculously predictable in its brand of fantasy. They are later joined by Santana as well, creating the single greatest set up for roommate drama I’ve ever seen on television.

While waiting on his next chance to audition for NYADA, Kurt nabs a job at Vogue, because of course he does. His boss is none other than Sarah Jessica Parker channelling Carrie in everything but name. Kate Hudson flexes her abs menacingly at Rachel as Cassandra July, a washed up and bitter former broadway star who is somehow in charge of the NYADA dance department despite being a vindictive, petty, drunk mess.

Look who it is! Our fave!

Rachel has a thing with a guy named Brody, who is unremarkably handsome in that oddly specific, Hollywood way that makes you  wonder if they produce these men in a lab somewhere on the outskirts of LA. So good so far right? This is definitely the show I signed up to watch going into season four.

Meanwhile, in Lima, Ohio, a new crop of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teens join the Glee club, including Fandomentals darling Melissa Benoist as Marley Rose. A few episodes into the season, Finn begins to take over the Glee club, which does absolutely nothing to alleviate the feeling that this dead horse is starting to smell. But of course this is Glee, so they will stop beating that dead horse only when it stops spitting out money. And as you already know, that horse doesn’t run dry for another two seasons.

The seniors fight over who gets to be the new solo hog. The new kids have to pay their dues. There’s a bitchy, blonde cheerleader. Tina gets shafted. There’s a student government election… yadda yadda yadda. Same drama, new faces. At some point the writers realized the audience would get bored of this very quickly, so they decided to try some new things as well.

Unfortunately, when the show does start treading new ground, it’s in some seriously horrifying and problematic directions. But we’ll get to the school shooting PSA and gaslighting bulimia in a bit.

Yes, you read that right.

For the sake of time, and sparing your sanity, that was a pretty condensed summary of the two different story arcs happening in season four. But since these condensed versions are already bursting at the seams with too much content, you can imagine what the actual season is like. Either the New York City or Lima, Ohio plots on their own would be a lot for one show to handle. Glee rolls up its sleeves and tries to take on both at the same time, and it gets the ever loving crap kicked out of it for its hubris.

The show has always been frantic even at its slowest pace, but season four just takes this to a whole new extreme. There is so much going on, I can’t imagine what a clusterfuck it must have been for the editing team to cobble together a somewhat linear and coherent narrative from this much stuff.

It’s not that the show doesn’t have heartwarming, thought-provoking, or compelling things to say this season. The problem is that splitting the narrative between the two cities meant that the show never got the chance to ever finish its thought, or sometimes even its sentence. The tone yo-yos wildly back and forth in every single episode, because the show didn’t have the time to transition between emotional beats. We go from incredibly moving, powerful emotional scenes to completely mundane high school drama in literally a few seconds without so much as a transitional fade. It’s jarring and frustrating to watch, to the point that you start to go a little numb to the emotional pulls altogether. Anywhere that the season does succeed is, almost without fail, immediately undercut by this overstuffed narrative.

Trying to tell both the New York City and Lima, Ohio plots in a single show was ultimately a creative hurdle that was insurmountable. Because no matter how you slice it, neither plot was getting the fully rounded development it needed to feel like a complete story. The sheer number of different arcs they juggled in season four makes it feel like you’re either missing things or forgetting beats in the narrative, but you’re not. Trust me. They’re just not there. If season two was a nice, hearty, chunk of gouda, season four is a slice of swiss cheese that someone also took a hole puncher to.

And this wasn’t even the only thing Glee had working against it this season.

The iTunes Goldmine

Fox executives enjoying their iTunes sales revenue.

Season three seemed to keep a pretty firm grip on its dignity when it came to the music selection, despite the setlists being clearly influenced by potential iTunes sales. In season four, Glee not only lost its grip on its dignity, it punched itself in the face from the whiplash. I hope the writers stretched before some of these song integration reaches, because the music was clearly not being selected for narrative relevance or appropriateness. Even if it was often quite amazing, like “Homeward Bound”.

Unsurprisingly, season four’s setlist holds up best when the songs are not taken from the Top 40. There are definitely a lot of very, very solid winners. Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, and Naya Rivera really started coming into their voices, and of course Alex Newell is always an absolute fucking showstopper as Unique (see, “DIVA” for example).

The New New Directions have an excellent, well matched, well-rounded group range, much better than the previous menagerie of Glee club members. With the exception of Blake Jenner, who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket that was taped to his hands, the New New Directions brought in some seriously strong new voices who complemented each other well. Melissa Benoist was the boost that the women desperately needed to their lower register, and Jacob Artist consistently surprised me with his vocal chops. Though to be fair, it doesn’t take much to outclass Darren Criss. From a technical standpoint, season four can be kind of  impressive, to be honest. Just check out “Some Nights” if you don’t believe me. 

The second you remember this show has a story, however, things come unraveling at the seams very, very quickly. Like with Why would you sing a song explicitly about not breaking up for a breakup scene? What particular relevance does this song have to Santana and Brittany? Also as if Santana Flipping Lopez would be into Taylor Swift. She’s been rolling out Amy Winehouse standards since season two, this girl is not listening to country with crossover appeal. 

That’s more like it.

Most of the time, the songs just do not match up with the narrative. Even when they do it’s the narrative being bent to accommodate the song selection, not the other way around. Am I the only one who strongly suspects that the only reason they gave Brody this sex worker subplot was so he could sing that Marina and the Diamonds song? That’s a far better explanation than anything the show offered up. I love Santana’s meddling as much as the next useless lesbian but I hated this plotline so much I don’t want to say any more about it. Also, whoever made the decision to have the Glee Club do Gangnam Style, and have Tina sing it, should have their thumbs stapled to their writing table. I shouldn’t even have to explain this one. Here, have a baby Supergirl holding her own with Lea Michele instead.

This shameless iTunes cash grabbing culminated in a Regionals routine that absolutely, 100% objectively did not deserve to win. I know that Glee is about wish fulfillment, but there’s only so far you can stretch that idea before you shatter the suspension of disbelief. So we have two different television shows crammed into one, with a setlist that is often embarrassingly off message, off topic, or off tone. What kind of story could you possibly cobble together from that?

Hoo boy.

The Good, The Bad, and the Gaslighting

Let’s start with the good.

I am not gonna lie, I was seriously concerned that I had hallucinated Quinn and Santana drunkenly hooking up, considering how utterly unexpected it was and what an absolute slog most of this season was to get through. And of course, the reason why the season is such a slog is because my little Brittana OTP shipper heart is broken. No point in dancing around the subject; you all know exactly what I’m about. I am a useless, sappy, romantic, soft-hearted lesbian. So shoot me.

But no, it was real. A gift from the femslash gods. I’m not entirely sure how they were able to convince the network to let them do this. I presume favors of a particular nature were exchanged. Possibly a very, very large mountain of money. But however they got it done, bless them. I think I’ve rewatched this scene ten times since Wednesday. It’s literally the best thing ever.

And while of course my heart is broken over Brittana being split up, I must begrudgingly admit that they broke up for the right reasons. It also paved the path for them to come together in the end for the right reasons. This needed to happen so they could grow as individuals.

Rachel Berry’s character development over this season is honestly really goddamn stellar. From the tearful speech she gives Finn at the end of Glease, to her audition for Funny Girl with Don’t Stop Believin’, to her friction with Kurt over her gigantic diva head, to her friendship with Santana that I never thought in a million years would actually get developed… there is a lot of good stuff here. And there should be, because she’s kind of the protagonist of the show, but Rachel is by far at her most likable in season 4. She’s just unsure of herself enough to be humble, but not so much that it hinders her growth.

Kurt’s journey is equally satisfying, and rooting for him is honestly just a pure and uplifting experience. His relationship to Sarah Jessica Parker’s character is delightful and wonderfully crafted. While I’m sure some may disagree, I wish we had even more of it. Though I know Kurt’s heart will always be with the theatre, fashion is very much a close second. And honestly? You want him to succeed at both.

The way the show handled Jake’s biracial and bicultural background was shockingly sensitive, considering this is Glee that we’re talking about here. It was a consistent enough topic of conversation that I was a bit… surprised. The show weaved this together nicely with a classism commentary with Marley, though I’m sure your mileage will vary greatly on anything the show does with the New New Directions.

The show makes a humongous leap forward in how it handles Unique as a character, though it’s still wobbling on the approach. The pronoun usage comes into play, though the show can be somewhat internally inconsistent on how it uses them. The arc revolving around Unique wanting to play Rizzo in Glease was handled with surprising deftness and sensitivity. Somebody smacked everyone in the writer’s room with the intersectionality stick before season 4, and the show is better for it.

The good things they did with Unique, however, are still bookended with the very hurtful bad. I am really hoping the writers get a clue in season five when it comes to handling this sort of… I hesitate to even call them jokes. They’re mean spirited, bigoted, and I’m just not here for it. Even if it’s Sue Sylvester saying it. You do get points for “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” Glee. I’ll give you that.

Unfortunately, I’m starting to run dry on nice things to say about the season, so now we’re gonna move into the bad.

I don’t know how Blake Jenner got onto this show, but he is just not a song and dance man. We’ll leave it at that.

The plot with Brody being a sex worker is… problematic. Not in itself per se. It’s more that once again Glee is taking on an issue that it is in no way equipped to handle. It lacks the vocabulary, it lacks the tone, and it definitely lacks the nuance. Glee has all the nuance of a drunk grizzly bear. It’s one of those cases where you can kind of see what they were going for here, but they don’t seem to understand the implications of their own writing. Or they don’t want to. I’m going to lean on the former, at least for now. We’ll see how season five goes.

I don’t know why everyone in the writer’s room has this weird hate boner for Tina, but that’s the only possible explanation for the shit she has to put up with this season. There are precious few scenes on television that have made me as skin-crawlingly uncomfortable as Tina rubbing Vick’s on Blaine’s chest while he was sick and delirious. They then later make a really tasteless joke about ‘Vapo-rape,’ which like. Why? You didn’t need to go there in the first place Glee. I know you’re just trying to soften the blow there a bit but. Too bad. We saw it. It can’t be unseen. You don’t get to have your creepy, problematic storyline and eat your joke cake too.

And the truly, pants-on-head ridiculous thing is that Tina isn’t even close to the most problematic person this season. That title belongs to Kitty Wylde, and that brings us to the gaslighting.

You don’t say.

I know that Karley was a reasonably popular ship in its time, as it was seen as a way to make up for not giving the fandom Faberry, but once Kitty started sewing Marley’s clothes into smaller sizes that ship should have been completely sunk. It takes a herculean amount of canon correction and writer’s skill to make this femslash pairing work on any level that’s not objectively horrifying. I’ve been keeping the details pretty light through most of this article, but this gaslighting plotline is something I want to cover in detail. It’s not just awful, it’s a very specific kind of awful that warrants discussion.

All of this started because Jake dumped Kitty, not for Marley, but because Marley made him realize Kitty is kind of (definitely) a monster. Kitty then makes it about Marley, and stews in this rage until it starts coming out in these mind-bogglingly pathological and cruel ways. Kitty had already been hammering home the fat jokes on Marley because of Marley’s obese mother anyway, but she just. Doubles the fuck down on them. I won’t even pull a quote here, because it’s really just too awful to dignify it. Some things don’t need to be repeated, even for analysis.

But then, in a move that is so grossly clever I feel like it must have been pulled from someone’s personal experience, Kitty starts sewing up Marley’s costumes by a few inches to give the illusion that Marley is putting on weight. Then she pulls her aside during a sleepover to explain the basics of bulimia to her, after she’s clearly already gotten under Marley’s skin with the fat comments alone. This goes on for several episodes, to the point that Marley starts picking up some additional disordered eating habits all on her own, including laxatives and Tic Tacs.

Sometimes it’s good to be nosy.

I think it’s important to point out that the only person who seems to pick up on Marley’s obviously disordered eating is Santana, who zeroes in on the fact that Marley looks a little faint during a rehearsal. Santana, being Santana, goes through her bags and finds the laxatives. She confronts Marley with them, and later she goes after Quinn with claws out because Kitty is her protege.

If you don’t remember, Santana was the center of a lot of eating disorder jokes in the first season. Like, gagging in the bathroom kind of jokes. It’s not explicitly canon that Santana (and most of the Cheerios, honestly) dealt with an eating disorder, but the dots are there. And clearly, someone on the writing team drew the lines between them.

The reason why I bring Santana up specifically is to demonstrate that Glee can, and frequently does, draw these kinds of parallels. The writing is a slave to the iTunes Goldmine, but once in awhile something very real breaks through. This is one of those moments, and the greatest tragedy of this show is that these moments don’t happen more often, or they aren’t properly fostered into full bloom. The structure is there. But the narrative doesn’t like to build upon itself. It just moves ever forward, with little regard to where it’s been before.

While Marley is straight up caught, nobody does anything about it, and this culminates in Marley getting so malnourished that she dead-faints right in the middle of sectionals, on stage, after Gangnam Style. As a cliffhanger for an end to an episode, it is exceptionally effective, though I still harbor a deep, deep resentment for the writers for hurting sweet Marley like that. And it only gets worse when she wakes up.

Apparently, because nobody on the writing staff participated in any school activities in high school, there is this arbitrary rule that if a team member leaves the stage for any reason during a performance, the team is disqualified. Including a girl fainting so hard she can’t be woken up for several minutes. Can you even imagine the lawsuit? Oh my God. This is so stupid.

What happens from here on out is a disjointed mix of 1.) most of the Glee club blaming Marley for costing them sectionals, 2.) Marley’s mother handling the situation exactly how she should by getting her daughter into therapy, and 3.) the show frequently forgetting that Marley ever had this terrifying experience, or just not caring. She is frequently pushed into revealing clothing or situations that are obvious triggers for her disorder. Whether or not the show acknowledges that these situations are triggering is a coin flip of randomness.

Kitty apologizes, sort of. As much as you can apologize for saddling someone with a lifelong mental disorder. I know that because this is a television show, there (ugh) “has” to be a reconciliation between the two opposed characters. But do you ever see something so awful, so monstrous, that you have to kind of sit down in awe of it? That’s how I feel about what Kitty did to Marley. And the writing team probably has no idea why what they did was so awful.

You can always tell when something is written from a real life experience and when something is being written about in the abstract by an outsider. This feels like the latter. The absolute worst thing you can do with a serious issue like this is cover it badly. Glee did a real good job of making sure that almost everyone else made Marley feel like all of this was her fault.

You deserved so much better than this.

And you know what the worst part is? This isn’t even the worst thing they did this season.

A Terminal Case of PSA-itis

I do not like Very Special Episodes. I find them to be condescending, ratings-grabbing garbage. As a show with a large teen demographic, I know that at some level Glee is obligated to do PSA-type storylines. I’m sure that was the original intention behind gaslighting poor, sweet Marley for half a season. I went into great detail explaining the setup for Marley’s plot, partly because it so deeply and personally pissed me off, but also to contrast how little setup there was for the other issues Glee took on this season.

Let’s begin with a short list of things that Glee featured PSA episodes about this season: eating disorders, a school shooting, catfishing, childhood sexual abuse for both a boy and a girl, sex work, and a pregnancy scare.

Okay.

The one nice thing I can say about this list is that having actually gone through an experience with an armed person on a school campus, Glee’s depiction of it is subtly and shockingly real. There is actually a trigger warning at the beginning of the episode. I’m tempted to say that most episodes in season four require some kind of trigger warning, but this one is well deserved. Each time I’ve watched this episode, I’ve held my breath through the entire sequence. It’s very well done.

Everything else about the episode and its followup is garbage. It is so garbage that I’m not even going to dignify it by writing about it in detail. All you need to know is that the ‘shooter’ is Becky, the student with Down’s Syndrome, and she had no intention of shooting anyone. It’s gross, it’s exploitative, it makes no narrative sense for Becky as a character, and I’m done talking about it before I send another angry letter to Fox about it.

I’ve talked briefly about the sex work plotline earlier, so I’m not going to elaborate much further on that. The short version is, Santana finds a beeper in Brody’s stuff, along with an alarming amount of cash, and comes to the conclusion that he must be dealing drugs. He isn’t, he’s a sex worker, but the larger point is that he lied to Rachel about it. The show tries really hard to present this issue fairly, but it falls pretty hard on its face in the process as usual.

It also coincides with a pregnancy scare for Rachel, which…Glee, did you hit your head or something? As much as I love Santana and Rachel’s friendship, why isn’t Quinn involved in this? Yea yea, contract restrictions blah blah blah. Either way, we’re repeating plotpoints here, so it comes off as a Very Special Episode in the worst kind of way: condescending and largely irrelevant to the plot at large.

Then comes the sexual abuse of Ryder and Kitty. Honestly, this one goes much better at first blush. When Ryder initially tells the other kids in the Glee club, the boys congratulate him for being so ‘lucky.’ It’s hard to watch but (horrifyingly) true to life. Kitty confides in him that she was also sexually abused, and them talking about it together is actually quite nice. It was handled maturely and with respect to the subject matter. It starts to fall apart when you clue into the fact that this is meant to soften Kitty’s behavior, and that is, well, gross. Like so gross.

Almost as gross as letting this plotline for Ryder, as well as the school shooting episode, tie into a catfishing subplot, of all things. Why? Who thought this was a good idea? I don’t even know what to say about it. You know what I’m not gonna talk about it, because if you haven’t seen this episode already, I certainly am not going to recommend that you watch it now.

So It Worth Watching?

In short, no.

Remember way back in the retrospective for season one, where I said that Glee is about a feeling? This season, for the most part, does not have it. It’s there sometimes, in little glimmers. But for the most part, everything that made Glee a problematic fave got twisted into just flat-out problematic. Klaine and Brittana are broken up for essentially this entire season. Kurt has a brief courtship with some dude named Adam, and Blaine has a hopelessly one-way crush on Sam. Santana gets a girlfriend pillow, though I will admit that was one of my favorite moments from the Kurt/Santana/Rachel roommate plot. For a show that’s supposed to be for The Gays, season four is really not gay at all. It’s not even pandering, really.

We needed 1000% more of this instead of PSAs.

I know that it’s pretty normal to break couples up for a season to spice up the relationship or whatever, but in doing that Glee dug a very large knife in the back of one of its most supportive and vulnerable audience demographics. Thinking back on it now, I can’t even really enjoy the scene where Santana and Quinn fuck at a wedding, because it feels exploitative. It feels like being handed a half-empty doggie bag after having to watch all of your friends and loved ones eat a five star meal. You can almost hear the writers saying “okay FINE” as they begrudgingly hand you the bag.

It’s five star scraps, but it’s still scraps.

Boy did this ever set the tone for television shows going forward, didn’t it?

If there is one thing that season four illustrates really well, it’s that while Glee was incredibly important as a piece of media, I don’t think most of the people involved in making the show consciously realized how important it was, and to whom it was most important. As a lesbian, the first three seasons of Glee made me feel important, like my stories matter. It was validation. Season four of Glee made me feel a mix of uncomfortable, sad, bored, and confused. It doesn’t even feel like the same show. The characters are the same, and all the nuts and bolts are there, but the queerness is not.

Glee transitioned from being a queer show to a show that happened to have queer characters in it. If there was ever a reason the show deserved to fail, it was that betrayal.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. There were some good moments. But you can find those good moments on YouTube. Unless you’re really a completist, you can just go ahead and skip this one.

And that’s what you missed on Glee!


Next time, we wade into the deep-end of insanity with season five, including the section of the show I’ve never watched before. Season four has me terrified of what fresh hell I’m going to find there. See you in a few weeks!


Images Courtesy of Fox

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When not working on her degree or at her actual job, Elizabeth pursues her true passion of complaining at great length about pop culture on the internet. She serves as a Managing Editor for The Fandomentals. You can find her on Tumblr, Twitter and Steam @ohemgeelizabeth

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