Smattered through these relevant but mostly harmless song selections are Glee's more damaging attempts at shining a light on issues affecting teens today. While its first season stumbled earnestly into adolescent issues of belonging, identity, and self-acceptance, the subsequent seasons rang shrilly with the hum of false emotion and forced parables. Glee trotted out episodes devoted to exploring religion, teen drinking, texting and driving, struggling with sexuality and gender identity, physical disability, death and grief, suicide, bullying, domestic abuse, adoption, eating disorders, mental illness, race, and sex. Only a handful of these endeavors were handled with even a modicum of sensitivity, and fewer still made it to our screens without swerving into the territory of after-school special. Glee has never quite figured out how to balance its crown as History-making Television Program and still keep its original absurdist comedy. It's a tonal impossibility. Trying to fuse together comic self-reference with broadly-stroked morality tales is as futile as mixing oil and water. And yet, for three seasons, Glee has tried, failed, and insisted it worked perfectly all along.
Tonight, they aired their latest in the attempt to remain message television: an episode featuring a possible school shooting, and those terrifying moments ticking endlessly in a darkened classroom suspended in horror and disbelief. I suspect Glee is trying for an episode to spark a national discussion on gun violence, because they still believe they have the power to engage their audience in a thoughtful discourse on the topics affecting today's youth. But the truth of the matter is that I've long since distrusted Glee from handling any sensitive issue gracefully - from Santana's coming-out storyline, to Artie's erasure from the narrative unless his storyline deals with his wheelchair, to Mercedes and Tina sidelined and reduced to black and Asian stereotypes, respectively, and the list goes on. Glee has not proven themselves capable of handling an episode about a school shooting. Not when the nation is still feeling the shock of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, and holding onto the memories of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other losses. And not when Glee is, at best, a poorly-written echo of a show that urges teenagers to accept their differences through song and dance. Like oil and water: these things do not mix.
This friction between Glee's fantasy world and the rules of reality is something the writers cannot seem to negotiate and neutralize - or even acknowledge. This has long been a show devolved into its own kind of reality, a world where rules are made up and broken as seen fit. Characters are accepted to college when their significant others secretly apply on their behalf, as a loving surprise. Students and teachers' personal lives are entangled and intertwined with little consequence. College freshmen without jobs live comfortably in Brooklyn, where they will soon audition for Broadway leads. These same jobless freshmen apparently afford airfare back home to Ohio multiple times a semester. The rules of reality are bent and jammed as necessary to make the high-gloss fantasy of Glee's story work for the writer's ill-devised purposes, before they wipe away for the next installment.
It is jarring, therefore, that "Shooting Star" attempted to cleanly portray reality without any illusion of a filmmaking hand. The time spent during the shooting unfolded onscreen almost in real time, as a large chunk of the act was devoted to showing kids crouched in dark corners of the choir room, crying. The camera was handheld, providing a documentary-style visual to make everything seem even more real, and then went one step further in shock value by actually using "cell phone footage" of the students' tearful messages to loved ones. As expected, the editing cut quickly and frantically during initial moments of panic, and lingered uncomfortably during the seemingly endless moments of waiting, mimicking the emotions felt. So Glee told their story. But I'm not sure why they wanted to. The fact of the matter is that I can't imagine anyone wanting to see, scripted onscreen to seem as real as possible, those moments of fear. As a nation, we are already afraid. We already read eyewitness accounts from Newtown, and put ourselves in those darkened classrooms, and wondered what we would do if we were faced with a moment where our choices and our strength and our love meant nothing to a man with a gun.
We already know this reality. We've imagined this reality. We are living this reality. We don't need to see it packaged up and presented to us on a television show which usually parades through with a glossy world of bright colors and narrative fluff. At this stage in Glee's storytelling, the show is best suited for escapist television, and little more. Not only did "Shooting Star" endeavor to show a beat-by-beat experience of violence in school, but it also put the gun in the hands of a student with Down Syndrome, who until now was one of the few examples of a usually "otherized" character being wielded sensitively as a real person. She was allowed to be her own character, with her own POV, and while Down Syndrome played a part in her identity, she was also a sometimes-bitchy cheerleading captain who could dish a pretty inspired barb. Becky existed without being reduced to or defined by her "other" trait. Unfortunately, she was the easiest figure for Glee's writers to pawn off as an overwhelmed student who brings her dad's gun to school and scares the shit out of everyone. But with only two scenes where Becky reveals how scared she is of the real world (news to me), it's difficult to dredge up the sympathy - or even understanding - for her when we spent ten minutes cowering with the glee club in fear. Truthfully, I feel more sympathy for Lauren Potter, the actress portraying Becky, who has been vocal about advocating positive representation and visibility for those with Down Syndrome in popular media. I fear audience members may assume, because of the shooting, that Down Syndrome is a mental illness and not a genetic condition, and only hope the sudden introduction of Becky's distress helps illuminate the fact that her emotional crisis is unrelated to her "label" as a character with Down Syndrome. Regardless, it's a sloppy and somewhat disheartening choice for a pretty beloved character.
In another stomach-turning decision, Glee also chose to wield the school shooting situation as an opportunity to resolve a bunch of storylines they didn't care to give closure to anytime sooner. Much like their (now-repeated) threats of apocalypse, it seems the easiest way to raise the emotional stakes in a Glee script is to loom the threat of death and make all that resolution come swiftly. The high-pressure scenario dissolved Kitty's meanness towards Marley and Unique, huddled Ryder and Unique together, presumably without the conflict of gender identity, and gave suspense to the storylines quickly minted for Brittany and Sam and Will and Shannon at episode's beginning. The takeaway, even before the shooting happened, was that with or without a meteor hurdling towards earth, you should live your days as though they are your last. Knowing that school violence was pending only made this message more awkward as it was hamfisted into the beginning of the episode like an anvil about to drop.
All of this was wrapped up in the title "Shooting Star." Unfortunately, this episode's existence serves primarily as evidence to a complete lack of respect by the Glee showrunners, and a display of deluded arrogance by a group of people who somehow believe it falls on their shoulders to script and deliver what is essentially a horror story for humanity and a still-bleeding wound in the collective heart of a fearful nation. To poke at that, even with the best intentions, only reveals an utter lack of self-awareness and humility that, unfortunately, Glee has displayed for years now under the guise of revolutionary television. Would that any indication otherwise - of reality - fall on listening ears.