Musical theater is as close as it comes to religion for me, so you can consider Glee's 8-to-9 Tuesday slot on Fox my "Hour of Power." Like a missionary outpost in D.C.'s cultural desert, each week a local gay bar screens the latest episode on a large projector. For that short span of time, the club music and cruising stop while patrons from their 20s to their 60s sit in reverent silence to watch the high-school travails of McKinley High's glee club.
If you ask me, any show that can hold a club queen's attention for that long deserves its title as "the gayest show on television."
Glee, which wrapped up its second season yesterday, has already become so mainstream and commercial that critics are nostalgic for the good ol' days. The Globe and Mail's John Doyle proclaimed a year ago that "the gaiety is gone from Glee. ... You should have seen it in its prime." Of course, the line between cheesy and sublime is a fine one, and if your high-school experience doesn't incline you to sympathize with theater or choir nerds, it's hard not to roll your eyes whenever the New Directions break into song, or stop yourself from hoping that a klieg light comes crashing down on choir director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) as he beams with pride while the kids perform (he does it so often, I'm convinced the show must have an hours-long B-roll of him staring slightly off-camera with tender satisfaction).
But Glee is far more provocative than its high-school-musical, gee-whiz-wow aesthetic lets on. One of this season's main plotlines involves the show's lead gay character, Kurt (Chris Colfer), who is bullied by the football team's linebacker, a beefy bro who goes by "Karofsky" (Max Adler). After weeks of taunting, Kurt storms into the locker room to confront him.
"What are you so scared of?" Kurt asks.
"Beside you coming in here to peek at my junk?" Karofsky responds.
"Guess what, ham hock, you're not my type. ... I don't dig on chubby boys who sweat too much and are going to be bald by the time they're 30."
"Don't push me homo --" Karofsky says, circling in.
"You gonna hit me? Do it. Because it's not going to change who I am. You can't punch the gay out of me any more than I can punch the ignoramus out of you."
Kurt winces in anticipation of a blow to the face, but instead, Karofsky kisses him.
In itself, the "if you hate gays, you're gay" trope is conventional (and for those who support gay rights, sort of self-defeating), and Glee is just one of many shows -- including Community and Modern Family -- that's taken on bullying in response to the raft of recent gay-teen suicides over the past year. But Glee does deserve credit for, as one socially conservative writer lamented, "present[ing] gay as the 'new normal.'" The romance between Kurt and Blaine (Darren Chriss), a lead singer from a rival glee club, comes with all the standard adolescent self-doubts and disappointments. Ten episodes into the romance, a much-anticipated first kiss between the pair is treated with heartfelt earnestness -- Kurt, the shier of the two, looks like he's been waiting his whole life for it. With Kurt having a supportive father behind him, the story line also breaks the troubled father-son relationship cliche for gay characters.
But what makes the series groundbreaking is its target audience: the very tweens and teenagers who populate the McKinley Highs across the country. As opposed to the Manhattan-centered Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Glee takes place in the Midwest and involves not disaffected urbanites but small-town teenagers who are vulnerable, and sometimes mean, as they jockey for status in what seems like a fixed pecking order (remember that feeling?).
Nielson doesn't track demographic data for those under 18, but even self-proclaimed Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann asked, "What kids don't watch Glee?" When the tween of a major right-wing politician jumps up and down because her mom managed to snap a photo with Glee's gay heartthrob, we can be pretty sure the culture war's over -- and conservatives lost.
What's most remarkable about the religious right's reaction to Glee is that conservatives seem to think the show's pro-gay agenda is some sort of secret. Everyday Christian's Karyn Brownles warns against viewers being "trapped into feeling sympathy for [Kurt] as he expressed his gay feelings to his testosterone-heavy father."
Dan Gainor, vice president for business at the Culture and Media Research Center, described Glee as creator Ryan Murphy's "latest depraved initiative to promote his gay agenda." And in a rambling WorldNetDaily post that includes a long explanation about how Muslims are trying to tear down the Statue of Liberty, former Saturday Night Live star Victoria Jackson reacts to the episode in which Kurt and Blaine finally kiss: "Sickening! And, besides shoving the gay thing down our throats, they made a mockery of Christians -- again! I wonder what their agenda is?"
Perhaps I can save Jackson a bit of guesswork. Glee is not stealthily trying to "indoctrinate" children in the ways of the world; it reflects the world they already live in. Despite Gainor's assertion that McKinley is "a high school most parents would not want to send their kids to," trust me: They already do. There are gay kids in high school. They get crushes on boys and sometimes kiss them (and sometimes do more than that). They come out to their parents and have friends who support them. They also get bullied and commit suicide.
And in the real world, anyone with a conscience will indeed find themselves trapped into feeling sympathy for struggling gay teens, because we've all felt like outcasts at some point. The Glee episode that most scandalized the religious right took its theme from Lady Gaga's new single, "Born This Way," an anthem to self-acceptance. The episode's characters all wear T-shirts printed with a word or phrase that represents a trait they were born with and have struggled to accept. Donning a shirt with "likes boys" emblazoned on it, Kurt joins the cast in singing:
Don't be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you're broke or evergreen
You're black, white, beige, chola descent
You're Lebanese, you're orient
Whether life's disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
'cause baby you were born this way
As Time's Nancy Gibbs pointed out in a 2009 article asking whether Glee was in fact anti-Christian, it's odd that any Christian would object to a message of overarching love and acceptance -- Jesus was, after all, the ultimate outsider. But the religious right continues to blast the show for promoting "immorality" and took special offense at the Google Chrome "It Gets Better" ad, which debuted during the Gaga episode and showed Woody from Toy Story telling gay teens, "You'll be fine, partner."
Gleeks may be too hot for conservative Christians, who, no matter how strong a hold they have over our culture, are still convinced they're the only ones who've ever gotten a wedgie. But from the start, Glee has been a love song to self-proclaimed losers, an outlet for teen (and former teen) outcasts to give haters the finger. Grown-up jocks and hipsters may find the show's over-the-top theatrics grating, but fans can forgive the occasional detours into Cheeseville because, well, as hard as we tried for "cool" in high school, we still got "slushied" in the face. For anyone who can't stand Glee because it's either too cool or not cool enough, I think the New Directions put it best: