Like many cult classics, it’s impossible to make any sort of definitive statement about the degree to which the general public has heard of Glee. I wanted to open this article discussing the impossibility of being an active user of the internet without having heard of Ryan Murphy’s six-season masterpiece, but I just don’t think I can make that claim. While I, an aforementioned active user of the internet, find myself surrounded by Glee propaganda on a daily basis (edits, cross-references when discussing other media, increasingly compelling evidence that Lea Michele can’t read) I’ve come to the conclusion that this may not be the case. Perhaps the circles of the Internet that I run in are dominated by Ryan Murphy fanatics and exiled theatre kids, a harsh combination at best. Regardless, whether you are or aren’t a Gleek, let’s discuss why it’s a cult classic.
But first, what is Glee? Officially, Glee is a musical comedy series that ran from 2009 to 2015, revolving around the glee club at William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio. The show became so beloved by fans due to its discussions of topics such as gender and sexuality, relationships, and other social issues. Of course, all of these discussions are primarily hosted by the glee club’s faculty advisor Mr. Shue, who has a penchant for rap and weirdly close relationships with his students. While the students of the glee club are the focus of the show, Mr. Shue has an important role as well, with various subplots regarding his divorce and subsequent second marriage to the ginger school counselor with crippling OCD, his rivalry with the cheerleading coach, and his dreams of returning to musical theatre.
Glee is considered by many to have paved the way for queer representation in mainstream television, with queer characters such as Santana, the classic mean lesbian archetype, Brittany, her ditsy girlfriend, and Kurt and Blaine, the original musical theatre gays.
But Glee has offered the media world with various gifts, including the concept of the mash-up. The mash-up was originally introduced in the first season, as a competition between the girls and boys of the Glee club, resulting in both teenage drug use and two unique performances: Halo/Walking on Sunshine by the girls and It’s My Life/Confessions Part II by the boys. Ever since the original popularization of the concept of mash-ups in 2009, they’ve cemented themselves as a pop culture staple.
Part of what makes Glee so loved by such a specific audience is how wildly erratic both the plotlines and the dialogue are. Glee at its very core runs rampant with problematic commentary, but yet no one really seems to care because it’s a satirical portrayal of social issues, complete with themed episodes for specific musical artists such as Britney Spears and Madonna. The show somehow manages to immediately follow a school shooting episode with one involving Finn and Puck performing a Beastie Boys song and immediately being invited to join a fraternity.
Additionally, Glee fills the show with complicated running jokes and plotlines that span over all six seasons, especially involving cheerleading coach Sue, such as her consistent mockery of Mr. Shue’s curly hair, her temper tantrums in Principal Figgins’ office, and calling Mr. Shue’s counselor wife by the wrong name whenever she speaks to her. It’s examples such as these that create a connected feeling within Glee, immersing the viewer into the universe.
While Glee is a highly tropey form of media, it does constantly subvert expectations of the characters that the audience may have. Examples of this include Sue’s love for musical artists such as Madonna and Nicki Minaj, Quinn’s emo-ification at the beginning of Season 3, Dave Karofsky coming out as gay and subsequently dating Blaine in Season 6, Brittany’s secretly high IQ, and the show ending with McKinley’s transformation into an arts school.
Glee’s creative dialogue and plotlines have created an almost obsessive fanbase, but it also utilizes a broad variety of musical styles to cater to a more general audience than shows that might focus purely on either pop culture or musical theatre. Glee’s in-show musical performances allow the audience to develop their own opinions on either the ability or vocal tendencies of various characters. Every Gleek has their own individual reasons for loving the show, which are frequently related to Ryan Murphy’s masterful dialogue or the representation in the show, but can also involve the musical aspect of the show.
Glee’s inconsistent plotlines and genre-hopping can create a choppy feel to the show, but any negative quality that exists within the writing only adds to the appeal. Glee wouldn’t be Glee if it didn’t explain the mechanics of Rachel’s conception involving sperm from both of her dads and a surrogate egg, only to then pivot in that very same season to introduce her birth mother Shelby Corcoran, former teen mom and now coach of Vocal Adrenaline, the enemy glee club.
While Glee is fraught with dead-end plotlines and borderline offensive dialogue, it’s still managed to create a cult following fanbase, fraught with inside jokes and endless references to the vast Glee cinematic universe’s ins and outs. The fact that some of the most diehard fans of Glee can recite monologues from the show on command is impressive in and of itself in the fact that such an objectively terrible show has managed to create such obsessive fans, creating a reputation of its own.