So I know that the second episode of Glee has already come and gone, but I couldn't let this premiere pass without saying something... Also, there's a pretty big LOST spoiler in the second paragraph. Consider yourself warned.
It’s a constant question why Glee works. Especially since it doesn’t just work, but has captured the popular imagination both as a new model for TV as a whole and a dependable quote factory (am I the only one whose Facebook page is all Glee quotes on Wednesday morning?). As Alexander Doty over on Flow argues, the long Bruce Springsteen intro at the Emmys really signifies that Glee is the main game in broadcast TV these days. And I don’t think that dominance is without reason; the show seems to have latched on to some balance of sincerity and cynicism that resonates really deeply, and that I haven’t seen successfully imitated anywhere else.
The season premiere really gets at that balance, and at the way that Glee seems to be driven by contradictory impulses, holding them both at the same time. I’m thinking particularly of the awesomely meta- opening gag of the glee club blog and how it both validated and dismissed the show’s instant popularity. It of course doesn’t really make sense within the diegetic world for there to be a blog devoted to the glee club, particularly since the whole point of the episode is that the club’s sense of their own importance isn’t reflected by the world outside, but the moment when Jacob calls Will out on the show’s over-use of Auto-tune is just the kind of fan validation that makes viewers feel especially included in the world of a show.
It’s an interesting take on the fan/text relationship. Usually, fan figures like Jacob work as some kind of audience stand-in, either positive (like Hurley’s inheritance of the island at the end of LOST) or negative (Buffy’s Trio of evil nerds). Here, the show seems to be disavowing its own popularity, or (and I think this is more accurate) owning up to the fact that no amount of popularity will ever be enough. Jacob is more in line with the Warren Mears model of fictional fans, but the moment when Kurt gets slushied right at the end of the opener shows that he’s at least taking the show seriously.
Of course the worst moment for the glee kids is when they do that cover of “New York State of Mind” and no one even pays attention. Even bad attention is better than no attention, particularly for a serial television show. Even after the show has achieved a level of profound cultural resonance, the pilot suggests that we shouldn't kid ourselves--no matter how popular Glee gets, kids who like musicals will still get their lunch money stolen.
Will’s aborted attempt to get on Team Sue seems to speak to this same theme. Sue is by far the strongest and most popular character on the show, which is interesting since she would clearly despise any self-proclaimed Gleek. Getting back to the idea of the fan stand-in, Sue seems to be its opposite number—the show doesn't have a major character who’s a negative fan stand-in because the hostility toward the embarrassingly excessive fan is built in to the character of Sue. Since we see the negative effects of her bullying, the authors align themselves almost completely with the fans: desperate, needy, always wanting more. The show's insistence despite its popularity that glee club is lame seems to reinforce that depiction. When we contrast this with the way LOST positioned its fans, for instance (good when they provided love like Hurley, bad when they wanted answers like Ben), this intense identification becomes even more interesting.
I suppose it’s the meta- nature of Glee that makes this strange axis of identification possible. One of the organizing ideas of the show is that we’re all fans of the music they choose; as embarrassing as it might be to squee over show tunes and Journey, Glee tells us we’re not alone.