Attempted Humor Gone Awry: Did 'Glee' Go Too Far?

Actors Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch of "Glee" pose for a portrait during the 2011 People's Choice Awards. i i

Actors Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch of Glee pose for a portrait during the 2011 People's Choice Awards. Michael Caulfield/Getty Images for PCA hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Caulfield/Getty Images for PCA
Actors Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch of "Glee" pose for a portrait during the 2011 People's Choice Awards.

Actors Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch of Glee pose for a portrait during the 2011 People's Choice Awards.

Michael Caulfield/Getty Images for PCA

Miriam Krule is an editorial projects research fellow at National Journal.

When Chris Colfer of Glee won a Golden Globe this year for his role as the gay teen Kurt Hummel, he made sure to acknowledge his fans during his acceptance speech. He ended by talking about "the amazing kids" who watch Glee, the kids the show "celebrates." These are the kids "who are constantly told 'no' by the people in their environments, by bullies at school that they can't be who they are or have what they want because of who they are."

Colfer was emphasizing what Glee does well. It advertises itself as a show for "Gleeks" and in doing so glorifies the misfits by finding a home for them. While this is done in a serious tone some weeks (Colfer's character is bullied and switches schools), other weeks it has a lighter air (a character in a wheelchair wants to play football). Not all of the scenes are centered on Colfer's character, and other issues arise, such as teen pregnancy and physical disabilities. But, while the show is great at addressing some of these plots, it often straddles the line on others. If Glee has nearly crossed the line a few times with its attempts at humor, during Tuesday night's episode, it definitely went too far.

In the opening scene of the episode, Emma (Jayma Mays) comes to tell Will (Matthew Morrison) that there's an emergency — Sue (Jane Lynch) has written in her diary "goodbye cruel world" and that she plans to commit "Sue-icide" (she is depressed because of a plot from the previous week's episode). Will and Emma rush to her home, ferociously push open the door and find her lying on her bed surrounded by what appear to be empty pill bottles. But it's all a joke. Sue hops up and everything is OK (her CIA training helps her stop her pulse). In fact, this is all part of an elaborate ruse she created to join Glee Club and sabotage it from within.

While Lynch's character is known for her mean-spirited ways — she is often shown mocking people and even bullying them — I always tried to accept her as a foil for the "heroes" of Glee. Her plotline always seemed to work in tune with theirs, and it only made them stronger in an after-school-special kind of way. But if there is nothing to learn from her actions, then they're just plain hurtful, especially in a show so dedicated to making kids feel like they have a safe place.

Miriam Krule is an NPR contributor living in Washington D.C.

Miriam Krule is an NPR contributor living in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Miriam Krule hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Miriam Krule

It would seem logical for Sue's "Sue-icide" plotline to lead to some conclusion or at least some resolution, but instead it is supposed to be humorous. There is no real effort to help her — aside from having her join Glee Club — and in the end, nothing is learned and she remains the students' enemy, this time going as far as coaching their competition. The audience is left with an episode where a main character fakes an attempted suicide and an extended bout of depression as part of an evil scheme — making light of a serious issue, one that faces many of the teens that Glee aims to appeal to. What, then, is the benefit of making light of it and then not even addressing it later on?

It's one thing to create a tone that's consistently mocking, even in a way that can be deemed offensive. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a show that does this successfully — mostly because it is self-mocking and consistent in its offensiveness. It is supposed to be offensive and doesn't pretend not to be.

It's another thing to present your show as a feel-good safe space one day and to joke about suicide the next.

For a show that aims to appeal to kids who feel bullied or left out, Glee sure is sending a mixed message. What do you think?

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