Bullying. Teen suicide. A possibly fatal car crash. This week’s Glee Season 3, Episode 14 “On My Way,” dealt with some extremely tough issues. Yet, when all is said and done, the show appears to be shying away from showing drastic consequences.
He may have attempted to kill himself, but Karofsky (Max Adler) is still alive. And Quinn, who at the end of the episode was slammed by an oncoming truck while texting and driving? Yeah. She survives, too.
It’s important to discuss these issues, but happy endings like this aren’t always the case. Suicide attempts — especially related to teen bullying — don’t always end up being just attempts, and very few survive serious car crashes. By skewing reality and suggesting that everything will always turn out peachy — if a little battered and bruised around the edges — is Glee acting irresponsibly? Or is this just Glee being Glee, a show that approaches serious issues with a trademark veneer of biting humor and self-awareness, but is ill-prepared to scratch beneath the shiny surface?
First off, closeted gay teen Dave Karofsky tragically attempted to hang himself after being cruelly outed by a classmate. Luckily, Dave’s father finds his body in time and manages to get him to the hospital. What if the suicide attempt had succeeded? Would Glee going there have made more of a point about the grim realities of teen bullying? It’s already a dark and painful moment, but if Glee is going to move away from its frothy song-and-dance core and be a vehicle of social change, shouldn’t it be more realistic about the delivery of these heavier messages?
Sebastian (Grant Gustin), Glee's gay bully, does an about-face after Karofsky's attempted suicide, going from snarkster to golden-hearted teen in what seems like mere minutes. He explains to the New Directions crew, "It's all fun and games until it's not." If that's the slogan for the episode, it seems spot on, but Glee proved this week that it can't flip that switch as deftly and believably as it flips in real life.
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As if that’s not enough, the winter finale ends on a crazy, out-of-the-blue cliffhanger: As Quinn is driving to Rachel (Lea Michele)'s quickie nuptials, she gets into a car accident while responding to a text from the bride. Don’t text and drive! screams Glee as the show cuts to the credits. Thanks to on-set photos that appeared immediately after the episode’s airing, we already know that she makes it out alive, but again, it’s not a realistic outcome given the fact that she was just T-boned by a truck.
Tragedy has slammed into Glee in the past — Sue's (Jane Lynch) sister died and Kurt (Chris Colfer) almost lost his dad to a heart attack — but neither of those are PSA-type teaching moments. Inventing tragedy to hammer home a point and then wrapping up said tragedy in a nice, neat bow does a disservice to the lesson itself. Either go big or don’t touch the serious issues in the first place.
Don’t misunderstand, the fact that Glee addresses these issues at all places them miles above the Desperate Housewives of the world. It’s not a soap opera, it’s an agent of change that is having a deep impact on our culture. It can’t be said enough how much Glee needs to be praised for normalizing on TV, emotions and behaviors which are, well, normal. The more that people who are isolated from cities or teenagers can see the truth about the emotional and physical struggles real people live with, the more sympathetic they can be taught to be.
Our message to Glee: Ratchet back the saccharine after-school-special quality and dial up the reality. Just a bit. Because it’s too late now to go back to being all about the music.