Tuesday, October 5, 2010

With pro-God episode, 'Glee' jumps the shark

I'm sure I will probably watch "Glee" again, but tonight's pro-"spirituality" episode offended me so completely, I may need a lengthy break.

If you've never watched "Glee," it's a program about a public high school's show choir. The series started out as a musical comedy and, in my view, it was at its best then. More recently, "Glee" has been mining weightier topics and trying to serve up meaningful lessons. Occasionally, these newer episodes will include a dramatic scene that works well, but in general I find these more-serious shows to be trite, with bottom lines that are glib and often a bit eye-roll-inducing. Still, I've stuck with the show until now because I enjoy the music and the occasionally still-effective satire.

Enter tonight's episode. In this entry, the father of a character named Kurt has a heart attack and teeters on the border of life and death. Surprisingly (and illegally), the glee club's faculty adviser allows several students to lecture Kurt on why he should consider abandoning his atheistic beliefs so he can feel better.

Why do I say "illegal"? Although the series has never made clear whether the glee club is an elective course or an after-school extracurricular club, the group gets its funding from the school, it meets on school grounds, and it has a faculty member, the Spanish teacher, as its director. The director even gives glee-club assignments and sends kids straight from club practice to the principal's office. All this suggests the club should meet the constitutional requirement of church-state separation.

Anyway, back to the plot: Kurt repeatedly professes his atheism only to be looked at with pitying eyes by Christians, Jews, and well-meaning, pushy people of perhaps other faiths. Even after making his beliefs clear, several of Kurt's classmates insist upon crowding his father's hospital room so the poor comatose man can be comforted by candles, prayers, and the lyrics of "Papa, Can You Hear Me." After seeing that they have upset Kurt, the "friends" say they were only trying to help. But help who? If I had been in Kurt's situation, forced to watch my friends and acquaintances express such blatant disregard for my beliefs, I would have felt violated, yet in this episode, the offensive characters are rewarded: After much anger, Kurt softens and agrees to go to church, where he does not convert, but has a Meaningful Moment.

At church, Kurt's friend Mercedes assumes the pulpit and tells him (in front of hundreds of strangers) that it's OK not to believe in God, as long as he believes in "something," because life is just too hard to get through otherwise. If you think about it, that's a little bit like saying, "You have to believe in Santa Claus, because otherwise Christmas is depressing," but rationality clearly is not something that the "Glee" writers are into. If you interpret her comments to mean something less ridiculous — maybe she just means "find a purpose to your life" — then it's even more offensive because it suggests Mercedes thinks her atheist friend doesn't have any sustaining beliefs or values. All because he doesn't pray to a magic man in the sky.

Kurt's "something" turns out to not be a supreme being who hangs out in the clouds — rather, Kurt tells his unconscious dad that he believes in their relationship; family seems to be his newfound "center." But this revelation comes across as a bone thrown to the non-religious, sandwiched as it is between images of Kurt learning to relax and be introspective at church (how else would you figure out that your dad is important to you?) and a scene of the only other clearly identified atheist, Sue, seeming to question her long-held beliefs.

Sue, the school's cheerleading coach, is presented in a way that is especially insulting. Sue — who also happens to be the series' most petty and antagonistic character, one who's been bent on destroying the glee club — is shown angrily telling another character that she stopped believing in God because she once prayed for her sister's mental disability to be cured, and it wasn't. (In other words: Atheists are bitter people who haven't gotten what they want out of life.) Then, in what is perhaps the most saccharine scene of tonight's episode (and that's saying something), Sue's disabled sister proclaims that "God doesn't make mistakes," sparking a somber moment for Sue. The coach then seems to backpaddle on earlier church-state objections she had raised about the "spirituality" assignment given to members of the glee club by their teacher. At least, that is how I read the scene where she stumbles into the school auditorium during the glee club's painfully serious rendition of Joan Osborne's "One of Us" and softly assures the defensive club director that she doesn't have a problem with it. She then sits back to listen and contemplate.

The message I got from all this is that if you are an atheist, you might be an inflexible jerk. You should at least listen to and consider other people's Godspeak — in fact, if you do this, new vistas of serenity may open up to you. Religious people should always be allowed to market their wares, and don't worry about the Constitution. It's just an annoyance.

To me, one of the most troubling parts of the show is the way that atheism is presented not as a valid system of beliefs that should inherently be respected by other people, but as a void — an empty plate. Since the plate is empty, it's OK for someone to try put something there. It's quite telling that the show did not choose to depict Kurt as a person of faith being courted by people of another faith. But that wouldn't happen, would it? If he had been a Jew or a Muslim or a Moonie, his Christian friend wouldn't have been quite so hot to get him to her Protestant service. Of course not. We all know we're supposed to respect other people's religions. But according to "Glee," atheists and agnostics are fair game, ready and waiting to be courted, or perhaps pushed.

It's possible that the writers think their story had some depth because of a side plot in which one character — Finn, a glee-clubber and football player — tries and fails to make deals with God. (Finn thinks he sees an image of Jesus in his grilled cheese sandwich and then asks said sandwich to get him to second base with his girlfriend, among other shallow requests.) At the end of the episode, Finn learns in a sobering talk with the school counselor that God has not actually been answering his prayers, despite a few coincidences that made him think so. But can you really call this sophisticated, or even intelligent storytelling? Don't most people, of all faiths, learn at a fairly early age that you can't actually barter with God, even when he appears to you on toast? This B-side strikes me as an inadequate effort to balance an essentially pro-spirituality statement, one that says evangelists shouldn't have to temper their preaching, even in public domains, and that spirituality should be given repeated chances, even among those who believe (correctly, in my estimation) that religion is not only misguided but potentially damaging. In fact, spiritual people might be better off if they spent more time trying to learn about atheism and less time trying to eradicate it, but don't look for anything like that to happen among the characters on "Glee."

If you found this show as distasteful as I did and want to cleanse your palate with a better tale about God and atheism, I suggest renting "The Invention of Lying," in which Ricky Gervais pretty much establishes himself as William Shakespeare to the "Glee" writers' Mother Goose.

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"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.