Battling the TV Graduation Death Knell

saved-by-the-bell

 How Glee might rewrite the way pop culture faces growing up

Glee, the show that took network television by storm and proved that musicals could, indeed, appeal to mass audiences, will find itself at a crossroads this spring. Over half of its core student cast will be graduating from the fictional McKinley High School, including headlining stars Lea Michele (Rachel), Cory Monteith (Finn), and Chris Colfer (Kurt). The show uses a mixture of Top 40 hits and classic show tunes to weave together episode narratives about teen sexuality and sexual orientation, bullying, drugs and alcohol, parental relationships, and everything else that vexes and adds depth to one’s formative years, firmly grounding the story arcs with a sense of time and place (and jazz hands). 

The passing of teenagers from one life stage (high school) to the next (presumably college) has historically been difficult for character-driven TV writers to master. Case in point–Saved By The Bell: The College Years. Enough said. Though Dawson’s Creek broke many late 90s/early 00s taboos by confronting “adult” themes head-on and launched the venerable on-screen career of Michelle Williams and venerable off-screen career of Mrs. Tom Cruise, the show suffered from significant ratings declines after the Capeside crew left the roost and forever altered the space-time continuum of Cape Cod love triangles by actually growing up. 

Are we unwilling to allow our characters the luxury of moving onward and getting over the most tumultuous years of their youth? Gossip Girl’s cast, now in their fifth season of back-stabbing UES antics, have done very little maturing in their young adulthood, falling victim to the same follies that keep us coming back (well, fewer and fewer of us) week after week. The content is so dependent on staid character behaviors (those that, in real life, temper over time) that it simply wouldn’t be worth watching if Blair and Chuck suddenly got over it and dimmed their destructive love-hate, or if Dan ever stopped feeling sorry for himself. 

For the most part, high school-based TV shows go down just two roads when faced with the prospect of their main characters graduating–neither of which has proven particularly successful. 1) follow them to college and attempt to let them develop as people (Dawson’s Creek, Saved by the Bell, The OC) or 2) let them grow up in name only, keeping their dynamic static (90210, Gossip Girl ). Glee might just break the cycle by abandoning some of its characters altogether–a bold move. 

According to Glee’sWikipedia page, its creators had originally conceived of a 3-year series but have since committed to graduating old characters and bringing in new ones, assuring its place in the high school canon and relying on the adults for series continuity.

 At its core, Glee is a show about high school and its supposed commitment to being lifestage-driven instead of character-driven seems prudent, especially since there’s nary a dearth of teen drama from which to cull. Will we fall in love with new characters or will we miss the old ones? How much of the show’s success is based on its stars and how much is due to the framework in which we’ve gotten to know them? Affording us the opportunity to experience the trials and tribulations of high school through the eyes of different cast member waves is a new take on the Bildungs-narrative and perhaps, over time, what will become even more clear is the affect it all has on the shepherds of these talented young lambs, the oft-maligned public school teachers. 

By: Lirra Schiebler