This week’s episode of Glee was different. We knew that upfront when a somber “viewer discretion advised” screen preceded the episode, warning of depictions of school violence. Yes, Glee went there. Glee, in all of its haphazard, quirky, occasionally insufferable glory, tackled an episode about a (supposed) school shooting.
As we all know, just a few months ago the United States was devastated by a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., resulting in 26 fatalities, twenty of which were first graders. An online article from the Newtown Bee warned that this week’s Glee “may be a little much for some residents to stomach” due to its too-familiar subject matter. In the weeks after the incident, when Americans were still reeling from the tragedy, TV networks were cautious about the programs they showed depicting gun violence. Now, just shy of four months after the event, Glee is not tiptoeing around the issue.
Glee starts off this week’s episode, regrettably titled “Shooting Star,” with another of Brittany’s whimsical convictions: the world is ending because a meteor (or an asteroid or a comet) is about to hit earth. The New Directions play along because there’s nothing better to sing about that week. Taking this already ridiculous plot to further heights, Brittany decides to spend her last days reconciling with Lord Tubbington, her obese cat. The glee club accompanies her in a heartfelt rendition of Extreme’s “More than Words,” holding candles as if at a vigil. The glee club treats a threat that they know is fake with real emotions, claiming it is the perfect opportunity to share their “last moments” with the ones they love, a notion which will eerily be brought back when the episode takes a dark turn.
Glee club is in session when a gunshot rings out. A few seconds later, another shot. The adults immediately shut off the lights and get everyone to be quiet and hide. Sam freaks out because Brittany is not in the choir room. As we soon see, she is hiding in a bathroom stall, tiptoes on the toilet seat, silently sobbing. Tensions run high. Sam has to be physically held down to prevent him from finding Brittany. There are many tearful “I love you’s” to parents, recorded on Artie’s phone just in case. The SWAT team finally calls “all clear,” the lights turn on, and the metronome that has been beating out a steady and tense rhythm is silenced. Everyone breathes. Cut to commercial.
I will admit it; I cried. I didn’t cry for Artie, Kitty, or Brittany; I cried imagining 6-year-olds huddled together like the New Directions were, waiting for the “all clear” that some would not make it to hear. No one mentions the Newtown shootings in this episode, and it’s for the best. Bringing it up would turn this somber episode into a downright depressing one by reminding viewers of the plot’s basis in real life.
Though everyone assumes that the gunshots were a student’s doing, cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester turns herself in, claiming she was cleaning her gun when it went off. We later learn the true culprit: Becky Jackson, a cheerleader with Downs Syndrome who is afraid of having to graduate and brought her father’s gun to school to feel safe. Because the public has focused on the issue of mentally challenged individuals’ access to guns, Glee blames the problem on the school’s mentally disabled student, as if they are the only ones capable of mishandling firearms. Sue covers for Becky and is fired.
Glee has never been a show to shy from heavy topics, covering everything from bulimia to suicide with varying levels of tact and success. In an episode about domestic violence, misguidedly named “Choke,” reviewers pointed out that having a storyline about a botched audition sharing equal screen time with the domestic violence plot line unintentionally gives them a sense of equal importance. This week’s episode suffered from this flaw also. As the glee club heals by — what else? — belting out “Say” by John Mayer, their performance is interspersed with shots of Ryder alone waiting for the person who “Catfish-ed” him to reveal him or herself (Ryder assumes it’s a girl, but it’s totally Unique. So obvious.). By cutting between these two scenes, the episode signifies that being tricked into a 3-week romance is equally traumatizing to thinking you could die any moment. Not even close, Glee.
This episode will provoke discussion from viewers and non-viewers alike. And it was meant to. I’m not saying that Glee used this topic to boost its ratings or notoriety, but no one can deny that those are side effects of dealing with such controversial material. Despite the concerns of it being "too soon" and "not appropriate," Glee handled this sensitive topic as well as a musical dramedy with a penchant for zaniness could.