Was it Steve Perry or Michel de Montaigne who said that it is not the arrival but the journey that matters? Last May, when Fox broadly introduced Glee to advertisers at the upfronts, it roused the crowd by bringing forth the musical’s cast to belt out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’. ” A few hours later, when the pilot hit the airwaves—just after American Idol and about four months before its regular-season run—the popular audience felt its heart swell to the same number. The players converted the song into the underdog anthem of New Directions, the glee club at William McKinley, its membership made up of kids born to sing the blues.
Triumphing over the low commercial expectations that have greeted its genre at least since Cop Rock, Glee shed its own underdog status to lead the pack of freshman shows, and Tuesday night’s season finale (set those DVRs to 8:59 p.m. ET) will once again work us over with a Journey classic. The bookending is typical of the attention to structure that makes the show sing, and the tune this time around is “Faithfully,” originally about a love affair strained by a music man’s time on the road. It is a kind of power ballad for Odysseus and Penelope—an appreciation of how absence makes the heart grow fonder and a paean to not banging groupies.
Or at least it essentially was until covered by glee-clubbers Finn (the varsity QB now calling soulful audibles) and Rachel (the drama-queen bee forever abuzz with Broadway dreams). They have been destined to get together since the second episode, when a shared kiss prompted him, in the best euphemism I can muster, to spill his seed oversoon. On Tuesday night, with New Directions competing for a regional championship, the two will enter an auditorium from the foyer and step purposefully down the aisles, Rachel gift-wrapped in a gold dress, Finn supercute in a matching necktie. By the time they meet at center stage, Glee creator Ryan Murphy has tweaked the song’s theme of constancy to spotlight the sweet buoyancy of first love. The transformation is typical of Glee’s enlivening approach to familiar songs, its way of recontextualizing show tunes and radio staples to go deep with old coming-of-age themes.
And why did the producers choose to turn and return to this particular hard-pop band? We might guess that they are attracted to the grand tenderness in Journey’s best songs—the passionate sentimentality, the scrappy optimism, the vulnerability balancing the guitar bombast, the proud aching for escape that ensures the immortality of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” as a karaoke rave-up. Journey operates at much the same emotional register as a show that respects both the operatic inner lives of adolescents and the intelligence of an adult audience that’s heard this one before.
With Finn, Rachel, and their marginalized New Directions cohorts every week suffering the slings and arrows attendant to freakdom and geekhood, it is impressive that Glee never degenerates into a saccharine after-school spectacular. But hey, we are talking about a show broadcast by Fox, which never shies away from brashness, which allowed Arrested Development briefly to flower as the oddest of family-values sitcoms, and where programs generally seem to be treated with a sarcasm that guards against goop in much the same way that iodized salt protects against goiters.
As a general rule, whenever Will Schuester—the club’s director and the show’s nominal protagonist—starts in about the importance of kids expressing themselves and all that, his sincerity must spend some time enduring a wedgie before anyone earns a lesson. Moreover, everyone has observed that Glee’s most engrossing character is Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester—the cheer-squad and glee-club antagonist—with Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott observing more closely than most. Sylvester is for him “a Taser in a tracksuit who fuses the raw pessimism of Hobbes (life is “nasty, brutish, and short”) and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche (the “will to power”) into one malevolent, fun-loving gal.” None of which is entirely at odds with the Sue we saw in the series’s Madonna-centric episode, in which she disappeared into a Madge fantasy as if to communicate the starry dreams behind her lethal stares. Glee does more voguing than camping.
The writers also parcel out some fine lines to nasty brutes less charismatic that Sue, as when they give a snappy wisecrack to one of Finn’s teammates, a meathead letterman: “How many times do we gotta go through this: You being a jock and being in this glee club does not make you versatile. It makes you bisexual.” Being a varsity homophobe, the character does not mean that in a good way, but some of the charm of Glee itself owes to its particular perch on a kind of cultural Kinsey scale. It offers everything for someone, Judy Garland acolytes and Van Halen head-bangers alike. It asks only that you hold onto the feeling that transcendence is available to anyone with a voice to express a yearning for it.