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November 18, 2009

"Glee" Pops A Few Wheelies

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One of Fox's fall hits, "Glee" got itself in a bit of trouble last week with an episode called, "Wheels."  It was about wheelchair user Artie (Kevin McHale) and head Glee-meister, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) trying to teach the other Glee kids a little something about living with a disability.  Add to that the sight of a Down syndrome student trying out for Sue Sylvester's (Jane Lynch) Cheerios and the keyboards set to tapping in the blogosphere.

But first, for those of you who don't know, "Glee" is about an idealistic high school teacher, Will Schuester who wants to bring back the glory days of the McKinley High School Glee Club.  At first the club, made up of a group of misfits, is the laughing stock of the school, but once the plucky group of talented youngsters show what they can do, the club puts itself on the map.

That's not easy because Will's competitor for school notoriety and school funding is the tough talking, hard driving Sue Sylvester, head of the school cheerleading team, hilariously dubbed the Cherrios.

Of course on the personal side, there are teen love triangles, a mousy guidance counselor secretly in love with Will and Will's wife who's pretending she's pregnant.  Don't ask.

By all rights I shouldn't like "Glee." Yeah, it's a musical comedy.  Yeah, it's got plucky kids trying to prove to the world they matter.  Yeah, it's got cute as a button Matthew Morrison pretending he's Justin Timberlake every other week.  But honestly I'm kind of tired of high school shows. 

Nevertheless, week after week, in spite of myself, I show up to McKinley High School to see what those crazy "Glee" kids are up to.  Here's the stuff I love, and the stuff I hate.

Stuff I Love

  • Really funny moments like when Will and Sue danced to "Sing, Sing, Sing." I thought sure it was a dream/nightmare sequence until the very end when we found out Sue was in a big band dance competition with her new man.  That is until she caught him in the arms of someone else.
  • Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), the gay kid who comes out to his blue collar father only to find out Dad, though a mite confused, is a staunch ally.
  • Diva extraordinaire Mercedes (Amber Riley).  Did you hear her--Amber, not Mercedes--sing "The Star Spangled Banner" at the World Series!?  Man, what pipes!
  • Puck (Mark Salling), the football jock with a mohawk and an attitude to match.  Except, sometimes he's just a big mush. 

Stuff I Hate

  • Everything about Rachel (Lea Michele) is annoying, except her voice.  And even that can be too much like she's performing in a road tour of "Annie."
  • Will's wife, Terri's (Jessalyn Gilsig) got nothing redeeming about her.  She's not even evil in a funny way, like Sue is.  What fun is a schemer if they're a boring schemer?
  • The awful dubbing.  These kids may actually be singing, but the show does everything it possibly can to make it look like they aren't. 

Back to last week's episode, "Wheels."  Will forces the Glee Club to use wheelchairs for a few days to see what it's like for Artie.  While they're at it, they do a pretty decent wheelchair rendition of "Proud Mary." 

"Rollin' on the river," get it?

And Artie sings an acoustic version of "Dancing With Myself."

To add more diversity to the Cheerios, Sue is forced by the principal to open up auditions and that's when the aforementioned Down syndrome student, Becky shows up and Sue actually puts her on the team.

Will, along with all the rest of us, thinks shes up to something, especially when she rides the girl hard during rehearsals.  But by the end of the episode, we discover why Sue decided to give the girl a shot, and why she's not treating her with kid gloves.

***Spoiler Alert***

Turns out Sue's older sister, who's in a nursing home, has Down syndrome.  It gave us a whole other side to the "evil" Sue.

I thought it was a good episode, and though a bit heavy handed with the messages, I liked Sue's storyline and our discovery about her at the end.  Then there was the great diva-off between Rachel and Kurt to see who would get to sing, "Defying Gravity."  I didn't quite believe that Kurt would give up like that, but okay, I went with it. 

As far as the messages about disabilities, yes I thought they were good, but I'm also not disabled. And I totally get why some bloggers with disabilities are upset that Artie isn't played by a disabled performer. 

As far as the musical numbers, I can judge good choreography without wheelchairs, but with--well I'll leave that to someone else who knows more about it than I do.  That's where Wheelchair Dancer comes in.  She thought the choreography in the "Proud Mary" number "sucked:"

The one potentially interesting move that McHale supposedly "does" is a cut -- he wheelies on one rear wheel. The rest is notable only for the way that it shows that able-bodied, non-wheelchair-using folk really do think of chairs as bicycles you move with your arms. There's absolutely no body-chair integration at all. They think of sitting in a chair as being only about not being able to move their legs (and in Artie's case as being about having his hips and legs twisted to one side). That mistaken understanding leads to some very weird looking people in chairs.

Check out the rest of Wheelchair Dancer's post because she has many enlightening things to say and not just about the show.

The Wheelie Catholic also wasn't impressed:

I refuse to put a video up here because I've seen real wheelchair dancing. Actually I've seen better wheelchair dancing at wheelchair tennis tournament banquets by an 11 year old kid. Probably because he uses a wheelchair every day.

Anna at Feminists With Disabilities was one of many with questions about "Glee's" casting:

I wonder if any of their casting calls actually encouraged actors and singers with disabilities to apply, or if they just figured they didn’t need to do that type of recruitment to get actors with disabilities – used to being overlooked for any role that isn’t explicitly about disability – out. I guess I won’t know until they tell us, and that’s not the sort of question anyone in the press seems to want to ask.

On the other hand, The TV Chick liked the episode:

There’s always concern when tackling an issue like disability that it won’t be done in a respectful way. But Kevin McHale clearly did his research, carried himself with dignity, and was absolutely wonderful. His solo “Dancing With Myself,” was great, and I loved that they gave him a love interest in Tina, because they had something in common (her stutter is technically a disability). We learn that Tina was faking the stutter and the relationship doesn’t seem to work out, but this was still fantastic.

As did The Boob Toob:

So, overall, Glee played a pretty tricky game, and tackled a ton of discriminatory topics. Were they successful? Well, Artie got some ramps, and people understand him better, but poor Becky is still getting her ass kicked on the Cheerios.

And over at Mom Blog, Gina, who's the mom of a special needs child had this to say in her post, "Thank You 'Glee':"

I’ll admit, that when the girl – Becky – with Down syndrome appeared, I was nervous.  “Glee” is about as irreverent as you can get and I honestly wondered, as I watched an entire episode plotted around kids with disabilities, if this was PC and if I should even be watching it.

Then I got OVER MYSELF.

Because being “PC” is a load of crap and, in this episode, the writers hit a nail on the head. 

Finally, Alyssa Rosenberg thought:

"....putting some genuine pain, and genuine love, in Sue's backstory made the show feel deeper than it did two weeks ago.  And the fact that the show used two actresses with Down's Syndrome, rather than having someone play-act it, was effective, and smart, I think."

Do you watch "Glee?"  What did you think?

Related Link:

"Glee"-ful About Special Needs Kids on TV by Shannon Des Roches Rosa

Cross Posted From BlogHer

Photo Credit: Carin Baer/FOX

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