Seeing the first commercials for Glee was like all of my wildest dreams had come true. I’ve been a sucker for musicals and choral arrangements of popular songs since middle school when I saw “Singing in the Rain” for the first time. How could Glee fail? It is about a band of misfits. Matthew Morrison, star of stage, and Jane Lynch, star of mockumentaries, were to lead the way. It even grabbed Lea Michele from her promising Broadway career. And the backstage casting stories were surreal: he’s from a boy band! And he used to be a bag boy at a grocery store! And even better – this role was created FOR HIM.
Then it premiered, and it quickly broke my heart. The music was outstanding, wonderfully sung and staged. Put Matthew Morrison in a tight shirt and make him dance, and I’m sold. It even took on some hot topics and did them justice…kind of. It became a rallying point for those who are bullied and teased. But even as my heartstrings were tugged, I started getting more and more frustrated.
Fifteen plot points were slammed into hour-long episodes. Couples broke up and reunited multiple times during the first season – the writers created about as many pairings as there were students, and most only lasted for an episode or so. People almost died, just to be okay for the next episode. Couples got engaged and married within one 42-minute block. Don’t forget the musical numbers, which became more and more extravagant and less about the plot.
I don’t mean to whine. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and I’m pleased if it makes kids join choir or admit to someone that they are being bullied. I even continue to watch it each week – it is incredibly addicting. But I can’t say I enjoy it that much, and here’s why.
In a nutshell: it does not trust its viewers. Plot points are fed to the viewers blatantly and quickly. For example, in a recent episode, the very first lines of the episode gave the theme: dealing with teenage drinking. I didn’t need it stated for me in the first 20 seconds; I could have figured it out. I feel like the writers don’t trust me to stick around, to enjoy the journey, to understand how and why things happen. Instead, story plots are crammed down my throat without much rhyme or reason or depth, only breadth. And it’s frustrating because I like development of stories. I like living with and through them and being trusted to be able to follow along, understand, and stick around long enough to take a story to its end.
I finished a book recently that does the opposite: the third book in Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quartet, titled A Swiftly Tilting Planet. In all of her books, it’s obvious that L’Engle is a writer who trusts her readers. She tackles big issues and does not shy away from them. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is not the best of the quartet (my humble opinion is that the honor still belongs to the first and most famous of the series), but the premise is…Charles Wallace has to stop nuclear war. Nuclear war! This is a pre-young adult book, written in 1978 at the end of the Cold War. She’s telling her viewers that they are old enough to deal with this reality. From there, it goes into time travel and unicorns and interconnected story lines, all things the reader can handle because the writer has already proved her trust. And because of that, you trust her.
L’Engle’s tale differs from how Glee does things. Obviously, there is less audio (though there are songs in the text). The book has a cohesion that is missing in Glee, a sense of continuity and development within the storyline. You grow with the characters, instead of being told that they have grown and you’ve gotta take their word for it.
Also, instead of being handed a story blatantly and asked to simply keep up, L’Engle’s writing says, “You’re smart. Figure it out.” She gives you wild premises, explains them in one sentence, and then moves on, not out of disregard for the reader or the fear that the reader will move on to something else if she doesn’t first, but because she trusts that you understand…and that you trust her to tell her story. Instead of a rushed feeling, it’s a comfortable pace, one that keeps the pages turning without rushing you through the text
I know it’s a strange comparison, and granted, these are two very different mediums. But they are reaching for the same audience, and I’m afraid I know which one is more popular: the one where it is unnecessary to think. I find myself guilty of the love of escapism often – it’s easier. What this world needs is more care and engagement with issues, instead of themes and skimming over the surface.
Here’s my challenge: don’t pander to your readers, your viewers, or those you are trying to reach with your story. They will know, and they will not love you for it. Treat them as thinking people, trust them with your story, and they will respond. Make them work to understand, because then the understanding will mean something and they will respect you for it.