KERNS: The drama of high school, dramatized



Bryan Kerns

The great 20th century English poet W.H. Auden once said, “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” Now, Auden died in 1973, but surely he was anticipating the emergence of a phenomenon like “Glee,” the hit show of an otherwise incredibly bleak television season.

What, though, about high school could possibly be seen as sensible? To obtain insight on the experience I missed at my all-male, Catholic high school, I consulted two friends who attended public high schools. One said that “Glee” could best be described as a caricature of the overall high school experience, while the other claimed the show essentially bore no resemblance to her experience.

The tension is curious because, in many ways, it reveals something about the elusive nature of the show. Alternating between pregnancy melodrama, awkward sparks between teachers, unresolved romances, issues between family members over sexuality and futility on the football field, the episode last week contained enough competing and diverging plot lines to cover an entire season. Indeed, it made only passing references to what had transpired in previous episodes.

Is this what high school is really like? It’s certainly not what we’re used to from television high schools. From “Saved By The Bell” to “Boston Public” to “Beverly Hills: 90210” (both iterations) to “One Tree Hill,” and even right up to “Gossip Girl” and “Secret Life of the American Teenager,” the viewing public has seen slapstick comedy involving the likes of Dustin Diamond before the sex video and Mario Lopez before “Dancing With The Stars.” The overbearing melodramas centered on love triangles and pentagons with more conniving and backstabbing than even Machiavelli could have possibly envisioned and soapy and steamy sagas akin to an 80’s power ballad.

Never, though, have we seen all of these in one. The ironic aspects of the show are neatly balanced by a measure of empathy emerging from “Glee’s” depths. While the viewer is left laughing at the high school football team performing its rendition of “Single Ladies” in an effort to throw off the opposing team – a false start should have been called at the very least – there’s something a tad touching about the way the male student with trouble coming out discusses his sexuality with a father with whom he seems to have nothing in common.

There is something a bit disarming about the way the show shifts between its more profound and more absurd vignettes, in precisely the way that Auden may have meant – nothing sensible occurs when people sing. That much is clear from the musical sequences, as rarely do they mingle with reality. More frequently, the show’s musical side portrays the characters’ motivations and desires.

It remains highly unlikely that “Glee” will occupy a place in the permanent cultural milieu but perhaps it says something about our peculiar zeitgeist. High school is a challenging place for many – stating the obvious is not always good journalistic practice, although here it seems appropriate – and as such, there is something compelling about watching this bizarre band of misfits maraud through their formative years and attempt to attain a reasonable degree of social acceptance.

Believability has been eschewed in favor of bundles of plot lines, over-the-top characters and generally incredulous situations.

Every once in a while, though, the show does something that stands likely to resonate with its viewers by blending slapstick with sensitivity and entangling realistic situations found in many high schools with abject farce. The show won’t emerge as some great artifact of our times, but until it meets a ratings-driven demise, it’s certainly worth a little bit of attention even if, in the end, Auden was absolutely right.


Bryan Kerns is a junior honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].