by Georgia Mulligan & Thom Andrewes
We started this project back in March while getting together regularly to watch Glee’s sixth season as it aired. Our friend Miriam participated in the process of ranking the characters, and then we continued with the writing. A very short version was published online in the Independent Arts and Entertainment section just before the finale. Here we are just before watching the finale:
A few introductory notes…
Georgia Mulligan (GM): We’ve obviously stolen this format from the ranked lists of characters from Buffy and The L Word. The reason I find this format extra humorous is that ranking fictional characters based purely on your own tastes and preferences is clearly not a valid critical approach. However, it seems an especially appropriate way into talking about Glee because I have a very strong affective connection to the show and the characters which can’t be explained by an evaluation of its quality or significance. I watch old episodes for comfort, and I’ve even been known to watch the musical numbers in isolation. Accordingly, it makes sense to me to take an approach to the show based entirely on how I feel about Rachel, Mr Schuester and Rick “The Stick” Nelson.
In the ranking, we have been generous to people who are extremely talented at performing but didn’t get the screen time or storylines they deserved. It was also our intention that the length of a character’s stay on Glee would not determine their ranking, and that an entertaining character who is in a single episode could be prized high above, say, some embarrassing jerk who is there the whole time teaching show choir and giving speeches. There are a few characters we haven’t listed. If you can think of something—anything—to say about Paolo San Pablo, Rachel’s Funny Girl co-star, let us know.
You may notice that I attribute a lot of the show’s bad politics and bad creative decisions to Glee’s creator Ryan Murphy. Thom does not do this, it’s just me. I’m aware that a lot of people contributed to the making of Glee, and I am clearly using Murphy as a straw man to blame for what I see as its faults, for fun. At the same time, there are certain things that run through everything I have seen that he has created and written, such that I think there can be said to be a coherent system of values unique to Murphy. And I think it is valuable to name it and pick out its components, because a lot of it is the worst.
Thom Andrewes (TA): It’s been a joy to write about Glee through focusing on its characters, because—as someone who writes a lot about pop songs—the way that character is constructed (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) through the appropriation of pre-existing pop vocals is one of Glee‘s most interesting themes. The characters listed below are only a fraction of the cast of Glee, which also includes Madonna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, John Cougar Mellencamp, Stevie Nicks, Barbara Streisand, et al. By performing these songs, the kids in Glee (and the creators of the series) draw on the mythic personas of these artists to ‘complete’ their characterisation. In its six seasons, Glee explores a multitude of strategies, motives and implications relating to such transformations, and the way in which similar mechanisms function on the level of the programme itself, and amongst its fans. Of course, it’s a great show for many other reasons; it’s frequently moving and hilarious, and I will miss it. So without further ado…
106. Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison)
GM: There are different kinds of bad people in low positions on this list. Some of them are boring; some of them have moral defects; some of them are unwatchable performers; some of them are signs of a TV show losing its way. Will Schuester is a hundred times worse than any of them. Will Schuester is the worst of Glee’s ideology, distilled into the unappealing body of a human man. You can read all the badness of Glee in Will Schuester: he is the ringmaster of the Glee circus of liberal humanism and gay assimilation.
Will Schuester is always saving people from their own disgusting abjection; then he stands back, opens his mouth and lets their gratitude run onto his outstretched tongue. The tearful gratitude of everyone who is not a married white man makes his hair grow thick and curly and gives him the strength to save more people. The big moment is the one where the marginalised person says, “Thank you, Ryan Murphy… I mean, Will Schuester, for showing me a scrap of care even though I am intrinsically unloveable. You are truly the best of men. I had this medal made for you. It was expensive but you deserve it.” Then they go quiet for ten episodes because they don’t actually have a personal or emotional life. Meanwhile, fortified with their gratitude, Will Schuester finds another poor soul to save. Maybe this time it will be a girl. As long as they are good and humble.
105. Joe Hart (Samuel Larson)
Brittany, when she thinks it’s the Mayan apocalypse: “Joe. You haven’t really made much of an impression on me, and I don’t know what your deal is.”
TA: The rule that all competing show choirs had to have at least 12 members was introduced in the first season, as a way of creating much of the necessary drama that would steer the New Directions to their first competition. However, it quickly became one of the central ‘problems’ that the show writers would have to solve throughout the show, in combination with the natural ‘turnover’ created by setting a series in a high school. For better or for worse, it forced new characters to be introduced and, post-Matt Rutherford (see 20), the show’s (and Mr Schuester’s) central ideology of inclusivity meant that these characters also had to have solos, and therefore they had to have feelings and problems to be expressed in song, which would often be derived from a central ‘type’ or ‘issue’ through which that character would be individualised. Maybe they are in love. Maybe they are trans. Maybe they are Irish.
Or, in the case of Joe, maybe they are… vaguely alternative? …vaguely Christian? What was Joe? Could they have not done something with his dreadlocks and his tattoos and his nose ring? Maybe he could have done some Britta Perry-esque campaigning or led a fun episode about veganism. But no, he was way too serious for that. Way too serious for the show. He certainly gave the impression that he was only there to launch a career as a boring, earnest singer songwriter. He smouldered boringly. At one point he was suddenly in a ‘relationship’ with Quinn. Then he disappeared forever.
104. Cassandra July (Kate Hudson)
TA: As Rachel’s dance teacher at the New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts, Cassandra July was just entirely inadequate as a nemesis. The necessary ‘step up’ in general talent level between Lima and NYADA never really occurred, and the new college environment was far too huge to really use it as a source for new storylines, so we never really got the sense that Rachel was actually being challenged, beyond the twin arbitrariness of Carmen Tibideaux’s mystic pronouncements and Cassandra July’s irrational and unprofessional resentment. In a way, the fact that she wasn’t really all that good at singing and dancing made the character a bit more interesting, as if she knew from the start that she couldn’t really beat Rachel on these terms, and had to resort to insults and deceit. She was a tragic character, but any hidden depths were abandoned when the obligatory heart of gold was finally revealed, consigning her entire character arc to the ‘Might-as-well-not-have-bothered’ file.
103. Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch)
GM: We all liked Sue at first, didn’t we? We liked her puns on her own name, we liked the lies she’d tell about her life, we liked how she’d tell Will Schuester in more and more poetic ways that his hair was gross. It was gross, and someone had to tell him. And then you, reader, stopped watching Glee in Season 2, maybe 3, and were left with good memories of Sue Sylvester. I was not so fortunate.
Knowing that viewers love Sue, Glee’s writers went to greater and more cringeworthy lengths to keep her in the story. The first time Sue sang on Glee it seemed like a mistake to me, but it kept happening until it felt like Jane Lynch’s people must have insisted in her contract on a certain number of musical performances per season. I honestly don’t think there’s anyone in the world who wants to see Jane Lynch performing ‘Superbass’ in a pink wig, but we got it anyway. The amount of hyper-contrived Sue-vs-Will drama in Season 6 honestly made me want to cry. To my mind they were taking the least moving, least resonant part of Glee, and building multiple episodes around it. Watching that season was like waking up from a nightmare, going back to sleep and being back in the same nightmare except you’re naked. It did not make narrative sense, it was boring, and it was never over. Glee’s biggest and most consistent problem was a failure to let go of worn-out characters and a compulsion to rehash old conflicts and revisit old relationships. Glee must have some trauma in its past. Glee needs therapy.
TA: I feel I should add my explicit support to the above, in anticipation of potential incredulity at the fact that we’ve placed the show’s most iconic character so near the bottom of our list. For me, one of the key problems was that, as a character who started off as a magic joke villain—omniscient, omnipotent, entirely inscrutable, with access to all kinds of meta-layers—the more central she became to the show, the less the show needed to rely on any kind of logical plotting. She was her own rampaging Deus ex machina, able to justify any plot development because—like a crap Professor Snape—she was simultaneously wholly good and wholly evil. Sue Sylvester ruined Glee.
102. Jean Sylvester (Robin Trocki)
GM: Sue’s sister Jean is, sadly, nothing more than a sort of externalisation of a facet of Sue’s personality. Viewers of Glee are first lead to believe that, like Adventure Time’s Magic Man, Sue Sylvester is just a rude jerk who wants to hurt people for no reason. Jean, who has Down’s Syndrome, is introduced to reveal that in fact, like Magic Man, Sue is a jerk because she is sad, and she is sad because her sister has Down’s Syndrome. Through her interactions with Jean we see a kinder side to Sue, but Jean herself is a personality-free angel and totally expendable. If you can’t think of a better way to humanise someone than to introduce a disabled family member, and then kill them, you are violent and you have no business writing TV.
101. Myron Muskovitz (J.J. Totah)
GM: I have never felt so affronted in my life as I was when Myron, a twelve-year-old child, enrolled at McKinley and joined the New Directions. Season 6 was dark and confusing but this was too much, and whenever I saw Myron on screen I yelled at Thom and Miriam about how it made no sense for him to be there. I know that “making sense” is not a good standard to try to hold Glee to, but here is my case: he is at least two years too young to be in a high school; they did not need him to make up the numbers, as a few episodes later Dalton Academy burned to the ground (oh, Season 6) and a large group of Warblers joined the New Directions; he has a bad voice and can’t dance. Some of the bad creative decisions that contributed to Season 6 are understandable, but nothing explains Myron.
100. Adam Crawford (Oliver Kieran Jones)
99. Isabelle Wright (Sarah Jessica Parker)
TA: If the tutelage of Kate Hudson saw Rachel cast in a kind of crappy, watered-down ’80s dance movie, Kurt’s profoundly uneventful tenure working for Isabelle Wright at Vogue.com put him in an arguably even worse position. Having escaped the off-the-wall charm of his small-town high school, Season 4 saw Kurt marooned in the vacuous lofts, boardrooms and juice bars of a resolutely pre-9/11, ‘aspirational ’90s’, Diet-Pepsi-ad New York, in which Sarah Jessica Parker had seemingly been cast to provide ‘local colour’. ‘He’s made it!’ we’re supposed to think. ‘He’s finally free to be himself, among his own kind, having brunch and talking about shoes with Will and Grace and Carrie and Samantha and the gang’. We’re supposed to be happy that Kurt has the chance to fetch SJP yoghurt and listen to her sing badly about makeovers and ballet. It’s all very deflating; no wonder he takes sanctuary in a old folks’ home, before swiftly moving back to Ohio. After some initial, vaguely satirical fashion-editor-neurosis jokes, she basically plays herself-as-most-boring-gay-icon-ever. Her presence adds to the banal ‘scripted-reality-TV’ feel of the whole season.
98. Rory Flanagan (Damian McGinty)
TA: While Joe looked like he was only in the rehearsal room to sell his new Christian rock album, Rory—the other winner of the first season of reality spinoff The Glee Project—always looked just like that: a competition winner. With the possible exception of Unique, the existence of The Glee Project only had a negative impact on the show itself. This was perhaps inevitable, since it seemed to take the whole point of Glee too literally, turning what was originally a quasi-metaphor (real teenagers borrowing fragments of popular culture to express themselves and forge their own identities), into an exercise in cynicism, instrumentalising the same songs to short-circuit success (by playing at being ‘real’ teenagers making such use of these songs (which is what the songs and their original artists do themselves anyway)). The writers seemed consigned to this from the start, and never attempted to give the winners any real involvement in the series storylines, behind a few tokenistic issues to be resolved. Rory’s issue was that he was Irish and therefore no-one could understand what he was saying. He sang ‘It’s Not That Easy Bein’ Green’ (by Kermit the Frog), and he had a nice voice.
GM: I can take or leave his voice.
97. Ryder Lynn (Blake Jenner)
GM: I originally wanted Ryder last in this list because his total lack of recognisable human qualities offends me, but I realised quite quickly that there are worse things to be than the flesh-and-blood equivalent of a shop window mannequin.
96. Puppet Sue
GM: Glee became more and more irritatingly self-reflexive through its seasons, and finally ate its own tail in Season 6 when it was revealed that like many Glee fans, Sue Sylvester is a Klaine (Kurt and Blaine) shipper, and keeps a shrine to the couple in a secret back annexe of the garage where she keeps the rest of her Glee memorabilia. Wait! There’s more! Sue tries to manoeuvre Kurt and Blaine back together during the whole season, even though they are as boring as a pile of dust, until in ‘The Hurt Locker: Part 2’ she imprisons them in a fake elevator and releases a Saw-style puppet of herself who threatens to murder them with poison gas if they don’t kiss. I am not making this up, this actually happened on a TV show you used to watch.
95. Jean-Baptiste of Throat Explosion (Skylar Astin)
TA: I appreciate the need to keep raising the stakes of the competition to provide ever more spectacular ‘boss-level’ challenges, and Throat Explosion, the name of the Cirque du Soleil-inspired adversaries at Nationals in Season 5, is appropriately ridiculous. Yet when the glee club are yet again accosted in a hotel lobby by yet another trash-talking thirty-year-old who will inevitably be taking all the solos, and it’s the dweeb from Pitch Perfect fronting a thoroughly horrible Styx/OneRepublic medley, it’s no wonder the New Directions have got so complacent. The Warblers and Vocal Adrenaline provide better competition not just because they’re musically much better, but because we’ve seen them develop alongside the New Directions. Helicoptering in new competitors might allow for a few new performance gimmicks, but it really takes all of the tension out of the competitions.
94. Bree (Erinn Westbrook)
GM: There is some serious old school racism in the characterisation of Bree as a temptress who wrecks the chaste Jake-Marley relationship, reveals Jake to be the sexually loose dirtbag he’s always been inside, and breaks Marley’s fragile little heart. She has no discernible motivation: she’s just a hussy.
93. Sean Fretthold (Zac Weinstein)
GM: Sean is Finn’s buddy who was paralysed from the neck down in a football game. His role in ‘Laryngitis’ is to help Rachel see that her life would go on if she lost her voice, just like his life has gone on since he was paralysed, which is offensive. He sings U2’s ‘One’ for about fifteen seconds and then his vocals are phased out as the number moves from his bedroom to the school auditorium for a performance by some people who have learned from him whether they know it or not and don’t need to think about him ever again.
92. Penny Owen (Phoebe Strole)
TA: The most boring love interest conceivable for Glee’s most boring (yet bafflingly enduring) character, Penny Owen is basically just a walking ‘meet cute’ who is swiftly removed from the show as soon as her ‘relationship’ with Sam is established. Also, she is apparently ‘a Katy’, as opposed to ‘a Gaga’, which is just the kind of false binary that the Glee writers of later seasons became obsessed with attempting to resolve dialectically.
91. Brody Weston (Dean Geyer)
GM: Brody is the perfect love interest for Rachel’s “bad dance movie” years in New York. He has an imposing sexual confidence that the Midwestern boys of Rachel’s past totally lack, but is also utterly boring. He encourages her to get a spray tan, a nice sweepy fringe and a lot of black clothes; he is a grown-up and their slightly open relationship suggests that she is growing up too; but there is never a chance that the viewer is actually going to like him, meaning that he is never, ever a threat to Finn’s status as Rachel’s future husband. The revelation that he works as an escort is, predictably, just treated as a bit icky and a sign of low morals when it could have been interesting. ‘It Could Have Been Interesting’ is incidentally the title of my forthcoming book about Glee.
90. Pam “Hi, I’m Blaine’s Mom” Anderson (Gina Gershon)
TA: To be fair, “Hi, I’m Blaine’s mom” is one of the funnier/better lines in the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ episode in Season 6. It must have been quite an overwhelming day for Pam Anderson (!), as she appears to meet the stepmother of her son’s long-term boyfriend and ex-fiancé for the first time, moments before discovering that they’re now actually in-laws and required to prepare a whole shoulder-jiggling Pointer Sisters number together. And again, to be fair to her, she certainly throws herself into it…
89. Olivia Newton-John
GM: Watching Olivia Newton-John’s guest appearance in ‘Bad Reputation’, I
found myself thinking, “It’s understandable that she is a bad actor: she’s a singer and she’s probably never acted before”. Then I remembered that she was very famously in Grease, and now I don’t know what to think. She speaks her lines as if she doesn’t like how they’re making her sound.
88. Cooter Menkins (Eric Bruskotter)
GM: Stodgy-faced football recruiter Cooter appears in Season 2 as a knight in shining turtlenecks to court Coach Beiste and to tell us that there is nobody too ugly or too far from gendered beauty norms to find love. In Season 3, in an ‘issue’ episode about domestic violence, it emerges that he is physically abusive, and Beiste is struggling to leave him. This abrupt transformation is a great example of Glee’s constant subordination of characterisation to the needs of the plot and whatever moral or social message it has for you that week.
87. Howard Bamboo (Kent Avenido)
GM: Howard Bamboo is just a punching bag with an exceptionally sad face. He bears the brunt of Terri Schuester’s fake-pregnant fake-hormonalness as her coworker at Sheets & Things, and in one episode gets assaulted by the police and arrested for helping Terri to get a steady supply of drugs to give the students. How hilarious!
86. Carmen Tibideaux (Whoopi Goldberg)
GM: Glee’s most hammy, least subtle characterisation and the limited availability of Whoopi Goldberg combine to make Carmen Tibideaux, the director of the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. Tibideaux glides in and out of auditoriums frowning and giving off “don’t sing to me I’m busy” vibes. I like to imagine that during the filming of Carmen’s scenes, Ryan Murphy was just out of shot yelling “More gravitas, Whoopi! More gravitas!”
85. Alistair (Finneas O’Connell)
TA: An arbitrary last-minute character’s even more arbitrary, even more last-minute love interest. O’Connell auditioned for Glee five times; no amount of rejection could have been as cruel as giving him this role.
84. Millie Rose, Marley’s mum (Trisha Rae Stahl)
GM: If every New Directions kid has to have a somewhat identity-based struggle, Marley’s is that her mum is fat and works in the school cafeteria. While Lauren Zizes (see way, way below) is thrillingly unapologetic about taking up a lot of hallway space, Millie Rose is a more palatable kind of fat woman: the kind that hates herself, agrees that she has a problem, and is on a diet. Her saccharine relationship with Marley is not worth the time it takes up.
83. Brittany’s parents (Ken Jeong & Jennifer Coolidge)
GM: As if Brittany needed to be more ridiculous, in Season 6 we are informed that her parents are Stiffler’s Mom and Señor Chang, and Brittany and her dad are surprised to find out that her biological dad is actually Stephen Hawking. Just to make this extra clear: Brittany has believed her whole life that her biological father is Korean, and a Korean man has believed that he is her biological father. Shaking my head.
82. Cody Tolentino, the “Rough Trade Santa” (Bryce Johnson)
TA: Glee had some truly awful Christmas episodes, but none were quite as bizarre as Season 5’s ‘Previously Unaired Christmas’. In a massive departure from the usual kitsch, this was a thoroughly uncomfortable watch involving Kurt, Santana and Rachel inhaling helium and singing Chipmunks songs to a festively dressed sex worker, who ends up robbing the house after tying Kurt up during kinky sex. It had the feeling of an interminable opening scene to a terrible Glee-themed porn movie, and ‘Cody’ was the unwelcome irruption at the centre of it all.
81. June Dolloway (Shirley MacLaine)
TA: The incursion of socialite June Dolloway, who threatens Kurt and Blaine’s relationship by deciding to patronise Blaine while brusquely denying Kurt’s talents, was an effective reminder of the significant differences in mainstream appeal between the two, and Blaine’s privilege as the more masculine (not to mention straight IRL). However, instead of the promised glamour, the super-rich New York society world into which she introduces Blaine is actually just a bit crappy and underwhelming (while the power that her wealth gives her as cultural arbiter remained entirely uncritiqued). What’s more, Dolloway fails to convince as fierce aesthete, since she clearly has no taste: Blaine initially wins her over with an embarrassing version of ‘Story of My Life’, while Kurt eventually wins her over with an embarrassing version of ‘American Boy’.
80. Doris Sylvester, Sue’s mum (Carol Burnett)
TA: From Glee Wiki, ‘Doris Sylvester’: “Sue asks her mother one last question—did she ever love her father? Doris exclaims of course she did, and that they fell in love on a Trolley. Together they sing ‘The Trolley Song’…”. As one of my co-authors remarked when we first watched this episode: this is what people who hate Glee think Glee is like!
79. Madison McCarthy (Laura Dreyfuss)
TA: Most of the Season 6 recruits had about three scenes of character development each. Madison didn’t get even that. She mainly had to pick up the flack from the Glee writers’ attempt to apply their pro-individualism, just-be-yourself doctrine to every form of identity totalitarianism they could perceive, which, by Season 6, included being a twin. Mason emerged from this oppressive relationship to claim several unwarranted solos and a rushed last-minute coupling. Without him, Madison sank into line-less, solo-less oblivion.
GM: Biff, who is Quinn’s boyfriend for a week, is a cardboard cutout of a man who goes to Yale.
77. Spencer Porter (Marshall Williams)
TA: As ‘post-modern gay’, Spencer did perhaps represent the logical final degree in Glee’s extensive sequence of gay male characters. His self-confidence was framed as the product of six seasons of transformation at McKinley, to the point where an openly gay character would have no need for show tunes or ballads in order to feel at home in the school. In a show that started out with the irreconcilable tension between choir room and football field, Spencer is supposedly the ideal synthesis of the two. But this didn’t stop him from being a macho dickhead when it came to trying to help Roderick. His eleventh-hour, whirlwind romance with Alastair was also totally unnecessary and highly unbelievable, and his one solo number (‘Friday I’m In Love’) was so crap it was almost cute.
GM: Spencer is Glee congratulating itself for creating an America free from homophobia, in which an emphatically masculine handsome young white dude can be as gay as he likes without fear.
76. Artie (Kevin McHale)
Rory: “You were the glue of glee. The quiet, steady beating heart.”
GM: God, I hate Artie. One of Glee’s inexplicable quirks is that if there’s ever a rap part in a song, the part goes straight to Artie, and he performs it with these awkward “rap” hand gestures, the kind that Lorde loves to do. Another one of its more sinister quirks is that Kevin McHale is an able-bodied man who has some dance skills and used to be in a boyband, and Artie is a wheelchair user, and at some point Ryan Murphy just said “Fuck it” and had Artie get up and dance in various fantasy sequences. Artie is horrible to every girl he dates. Beyond the rapping, the fantasy dancing, and the teenage boy misogyny, Artie is nothing.
75. Mike Chang Sr. (Keong Sim) and Julia Chang (Tamlyn Tomita), Mike Chang’s parents
GM: Mike Chang Sr. wants to deprive the world of Mike Chang’s clownish dance moves and hot bod by forcing him to go to medical school instead of becoming a dancer. Julia Chang is more supportive because she also wanted to be a dancer when she was young and was stifled by her own killjoy parents. They both come around when they see how talented their son is, and so ends a narrative arc that is not super entertaining and heavily indebted to racial stereotypes!
74. Maggie Banks (June Squibb)
TA: By the end of Season 5, it was quite clear that Glee’s ‘New York’ had never been anything more than a weird cardboard dream. The retirement home Peter Plan plotline was one of the first times that the sheer bathos of the whole New York experience was fully acknowledged, and (along with Rachel’s bizarre TV pilot), it sort of set up the collapse of this wholly fake environment, allowing the characters to return to (or wake up in) the real setting of Glee: Ohio. (The Wizard of Oz resonances were acknowledged but not fully explored (see 1).) Hence, the faintly depressing retired star Maggie Banks was a little more effective as a character than her counterpoint, the socialite June Dolloway, but neither of these women’s relationships with Kurt and Blaine were allowed to develop beyond the most rudimentary plot requirements.
73. Dalton Rumba (Michael Hitchcock)
GM: The recurring joke about Dalton Rumba is that he is deaf in one ear because he had scarlet fever. That’s it. He also runs a show choir for deaf children, which the audience is totally encouraged to laugh at until we see them performing and observe their courage and humility.
72. Grace Hitchens (Eve)
GM: Will Schuester is obviously a man of integrity who cares deeply about education and about national show choir competition rules and regulations. Grace Hitchens, the coach of a show choir at a school for girls getting out of juvenile detention, doesn’t care at all about either of these things, and conspires with Dalton Rumba and Sue Sylvester to throw Sectionals by copying the priceless New Directions setlist. She’s a minor, easily defeated villain. It would have been nice to see her show choir treated as a threat to the New Directions because of their talent, rather than because they’d cheated.
GM: In the words of Singin’ in the Rain’s Cosmo Brown: “She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. A triple threat.”
70. Marley Rose (Melissa Benoist)
TA: Marley was introduced in Season 3 as if she was going to be the new Rachel, although her character was more along the lines of Sandy from Grease (whom she portrays in the school musical), or Cady from Mean Girls: sweet, naïve, etc. Unlike these characters, though, she is never corrupted or allowed to mature; instead, it is part of the liberal contract of the show that she is allowed to maintain her puritanical sweetness just as Jake is allowed to maintain his moody chauvinism. All through their prolonged relationship, they seem to have no effect on each other, which is kind of interesting when you think about it, even if it definitely wasn’t interesting while we were watching it. Also, it’s sad when she faints onstage at Sectionals, but she was never a very engaging performer. In the gulf between the centrality of her introduction in Season 3, and her total absence in the show’s overblown finale episodes, I think her character must have been the most overt overall failure in the whole series.
Marley also wrote original songs and they were so bad. Were they supposed to be bad? After all, she is just a fictional teenager. Were they carefully written to sound like they were written by a fictional teenager? Or was her character made to write songs to provide a potential alibi for what would necessarily be the poor quality of any original material written for the show (presumably for budget/licensing reasons)? Either way, it was embarrassing for everyone involved, real and fictional.
69. Alma Lopez, Santana’s abuela (Ivonne Coll)
GM: Santana’s abuela rejects Santana for her sexuality in Season 3. Just in time for what Thom has started calling ‘The Red Wedding’ (love it), she comes around and sees that all love is good, and that there’s nothing wrong with two pairs of twenty year-olds getting married in a barn. Santana’s abuela warns the viewer: don’t be a stuffy old Catholic woman! That is the way of the past! If you want to be in on the future, be part of a radical change in society and leave behind the brutal ways of the past, you’ve got to embrace this new cool thing called MARRIAGE.
68. Becky Jackson (Lauren Potter)
GM: Like Jean, McKinley student Becky Jackson has Down’s Syndrome. Sue’s baby (yes, Sue has a baby in Season 4; no, I don’t want to talk about it), who never appears on screen, also has Down’s. The convergence of these characters around Sue is deliberate: as discussed above with reference to Jean, they all work to humanise her, to show that she has struggled, and suggest that she does, in fact, have a heart. Whereas Jean is perfect, child-like and loving, and dies offscreen basically to provide an opportunity for Kurt and Blaine to have a heart-to-heart by her grave, Becky spends much of her time on Glee as a copy of Sue. She is abrasive and mean; when she’s not yelling at other students she’s bringing a gun to school. She has an un-nuanced hypersexuality which scares people. Once again, whereas the able-bodied students are rewarded for being true to themselves, disabled students like Becky and Ally (see 53) have an awkward, overdetermined “just like you” vibe which expresses itself as bitchiness and cartoonish sexuality.
67. Mason (Billy Lewis, Jr.)
GM: This video shows Billy Lewis Jr. and his on-screen twin trying to pretend that their role on Glee isn’t absolutely pointless. The only potentially entertaining thing about Mason and Madison is their Cersei and Jaime Lannister-style incest vibe. I guess there are only so many incest jokes a teen show can make though, and Mason’s interest gets redirected towards Jane, though their romance is not given the time and care it would take to make it interesting.
66. Clint (Max George)
TA: The glee club’s main rivals Vocal Adrenaline had a weird role in the show, mainly acting as a faceless army of musical mercenaries for whoever was the feature villain of the moment. Their first performances were exhilarating, when they still contrasted starkly with the New Directions’ ramshackle charm, but the hyperactive camerawork and repetitive choreography that characterised their numbers (in particular, that one move where all the men pick up their partners and then place them down on their other side) soon got pretty boring. By the end of Season 6, it was unclear whether we were supposed to think their performances were good or bad (‘Rock Lobster/Whip It‘ anyone?). For a while though—when Mr Schuester was coaching them—it seemed like we were going to finally get an insight into Vocal Adrenaline as a group of characters. Were there hidden depths behind the veneer of this faceless competition machine? Apparently not. Clint was Vocal Adrenaline’s final featured soloist and super-villain at this period and, like him, the entire choir turned out to be horrible, humourless, transphobic crypto-fascists. So there we go.
65. Maribel Lopez, Santana’s mum (Gloria Estefan)
GM: Maribel is in two episodes of Glee—Season 3’s ‘Goodbye’ and of course the Red Wedding—and does not have a lot going on except showing support to Santana when she comes out, though that conversation happens offscreen before Estefan is cast. It seems really strange to me that Glee cast such a huge star for such a small role, with no opportunity to sing except in the embarrassing mums-only performance of ‘I’m So Excited’ at the Red Wedding.
64. Hunter Clarington (Nolan Funk)
GM: Hunter Clarington is a poor man’s Sebastian (see 26). I can’t believe the man who plays him is called Nolan Funk—that’s going up on the Glee unbelievable names leaderboard alongside Jacob Artist and Chord Overstreet.
63. Starchild (Adam Lambert)
TA: Remember when Adam Lambert was in Glee? For, like, ages? He sat around. He sang some songs. He obviously had a lot of fun. It was all kind of pointless, misspent energy, but it could have been a lot worse.
GM: Like any number of high school movies, Glee has one stoner and brings him in periodically to make the kinds of jokes about drugs that a 40 year-old man would write.
61. Dani (Demi Lovato)
TA: Remember when Demi Lovato was in Glee? She was a waiter. She was in a ‘relationship’ with Santana after they sang some Beatles together, but it didn’t really matter because we never saw them together anyway. She was never given a surname. She sort of sat around in the background a lot. She played guitar sometimes. Then she was suddenly not in Glee anymore and that was that.
60. Shane Tinsley (LaMarcus Tinker)
GM: As her boyfriend, Shane encourages Mercedes to demand that people treat her like a Beyoncé, not an Effie White, because Glee likes to mix its cultural metaphors. He is never seen again after Mercedes starts dating Sam; maybe he moved out of state to avoid seeing them holding hands in the lunch line and bursting into tears.
59. Cooper Anderson (Matt Bomer)
TA: Matt Bomer gives a pretty funny turn as Blaine’s hammy older brother, ‘the guy from the FreeCreditRatingToday.com commercials’. However, Glee fails to deliver the necessary musical numbers to make the sibling rivalry really fizz. The brothers’ initial Duran Duran mash-up is ugly, over-produced and a huge lost opportunity (note Santana’s ‘WTF’ face), while their final reconciliation is crowbarred awkwardly into Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, which was also a waste of a song that could have been an absolute gift given the right storyline. The main problem is that Cooper isn’t half as good a performer as Blaine. The equivalent storyline in Season 1, for example, featuring Neil Patrick Harris and the outrageously camp ‘Dream On’ duet, was so much better.
GM: Vocal Adrenaline choreographer Dakota Stanley is a straight-up copy of Bring It On’s Sparky Polastri. The New Directions think they need to be professionalised, so they bring in a professionaliser who is super mean to anyone who doesn’t look like Quinn. In the end they realise they don’t need him because their differences make them special and they have what really matters: heart.
57. Lee Paulblatt (Jim Rash)
TA: He pretty much just plays Dean Pelton from Community, which is not necessarily a bad thing. His cameo clashes rather starkly in tone with the rest of the New York narrative, but that too is not necessarily a bad thing. In the end, the pilot he produces is pretty funny, and at least it catalyses Rachel’s failure and subsequent escape from the living death of Season 5.
56. Mary Halloran (Kristen Schaal)
TA: She pretty much just plays Mel from Flight of the Conchords, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Her cameo clashes rather starkly in tone with the rest of the New York narrative, but that too is not necessarily a bad thing. In the end, the pilot she writes is pretty funny, and at least it catalyses Rachel’s failure and subsequent escape from the living death of Season 5.
55. Betty Pillsbury (Ali Stroker)
GM: Ali Stroker came to Glee from The Glee Project for this small role as Emma Pillsbury’s niece Betty. I remember seeing her on the reality show being asked to do things that she knew were risky for her health, like being covered in cold water, because if she made it onto the show she would have to do whatever any other actor was doing. I find this really typical of Ryan Murphy’s practice: he wants everyone to be normal, which means being able to do the same things, and the standard for normal is set by people who are not disabled. Accordingly, Betty is super super normal because she’s a mean cheerleader who says she would never date anyone who uses a wheelchair. She softens up a bit, but only with Artie’s encouragement. I hate that.
54. Jeremiah (Alexander Nifong)
TA: Jeremiah is the hapless catalyst for the superb Gap flashmob, when he is sexily accosted by sexy Blaine wearing sexy red sunglasses and singing Robin Thicke. For this, I am eternally grateful to him. The scene is also great for the sparks of silent, sad awe that it generates from Kurt, back when Blaine was categorically in another league to him.
53. Sam Evans (Chord Overstreet)
TA: For such an enduring character, Sam really stood out by not standing out. He never made any real impression on me in his musical numbers, to the point where he seemed to have a different relationship to the music than the other kids did. While the other characters would either inhabit the songs—cheekily or worshipfully—in a kind of karaoke ecstasy, playing at being stars, or else invest them with their own desires, emotions and fears, Chord Overstreet was always just performing his own boring cover versions (the Justin Bieber episode was a rare and welcome exception to this). Sam was a marginal character who became far too central. His defining characteristics were that he liked to do impressions, had a wide mouth, and was a bit dim but not as dim as Brittany.
Having said that, I found the fact that he wasn’t as driven as the other characters quite refreshing. Being surrounded by all that obsessive ‘hopes and dreams’ crap must have been pretty testing, but it was nice that he was able to drift a bit. Unfortunately, he was doomed to complete the prophecy and become the new Mr Schue the moment Finn died. No matter how fast you run, you can never escape your hopes and dreams.
52. Walter (Harry Hamlin)
TA: Kurt’s older boyfriend for a few episodes. This was when the writers were desperately checking off all the final taboos before the Season 6 finale. It was purely tokenistic, of course; they didn’t have the guts or the writing chops to deal with an inter-generational relationship of this type. Like so many before him, Walter was a prop in Glee’s liberal pretensions, and to add insult to injury, he was made to sacrifice his own role in the show with a banal speech about young love, which would serve to reunite the nauseating Klaine. Personally, I think it could have worked out between him and Kurt…
51. Rachel’s parents (Brian Stokes Mitchell and Jeff Goldblum)
GM: They’re only in a few episodes (Jeff Goldblum is presumably not cheap), but I like Rachel’s dads. They fill in a piece of the Rachel puzzle. They are apparently affluent, with good taste, fond of singing together as a family, and extravagantly affectionate towards their only child. The scene in which they team up with Finn’s parents to scare Rachel and Finn out of getting married by encouraging them to have as much sex as they like, with the repeated use of the phrase “teenage lovemaking”, is awkward and funny and reads like a wonderful dream/nightmare sequence.
50. Sunshine Corazon (Charice Pempengco)
TA: Season 2 opened well with the arrival of Sunshine Corazon, an early pretender to Rachel’s prima donna position, who—after an excellent Gaga/Beyoncé duel in the girls’ toilets—is promptly dispatched to a crack house. The episode underlines the ambivalent situation that the club’s increasing success and popularity creates for those involved, and wittily subverts our expectations for the second season (fresh faces, fresh talent), in a manner in keeping with Rachel’s character. Sunshine returns to deliver an impressive rendition of ‘Listen’ from Dreamgirls, suggesting that she could go on to become an effective long-term rival to Rachel. However, this promise is never delivered on.
49. Rod Remington (Bill A. Jones)
TA: As the cheesy/sleazy news anchor, Remington represented a pretty familiar character type, which has been done better/funnier elsewhere. However, his brief relationship with Sue ends with her turning up to go swing dancing in a massive zoot suit, which is one of my favourite Sue moments (an early, bizarre moment of pathos and humanity from her, before the floodgates of sentimentality had been fully opened).
TA: There was a weird period during Season 4 and Season 5 when Dottie, Tina’s ‘personal assistant’, became fairly instrumental to some central plot lines. Unfortunately, by then it was almost impossible to care about anything Tina did.
47. Britney Spears
GM: Britney has the tiniest cameo in the episode ‘Britney/Brittany’, an episode in which Britney Spears helps Brittany S. Pierce understand her true worth when she appears to her in hallucinations. Her relatively high position in the list can be explained by… she’s Britney Spears. (Glee went on to make fun of Britney’s public breakdown, music and eating habits, which was scummy and hard to watch.)
46. Dustin Goolsby (Cheyenne Jackson)
TA: The Season 2 coach of Vocal Adrenaline had a little earpiece and some funny lines. There was even a little sexual tension between him and Schuester in New York. Then he was fired after VA lost at Nationals. I wanted more of him.
45. Kendra Giardi, Terri’s sister (Jennifer Aspen)
44. Harmony (Lindsay Pearce)
TA: Harmony was the taunting, blood-red-lipped Shadow Rachel who excelled at the pre-NYADA mixer, amongst an amusing gaggle of Rachel and Kurt clones. She was a tantalising taste of what wasn’t to come, since when Rachel and Kurt eventually did arrive at NYADA, there were no charismatic peers waiting for her, only boring grown-ups like Brody and abominations like the Adam’s Apples.
43. Donna Landries (Patricia Forte)
TA: Back in the day, Glee excelled at puncturing and undermining its own investment in the familiar genre conventions of competition/sports movies, thereby keeping the arbitrary specifics of the characters’ talents (along with their all-important status as enthusiastic amateurs) nice and grounded. The best example of this came at the very climax of the first season’s competition arc, with the appearance of bemused and disgruntled Ohio Vice Comptroller and ‘state-paid cynic’ Donna Landries, as guest judge of Sectionals: “I have no idea what the hell I’m doing here. I don’t understand what a glee club is.” Unfortunately, by the time she returns as judge of the final sectionals competition in Season 6, the subtle oscillation between sincerity and irony had long since degenerated into a violent thrashing between outright kitsch and cheap surrealism.
42. Roderick (Noah Guthrie)
TA: Roderick really had an exceptional voice. In that moment when we heard it drifting through the air vents, Season 6 took on a sense of possibility that could never have been anticipated. He was shy and talented and eminently in need of the kind of support that the choir should have been able to provide. He could have been at the centre of a strong final season. He should have had a lot more solos. But instead he was consigned to the background, aside from one idiotic storyline where he’s taunted into climbing a rope for no earthly reason.
GM: I wrote a rant about the “climbing a rope” storyline and how Glee treats food and exercise as moral issues but I deleted it because no-one else in the world watched Season 6 and it’s not interesting to read about an episode in which someone triumphs over their own fatness by climbing a rope.
41. Kitty Wilde (Becca Tobin)
GM: Was Kitty ever really more than the “new Quinn”? I remember liking her at times, but I don’t remember why. I think she had moments of one-note bitchiness and moments where she wanted to connect with people… so a lot like Quinn, then.
40. Rick “The Stick” Nelson (Rock Anthony)
GM: Rick “The Stick” Nelson is styled quite a lot like Darren the Emerald Dreams man (see 27); maybe they’re both supposed to evoke a specific breed of Ohioan that I obviously don’t know anything about. Rick The Stick appears in Season 3, flanked by other hockey jocks with mullets who go on to replace the more football-oriented bullies of the first two seasons. He runs for student body president on an anti-taxation, pro-hockey, pro-Rick The Stick platform.
39. Jacob Ben Israel (Josh Sussman)
GM: Jacob Ben Israel is disgusting. I feel like Glee either invented a new stereotype or got way into an existing one: the sexually abject Jewish teenager, big glasses, creepy as hell, no boundaries and no sexual prospects. Jacob uses his position at the school paper to try and get close to Rachel, who is sensitive to what her peers are reading about her. I feel entertained by Jacob Ben Israel, but also a little uneasy.
38. Carl Howell (John Stamos)
GM: Poor Carl is really nothing more than a narrative obstacle brought in to delay the inevitable, dull union between Will Schuester and Emma Pillsbury, but he is handsome and fun, and fills Will with entertaining sexual jealousy.
37. Roz Washington (NeNe Leakes)
36. Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.)
GM: I recently had the revelation that Mike Chang is hot, which I do not mind admitting has increased his standing in this list. He is on screen and spotlighted fairly frequently as a dancer but in terms of the plot is a very minor character. His only notable story arc is in Season 3 when he stands up to his killjoy dad. I actually kind of hate his dance style—he does things like putting his arm up his t-shirt and out the neck hole and pretending to be surprised to see his hand near his face—but I am not an expert, he’s probably technically great, plus… hot.
GM: In ‘The Spanish Teacher’, Ricky Martin is totally charming as Dave Martinez, a night school Spanish teacher who shows Will Schuester up for the fraud he is. Turns out Mr Schue the high school Spanish teacher can’t even speak Spanish! What a crook! Dave’s beautiful smile, tight, tight t-shirts and earnest musical engagement with the kids make for a very entertaining episode, which is hard to come by in Season 3.
34. Brad the Piano Player (Brad Ellis)
TA: Along with the hugely talented and flexible student band, Brad the piano player was permanently on call for every after-hours declaration of love or tearful apology. In each case, he remained eminently tactful and professional, and his presence allowed the musical numbers to stay primarily rooted in the ‘live’ context of the choir room, and not fly off into karaoke backing-track mode, which was always way less interesting. The gradual acknowledgement of Brad’s presence also marked the beginning of Glee’s burgeoning meta-awareness, which, however unbearable it became in the end, was pretty fun to begin with.
GM: Jane is the best of the Season 6 New Directions. I was excited about her at the start of the season. She’s serious but likeable, and she does a winning performance of Janelle Monáe’s ‘Tightrope’. Plus she has a cause: she’s the first girl admitted to Dalton Academy, and she wants to be a Warbler. So I guess that’s sort of feminist? Unfortunately most of Season 6 was dedicated to the twin evils of Klaine and Sue Sylvester, and the new kids just sat at the back of scenes dedicated to people you loved years ago. The judgement that Glee’s viewers would rather see old problems and situations replayed again and again than watch the journey of a new batch of young characters was lazy, and made the show’s sixth season pointless.
32. Jake Puckerman (Jacob Artist)
TA: Jake is introduced with the eye-rollingly familiar ‘bad boy softens up’ storyline, although his brother Puck is on hand to speed up the process a bit. However, he’s a bit more interesting in that he’s not just another generic sadistic-bully-who-just-want-to-be-understood bad boy. He has a quiet self-confidence which resists the glee club moralisers’ attempts to break him, and the pressure to sink with the wet, vapid Marley into boring coupledom. What’s more, I would argue that he pips even Unique as the best performer of that generation. His rendition of Ne-Yo’s ‘Let Me Love You’ is better than the original, and the best musical number from Season 4. He is thoroughly short-changed for solo features, by the mere existence of Ryder, but he doesn’t care, which is probably quite healthy.
31. Ken Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher)
GM: There is something quite unsettling about football coach Ken Tanaka’s Season 1 storyline. He loves Emma Pillsbury, who does not love him and in fact finds him disgusting, and in full knowledge of this he asks her to marry him and bends over backwards to make sure that their wedding is private enough to accommodate how ashamed she is of him. He is made even more cartoonish and inhuman by the fact that he wears the same clothes every day, like a Simpson, with some variation in colour.
30. Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba)
GM: Figgins is memorable for his unique turn of phrase and total lack of natural rapport with high school students. It’s genuinely hilarious to see someone shout “Quiet, children” at a room full teenagers who are already quiet. The power struggle between Figgins and Sue results in her becoming principal and him becoming the school janitor, which seems particularly unfair as he is clearly a gifted administrator who loves using a calculator and telling people the school can’t afford to run their favourite extra-curricular activities.
29. Shelby Corcoran (Idina Menzel)
GM: This wonderful piece of casting further embeds Rachel in a tradition of great Jewish musical theatre stars! Wicked and Frozen star Idina Menzel appears in Glee initially as the coach of rival show choir Vocal Adrenaline. The revelation that she is Rachel’s birth mother is surprisingly underwhelming and changes very little: Shelby goes on to work at McKinley as the coach of the Troubletones and to raise Quinn and Puck’s baby with no apparent desire to forge a relationship with Rachel, and no awkwardness or bad feeling about it on either side. Menzel is, obviously, wonderful throughout this ridiculousness, and her participation in Glee makes Rachel’s performance of ‘Let It Go’ at the beginning of Season 6 a bit smarter.
28. Dave Karofsky (Max Adler)
TA: In a similar manner to Santana and Brittany, who were ripped from their clichéd cheerleader status and placed centre-stage, Karofsky’s development through all six seasons could never have been predicted. However, it was actually kind of lovely. From starting out as Kurt’s generic oafish bully, he experiences an intense and surprising bout of gay panic, which coincides with him being made Prom King opposite Kurt’s Prom Queen. After leaving the school, he is rediscovered months later, in a bear bar, entirely convincing as a comfortable gay man, although he will later experience bullying himself and attempt suicide: a bit of ‘poetic justice’ which seemed unnecessary and laboured. He moves through the series as Kurt’s double, and so the fact that he eventually begins dating Blaine is rather fitting (even though this relationship was never properly justified or believable (like pretty much all the gay male relationships in Glee)). I would have quite liked to see Blaine end up with Karofsky, or at least for those tensions to be further explored, but obviously the magic laws of TV won through in the end, and Karofsky’s long journey ends in anticlimactic kitsch, along with the rest of the series.
27. Darren (Aaron Hendry)
GM: Darren is part of Finn’s origin story: an ’80s vision (despite the scenes in question being set around 2000) with a ginger mullet, who works for a company called Emerald Dreams, spraying people’s lawns green in a virile fashion with a massive hose. Darren breaks Finn’s mum’s heart and leaves behind, in the young Finn, a love of classic rock. Darren and his music are associated in Finn’s memory with freedom and a specifically masculine form of self-expression whose inauthenticity and inadequacy are suggested by Darren’s job, helping people to pretend their suburban lawns are healthy. The return of these memories provides the motivation for Finn to commit himself to glee club by performing the classic rock song ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. These moments are a celebration of pop music tinged with a sad nostalgia; this is such Glee.
26. Sebastian Smythe (Grant Gustin)
GM: At first glance, Warbler Sebastian is simply a less exciting Jesse St. James in a blazer. I find him interesting because he fits perfectly into Ryan Murphy’s Victorian value system: what is villainous about him is that he is promiscuous, he’s into Blaine even though Blaine has a boyfriend and he tries to break up the relatively sexless Klaine partnership. When that all amounts to nothing, he throws a slushie full of rock salt in Blaine’s face, forcing him to wear a sexy eyepatch for one or two episodes.
25. Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays)
TA: Like many TV characters, Emma lost all her appeal the moment she settled into her hetero coupling, and her role was reduced to dispensing wise words of encouragement and backrubs to her husband in his moments of self-doubt. Before the wedding, though, she was an interesting, funny character who was never reduced to her disability. Her relationship with Ken Tanaka was almost Hardyan in its tragic, stifling poignancy, while her subsequent sexual awakening was the best thing to come out of the Rocky Horror episode. Of course, it all went downhill from there, and the Pillsbury-Schuester synchronised-swimming ‘proposal number’ was a heinous waste of Rihanna’s best song. For some of Season 6, she was played by the back of someone else’s head, which was kind of funny.
24. Holly Holliday (Gwyneth Paltrow)
GM: Like all decent people I am a card-carrying Gwyneth Paltrow hater, but for me Holly Holliday is the best of Glee’s celebrity guest roles. She shows up infrequently, she sings a horrible song that makes you hide your face and block your ears, she delivers some hilarious one-liners, she confuses Will Schuester, and she’s out of there. Also I think she might actually care about the kids?
23. Noah “Puck” Puckerman (Mark Salling)
TA: Puck ultimately suffered from one of Glee’s most problematic trends: it’s injunction, usually via Will Schuester, to ‘be a man’. This is all that the show can really offer to its stock of jocks, ideology-wise, and it usually translates into ‘take responsibility’/‘take control’. Thus, Puck ended up a depressing, uniformed sap, but the character’s early arc was pretty great. Multi-talented, confident and charismatic in a way that was hard to channel, Puck wavered between attempted demonstrations of good will and fits of self-loathing, the latter providing the context for an adorable duet with Coach Beiste, singing Taylor Swift’s ‘Mean’. He gave us a sexy serenade for every character he sequentially wooed, which was most of them. It’s a pity all that energy came to nothing.
GM: Mark Salling was one of the oldest actors playing a teen on Glee and, unlike Cory Monteith, always looked it. I quite like that, though: it contributes to the general sense that Puck is a throwback, created equally by his performance style and repertoire of songs by people like Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. Puck never had the youthful momentum and optimism of the characters played by younger actors; he seemed to have given up hope, like a man in his late twenties who was still in high school could well have done.
22. Lord Tubbington
GM: Brittany’s cat Lord Tubbington was my Facebook background image for several months. He likes scientology, leather and melted cheese.
21. Sandy Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky)
TA: Glee begins with the firing of the flamboyant, Josh Groban-loving Sandy Ryerson as director of the glee club, but he continues to haunt the school for at least the first season, largely in the capacity of drug dealer. He represents all the camp and tackiness of music theatre, which the clean-cut, boringly straight Schuester quickly effaces with his tenure; hence, he plays an important role as the return of the repressed: the real face of show choir loserdom. He was also the show’s only ‘joke gay’, among a huge array of queer characters, which is probably why he didn’t survive long beyond Season 1. This was a shame though, because he lit up every scene he was in: at turns monstrous, pitiful, hilarious, and ultimately sympathetic.
GM: Matt Rutherford, man. Three lines in nineteen episodes. Life’s not fair.
19. Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley)
TA: Surely none of the other characters on Glee had as eventful a few years as Kurt’s dad Burt. He fell in love, had a heart attack, got married, ran successfully for Congress, was diagnosed with cancer and recovered, all before seeing his stepson die and his own son get married. However, none of this was as significant as his relationship with Kurt. Extending Kurt’s coming-out narrative over the course of several episodes gave it a depth and detail that was rare for Glee’s usual open-and-shut ‘issue’ storylines. Burt’s responses were never crudely drawn, and his personal transformation—to the point where he was dancing to ‘Single Ladies’ at the end of Season 3—was both adorable and believable.
18. Unique (Alex Newell)
GM: Newell, who came to Glee from The Glee Project, is a fantastic singer and performer, and it is to his credit that Unique is such a watchable and likeable character, because he is given very, very little to work with. As far as I know Newell is a cis gay man and excellent drag performer, not a trans woman, which is obviously its own serious problem. There is a lovely camaraderie between Unique and the other girls in Glee, but this is mostly seen during musical numbers. Her only two notable moments in the plot are both moments when her gender identity make her miserable: when she “catfishes” Ryder, making him believe she is a thin, cis, white girl on the internet because he would never love her as she is; and when she is being harassed in the girl’s toilets. While these reflect real difficulties that trans teenagers have, they also both focus on her embodiment and on the idea that there is something wrong with her. It all felt a bit punishing.
17. Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones)
GM: Sheldon Beiste replaces Ken Tanaka as coach of the football team after Tanaka is forced out of the school by heartache and humiliation. Beiste spends Seasons 2 through 5 presenting as a butch heterosexual woman, and in Season 6 comes out as a trans man in what honestly seems like a badly thought-out bit of box-checking on the part of Glee’s writers—I can see them in the writer’s room asking, “Who haven’t we done yet?”. The depiction of Sheldon’s social transition in the episode ‘Transition’ feels botched: it is used to provide another opportunity for grandstanding about inclusiveness and allyship, and spotlights Will Schuester, who gathers a vast choir of transgender singers to serenade Beiste, rather than focusing on Beiste’s experience. Bringing Unique back for a heart-to-heart does provide a nice moment of community and solidarity. Sheldon’s friendship with Puck, based on shared feelings of social frustration and outsiderhood, is memorably heartfelt and touching, and he makes a good contribution throughout the series, in serious moments and silly ones.
TA: “Do not get up in the panther’s business, lady! You’re all coffee and no omelette!” “That’s a steer with six teats and no oink!” There was a point right at the beginning of Coach Beiste’s time on the show when he showed a penchant for bizarre idioms, which was fun. Also, his (country-heavy) musical contributions to the show were few but very strong indeed.
16. Bryan Ryan (Neil Patrick Harris)
GM: One of the things Glee is very preoccupied by is the idea that “the arts in schools” are under threat. I’m sure this is true, but it’s something that the show mobilises a lot as a threat which is functionally very boring. Budget cuts and the prioritisation of science and technology over the arts are not great narrative fodder for a teen musical show. Bryan Ryan is the fun face of this boring Glee hobby horse. He comes to McKinley in the Season 1 episode ‘Dreams’ as a school board employee looking to gut the school arts programme because he’s bitter that his Broadway career never worked out. He literally tells the kids their dreams will never come true. I don’t like his manly rivalry with Will Schuester but I do like him as an angry, sad, implicitly queer failure who makes everyone’s week a little bit darker.
15. Suzy Pepper (Sarah Drew)
TA: Suzy Pepper was the student whose romantic obsession with Will Schuester led to her eating the world’s hottest pepper. On the basis of her previous unhappy experiences, she is able to give Rachel sage advice about self-respect. However, she’s just as notable for her commitment to her own personal brand: all her accessories are pepper-themed! It’s a bizarre, brilliant cameo.
14. Carole Hudson-Hummel (Romy Rosemont)
TA: Ever since she hurled that carton of milk in the first episode, Finn’s mom Carole was so much more than just another supporting character. She had a very real emotional life of her own, whose complexities clashed with her son’s teenage idealism, making for a brilliant chemistry between the two of them. This only made the bedroom scene in ‘The Quarterback’, after Finn’s death, all the more devastating.
13. Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron)
TA: From the very start, Quinn’s character was far more nuanced than the spiteful teen movie cheerleader she was set up to be. She was as angry as Santana and as melancholy as Kurt, but her redemption didn’t present itself so easily. Hence, she was always a little distant from the rest of the group, even in the extreme openness of the choir room; she was more grown up, and her problems were more grown up too. But she was also much more than a cautionary tale. The complexities of her character went further than the particularities of her pregnancy. She had her own crises of identity, but it was as much her faith (which seemed challengingly real and impenetrable, for such a humanist show) as the choir that saw her through. She took what she needed from the glee club and then went on to have an actual life, and it was to her credit that she didn’t end up revisiting her old school on a weekly basis like so many of her peers.
GM: I like Quinn best when she has what my friend Josh, with reference to Sansa Stark, called a “disillusioned fairy-tale princess vibe”. She’s been head cheerleader, she’s been prom queen, and she knows it’s not worth it. And I agree with Thom that the fact that she doesn’t hang around her old high school long after graduation to inspire the next generation, while it’s presumably the result of Dianna Agron wanting to move on, is totally consonant with her character.
12. Lauren Zizes (Ashley Fink)
GM: Lauren Zizes’s fairly brief promotion to regular cast member in Season 2 is a beautiful gift to people who love fat babes and angry women. Lauren is confident and challenging and hilarious, and her role does not lean excessively on humiliating physical comedy and gross-out humour, something which is unfortunately rare in representation of fat women in TV and film. Her romantic relationship with Puck is sweet and interesting: while he is troubled by being so attracted to her, she never doubts that she deserves him. For this and so much more, she is the 2011 McKinley High prom queen of my heart.
11. Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz)
TA: Tina was grating, mopey and undignified, and never a particularly outstanding performer, but this was what made her so integral. Her grudges and hissy fits were totally understandable in the context of a choir room where the attention lavished on three or four star performers was entirely at odds with the purported ideology of inclusiveness and the triumph of the underdog that was so forcefully maintained. And while so many of the other characters knew when to sit in the background and shut up, Tina never lost her righteous anger at the injustice of it all. For much of the time, she was the only character who acted like a human being, let alone a teenager.
10. Terri Schuester (Jessalyn Gilsig)
GM: The characterisation of Will’s first wife Terri draws on sexist stereotypes—she’s domineering and materialistic, and she lies about being pregnant for months to keep control of her husband—but I still get a lot of enjoyment out of watching her. I think she resists being totally subsumed into these characteristics by being too much. She’s not just a run-of-the-mill shrew, she’s genuinely bizarre. Her twisted, unhappy relationship with Will is way more entertaining than his dramatically worthless marriage to Emma Pillsbury.
9. Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley)
TA: Mercedes’s story (which blurs with Amber Riley’s story) goes straight to the heart of what made Glee so great for me. She was just as good a singer as Rachel, arguably even better, so why wasn’t she the star of the show? It had everything to do with the differences in their repertoire, and the way they inhabited the personas in these songs. Rachel had a huge, trans-historical cast of song avatars ready, through whom she could tunnel her way to success. Her songbook lined up with the ideology of the show, and of much contemporary (white) female-led pop, perfectly: she was a blazing comet, preternaturally resilient, better than the world. Mercedes’s repertoire was in many ways more grounded, less transcendent, but she also inhabited it less obsessively. She was always too nice to be fierce; her faith prevented her from getting too sexy. Hence, she couldn’t ever really use these songs as weapons, in the way that Rachel did, or to steer the show in her direction. She excelled, but she was also always frustrated, and that frustration was always justified. In this way, her rivalry with Rachel had a lot to do with race, and the different ways in which black and white women appear as the subjects of songs, in relation to the kind of ideological frameworks that Glee employs.
8. Jesse St James (Jonathan Groff)
GM: I think Jesse’s strong appeal has to do with a tension between his obvious coding as gay and the hetero-masculine sexual threat he is supposed to represent both to the virginal Rachel, and to Finn who is clearly figured as Rachel’s sexual and romantic destiny. Jesse, like Rachel, is intense, silly and over-earnest. He has great lines, and a camp supervillainous quality that warbler Sebastian fails to pull off. Seeing Jesse and Rachel married, killing it in twin broadway careers, and anticipating having children in the series finale’s inevitable but depressing flash-forward felt like a retrospective denial of all the risky sexual ambiguity I had loved in him.
7. Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris)
GM: I would need many years to really think through why I love Brittany. In the meantime, I offer the following remarks:
- Heather Morris is a spectacular dancer and I love every tiny move she makes. I find it incredible that even though Heather Morris can be seen here in her pre-Glee days dancing beside Beyoncé, when there was an episode about someone learning and doing the ‘Single Ladies’ routine, that person was Kurt.
- Brittany wrote ‘My Cup’, the best of Season 2’s original songs.
- Even though Heather Morris’s face is generically hot enough for her to have modelled
for stock photos, I find it very compelling. She reminds me of a lion. Her styling always interests me, when she’s not in the Cheerios uniform. Brittany’s ‘natural’ make-up and loose clothes, which are often in floral prints or have images of animals on them, match her unstudied charm and childish, optimistic outlook on life. There is certainly an argument to be made about whiteness here: her clothes mean that she is figured as innocent, even though she is no less promiscuous than Santana.
- Brittany starts out on Glee as a dumb slut, and the fact that she often has sex with Santana was just a joke about how slutty they both are. They’re so slutty, they don’t even care about the gender of the person they’re being slutty with. However, during and after the development of her romantic relationship with Santana, Brittany has an emotional intelligence that I can’t get over. She always knows the right thing to say, even if she says it in a weird way, and she tells people how she feels about them without any hesitation. Also, with all of Glee’s hand-wringing about the misery of being a LGBT teen, which uses the white gay male as the model of the LGBT teen, it is really thrilling to have a character who is carefree about being bisexual and experiences it as a positive part of her life and identity. The stuff about Brittany believing that Rory is a leprechaun, or her mixing up the words “lesbian” and “lebanese”, all started to seem trivial to me once I realised that Brittany is an emotional genius, and a unicorn, or maybe a bicorn.
6. Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss)
TA: The Dalton Academy Warblers were integral to the success of the second season; they kept the musical direction of the show connected with the American a cappella tradition and produced many of the best numbers. Let’s face it: they were the New Directions’ only real competition. We were introduced to lead Warbler, Blaine, through Kurt’s eyes, as the prince of a kind of gay male utopia. His initial incarnation as both subject and object of Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’ remains one of Glee’s best moments. Perhaps the writers never quite developed a fully rounded character for Blaine. His clingy, irritating relationship with Kurt certainly sapped a lot of the energy and sexuality that he initially radiated, and his ultimate matrimonial fate remains profoundly depressing. However, he brought the choir room to life with his performances, which were always full of playfulness and joy, and this infected the group performances as well. Unlike Sam, he never looked like he was just screen-testing a pop video. He emerged as one of the series’s strongest, most versatile performers, and pretty much carried the New Directions through four seasons of competitions single-handedly. Without Blaine, much of Glee would have been unwatchable.
5. Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer)
TA: Kurt stood out from the very first episode. While Rachel and Mercedes were clearly future stars, and brilliant casting discoveries, Kurt was something else. He always looked out of place in the group numbers (in an endearing way), but when he had a solo, he took total ownership of it. It helped that his voice was so utterly unique. He couldn’t ever do a ‘straight’ cover; whether the repertoire was male or female, the result would always be somewhat queer. And with the androgynous voice, the ageless face, the frustrated, sexless pout and scowl, he embodied the kind of teenager that Glee was supposed to be all about. Looking back at early episodes, Kurt’s transformation really has been incredible, and that’s not just because he looked so young back then. He certainly came into his own, but it was a gradual process and always on his own terms.
I found his relationship with Blaine frustrating, as it seemed to come out of nowhere. A few lingering glances during songs (in particular, a well-timed rendition of ‘Blackbird’ by the Beatles), and suddenly they’re engaged. Kurt had more sexual chemistry with Finn than with Blaine. Still, this doesn’t mean his confidence was unearned. It’s to his credit that he never really seemed to fit in at NYADA either, or in New York more generally. His outfits always looked faintly ridiculous. He never got the solos he deserved in those later seasons, which was perhaps part of an effort to make him seem more fully assimilated within an increasingly vanilla cast.
GM: I would like to add that in group numbers I watch out in particular for two people. I watch out for Heather Morris because she is a perfect angel, and I watch out for Chris Colfer because he has no rhythm. He emotes as hard as he can with his face, but whatever his body is doing is always wrong. It’s fascinating.
4. Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith)
TA: On paper, the story of Finn—the football jock with a secret love of singing—is such a familiar one that it could have really not worked. The fact that it did work is testament to the complexity and depth of Finn as a character, and to Monteith’s charming, unconventional presence. With his absent, military father, and his early grapplings with the prospect of his own fatherhood, Finn’s problems were often framed in terms of masculinity. As with Puck and Sam, the show’s (and Mr Schuester’s) solution to Finn’s crises of masculinity was simply to redefine masculinity, without problematising the central injunction to ‘be a man’ (‘understand what it means to be man/be a leader’, etc.). But, thankfully, this was never quite enough for Finn. Not only was he too awkward or too astute to fully emulate Mr Schue as ‘manly’ role model (eurgh), but Glee clearly showed us that, unlike football, the choir room doesn’t actually require this repertoire of ‘masculine’ skills. It’s too heterogeneous a space, in some ways too queer: the politics are nowhere near as simple as the football field. And, in the same way, the musical persona that Finn brought to the choir room, in the form of an almost naïvely macho classic rock, left him constantly out of his depth, however deeply invested he was in it. In this way, it was interesting to watch Finn try to compete with Jesse, and later Brody, who were far more at home in Rachel’s world.
After discovering that his father hadn’t died in action, but from an overdose after being dishonourably discharged, he decides to join the army to ‘redeem’ his father. However, he is also soon discharged, after he accidentally shoots himself. This, too, was not enough; yet Finn gained depth as a character through his failure to ever be ‘enough of a man’. In addition, his profound lostness, next to Rachel’s single-minded determination, made their relationship a very real problem, and therefore one of the few interesting relationships in the show.
GM: Glee handled Monteith’s death beautifully, I think. Tribute episode ‘The Quarterback’ blurs the world of the show and the world we live in in such interesting ways, which mirror the way Lea Michele talks about Monteith in this public appearance after his death. She places no great distance between the love a fan might have for Finn, or for Monteith, or both, and the love of someone like herself who knew Monteith personally; she suggests that their grief connects them. Finn and Monteith are not identical in Michele’s speech, but they are close together because they are both loved, and both gone.
‘The Quarterback’ fails intentionally to distinguish between the characters who loved Finn and the actors who loved Monteith, and is also addressed to fans who may have loved them both. The opening number and the projected photograph of Monteith/Finn (he’s in his football uniform, but it’s a publicity shot) are all plausible within the diegesis, but they are plain and non-narrative to suggest a tribute by the actors. During the episode, sometimes the actors’ emotions and the characters’ emotions are indistinguishable; however with Rachel’s number, the actor is clearly upset but the vocal track she is miming to is flawless; and with Santana’s number the breakdown in the voice and performance are clearly scripted. When Kurt says he doesn’t want people to dwell on the way Finn died, his remark is clearly intended to also reflect on Monteith’s death. Filmed under what must have been terrible conditions, the whole episode deals perfectly with a great loss by acknowledging the strong and complex affective bonds circulating between the actors, characters and fans.
3. April Rhodes (Kristin Chenoweth)
GM: The reason I wanted April so high on the list, aside from wanting to mess with Glee orthodoxy, is that she carries a lot of the show’s interesting preoccupation with failure. An old classmate of Will Schuester’s who periodically ends up back in Lima, April is very open about the fact that she’s lonely and drinks for comfort because she’s unlucky in love and her big showbiz dreams never came true. In her interactions with the students she is cheerful, open and energetic, but with an edge of disenchantment that makes her seem like she has been through too much. Characters like April warn the kids that being talented won’t necessarily make you a star, and that success is not a simple reward for hard work but is given out arbitrarily. You could have the voice of a Broadway star and still end up alone in central Ohio with a box of wine. Kristen Chenoweth is perfect as April.
2. Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera)
TA: Santana was Glee’s most interesting character, and hers was Glee’s most interesting storyline. From an initial role as ‘Bitch Cheerleader Cliché 2’, she gradually forged a niche as one of the only characters to never fully sink into happy-clappy sentimentality, and to cling on to the stubbornness and the ambivalence that allowed her to stay real. Her relationship with Brittany (which, unlike the cloying ‘Klaine’, always had intensity, chemistry, verisimilitude) evolved unexpectedly yet organically out of what was initially a joke about how pansexually promiscuous the characters were. Santana’s growing self-awareness as a lesbian accompanied a growing self-possession within the show, through which she took command of her own character and began to dominate storylines.
From some unconvincing early vocal performances, she also became one of the show’s strongest singers. Most of all, more than any other character, Santana’s narrative permeated through her vocal performances, making these performances central to her development. Her Fleetwood Mac covers in the ‘Rumours’ episode were entirely convincing as the unspoken articulation of her love, while her shocking outbursts following the Troubletones’ Adele medley, and much later in her tribute to Finn (‘If I Die Young’, which poignantly echoed the earlier moment), provided Glee with two of its most effective uses of music.
1. Rachel Berry (Lea Michele)
GM: When we published a very stripped-down version of this list in The Independent, an irate Gleek commented on Twitter that only Ryan Murphy would have put Rachel at number one. We are not Ryan Murphy! But I think that the things I love about Rachel are the things that I am supposed to love. I am truly moved by Rachel’s often offputting single-mindedness, her total lack of chill, and her unashamed self-assignation into a genealogy of great performers. I love Lea Michele’s gestures and mannerisms as Rachel; her upright posture, brisk walk, wide smile and careful way of speaking belong to someone committed to living every day as if it could be the day they become a star.
Glee’s ability to switch quickly between camp and earnestness is beautifully enacted through Rachel. Her very uncool drive towards musical perfection and her old-timey showbiz dreams are often played for laughs, but there are memorable moments, often at crucial narrative climaxes, where her all-out love of performing and her ability as a performer are celebrated. She wrote ‘My Headband’, but she also wrote ‘Loser Like Me’. Michele’s ability to totally inhabit both of these Rachels blows my mind.
The Rachel of Seasons 4 and 5—the bad dance movie years—has very little charm for me. I think that so much of the poignancy of Glee comes from the threat of social and professional mediocrity which haunts these kids. Seeing Rachel heartbroken but determined to survive, strutting through Manhattan with a hot pink suitcase, at the very end of Season 3 was very moving for me; the slick, professionalised, mature, non-ridiculous Rachel of Season 4 was not. Sending her back to Lima for Season 6 made a strange kind of sense—emotional sense, you understand, not narrative sense—and gave me a few final moments with the starry-eyed uptight loser I originally fell in love with.
TA: I think Georgia’s reading of Glee in terms of failure is perfect, and certainly helped me understand why I too believe that Rachel had to be number one on this list. Her return to Lima in Season 6, after the premature collapse of both a Broadway and a television career, made Glee meaningful again (albeit momentarily). In fact, it actually made the New York wilderness years seem almost worthwhile. There’s something very poignant, very tragic and very contemporary about this overall arc, which has its originary moment with the iconic performance of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ at the end of the first episode. This injunction to excessive, superhuman resilience is wrapped up intimately with the disappointment of New York (Rachel sings it for her Funny Girl audition, through which her ultimate fantasy is prematurely realised and its insufficiency revealed), but it is equally wrapped up with her relationship with Finn (she sings it at the end of Season 1, after he declares his love). One might imagine that, at one point, there was a possible six-season arc in which Rachel, disillusioned with stardom, comes home to discover that, all along, her ‘real’ destination had been in the arms of her soul mate Finn. This wasn’t to be, though, and underneath Season 6’s orgy of matrimony and reconciliation, there remained this tension (which was far more interesting): what could Rachel do next? What was there left for her to ‘believe’ in so vehemently, when all the obvious goals (winning at Nationals, stardom, her One True Pairing) had been removed one by one? (And here, the character of Rachel dissolves into the actor who plays her: what next for Lea? What strange ironies are we seeing played out here, consciously or not?)
In Glee, Rachel plays out the relatively well-trodden, Romantic myth of striving to achieve one’s dreams, but this is appended to/realised through a more contemporary myth: what Robin James talks about as ‘the discourse of resilience’ (the ‘new neoliberal feminine ideal’). This is the point at which the virtuosic self-possession of ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ or ‘Maybe This Time’ gives way to the more volatile excess of ‘Firework’ or ‘Defying Gravity’. So much of the pop music of the period during which Glee was made entered into this discourse, and it found its way into the show through Rachel. What’s more, her tenure on the show lasted long enough for us to see quite clearly the insufficiency of resilience and superhuman self-motivation on their own, as a strategy for living. The care that the characters extend to each other, and the solidarity of the choir room, is far more valuable. There is no New York. There is no LA. There is nothing outside Lima.
The penultimate episode of Glee concludes with a flashback of the original ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ performance. It would have been a far more effective conclusion to the series than the gross, anticlimactic finale. It sums up the key message of the show for me (a message that its creators only half-endorsed), that all this striving and soaring only leads in circles, and that what the kids were really ‘believing in’, back in the first episode, was nothing more or less than the value of the performance itself: singing together, in an empty auditorium, for the sake of it.