‘Glee’ 15th Anniversary: Looking Back at a Cultural Moment Never to Be Repeated

I’m going to tell you something that will instantly rattle a millennial body to its core: “Glee,” the Fox musical dramedy that became a phenomenon before becoming a dark cultural tale, premiered 15 years ago, on May 19, 2009.

To make you feel slightly better about the passage of time, that date is a bit of a cheat: Because Fox suspected it had an honest-to-goodness hit on its hands, the network premiered the first episode after the “American Idol” Season 8 finale in May, before beginning the full season a few months later in September.

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Still, May 19 was the day the world first was re-reminded of the wonder of “Don’t Stop Believin,’” witnessed the instantly iconic combo of cringe and charisma that was Rachel Berry/Lea Michele, and considered the shocking declaration that someone could be both an athlete and a singer.

If you aren’t a recovering Gleek, one of the funniest things you may have forgotten is that “Glee” originally began as a very different show, more in line with co-creator Ryan Murphy’s “Popular” than the after-school special it often became in the later seasons, before concluding its run in 2015. The premiere episode is full satire; an adult send-up of the various high school tropes (sexy cheerleaders, dumb jocks, etc.) rather than something designed for middle schoolers to binge watch.

“The freshest, most original new show of the season,” Entertainment Weekly proclaimed.

Time noted: “What makes ‘Glee’ more than sketch comedy, and what may save its commercial appeal, is that it is also an underdog story (not just about the kids but also idealistic music-lover Will) with heart. And with a well-chosen sound track and arch comedy, the pilot is just a giant basket of happy.”

Dianna Agron, Lea Michele, and Cory Monteith in "Glee"
Lea Michele, Dianna Agron, and Cory Monteith in ‘Glee’Carin Baer/Fox

Immediately, the songs dominated iTunes and Billboard charts; there was soon a “Glee” world tour (still bummed I couldn’t snag tickets), a 3D concert movie, and an incredibly riveting spinoff reality show on the Oxygen channel, which was also home to “Glee” reruns. The main cast performed at the White House, went on a mall tour, can legitimately claim they influenced public policy around bullying and LGBTQ rights, and gave Gwyneth Paltrow something to do besides Goop.

It has become an online joke to ask what is the most “Obama-era” piece of pop culture. The thought is trying to pick a piece of entertainment that could only have existed between 2008-2016, whether that be for political/cultural reasons (a more innocent time!) or something that would never be able to thrive in the heightened segmented audience that followed.

Plenty of programs qualify for one reason or another — “Parks and Rec” and “The Hangover” movies come to mind — but a strong case can be made for “Glee.” Watching an episode of “Glee” in 2024 is a chilling experience. There is the real-life tragedy that is impossible to ignore (of the eight core “kids” in the first season, three would be dead by age 35). But even looking just at what is on screen, large parts of the program are a fascinating mess.

The show almost immediately became a victim of its own success, burning through story at a breakneck pace. There was often no continuity episode to episode, with some storyline choices showing a real contempt for viewers (the random oddball romantic pairings, people disappearing for handfuls of episodes, a truly atrocious episode about a school shooting). It was always an open question how seriously you were suppose to take any of it. Operating with its own internal logic, characters would often say the most nonsensical things a human could imagine. Describing the plot of any specific “Glee” episode to an outsider was liable to get one committed.

And yet, 15 years on, I still have a real fondness for those perennial Regionals competitors. In a new era of trying to hide that musicals are, well, musical, “Glee” put in the work. The performance numbers — four or five an episode! often with pretty intense choreography! — showcased the strong cast the creators assembled. There’s no question it introduced tons of music hits of the ’70s and ’80s to a new generation. Some might see it as passé now, but Kurt’s (Chris Colfer) coming out journey and relationship with his father (Mike O’Malley) was unlike anything else on TV at the time for that fanbase.

“Glee” is why Jane Lynch has an Emmy. “Glee” introduced Jonathan Groff and Darren Criss to an audience outside the theater bubble. “Glee” was so damn good at showcasing wanting something so bad you could taste it, which is why I teared up watching it approximately five times a season.

What can I say? “House of the Dragon” has never given me a thrill like this.

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