No. 4: Glee

Like a hyperactive, overachieving freshman, “Glee” accomplished in one season what “American Idol” took years to do: a successful tour, Emmy nominations galore (and a few wins), a holiday album, even a clothing line (slushie stains not included). Actually, forget “Idol”: “Glee” album sales broke the Beatles’ Billboard records. How fab is that?

The Fox musical comedy barely took a full season to register its pop culture effect. By 2010, its “Gleeks” had formed: a fan cross-breed of teenagers, adults who remember their high school years, and preteens who have much to look forward to. They adored how the show celebrated misfits and dazzled with musical numbers.

Sure, the plots could be uneven, but “Glee” took on touchy issues without too many predictable, drawn-out storylines. Character Kurt Hummel‘s coming-out story arc was done in a single episode — but true to “Glee” spirit, a character’s bittersweet reward of being out of the closet was knowing the inside of a Dumpster. Fans’ love-love relationship with scheming cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester knew no bounds, much as the character knew no boundaries. Gleeks had their pick of characters to identify with, including the “Other Asian.”

The network hustled to oblige the Gleeks, ordering an extra nine episodes (on top of 12 already aired) to add a spring semester. Artists like Britney Spears and Billy Joel queued for a “Glee” tune-up — about the only artist not on the waiting list was Liberace.

With the show already hot on social networking, it was easy enough to fuel hysteria for the April premiere with Gleek Week, featuring everything from a hypertrailer to Facebook gimmicks before the show’s April return. Not that there wasn’t plenty of other hype: One Toronto FM station devoted itself to an all-“Glee” format.

Plus, during the break, “Glee” pumped up the volume off the set. The cast, rearranging its shooting schedule, sang at the White House Easter Egg hunt. Stage shows ranged all the way to London’s West End. When the midseason premiere finally aired, 13.6 million people tuned in.

Then something off happened sophomore year. The underdogs seemed too popular. The Britney episode drew record ratings (13.3 million) but gave short shrift to wheelchair warbler Artie Abram‘s losing his virginity to charmingly dumb as a pom-pom Brittany. In Season 1, Artie’s struts won fans for his achingly sweet fantasy segment, in which he daydreams about being able to dance. (The scene spurred Web searches for “Safety Dance” flash-mob choreography.) The Britney episode, though, spurred a Salon critic to scold, “Stop drinking your own Kool-Aid for long enough to realize that two nitrous-induced Britney Spears dance numbers in a row is exactly one too many.”

Other tone-deaf developments: Beloved Burt Hummel, whose stock rose after his magnificent defense of his gay son last season, nearly died of a heart attack — but was fine by the following week and was married in a month. And neither hide nor hair has been seen of Quinn Fabray‘s baby. “Glee” risked becoming a victim of its own preciousness, alternatively loved and lambasted. A Boston Globe critic lamented, “The creators have turned their show from a sweet, twisted teen melodrama honoring the power of music into a slick soapbox-jukebox with one eye on TV ratings and the other on record sales.”

Offscreen, the show got into sooo much trouble. A conservative parent media group got whopping mad when “Glee” actresses (all above the age of consent) indulged GQ magazine’s schoolgirl fetish with a scantily clad cover spread, while the sole male representative, Cory Monteith, stayed fully clothed. One actress (Dianna Agron) offered an apology of sorts, but the actresses’ biggest sins were being “cliched” and against the show’s “whole ethos of inclusion.” (In another Gleek pop-culture moment, Mike Chang, aka the Other Asian, posed shirtless for Yellow magazine with nary a whisper.)

But for every sophomoric move, there have been juicy bits of flawed genius: praying to a grilled cheese sandwich with a burnt image of Jesus Christ? No wonder people were tracking down the “Grilled Cheesus” episode online. Delirious, serious, joyous, aggravating — “Glee” inspires even as it frustrates.

–Vera H-C Chan

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