The latest episode of Glee has sparked unprecedented controversy and debate. ‘Shooting Stars’ was a far cry from the usual cheery, cheesy scenes that you expect when you sit down for an hour of indulgence in guilty musical pleasures; this episode tackled a sensitive, yet undeniably important topic: school shootings.
Glee creator Ryan Murphy is known for writing exceptionally current and provocative storylines, whether that be tackling racism, homosexuality, transgender issues or teen pregnancy, Glee is certainly no stranger to controversy. Their liberal approach generally receives praise for highlighting key social issues and giving a voice to the underdog. This isn’t the first episode to shock either; who expected cheerleader Quinn Fabray to wind up in a wheelchair after a car crash caused by her texting whilst behind the wheel? However, it definitely seems to be the episode that has provoked the most outcries, with some going so far as to say the latest storyline should herald the curtain call for the show.
Those who have been quick to criticise claim that it is too soon after Newtown to address shootings, that a sensitive issue has been egregiously used to boost ratings. When, exactly, is the right time to deal with gun violence? Newtown was not the first shooting in an American school, and sadly it is unlikely to be the last. Viewing the terror of teenagers hiding in a choir room, or waiting terrified in a toilet cubicle anticipating the worst and even saying their goodbyes, will never make for easy viewing. But, in my humble opinion, there is no time like the present to tackle issues that divide a nation; whether that be gay marriage or gun violence. Furthermore, Glee isn’t the first teen drama to take on the chilling reality of school shootings; back in 2006 One Tree Hill was rocked by multiple deaths at the hands of troubled student, Jimmy Edwards.
The Glee writers however chose to address the unimaginable horror and fear that students go through, but avoided delving into the aftermath of murder with the entire cast escaping physically unharmed, though no doubt emotionally traumatised by the gun shots which rang through the corridors. In ‘Shooting Stars’ it was eventually revealed that the gun was fired accidentally by young cheerleader Becky, who had brought her Dad’s handgun to school as she grew fearful of how to protect herself in the world. Much has been said of the fact that this character suffers from Downs Syndrome, but it could have just as easily been another one of the cast; emotionally troubled, scared for their future and all too capable of effecting poor judgement when making decision. They chose, rightly I think, to place this entirely innocent, vulnerable character at the centre of this delicate storyline. In doing so, the script writers thoroughly engaged with the on-going gun debate: should schools have guns on site to prevent further trauma, or does gun use merely perpetuate gun use?
The episode was jarring, disturbing and highly emotional, that is undeniable. Heather Morris gave her finest performance to date and the cast proved once again that they are far more than some kind of karaoke act. The unexpected nature of the events, which interrupted a typically light-hearted episode which saw Brittany fearful of an impending asteroid (don’t worry- it turned out to be a ladybird on her telescope), reflects reality. Terrible events like this can and do come out of nowhere. Whilst many people remain horrified and offended by the choice of Glee producers, I took from the episode a subtle yet poignant message of the necessity for gun control and continued debate about what steps should be taken next to tackle the disquieting trend. Sue, when ‘confessing’ that the gun went off in her possession, tells Principal Figgins that “It’s a different world than when I started teaching. The safety net of the pub mental health system is gone. Parents with troubled kids are too busy with three jobs to look after them. And the gun yahoos have everyone so worked up about Obama taking away their guns that every household has a ready arsenal”. Provocative indeed.
I do not claim to be an expert on gun control in America, and with the greatest respect to the many people such tragic events have affected, I believe Glee did what it does best; it tackled head on a current social issue that effects the lives of its viewers. As expected, they also imparted a heartfelt lesson about the importance of communication which your loved ones, for you never know when they may no longer be around. I don’t believe that producers used the plight of mourning communities to boost their ratings; rather they have helped to foster debate about how to handle gun violence, and helped families to continue conversations about the issue. It remains to be seen if they can provide the long-term sensitivity required to handle such a controversial subject, for this is something that cannot simply be sang away.