Tuesday 28th March 2017,
Televisual

Is ‘Glee’ Brewing a Kurt Hummel Backlash?

We won’t know for another week, but the ratings for the last episode of Glee took a nosedive, leading some to question if the show has lost its mojo. While I can’t speak to comparisons of season two vs. season one, I might suggest another highly speculative theory: Kurt backlash.

Let’s take a look.

First, background:

UPDATE: Ratings for this week were up 13%, from last week’s 20% crash, suggesting most users came back and much of the drop came from young people going home for the holidays.

Glee‘s ratings, which have been stellar in this season, dropped 20%, a season low, for its latest episode focused on the anti-gay bullying of Kurt Hummel. After gaining viewers with its well-liked Gwyneth Paltrow episode and hitting highs with its Rocky Horror and Britney send-ups, a drop of that level raised a lot of eyebrows. It wasn’t even competing with Dancing with the StarsGlee happens to one of just a few shows on network television whose ratings have actually risen from its first season to its second. As Fox is scrambling and in trouble (hence its American Idol shake-up with new judges and a Wednesday/Thursday time slot), Glee is its shining success.

A rational explanation for the drop:

The most rational theory for the drop is the holiday weekend. Young viewers — those 18-34 — were going home to their families for Thanksgiving and missed the episode. Glee does benefit a lot of DVR and online viewing. It’s substantially more popular across platforms. So it’s possible no viewers have left at all (we won’t know for a few days; though viewers who watch the show later are not really monetizable in any substantial way).

That explanation makes perfect sense, which is why nothing is certain until we get ratings for the next episode, a biggie: sectionals!

Another rational explanation:

The spate of buzzworthy episodes and the series’ success in creating chart-topping hits — its “Teenage Dream” rendition has been an unequivocal hit — might have brought in a bunch of new viewers, looky-loos wondering what all the fuss was about. Those viewers just might not be dedicated enough to tune into the show during a holiday week. Fans, some of whom have been blogging about the lack of clear narrative this season, might have felt the same.

But could it be too much Kurt?

Why would it be Kurt (who is my and many others’ favorite character)? Kurt has been the focus of recent episodes, and the latest episode was, in the words of Brian Moylan, a “canonization,” cloying in its support of a gay teen. “St. Kurt” is increasingly becoming the “heart of the show.” This warms my heart, but might be jarring for a minority of the show’s fans. The other characters — all of whom are seriously flawed though no less lovable — haven’t had much to do this season, no real conflicts to endure.

The episode, “Furt,” was almost uncharacteristically earnest about how much everyone loves and supports Kurt as he weathers the threats of a closeted bully — with even cynical bully Sue Sylvester resigning her powerful position as principal to protest the re-enrollment of Kurt’s bully. Says Moylan: “I call bullshit.”

The show is right to take bullying seriously, given the reported spike in suicides in gay youth this fall. The episode was clearly aiming its target directly at the issue, which has emboldened state legislatures (NJ), dozens of celebrities, along with the President and Secretary of State.

But did it go too far? Again, Moylan: “Kurt is still a pretty cool and strong guy, but we don’t have to keep going on and on about it. Constantly extolling his virtues (and there are many) is making him the most unlikable person on the show.”

It’s always been surprising how gay Glee has been able to go while still keeping a mainstream audience. I’d always chalked it up to niche marketing — after all, you don’t necessary need middle America, whatever that is.Modern Family and Glee are two of the biggest scripted series hits of the last two years, and Kurt remains only of the boldest gay characters ever written for television, a boy who’s allowed to be femme and somewhat stereotypical while still retaining depth, complexity and potentially a love life.

Creator Ryan Murphy is taking risks. He’s betting that younger viewers can handle a show focused on such a proud and exceedingly lovable gay character as Kurt. (It’s not a huge risk: Murphy has hit, and Kurt isn’t network TV’s first gay lead, though he’s arguably its least “mainstream”).

But…

I haven’t been able to find a half-hour breakdown of the ratings yet, but if the ratings didn’t drop as the episode progressed, the case of a Kurt Hummel-backwash loses its weight.

It’s also the case that Glee has been plenty gay all along, and its previous episodes (which, to be sure, had other spectacles attached to its marketing) with Kurt-heavy story lines have done rather well.

Lastly, it’s important that “Teenage Dream” has been the show’s most successful and buzzy single so far: the song, within the narrative of the show, is also a love letter to Mr. Hummel, sung by the gay teen’s boy-crush Blaine (Darren Criss).

Yet the truth remains that Glee‘s episode devoted to showing and pushing us to love and support Kurt was a season low for a series experiencing many highs.

Tune in next week to see how this all shakes out!

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

3 Comments

  1. Janet Trumble November 26, 2010 at 11:20 am

    I have a theory–Carol Burnett and Darren Criss. Too much Carol and no Darren. I am a devoted Glee fan, but I wasn’t really looking forward to that episode. I was just ready to skip to the next week when I knew Darren would return. But I’m so glad I watched. I still didn’t like the Carol Burnett storyline, but the rest I loved loved loved. The wedding was perfect. And when Finn danced with Kurt, I bawled! Can’t wait for next week’s episode!

  2. KT December 12, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I agree-I think it’s because Darren Criss wasn’t in that episode 😉 I found the Carol Burnett scenes not very entertaining, but I liked the rest of the episode. I don’t see why Blaine wasn’t at the wedding, though.

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