When the "Glee" tour hit New York late last month, Matthew Morrison and Jane Lynch – better known as choirmaster Will Schuester and cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester – made a surprise appearance on the Radio City Music Hall stage.
They did some funny shtick, sniping at one another in character. But the actors quickly gave up, all-but drowned out by the seat-shaking roar of thousands of tween and teenage girls who had shrieked relentlessly through the first hour of songs – and saved their most deafening screams for the evening’s one attempt at dialogue.
The moment, in a way, summed up the "Glee" phenomena as the show is about to end its first season Tuesday: We love “Glee” as much for the music as for the camp – but sometimes the intensity can be hard to take.
Which also kind of sums up the high school experience, when you think about it.
In retrospect, it was a brilliant idea for Fox to split up the first season, providing a four-month buffer between the first 13 episodes and the final nine.
The show operates on such a high-energy plane of heightened reality that “Glee,” at times, can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
The stakes are always high, in the ever-changing romantic pairings, in the intramural social clashes – and in the glee club’s quest for respect, which comes to a crescendo this week with the underdog McKinley High misfits' challenge to the powerhouse Vocal Adrenaline in the vaunted Regionals competition.
The epic battle caps a second half of the season brimming with highlights that went beyond Sue's hilarious music videos and guest appearances by Olivia Newton John, Neil Patrick Harris and Kristin Chenowith:
•The touching romance between Finn's mom and Kurt's dad, which has left the Glee-mates awkwardly working out how to become brothers.
•Rachel's discovery that her birthmother is Vocal Adrenaline’s director – the woman who sent a boy to break her heart and literally leave her with egg on her face.
•The loving relationship between Sue and her sister, who has Down syndrome – a subplot that gave a tad of depth to a character who could be dismissed as a caricature if not for Lynch’s consistently note-perfect performance.
Sometimes, though, the show goes by so quickly, the occasional false note can slip by almost unnoticed.
Last week’s episode was particularly odd in spots. Will’s cruel toying with Sue’s affections seemed out of character and out of place. Knocked up blonde cheerleader Quinn equating the stigma of teen pregnancy to racism in a heart-to-heart chat with Mercedes proved borderline offensive. The revelation of Vocal Adrenaline’s Achilles’ heel – an inability to get funky – felt forced.
But those are quibbles. It would be folly to expect perfection from a daring, larger-than-life show that hits us with outsized laughter, excitement, sadness, musical numbers and even the occasional small, sweet moment.
McKinley High is a place where lives change amid swirling hormones, adults who usually do more harm than good and voices raised in song. And when the rollercoaster ride is finished, too many wasted hours are spent thinking about how to live it all over again.
Just like high school.
We’ll find out Tuesday whether “Glee” ends its first season on a high note. No matter how it turns out, we'll have the summer to recover – and pine for the fall.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.