Pop Culture

Glee’s Kevin McHale and Jenna Ushkowitz Reclaim a Complicated Legacy

As Murphy says, all involved with the show have had to decipher the difference between “what Glee did to us and for us.” That’s the needle they’ll need to thread in hosting their podcast, explains Ushkowitz: “‘Being a part of something special makes you special’ is the thesis of Glee. ‘What Glee did to us and for us’ is the basis of our podcast now.” She continues, “Ryan has set the tone in such an open and authentic way that we are able to go forward and not sugarcoat it. There’s a really exciting vibe to not have to dance around things or walk on eggshells.”

To host a podcast about Glee, one has to acknowledge the discourse that surrounds it. These days, that largely lives on TikTok, where the hashtag #GleeTok has more than 260 million views. Users often unpack cringeworthy plot points and imagine what covers of recent hits would sound like in the characters’ voices. Ushkowitz says she relies on McHale for any social media stalking. “I also have a few friends who report back to me, not that I ask them to,” McHale laughs. “Luckily, because I’m not trying to mess with my TikTok algorithm. I don’t want to be on GleeTok.”

He added, “Things have gotten so out of hand. Conspiracies, and how attached people feel to us as real people, and the things they say are really wild. You sort of have to laugh at it. We have to talk about some of the wild shit because it is baffling to us, and people really believe these things.”

As for any specific rumors they’d like to clear up? To start, McHale says no, none of the cast is involved in an upcoming Discovery+ documentary about the show’s controversies. Yes, they’ve been exhaustively asked and (sort of) answered whether they’re seeing Michele in Broadway’s Funny Girl. And—“We’re definitely going to address Lea not being able to read for sure,” Ushkowitz deadpans.

Adds McHale, “Our intention wasn’t necessarily to push back on those things because people are going to troll, it doesn’t matter, but it is a nice benefit. I think [the podcast] will naturally dispel some of the long-held and misguided opinions and assumptions about the show.”

Since Glee took its final bow in 2015, its legacy has cropped up in strange and mystifying ways—such as a punch line in this year’s Bros and a lyric in Olivia Rodrigo’s hit single “Deja Vu.” “That one’s also just a weird connection for other reasons as well,” McHale says. “The person who it’s about I’m friends with and he was like, ‘Oh, my God, I was watching Glee. She’s never even seen Glee.’”

But “the weirdest, darkest” of them all is Glee’s tie to Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the infamous texting-suicide case involving the death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy. Carter was so obsessed with the show that she would text exact lines of dialogue to Roy and pass them off as her own. The true-crime tale was explored in this year’s The Girl From Plainville on Hulu, 2019’s HBO documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, and a 2018 Lifetime movie, Conrad & Michelle: If Words Could Kill, that coincidentally starred McHale’s real-life partner, Austin P. McKenzie. “Seeing that story was already crazy, in the documentary,” Ushkowitz says. “Then to hear that they were making a scripted show on it, I was like, ‘I don’t think I can do that.’ That one was really wonky in my brain.”

Rewatching the episodes themselves presents its own set of hurdles. Both McHale and Ushkowitz say that while the show’s first three seasons are “cemented” in their memories, everything after the death of Monteith, who played quarterback turned unlikely gleek Finn, is far hazier. (Murphy, who devoted a tribute episode called “The Quarterback” to Monteith’s memory, said on the podcast that Glee should’ve “probably not come back” after his death.) “I’m nervous for season four because it was after Cory died and so that whole season was such a blur,” McHale says. “I don’t know if I remember any of it. I can’t think of anything.”

The same goes for seasons five and six, which contain each of the actor’s creative breaking points. Ushkowitz cited her season four cover of “Gangnam Style” as the series’ low point, while McHale picked season five’s “What Does the Fox Say” performance, during which he looked directly into the camera in fourth-wall-breaking terror. When asked what advice they’d give themselves at Glee’s start, Ushkowitz replies: “I would give advice to my season six self much, much more. I was almost so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed [at the beginning] that I don’t think I could have foreseen what was coming. And the jaded, bitter Jenna that potentially happened, it came quicker than I thought it would.”

As McHale and Ushkowitz embark on unpacking the ensuing 120 episodes, specters of the cast members they’ve lost linger. “Honestly, I just haven’t watched any of Glee since Naya died,” Ushkowitz says. “And if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t really think about that until we started and I was like, ‘Oh shit.’ But we’ve really tried to keep her memory alive so much.” She continues, “Maybe it’s just how much time had passed between Cory and Naya, but it felt a little different. It hit a little harder, for me, at least. So being able to talk about her is also healing. I’m excited and scared and all of the things.”

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