When the Glee pilot aired on May 19, 2009, it introduced the world to a cast of singing, dancing high school misfits making tentative steps toward the limelight. From ambitious ingenue Rachel Berry (played to perfection by Lea Michele) to dewy-eyed quarterback Finn Hudson (the late Cory Monteith), the kids of William McKinley High School just wanted to feel special.
“Being part of something special makes you special,” Rachel told teacher and mentor Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) in one of the pilot’s pivotal scenes. That sentiment struck a chord with audiences that few predicted.
The first airing drew 10.7 million viewers, and its replay (Sept. 2, 2009) still pulled in an admirable 4.1 million. Even more surprising, the Glee Cast version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” bowed at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 (chart dated June 6, 2009). That was the first of many chart hits that were soon to come. In total, the show tallied 207 entries, among them three top 10s.
Co-creator Ian Brennan originally envisioned a Glee movie, but Nip/Tuck visionary Ryan Murphy imagined the concept would be much better as a weekly TV series. The show, also mounted with co-creator Brad Falchuk’s help, was greenlit by Fox within 15 hours of receiving the pilot script. American Idol was still a hot commodity at the time — the 2009 season starred the wildly popular Adam Lambert, the runner-up that year — so Murphy wisely predicted the soapy musical to be a nice pairing.
The pilot starred a smorgasbord of colorful characters. Dianna Agron played headstrong cheerleader Quinn Fabray; Amber Riley as the vocal powerhouse Mercedes Jones; Jenna Ushkowitz as goth princess Tina Chang; Chris Colfer as adorably well-dressed Kurt Hummel; Mark Salling, the resident bad boy Puck; and Kevin McHale as the superbly talented Artie Abrams. The pivotal adult roles of the combative cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), OCD-ridden guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) and the narcissistic Terri Schuester (Jessalyn Gilsig) rounded out the cast of underdogs with their own struggles to overcome.
Fox initially ordered a 13-episode first season, beginning Sept. 9, 2009. It was later given 22 total episodes.
“There’s the world pre-Glee and post-Glee. It had such an impact, culturally and globally, and it feels like a different world,” remarks Gilsig, who was coming off such hit TV shows as Heroes and Nip/Tuck. “Now, we forget that it wasn’t straight-to-series. It was a traditional pilot, and it had to be reviewed. We didn’t know if anybody was going to like it. I remember thinking that I would love it — but that it was also very niche. It was really for theater geeks.
“When it turned out we all have a theater geek inside of us, and it connected to so many people in so many unexpected ways, that was a surprise to me,” she adds.
McHale echoes the sentiment: “Honestly, when I look at the world today and the conversations we’re having, I credit Ryan for so much of that — and Glee. It got people talking, and it freed up so many kids who were trapped and felt invisible.”
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Glee, Billboard spoke to actors McHale, Mays and Gilsig about the pilot, fan culture, sexism and social change.
Being Part of Something Special Makes You Special
Jayma Mays: It absolutely did [feel special]. I do remember getting the pilot sent to me. We were still sending out hard copies. [laughs] I got a printed copy. I remember reading it and thinking, “Wow, this is really unique and different.” It felt special on the page, but it was also so different that it was like, “This could be really amazing or this could go horribly wrong.”
There was real excitement bubbling about what we were doing those couple weeks. As an actor, you work on stuff and sometimes, you feel that and then nothing really comes of it. But this did feel different. I think as we continued to film that first 13 episodes, it became apparent. It was one of those roles that no matter what happened with the show, I was going to remember [it] for the rest of my life. Those don’t come around very often.
Kevin McHale: When we watched the pilot, we had a time differentiating between “do we like this because we’re in it” or “does this feel special because it is special”? I remember, I think it was my first day working on the pilot, and I was sitting with Cory. Cory’s behind me while I’m the wheelchair, and we’re watching his mom’s boyfriend water the football field and singing a Journey song.
Cory and I had a discussion about how it felt like a really classic moment. “This seems really special. We need to remember this. This is absurd.” We had both done acting things before on other shows, but it felt different. It felt weird, in a good way. I remember we just kept saying that to each other that day.
Women in Television
Roles for women have often been written with paper-thin characterizations. Mays, who took on her first primetime role in an episode of Friends spin-off Joey, reflects on what felt different about her Glee spot.
Mays: I think a lot has changed for female roles, particularly in television in the last decade, but at the time, sometimes still now, a lot of characters felt one-dimensional or written as “Mom” and that’s the only description. [laughs] I remember getting these sides and thinking, “Oh, there’s a lot going on here! She’s got OCD, but she’s really put together. And yet, you can tell her life is a mess. She’s in love with a married man! But she has to keep it together; she’s a guidance counselor.” There were so many things there.
Being familiar with Ryan’s work and what he tends to do, and he does usually write really well for women, I felt, “Gosh, if this is already on the page in just a few little scenes, I think there’s just going to be so much room for this character to grow and be different and unique.” They really did push the boundaries of all of her issues. She was still this really warm-hearted, sometimes very logical and clear-headed guidance counselor. It was a wonderful role to play. A dream role.
In that same conversation of women on TV, Gilsig was immediately faced with sexism for even considering the role of Will’s high-strung wife.
Jessalyn Gilsig: There was some concern that I was too old for the part. Matthew is younger than I am. I got word from people also working on the show that I needed to tell Ryan I was too old. It was really interesting. I said, “Well, I think he knows how old I am.” They said, “No, no, you’re a lot older than Matthew. He doesn’t realize that.” I called Ryan, and I said, “Listen, I’m so honored. I read it, and it’s phenomenal. I would be thrilled to be a part of it, but I do need to tell you I think I’m older than you think I am.”
And he said, and I’m not kidding, “This is what I know. You’re somewhere between 30 and death. And that’s what I need for this part. Why don’t you come in and meet Matthew. Why don’t we decide if you’re believable as a couple.” Ryan is just not hung up on things like age. The audience will believe what you tell them. Nobody watching television is looking up the year you were born and getting hung up on it. He will not kowtow to those kinds of conventions.
So, I went in and met Matthew. It was great. We read together. I don’t think anyone looking at us said, “Oh, she’s five years older than he is!” Nobody cared. We went forward, and I was the luckiest girl alive.
A Life Worth Living
The pilot episode spoke to passions and living personal truths.
Mays: I do think [those are] important messages. I relate to them so much, and so many people do. It’s not uncommon for people to say, “Do what you’re passionate about!” There’s that idea that the money will come. So, basically, don’t worry about getting the 9-5 job to pay your bills. Do something that you’re passionate about. It’s a scary choice, and a lot of people might say, “Well, that’s not realistic.” But I firmly believe that we, as people, are given talents. Whatever that talent may be ? you might be good at math or science or the arts ? if you can, explore those talents. You can make a difference.
It’s wonderful to feel like you have a talent and a path you can follow because of that. It’s a different conversation to have, because I know it’s not always easy for everyone to be able to do. Growing up, my parents were very conservative. They really wanted me to do what I wanted to do. They were supportive of that, but I also remember feeling a bit of fear coming from them and from me. It’s not always the easiest thing to do. You also want to feel there’s going to be some security in your life. It’s definitely really important for young people to hear.
I feel like there were so many struggles everyone was going through. You try to choose what is good and honorable rather than maybe doing what might feel easy. It was about embracing being different and the underdog, the weirdo and realizing that’s really good. That’s one of the reasons people really gravitated toward this show. We all feel weird and awkward and like we don’t fit in. That’s how 99 percent of the population really feels.
McHale: I think it was leveling the playing field. When you’re in high school, everything seems like the end of the world. Whether you’re in a popular clique or a “nerd,” I think everybody is still internally battling the same demons, for the most part. Everybody is trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in. A lot of times, you’re putting on a front in a group you probably shouldn’t belong in anyways. Maybe, you shouldn’t be on the football team, but you should be in chess club.
The pilot used music to connect everybody and find a commonality between everybody despite their backgrounds. Seeing people who were the outcasts and walked all over come together with someone like the character of Finn, and seeing someone passionate that fit into that group as a teacher and to be the one to instigate that and make that happen against all odds, that speaks to a greater volume of the internal struggle that nobody actually wants to talk about in high school.
Changing Face of Fandom Culture
When the pilot aired, Facebook was young and Twitter was in its infancy. Even so, fan culture exploded in new ways, giving birth to self-professed Gleeks.
McHale: Had Instagram and Twitter been as big at the start of Glee, it probably would have been a whole different world in a lot of ways. I was the one who got everyone to sign up for Twitter. I was the only one who had an account. It was still very, very new. After the pilot aired, we went on this Hot Topic tour, and hundreds of kids came out every single day to these cities all over the country. We saw people connecting immediately to something even after just one episode.
As the show went on, in the first and second seasons, it became the most talked-about show on Twitter those years. To us, we thought, “That’s weird. Is that a good thing?” People didn’t really know what that meant yet. I think because the nature of the show and what it represented, social media is a big part in representing the community that’s been forgotten about. The show really gave a voice to those people, and social media is a great way for people to connect with one another in that way. Having a show like this that was so socially aware and conscious, and having that play into the boom of social media, was a very strange thing.
First Billboard Hot 100 Hit
On the chart dated June 6, 2009, the Glee Cast version of “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey bowed No. 4 on the Hot 100.
McHale: I remember where I was and what I was doing. I came from the music world and had been on the unsuccessful side of music for a long time before Glee. We all watched the pilot when it aired after American Idol, and by the time we were watching it on the west coast, “Don’t Stop Believin’” had shot to No. 1 on iTunes. We were like, “Oh my god! People actually like this?” It’s a weird thing. You’re filming it and don’t have that tangible sense or the foresight to know people are going to possibly buy this song. It’s just a cover song.
It was hard to put it into context with the rest of the world or any show that had come before us. By the time, later that week when the song debuted at No. 4, I texted everybody in that [musical] number. I was like, “Oh my god, we’re No. 4 on Billboard!!!” I remember, I think Lea or Jenna responding, “Is that good?” It was like, “You guys have no idea how monumental that is. That’s crazy. We’re not a musical group. We put out one song and it’s in the top 5 of the Hot 100!”
We were doing this whole experiment with this show that we were fond of, but we didn’t know if other people would like it. Then, that was sort of a really tangible, immediate thing that you can feel. Ratings are one thing, but you still feel removed. But to me, seeing a song debut that high meant something. That part of the show was working.
Remembering Cory Monteith
During the summer hiatus between seasons four and five, actor Cory Monteith passed away on July 13, 2013. Monteith’s plucky, endlessly-optimistic Finn became an instant fan favorite straight away in the pilot.
McHale: My first day of shooting was the porta potty scene, and a lot of my stuff was with Cory. He was a gentle giant. He was super tall. I hated him coming into it, because I watched him on Kyle XY, and he played the biggest douchebag. We rehearsed with him for a couple weeks before we started shooting the pilot, and on that same day as before, I remember being like, “I have to admit that when I heard you were cast, I was upset, because I hated you on Kyle XY.”
But at this point, I had known him for two weeks and knew it was dumb to equate Cory the Person with the character he played. He was so sweet and nice. I was significantly younger than him, and he sort of fit into the mold of older brother really easily. I have two older brothers. Cory was the leader but still figuring it out like the rest of us. He didn’t sing. That was new to him. It was nice to have somebody speak up for us, and he did a lot of the time. He and Lea were like Mom and Dad.
Glee opened up conversations most shows stayed away from. But as progressive as it was, there were elements that might not work today.
McHale: On one hand, yes, you couldn’t do the things we did, and at the same time, because we did those things at that time, it’s why you can’t. And that’s a good thing. It was the first time a lot of people, not only in America but the world, got to see these conversations and characters play out in this way. I think having a kid in a wheelchair was super important and in showing different aspects to him that were separate from his disability. Showing a gay teenager talking to his dad about sexuality and having a supportive dad was super important. Those are just two examples.
You look back now, and in a lot of ways, the show seems dated in a short amount of time. It’s because of how much progress we’ve made, socially, since then. It’s a good thing, and when you watch the show now, none of that seems revolutionary. But at the time, it was, and it was not that long ago at all. I think that’s a testament to Ryan, Brad and Ian having their finger on the pulse and pushing against what was normally seen and acceptable on network television. Because Ryan’s vision of it was so good, and the network trusted him so much, he could get away with doing that. With its success, that also allowed him to keep doing that. Today, most shows push boundaries like that. Back then, that was not the case.
A late 2010 blog post titled “Glee Actor Kevin McHale Angers Disability Advocates” underscored a vocal minority against McHale’s involvement in the show.
McHale: At that time, my ignorance and naivety was that the only thing I was concerned about was that wanted to do it justice. I didn’t want it to look like a mockery. I did feel a great deal of responsibility. I was like, “I’m not just going to sit in a wheelchair and not do anything and not research and do my due diligence to play this part correctly…” I remember when the episode “Wheels” came out, which was my first storyline, there was an article or two about that.
I remember calling everybody and doing, “Oh my god. Is this bad? What do I do?” I remember talking to Ryan and some of the other producers. They’re like, “Well, the whole point of this is that, look, you embody this character and personality. He’s more than his disability. The important thing is this character is represented on TV.” I remember that week when all that stuff came out, I heard more from parents of children in wheelchairs and people in wheelchairs themselves saying the opposite. To me, I didn’t care about anybody who didn’t have a disability and not in a wheelchair saying these things. If the group of people this character is representing is fine with it, then I’m fine with it. If they feel this character is being represented truthfully, I’m good with that.
Now, in the same breath, that couldn’t be done today. I could never play that character today. But that’s a good thing. I think the entertainment industry and hopefully society, in general, are more inclusive now and know that people who you are representing can actually play that part, as well.
Take a Bow
McHale, Mays and Gilsig offer some parting thoughts and favorite moments.
Mays: You do a lot of different things as an actor, but this is definitely one of those roles that has in many ways defined what I’m doing. It’s defined my career. I’m just so thankful to have been a part of it. What’s really cool is that I’ll be walking down the street and occasionally a young person, who’s 13 or 14, will come up and say, “I just found the show Glee. Are you Ms. Pillsbury? I can’t stop watching!” It’s so nice to be a part of something that people are still watching and still care about. I don’t think there’s a better form of flattery than that. I still can’t believe I got to be a part of this show. How lucky was I?
Gilsig: What I love is when they go back to judge the glee competition. It’s so fun to do a kid’s show where the stakes are so high for the kids. But let’s be honest, a school talent show is not important to the wife of the guy who runs the glee club. I mean, how important can it be? It’s not going to keep her up at night. That’s not realistic. I love that the adults such as Terri had this contrast to this high-stakes competition. She’s just got bigger things on her mind.
I also love when Will comes to the Sheets-N-Things, and I say something like, “I’m on my feet four hours a day, three times a week. And now, I have to go home and make dinner for myself.” [laughs] She literally has a part-time job. I love the crafts scene, too, when we argue over the glue gun. More than 50 percent of your performance is your partner. Matthew and I really settled in together and trusted each other and figured out who these people were together. I owe him for that. Terri wouldn’t have been Terri without Will.
The level of fame I got from the show doesn’t even approach what the kids got, but I had never had that level of recognition before. I had to learn how to manage that. Also, that was the first time I really connected with the audience. That’s incredibly humbling. It’s just amazing when people come up to you and tell you that you’ve entertained them, made them laugh and think. I’m glad we have a post-Glee world. It’s just a better place.
McHale: It was the best community and group of people that I could spend 16 hours a day with, day after day. Most of the crew stayed the entire time. A lot of them worked on the pilot. The band that played along with us in all the scenes were there the entire time. We were the face of it and so people knew us, but there were hundreds of people who came to work every single day to work on this show. When we didn’t know if the show was going to work or not, we were performing for them, and they liked it. I made the best friends of my entire life. We were just so obsessed with each other and spent every waking hour together.
I’ve learned life lessons from each of them, like how to speak up for myself and how to act professionally. We all gained this insane work ethic. People work years at different jobs obtaining those things, and we all got thrown into the deep end and got all that out of Glee. We also got to see the world and meet amazing people and do amazing things. It was a once in a lifetime experience. It set us up to either disappointed by anything else we do [laughs] or to be able to carry those experiences with us and be more well-informed and better-rounded people.