'Glee,' 'One Tree Hill,' and 'Degrassi' attempt the impossible: Can school shooting be done 'right' on TV?
Television is meant to entertain people in order to make money for networks and studios. Full stop.
People can talk about messages, and education, and addressing issues -- but in the end, we as an audience know that the goal is to get ratings and make money. And we as an audience shouldn't be okay with a TV show blatantly using the plight of real dead children and their families in order to do that.
This week's "Glee" episode was about a school shooting false alarm. Gunshots were fired on campus, and the lockdown and chaos that ensued made for riveting, emotional TV. Kids left teary goodbye videos for their loved ones; one boy had a panic attack in an attempt to get to his girlfriend, who was in the bathroom down the hall. A show that's usually musically driven was stripped of its score. In the end, though, it was something of a false alarm. Becky, a popular, beloved student with Downs Syndrome, had brought a gun to school and accidentally discharged it. In a surprise twist, a teacher (Jane Lynch) covered for her, taking the fall -- and was ultimately fired.
Yes, a teacher covered for the student who brought the gun to school, thus insuring that the student won't receive the discipline and counseling that should follow up such an incident. (Yes, the student has Downs Syndrome, so circumstances are different than if a violent offender was involved. But that doesn't mean she doesn't need and shouldn't get help.)
The surprise twist is where it all falls apart. "Glee" has never shied away from "very special episodes." Personally, I think the show shines when it sticks to comedy and music, but there's no denying that it's broken ground with issue-based material about teen suicide, bullying, coming out, transgender kids -- even texting while driving has been addressed.
But in this case, instead of making a real statement about guns in school, or about gun control in general, "Glee" shied away from the issue. The kids just kind of... sang their blues away under a bunch of fake stars. And aside from the teacher -- who was portrayed as a martyr, not a problem -- leaving, all was well at McKinley High.
For the record, on the day that the "Glee" episode aired, a similar false alarm happened at my high school in Greenwich, CT. Rumors that a student brought a gun to school sent the whole place into lockdown mode, panicked -- and misinformed -- texts and tweets brought parents to the school and put the entire town in gridlock. Just an hour's drive down the highway from Newtown, the incident opened wounds and terrified the entire school district. Police entered the building with weapons drawn, yelling at people to get out. A student was apprehended. It wasn't exactly a day to sing about, particularly with nerves still so frayed after Newtown.
That heightened vulnerability is exactly what "Glee" was counting on to emotionally manipulate viewers. But to what end? To boost the show's dwindling ratings? Uh, yay.
And they're not the first television show to do that. In 2006, "One Tree Hill" aired a school shooting episode that, years later, creator Mark Schwahn touted as his favorite episode in the series' nine-year-run. I'm a huge fan of "One Tree Hill" -- I've gushed about it on this site on numerous occasions -- but I hated that the show went that route. I still hate it.
There were a lot of things that "One Tree Hill" did right with the school shooting episode, titled "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept." The shooter, Jimmy Edwards, was a character who had been part of the show at the beginning. He'd been bullied, abandoned by close friends, and had a lot of deep anger issues before he brought the gun to school. The episode forced every character to examine their behavior, actions, and relationships. The actors' performances were among the best ever seen on that show (or on The WB, which was still around then).
But the story went all wrong. The shooter fired the gun at nobody in particular; the bullet ricocheted and hit a student. Later, at the end of a truly terrifying and heartbreaking episode, Jimmy Edwards shot himself in front of Keith, a beloved father figure in the town, and Keith's brother Dan, the corrupt mayor and the show's central villain.
Then, in a (you guessed it!) surprise twist: Dan shot and murdered Keith, and blamed it on the desperate, dead young boy.
Yes. The school shooting episode -- which contained several clear nods to Columbine, including the fact that Jimmy was born on the anniversary of the shooting and a large portion of the episode taking place in the library -- was actually just a vehicle for a sudsy murder plot. Later, Dan would confess, and he'd spend less than 5 years in jail for murdering his brother and allowing the entire nation to blame it on a dead child. A dead child with a grieving mother. (Which, by the way, wasn't mentioned until four seasons and nearly 9 timeline years later.)
In the follow-up, the kids broke into the school and literally threw a party in the hallway where the bodies had fallen, caution tape still up. The student who was shot and injured was consoled during a brief romance with Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, playing himself. Seriously.
There's no denying that the "One Tree Hill" episode was the most memorable of the series' long run. In fact, it was mostly lauded by critics at the time (and, years later, Twitter was full of "One Tree Hill" did it better statements). And, to their credit, there were strong messages about bullying and high school social hierarchy in the episode -- messages that were all clouded by a murder mystery and soap opera scandal.
What'd we learn from it? Bullying is bad, but not as bad as electing a murderer into office? Tragedy is not a good excuse to kiss your best friend's boyfriend? Or -- how about, doing a school shooting episode will boost your show to record ratings for that season? Oh. Yep. That last one.
Oddly enough, the show that came closest to getting it "right" was Canadian teen drama "Degrassi: The Next Generation." Perhaps because school shootings are much more rare in Canada (one happened five years before the episode aired, a Columbine copycat attack), the writers were able to approach the issue without dancing around it. This wasn't an accidental discharge, or a ricocheting bullet -- it was an attack with intent, as most real school shootings are.
The shooter, Rick, had a history of anger and dating violence -- which led to him becoming the victim of some calculated bullying attacks. He was humiliated at an important event, and retaliated by bringing a gun to school. One student, Jimmy (played by Aubrey "Drake" Graham) was paralyzed in the attack. Rick was ultimately shot when a fellow student, Sean, tried to wrestle his gun away.
Though "Degrassi" was always lacking in the acting department, the writing -- particularly the follow-up episodes -- did a relatively decent job of following it up. Certainly no one put a keg down where Rick had died. The students responsible for bullying him were not only expelled, but they were condemned by their friends for the harassment. Drake's character never walked again. Sean was so traumatized by the incident that he ultimately had to move out of town to live with his mom. Rick's only friend was left to deal with the implications of having been close with the shooter. School policies changed, memorials were discussed. Some characters experienced major changes in personality in reaction to the event.
Again, unlike "Glee" and "One Tree Hill," which followed real school shootings and drew connections to them, "Degrassi's" wasn't so much exploiting an actual tragedy as it was examining a trend. But still, was it necessary? No. Did it teach us anything we haven't learned from real life events? I mean, "bullying is bad" is sort of a foregone conclusion if kids don't have terrible parents. Did it help the ratings? Yep. The episode reached an all-time high in viewers.
The real reason why "Glee" and "One Tree Hill" failed is because, due to the nature of their genre, they have to move on. The "Glee" school shooting incident has to be fake because next week, these kids have to sing and dance and worry about whether they're going to win their competition. We have to go on caring about whether Rachel will ever win over her dance teacher in New York. So, it's used as a vehicle for Sue's exit, to make it emotional, and then we plow over it as if it never happened.
With "One Tree Hill," the soapy dramedy had to go on, so they make the school shooting a cover-up for a corrupt politician murdering his brother (who had a pregnant wife!). They distract with stunt casting (yay, Pete Wentz!) and a wedding in the season finale. And, of course, they can't have the actor playing the corrupt politician leave the show, so he only spends a summer hiatus' time-jump in jail and ultimately, his brother's ghost (seriously) forgives him his sins.
Maybe, someday, a show could do a school shooting right -- but from there on, the show would have to be a show about a school shooting. Over a decade after tragedy struck Columbine High School, kids that attend school there (who were infants and toddlers when the massacre happened) still field questions about what happened in 1999. Quite simply, your average teen television show can't offer the long-term attention and sensitivity required for such a touchy subject.
Critics have called these episodes gutsy, and brave, and groundbreaking. But they don't propose a solution, or address gun control issues, or shine a light on the various failures of the system that lead to these tragedies. So really, they're just foolproof ratings-boosters.
It's not that brave, you guys. It works every time.