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"Glee" carefully straddles the line between clever and cloying with its frequent stunt casting, which has included unlikely appearances by Josh Groban, Olivia Newton John and Britney Spears.
But there’s little doubt the most recent guest was the biggest star the show will ever get: Jesus.
Or, more precisely, Cheesus.
We’re still chewing over the most daring and strongest “Glee” episode yet, which took an image of Jesus on a grilled cheese – the Grilled Cheesus – and wove what could have been a cheap gimmick into a smart, funny and touching look at family, friendship and the relationship between spirituality and religion.
The quick recap: dimwitted quarterback and chorister Finn toasts the sandwich in question, prays to it and sees various wishes come true, from scoring on the football field to getting to second base with his diva girlfriend Rachel.
The episode’s emotional underpinning, though, comes when Kurt's widowed father suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. It's not a question of Kurt's faith being tested – he professes to have none.
“I don’t believe in God,” he declares. “He makes me gay and has his followers going around telling me it’s something that I chose, as if somebody would choose to be mocked every single day of their life.”
Kurt bristles when his chorus mates each reach into their own faiths to try to comfort him in the ways they know best: through prayer and song (Rachel sings “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from “Yentl,” while Mercedes offers a Gospel-infused version of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”)
Kurt finds an unlikely ally in nasty cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester who shunned religion as a youngster after seeing supposedly devout folks ridicule her beloved older sister, who has Down syndrome. Sue tries to nix the glee club’s new spiritually oriented song list, claiming a case separation of church and state.
Both Kurt and Sue take major journeys in less than an hour, ultimately accepting that organized religion, spirituality and belief in God don't always necessarily fit in the same neat package. Kurt also comes to realize that it's important to let his friends console him through their own traditions – marking neither a rejection nor an acceptance of his beliefs.
That's some pretty heady material for a generally silly network TV songfest that previously came closest to touching on religion with last season's tribute to Madonna.
Last Tuesday's episode, not surprisingly, has inspired a lot of talk – from articles to calls for an Emmy for Chris Colfer (Kurt) to goofy tweets of prayers to Grilled Cheesus (“Dear mighty and savory Grilled Cheesus, please shower us with your infinite power and deliver us more Glee episodes”).
The reaction is a reflection of "Glee" its best – the slings and whims of life sweetened with irreverent humor and characters bursting into song. Like life, "Glee" keeps us off-kilter, with the show exhibiting some particularly radical shifts in tone.
We recently were treated to an episode built on the absurd premise – even by “Glee” standards – that the choristers had visions under dental anesthesia of performing elaborate music numbers with Britney Spears. This week’s show bodes for more of the well-meaning, but disconcerting plot line in which wheelchair-using Artie joins the football team in a bid to win back Tina.
But, as we’re learning, being a “Glee” fan means constantly being asked to take surprising leaps of faith.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity 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.