These days, it's obvious: The pop culture universe belongs to Glee.
Fox's gay-friendly hit TV series, which returns Tuesday for its "back nine" episodes of the season, has sold more than 4 million downloaded songs on iTunes and sparked a national tour, earning both a Peabody and Golden Globe award.
Oprah Winfrey gave the Queen of All Media's stamp of approval Wednesday, welcoming the cast with a real show choir.
And showbiz notables from Madonna to Neil Patrick Harris will be featured in upcoming episodes, drenching poignant coming of age stories about a group of high school show choir outcasts in a deluge of Broadway tunes, campy attitudes and gay icons. It's a potent stew for an army of fans known as Gleeks (Glee + geek) fired up by show tunes, adolescent angst and snappy, pop culture-savvy dialogue.
"For the most part, the show is about a very specific idea, which is that when you are this age — in high school — your life is a fantasy," said creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy, a former show choir member who came out at 15 and has woven those experiences into Glee. "When you walk down the hall, you feel like you're in the spotlight."
As enthusiasm builds for Glee, the hubbub feels suspiciously like the buzz surrounding a show that once held the same place in the pop culture zeitgeist: the ABC dramedy Ugly Betty.
In 2007 when Betty was hot, the awards and accolades flowed, including 18 Emmy nominations and star America Ferrera making Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people.
Now, a day after Glee returns to the air, Ugly Betty will broadcast its last episode, undone after four seasons by falling ratings and a decided lack of excitement. This pop culture-drenched show — once a forward-looking showcase for gay characters and gay culture — concludes as Glee hits a new apex.
For those who track gay culture on TV, a baton has passed, pushing proudly gay-friendly TV even further into the mainstream.
"There is definitely a changing of the guard," said Marc Leonard, senior vice president of multiplatform programming for the gay-centered cable channel Logo. "I always saw Ugly Betty as a bridge to a modern take on gay characters and gay media. Glee is heading further into that postmodern direction . . . an integrated existence (where) being gay is not such a big deal."
Leaving 'Planet Gay'
Leonard described early gay-friendly TV shows as existing on "Planet Gay," putting characters in a bubble almost exclusively centered on gay culture.
Glee expands that focus, featuring a proud, openly gay student in Chris Colfer's Kurt Hummel, a fondness for show tunes and a flamboyant take on surviving as an outsider. It builds a series where even the heterosexual characters are negotiating themes that resonate with the gay audience.
This is a mix that Ugly Betty also pioneered, featuring Ferrera's thick-spectacled, braces-wearing Betty Suarez struggling at beauty-obsessed Mode magazine while gay characters (and one transgender) person negotiated typical relationship issues. Packaged like a glitzy, fashion-fueled soap opera, Ugly Betty merged Latino, gay and geek cultures into a percolating tale of an underdog's struggle.
"That underdog theme is something the gay community understands well," Leonard said.
Returning after a four-month break, Glee brings the underdog theme in full effect, as the geeky New Dimensions show choir prepares to take on the area's champion high school glee club, Vocal Adrenaline (their flash-pot-filled version of AC/DC's Highway to Hell is a blend of Vegas camp and high school attitude wrapped in Broadway bold dance moves).
Our heroine, New Dimensions lead singer Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), winds up dating the dazzling lead singer for Vocal Adrenaline, Jesse St. James (Tony-nominated Jonathan Groff). Rachel must wonder if this is a ploy to sabotage her team.
Glee club hater extraordinaire Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) gains leverage at the school by fooling the principal into thinking they've slept together (because Lynch is gay, the story line resonates even more), later starring in an amazing Madonna-themed episode featuring a Glee-specific remake of the Divine Miss M's Vogue video.
Indeed, the April 20 Madonna episode feels like one long shout-out to gay culture, with Sylvester intent on paying tribute to the icon as the show's women (and Hummel, who calls himself an "honorary girl") struggle with empowering themselves to change how the men treat them.
Ron Becker, a professor at Miami University in Ohio and author of Gay TV and Straight America, said such episodes highlight Glee's ability to set heterosexual characters in gay-friendly environments — culminating with an episode featuring Neil Patrick Harris, an out actor who also effortlessly bridges gay and straight settings.
"One could argue (Ugly Betty and Glee) have straight characters who live in gay worlds," Becker said. "It suggests the writers have a certain audience in mind. They're not worrying about how to make this make sense to straight male viewers. They know the gay male and young female audience watching this don't need that."
Ugly Betty leaves television Wednesday capping a longstanding tension on the show, as Betty's gay cousin Justin is expected to come out to his family. We found out last week they already know and accept his sexual orientation.
"The fact that Justin comes from a Catholic, Latino family that accepts him — that's an atypical situation," said Richard Ferraro, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "This may make an important difference for people struggling in a similar situation."
But sometimes the worst thing that can happen to an outsider is to get an invitation inside.
For Ugly Betty, that meant earning enough clout to get the production moved to New York, only to see the third season flounder with lackluster story lines. When viewership plummeted after the series began airing on Friday nights, cancellation seemed inevitable.
And Becker fears the same thing could happen to Glee.
“Ugly Betty's campy narratives . . . I just think a lot of people tired of them," said Becker, who stopped watching the show regularly after its first season. "I'm nervous the same thing may happen to Glee, that the writers won't be able to sustain the quality which made the show exciting."
Still, Fenton Bailey, an openly gay producer and filmmaker (RuPaul's Drag Race), said Glee's reduced camp factor and the country's growing acceptance of gay themes on TV may make a significant difference.
"If Ugly Betty's Liberace, then Glee is Celine Dion," he said, laughing a little. "And there's so many gay characters on television now, it's like there's no big deal. It's becoming a giant nonissue in the most wonderful way."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at blogs. tampabay.com/media.