I still think Glee is a wildly inconsistent, and frequently shallow show—”Leprechaun,” for example, in which stupid-smart cheerleader Brittany became convinced an Irish exchange student was a magical creature, was so offensively stupid that everyone involved in it should spend time in television jail. But I’m increasingly convinced that Naya Rivera should be nominated for an Emmy for her performance as closeted lesbian cheerleader Santana.
She’s perhaps the most complete player in the show’s cast: Rivera may have been underused in prior seasons, but then the show was smart enough to realize that she had a delightful alto that she can put to work channeling everyone from Amy Winehouse to Christine McVie. She can dance—if not as well as Heather Morris, who can’t match her voice or her performance. And she’s acted the hell out of a nuanced transition from pure mean girl cheerleader to hugely vulnerable, lovelorn mortal girl.
There’s no question that Chris Colfer’s performance as Kurt Hummel has been charming, and an important landmark for gay teenagers during a disturbing outbreak of vicious bullying. But the character also has its limitations—Kurt is overwhelmingly, obviously, unquestionably gay. His coming out story was inevitable, as his trajectory towards a bigger city. It’s not a bad stereotype—and neither is the football player who eventually comes out, transfers schools, and ends his reign as a bully. But these stories have been told before, whether in the form of Larry Blaisdell, the gay football player on Buffy the Vampire Slayer who dies defending Sunnydale from the Mayor on Graduation Day to the many coming-out-in-and-living-more-fully in the big city stories from Ellen to Will and Grace.
Santana’s story isn’t just a coming-out narrative: it’s a story of self-realization. The character’s most prominent characteristic in the first season of the show was the fact that she’d had sex with lots of male characters, whether wiling away time with Puck or divesting Finn of his virginity. Her acknowledgement that she’s in love with Brittany, her best friend, has been the product of multiple seasons and a lot of very hard character work. And it looks like her road to coming out could be much more difficult than Kurt’s. While there’s no question that bullying is a serious issue and Glee presented it as such, Kurt’s revelation wasn’t a surprise to most people, and he’s been vigorously backed up by his father. Santana, instead, is about to become the object of a political attack ad—and it’s not clear how her parents will react. And even if they’re fine, even if, as Finn puts it, her fellow students don’t care, Santana is going to be exposed to a wider, less friendly world. Her hesitance to publicly embrace Brittany may cost her that relationship, and it seems entirely possible that being forced to come clean may not, in the short term, actually be worth it. And unlike Kurt, there isn’t a clear plan to get Santana out of Lima and into a bigger, broader-minded world that will embrace her. That’s a harder, less satisfying story to tell, but it’s an important one, and Rivera’s nailed it. If she keeps this up, she should absolutely be in contention for a Best Supporting Actress Emmy—and Glee‘s showrunners should resist their tendency towards the absolutely bananas and continue giving her this kind of material.