Glee is a White Person JRPG

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My propensity for gibberish comparisons is well documented. There is, however, one comparison that I’ve brought up time and time again that remains continually rebuked by my peers. I am, of course, referring to the American television show Glee being similar to a Japanese role playing game, or “JRPG.” Of course, there’s some truth in the counterclaim of “this is meaningless.” Comparing genres between mediums is difficult because each and every work is developed uniquely with the constraints of the format. No TV show is truly like any movie, album, or video game. But I believe that thematically, Glee is the Western TV most similar to a conventional JRPG, and it all hinges upon one point: suspension of disbelief. 

In order to categorize Glee as a JRPG, we first need to talk about what makes a work a JRPG. Strictly speaking, a JRPG is any roleplaying game produced primarily in Japan. But that definition is maybe a bit too literal, so let’s talk about general conventions and staples of the genres. JRPGs are often set in fantasy, but never any fantasy without basis in reality. Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar is not a real city, but is based on Tokyo, twinged with the development team’s anxieties about environmentalism and rampant corporate power. Earthbound’s Eagleland is a satire of America where the local gang exerts control over the town of Onett through the arcade. The locales are fully fantastical, but they derive inspiration from the world around them and society. JRPGs also contain in-game systems to juggle both player immersion and simplicity. The most famous example of this is turn-based combat, a staple for the genre, but many other mechanics indicate this as well. Fast travel, day/night systems, and side quests all come to mind as tracking real-world ideas (transportation, time progression, and interpersonal relationships) as simplified concepts. Finally, a primary thematic distinction between JRPGs and Western RPGs is the emphasis on the narrative and set character interactions. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you may be the Dovahkiin, but your Dovahkiin is a fully customizable avatar for the player. The experience of Skyrim hinges on the decisions you make, and the immersion comes from seeing yourself as the Dragonborn. This trend holds throughout franchises like Fallout, Mass Effect, and Cyberpunk 2077. Japanese RPGs, on the other hand, focus more on narratives and story progression, playing a set character – it ultimately ends up developing into a more cinematic experience. Fire Emblem: Three Houses’s Byleth follows four set paths, and as the game continues, your experience is defined by the set path the story follows. Byleth is a character on their own, and the immersion doesn’t come from seeing yourself in their position, but by exploring the story and the protagonist’s role in it. JRPGs also frequently use the concept of a “party” – characters form a homogenous unit for gameplay and storytelling perspectives. Characters will spend time in the limelight before and when they join, but once they join, their personal arcs will typically be either ignored (such as in Mother 3) or explored as optional content (such as in Persona 5). 

But how does this relate to Glee? Glee’s iconic six season run from 2009 to 2015 encapsulated the American cultural zeitgeist at the time. From Don’t Stop Believing to Gangnam Style, Glee seamlessly captured both the magic of pop music and the perceived importance that high schoolers really believe their drama to be. Unlike most other American TV shows, Glee’s main draw is that it follows an ensemble of characters, and juggles anywhere between ten to fifteen character arcs concurrently juxtaposed against the general progression of the group. Character moments may shape the group’s dynamic at any given time, but ultimately, the group drives plot progression. Big moments are driven by the success of the team – going to Regionals, going to Nationals, succeeding against their rivals Vocal Adrenaline – while character moments affect the general plot by how they impact the larger group. Glee’s ensemble cast isn’t too dissimilar from a JRPG party in that regard. Furthermore, Lima, Ohio manages to fully embrace a caricature of American high school. Glee’s setting is fantastical – from projectile Slushies to Celibacy Clubs, McKinley High deviates from reality even simply by continuing to employ the verbally abusive Sue Sylvester. Finally, Glee drives its character moments with larger-than-life musical numbers that force a suspension of disbelief. Characters watch conflicts or romance come to a climax in song and treat it with absolute normalcy, because musical numbers serve as a system to keep viewer engagement and clearly visualize and express character moments. When Santana and Mercedes sing The Boy is Mine about Puck, it foregoes realism to visualize conflict as a spectacle – not too dissimilar from turn based combat’s expression of conflict. Glee’s narrative and character driven plot ultimately cause you to emphasize with the cast and want to support their specific goals – instead of speculating whether or not characters will succeed, you become invested in their path on the way there. Glee, despite being an American television show manages to embrace a larger number of the codifiers of a JRPG – a fantasy setting based on society, concurrent character arcs isolated from a main plot, and structural devices that require suspension of disbelief. 

You may be reading this article trying to formulate a counter argument that boils down to “Many other American television shows are this way”. But as someone who’s watched lots of Glee and played lots of JRPGs, the biggest indicator of genre is vibes. Genre may be an especially arbitrary measurement of works, especially between different mediums, but works can resemble other works structurally and thematically. To me, Glee is a white person JRPG. 

Glee is streaming on Netflix US.

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