Things are getting serious for the all-singing, all-dancing Glee school kids. A controversial episode featuring a straight couple and a gay couple – each losing their virginity – has been praised for its mature attitude towards adolescent sexuality.
The award-winning musical-drama series enters uncharted territory with "The First Time", an episode broadcast on Sky1 tonight. The storyline follows long-standing couple Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith) deciding to go "all the way" after being told that their performance in the team's production of West Side Story lacked authentic sexual fizz. But the boundary-pushing show has married this development with teenage gay couple Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss) also deciding to have sex.
The virginity "double header" may prompt some candid discussions among parents watching with younger children. Yet, from its launch, Glee has embraced homosexuality, explored the consequences of teen pregnancy and placed at centre-stage characters who might be outsiders in other series.
Ryan Murphy, Glee co-creator, said: "Everybody has seen a straight couple losing their virginity, but has anyone dovetailed the gay and straight stories together and given them equal weight? That seemed like an exciting choice and a new thing."
Murphy's "exciting choice" was, however, condemned by the US-based Parents Television Council as "reprehensible". Speaking before the episode was broadcast, Tim Winter, president, said: "The gender of the high school characters involved is irrelevant. Research proves that television can, and likely will, influence a teen's decision to become sexually active. Fox knows the show inherently attracts kids."
Another US watchdog, the Culture and Media Institute, accused the Fox network, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, of waging "a relentless campaign of liberal propaganda and pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable on broadcast TV".
The reality was somewhat different. The gay sex scene arrives after the couple visit a gay bar in a bid to inject some spontaneity into their love life. They reject the temptations on offer and decide that what they have together is sufficient. The actual sex depicted offers little more explicit than a nuzzling of noses. Their compatriots, Rachel and Finn, take the plunge after committing themselves to safe sex.
For both couples, the episode foregrounds the importance of discussion and emotional preparation before taking such a big step. Yet awarding the gay scene equal status to the straight couple's encounter is something US viewers have not seen before during a prime-time, network drama.
R eviewers praised the episode for handling the sex scenes delicately. The influential E! entertainment website concluded: "Though sex is certainly the word of the day, the episode gives both couples more depth of emotion than we've seen so far this season."
Since its launch in 2009, Glee's colourful dance routines and sing-a-long-a cover versions have helped shift 30 million albums. But the series has been shedding US viewers during its third season as Murphy steers the drama into more adult territory. "The First Time" was seen by some as an attempt by him to reignite viewer interest in the drama. Even the actors were expecting some level of nudity. Chris Colfer said: "I think it's a huge deal that this is the first time something like this has been shown on television, but I think it's handled so delicately that I don't think it will have quite the shock factor."
The "virginity losing" scene is a mandatory development in US teen dramas, but producers often struggle to find new plotlines once it is resolved. In fact, Dawson's Creek delayed the big moment between Katie Holmes' Joey and Joshua Jackson's Pacey until series four.
The Daily Mail website, normally a reliable arbiter of moral outrage, warned viewers that Glee would tonight unveil an episode "involving gay sex, premarital sex and underage drinking".
But it is a measure of Murphy's success that the writer was forced to conclude, with no little disappointment, perhaps: "There is apparently no sensationalism here."
Love/hate: Reactions to 'Glee' storylines
Crystal Bell, Huffington Post
"I can't remember the last time a network show was so progressive. Kurt and Blaine, and their extremely normal relationship, inspire gay youth in a way that we haven't seen on network television yet."
"The whole affair was handled with the same charm and toe-the-line touch that Glee has become known for."
"For all the hullabaloo, the whole thing was handled quite beautifully, even responsibly – a reminder that Glee can still be a very good, even socially important show."
"If anything, the sex is too romantic and unrealistic, but that's probably smart when you're trying to show America that there's nothing scary or uncomfortable about gay teens in love."
Tim Winter, president of Parents Television Council
"The fact that Glee intends to not only broadcast, but celebrate children having sex is reprehensible. The gender of the high school characters involved is irrelevant."
Chris Colfer (Kurt in Glee)
"I absolutely expect to hear from [watchdog groups]... They're expecting this big, raunchy, suggestive, brainwashing storyline when really it's very sweet."
"Thank God viewer discretion was advised for tonight's #Glee – heaven forbid America's youth see Kurt and Blaine hold hands!"
Dan Gainor of the Culture and Media Institute
"This is just the latest example of Ryan Murphy pushing his own personal pro-gay agenda on the American public... Is this really a high school show or Murphy's twisted fantasy life?"
Amber Austin, who is urging Fox to produce a broadcast about adoption reality
"For adopted children, the show raises the fear that they may be taken away from their families. And for adoptive parents and birth mothers, the show creates confusion about the nature of adoption."
...People not understanding how adoption works. Sorry, but no. Quinn will not get her baby back.
Dear Puck and Quinn, that's not how adoption works. Love, anyone.