"OK," went the e-mail that circulated among parents recently at a New York City elementary school. "Is 'everyone' in the fifth grade REALLY watching 'Glee'?"
A discussion ensued: To "Glee" or not to "Glee"?
At issue wasn't the quality of the hugely popular Fox series about a high school glee club, which in just its first season has won a Golden Globe, seen its cast perform at the White House, launched a national concert tour, and is, to hear many tell it, approaching the status of a mini-pop culture phenomenon.
The question, rather: Is "Glee" just too racy for the tweens who love it?
It's a dilemma, and not just because it's hard to fight with one's offspring. "Glee," which kids love for its infectious musical numbers — a few critics call them overproduced or sloppily lip-synched, but let's not be grumpy about it, because "Glee" is the very antithesis of grump — has an upbeat, inclusive message that recalls the "High School Musical" films.
But this ain't no "High School Musical." For where those rosy-cheeked Disney Channel films barely contained a kiss on the lips, "Glee" has sex. And teen pregnancy. It tackles issues of homosexuality and losing one's virginity, and one scene showed a character, well, ejaculating in a hot tub.
So what's a parent of a tween "gleek" — as fans call themselves — to do?
For Scott Bienstock, the answer is to keep his hand nervously on the pause button, ever at the ready to order his 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son to close their eyes.
"It's pretty uncomfortable," says Bienstock, a sales representative in New York. That hot tub scene particularly unnerved him, and he thinks some of the numbers can be a little provocative. But his kids and his wife, Ruth, love the show so much that he has, basically, given up the fight.
"They look forward to it every week," he says. "I feel like I'm being a prude."
Besides, let's face it — it's hard not to like the show. It would be hard even if you didn't enjoy the songs performed by the charismatic young cast, led by Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele, who both cut their teeth on Broadway. Or the wisecracks of the hilariously nasty coach Sue Sylvester, played to the hilt by veteran comic actress Jane Lynch.
Because at a time when the ugliness of high-school bullying is in the news, with tragic stories of kids victimized because they're different, this show preaches that it's OK to be nerdy in high school.
Or to love Broadway show tunes instead of football in high school. Or to be gay in high school — one story line features a gay student, Kurt, who sings Broadway diva songs like "Rose's Turn" from "Gypsy" and came out to his father after getting the entire football team to perform Beyonce's "Single Ladies" on the field. (Long story.)
"I sure wish I'd had this show when I was in high school," says Mandy Berger, 28, a Londoner who is hooked on "Glee" in her home country, where the show ranks at the top of all U.S. series, according to Fox.
"I was a geek — I got bullied so badly," Berger says. "It's so lovely to see a show putting out the right message for kids, that no matter what size or shape you are, you can be accepted."
Morrison, who plays the glee club adviser Will Schuester, says that when the show began, he figured it was targeted to the "High School Musical" demographic. It's been stunning to see how much broader the appeal has been, he says.
"It's insane," says the 31-year-old actor, who appeared in theatrical hits like "Hairspray," "South Pacific" and "Light in the Piazza," but until now had never experienced what it's like to walk down a street and be recognized "every three feet."
Parents and kids, especially, come up to him all the time, he says. Including some famous ones.
"I was at the White House Correspondents dinner and Katie Couric came up to me," he says, a sentence that gives you a sense of what his life has been like since "Glee" took hold. "She said thank you — because Tuesday night was the only night that she and her daughter could sit and watch something together."
So what about the, ahem, racier moments of the show? Like the recent episode devoted to Madonna, in which a montage set to "Like a Virgin" showed three couples beginning sexual interludes in which one person was about to lose said virginity?
"We're not living in the '50s," says Morrison. "Kids know about sex. It's out there. For some kids, things will go above their heads, but if questions come up, I think we can create an opportunity for kids to create a dialogue with their parents." In fact, he says, "Glee" can be a parenting tool.
That's what Jonathan Smith uses it for. He was one of the parents at New York's Hunter College Elementary School who participated in the recent e-mail discussion over whether "Glee" was appropriate for fifth-graders.
"My response was, we use it as an opportunity to discuss the issues as they come up," says Smith, whose sons are 11 and 14. "With our boys, it's sometimes hard to start a discussion on a topic like sex or drug use, or other potentially icky stuff. It's nice when it comes up organically."
Smith's sons were big fans of "High School Musical," he says, but grew out of it quickly. "'Glee' has better characters, and more conflict," he says. "Life is messy. I like that they get into some real issues in a messy way."
Unprotected sex, for example. A few parents report having had the unpleasant experience of their tweens asking exactly how one might get pregnant in a hot tub.
But both Smith and Bienstock point to the educational potential in the story line of Quinn, the blonde, beautiful, popular cheerleader who gets knocked up, decides to carry her baby and is thrown out of her home by her father.
"We've talked extensively about the ramifications of teenage pregnancy," says Bienstock, "and the episode where Quinn's father kicked her out of the house. Bottom line is, even though I have problems with the show, it does raise some issues that we talk about and in that way, it's a positive experience."
Will the show get even edgier? Executive producer Brad Falchuk says no.
"That hot tub scene, and the Madonna episode — that's as edgy as it's gonna get," promises Falchuk, who created the show along with Ryan Murphy.
Falchuk says he came into "Glee" wanting to create something that his sister-in-law in Syracuse, N.Y., could watch with her 14-year-old daughter — together — "and not feel uncool."
"But we didn't know 9-year-olds would like it so much," he acknowledges. "We didn't know the geriatric set would like it so much, either. I wish we knew how we did it."
Falchuk says the show hasn't gotten any angry calls or letters about its content. The Parents Television Council, though, recommends the show only for viewers above 16.
Falchuk says it's been tempting to get edgier, but the producers keep parents in mind.
"We've had moments in script meetings where we say, 'That's really funny, but you know what? That's more than we told people we'd give them,'" he says.
The bottom line, he says: "We want to give people something safe they can watch with their kids. Enjoy it! We have your back."