So, standard disclaimer: I think geographic realism, though useful to a point, is not important enough to fetishize in almost any text. Mostly this is because I grew up sandwiched between the towns where several of Thornton Wilder’s plays take place, and everything is named Our Town this and Our Town that, and everyone says he based it on a combination of Dublin and Jaffery but if you go to school in Peterborough you know that is what he’s really talking about. I can actually show you the house he modeled the Antrobus’ home after for The Skin Of Our Teeth, and walk you to Grover’s Corner and the Gem Movie Theater. Geographic realism, and the choices authors make with it, was one of the few things I learned about in any depth in high school English, and my feelings are basically this: pre-existing places can serve as inspiration or templates, but they are rarely used as complete models. In fact, perfect geographic realism in fiction squicks me out; at some point, it logically edges into RPF.
Now, a common complaint in fandom is that clearly no one writing for Glee has even actually been to Lima. Come on. Westerville is two whole hours away. It’s a fair point, if you assume that the only value Lima has textually is for mapping purposes. I’d argue, though, that Glee has consistently demonstrated that Lima serves a completely different purpose altogether. Physical geography is not at all the point; rather, the text explores what Lima means and represents to the characters.
In talking about Lima, Ohio in the context of Glee, then, we’re really talking about two places at once. One is the literal, physical Lima you can drive to or look up on wikipedia. It’s about 13 square miles with a population of about 40,000, and it’s a fairly dysfunctional place. Some might call it a small town, which would send me, living on a dirt road in a town with a population of about 1600, into paroxysms of laughter. It’s probably not big enough to have a Lima Heights Adjacent or aWest Lima Crack District, and it’s two hours away from Westerville. The only Starbucks is in the hospital.
Then there’s the Lima of Glee. The Lima of Glee eats its citizens and turns them into hollow shells of themselves by the time they graduate high school. Getting out of here is the stated goal of most of our characters–not because going to college or fleeing small towns is the only acceptable course of action, but because Glee‘s Lima and William McKinley High School are portrayed as dystopias. We know very little about its physical geography, though apparently they have a mall (not very “cow-town” actually then, Kurt, come visit mine some time) and the Lima Bean is an easy meeting spot for boys from Dalton Academy. We know that West Lima is the Bad Side Of Town, and they also have a Lima Heights Adjacent that’s presumably even rougher. Arguably, in fact, Actual Lima is the show’s West Lima, and Fictional Lima is where the action actually happens.
From a storytelling standpoint, this actually works very well. You can create a dystopian world for your characters without actually invoking the real-life setting to the point of begging for lawsuits. Glee utilizes a very particular aesthetic and sense of space and place; by refraining from geographic realism, the show is able to create a microcosm of a world that (hopefully, thankfully) doesn’t entirely exist anywhere else. It’s a smart choice, and entirely in keeping with the inherently questionable level of realism on a show where music comes pre-autotuned and never requires a serious rehearsal.
TL~DR: Glee uses Ohio, Lima, and realism, geographic and otherwise, to make the points it wants to make, particularly regarding homophobia and dreams (and telling stories about dreams at all pushes questions of realism onto shaky grounds). Like most other fictional texts, it ignores the geography that fails to serve these points, or invents a new setting. Standard practice, executed effectively.