Watching The Glee Project
July 18th, 2011
I reviewed the premiere of The Glee Project for The A.V. Club, and wasn’t entirely certain at the time if I was going to stick with it. While the concept of the show interested me, especially as someone who continues to watch and analyze Glee, I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much.
I’ve continued watching, though, despite the fact that I still don’t really enjoy it in the traditional sense. I’m not really invested in any of the contestants, and I find myself fast-forwarding through the majority of the performances when I flip through the episodes every Sunday evening, but I find myself thinking about the show throughout the week, discussing it with people on Twitter and wishing that I knew more people who were watching.
The reason is similar to an experience I had last summer with Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, as the oddities of the format and structure of the series drive my engagement with each episode. Specifically, comments Ryan Murphy has made regarding both the intended arc for the eventual winner and a specific experience he had judging the show has given me an entirely different narrative than the text would suggest, one that has me far more engaged than the actual competition itself ever could.
It’s also drawn to the surface how strange this show can be, and how its aims seem more and more (fascinatingly) awkward with each passing week.
Technically speaking, some of this might constitute a spoiler. I would certainly argue that Murphy’s comments have completely changed how I view the show, so if you’re someone who’s been watching along and want to remain surprised by certain events you might be better off not reading what follows.
However, that’s what has been driving my interest. From the beginning, I’ve been less interested in who wins and why: watching Ryan Murphy publicly perform his casting philosophy has been a really strange experience, as he manages to make Glee sound incredibly manufactured even as he emphasizes its transcendence. The way he talks about how each contestant’s personality could fit onto the show, how it would “work on Glee,” makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up a bit. It’s an acknowledgement that he casts types more than characters, given that he is basing this judgment on often a single performance and not much else. While the other judges and the audience see enough to consider whether these contestants have the talent and personality to survive on the show, Murphy is seeing a much smaller sample but is busy fitting their peg into one of the holes in his casting board. It’s condescending, but in a way I find too fascinating to turn away from.
In some cases, this has been extremely satisfying. It’s been interesting to see Matheus so effective at winning Homework assignments but failing to impress Murphy, just as it’s been interesting for Murphy to be so ambivalent towards Cameron (who seems to be a favorite of both the judges and the people I know who watch the show). In the case of Matheus, I never saw the appeal to begin with, and it’s interesting how what works in the homework assignments just never converted into the performances, where Murphy expected him to break out of his fairly narrow persona and show something that goes beyond that. In the end, his only response to the note was to go even more broad than before, a lack of nuance and maturity that indicates a limited capacity for growth. That’s a decision that we can understand, and one that Murphy outlined quite well.
By comparison, McKynleigh’s exit last week still doesn’t entirely make sense to me. He suggested that she could sing country, something the show doesn’t have, and he praised her performance on a number of other levels. Did she go home because she didn’t perform as well, or because he simply decided that he didn’t think she fit what he had in mind for the role? Perhaps the job isn’t just impressing Murphy but getting him to change his mind: Alex remains despite some major attitude issues, and perhaps it’s because Murphy things he fits what he thinks he wants. Similarly, perhaps he thought he saw some sign of “it” in Matheus as well, but over the course of three Last Chance performances he never saw it emerge like he wanted to and finally said goodbye.
Watching the show largely for Murphy’s logic happened largely thanks to the comments he made, revealing that
a) He eliminates one successful contestant upon seeing them for the first time, not realizing how strong they’d been on a weekly basis, and has since apologized to them. And
b) The winner is “someone you might not expect” and they will be serving as a foil for Sue Sylvester.
This was all part of a series of interviews where Murphy talked a lot about his process, claiming that the contestants were judged based on how they’d fit in as well as how much they could inspire a particular character. Of course, Murphy keeps bringing up characters the writers had already intended on doing, so I’m not sure how much I buy the latter point until we get closer to the end (where those kinds of distinctions might be more clear). However, these comments have changed my perspective on the series, creating a sort of show-within-a-show that I’m finding quite enjoyable.
They’re effectively spoilers, especially the further we get in the competition: at this point, so few people haven’t gone in front of Ryan that Samuel is the obvious choice for the first instance, while the idea that the winner isn’t necessarily the best dancer (something that Murphy mentions) points away from a few contenders. Meanwhile, the idea that the character will be a foil for Sue Sylvester suggests a certain type of personality, and I find myself narrowing my “predictions” based around who could possibly fill that role in light of Sue’s political aspirations this season.
For example, Cameron had Ryan discussing character potential in last night’s episode, as he discussed his lack of comfort with making out with other girls while he has a girlfriend. Now, we can talk about whether or not this is really a religious issue, or whether the show was being a complete jerk to him by designing it as a shocking moment, but the fact remains that Ryan Murphy saw that and said “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do a Christian character, but I thought it would be a girl.” Does this mean that Cameron could arrive as a Christian character, perhaps pitted against Sue’s opinions regarding religion?
The show has become like one giant puzzle, and Murphy’s comments are always scattered enough that you could follow it in any number of directions. It’s one of those rare circumstances where listening to the judges is, for me, more interesting than the performances, as that’s where you get the real clues in terms of what he might be thinking for his final decision.
I’m very curious to see where this character fits into the series: while they are being pitched as a member of New Directions, they are also being pitched as a nemesis for Sue, which seems odd given that she’s supposed to be doing less antagonizing of the Glee club this year. Say what you will about the quality of Glee, but it has remained consistently interesting in part because it’s always facing questions regarding its creative direction. At the midpoint of S1 it was how the show would work outside of its bubble (in that the first 13 were produced on their own). In the second season, it was how they’d acclimate to being a “phenomenon,” and the answer was not particularly well. Now, in the third season, they’re saying goodbye to some characters while introducing a set of new ones, all while introducing an actual writers’ room to increase the number of voices working on the series and its characters.
As a result, what we see from The Glee Project winner may be indicative of the series’ larger trajectory, which is why I’m interested to see what kind of angle Murphy is choosing to take with this, and how much of that angle was apparent during the filming of this series. I don’t expect definitive answers, but I certainly find the show more engaging as a performance of Murphy’s auteurism than as an actual competition reality show.
- I may not be invested in the contestants, but I still have my opinions, which is why I really hope Alex leaves sooner than later. His shtick just hasn’t worked for me at any point in the competition, which was the same case with Matheus.
- I quite like the show’s Bottom Three structure, in that it can either work against you or help you – while consistently being in the Bottom revealed Matheus’ weaknesses, it seems to have brought out strength in someone like Damian (who has gained confidence from surviving). That was particularly true this week, when three contestants were given a chance to perform for Murphy but were also singled out as strong contenders and spared a spot in the actual bottom three. It definitely creates some tension, which is necessary given the fact they turn half the episode over to it.
- Does anyone else find that the show is really quick to jump into things? The Homework performance starts after like two minutes of preamble, with very little chance to decompress. I usually find the Homework performances pretty throwaway, but the prospect of La Roux has me intrigued.
- I don’t think I’d ever actually watched an episode to its conclusion before (my first recording cut off, and I ended the other ones as soon as I saw who went home, but the “Eliminated contestant sings part of the course to ‘Keep Holding On’ as everyone else backs them up” thing is hysterical.