May 19th, 2009
As always, as a less than official TV critic, I haven’t been amongst those lucky enough to have seen FOX’s new series, Glee, ahead of time. This is not usually an issue, as I’m able to avoid any spoilers or any really strong opinions on these shows, but ignoring Glee has been nearly impossible. Between the constant deluge of ads that FOX has been deploying, and between every TV critic under the sun having extremely polarizing reactions to the series, ignoring Glee has been fundamentally impossible. People either love the show or, well, they agree that there’s other people other than themselves who will probably love it.
Amazingly, however, I managed to keep myself from seeing a single clip, or more than a few images, from the series: sure, I’ve seen the criticism, but this unique musical television “event” (premiering after American Idol despite not truly debuting until the Fall) remains entirely unspoiled in terms of its tone and in terms of its execution (although I’ve obviously listened to the critics enough to know some things to look out for). As a result, I can honestly say that I went into Glee with, primarily, no real expectations one way or the other. The result?
I’m a little bit in love.
Admittedly, I fit into the target audience for the show: young enough to remember high school, old enough to appreciate the songs being reimagined into glee club standards, and in tune enough (see what I did there?) with the world of broadway and musical theatre to appreciate the show’s general purpose. Combine with my general obsession with television as a whole, and the show really isn’t a tough sell for me on an individual level, although the pilot really makes it seem like one on the surface: weaving together enough storylines to sink even the most gleeful of ships, it wants to connect with every audience member on some level, and that’s not an easy task for a pilot.
It’s one that makes this a bit of a problematic show to really categorize, because putting your finger on just what makes it stand out isn’t as easy as saying “everything” nor is it really found in the places you would usually expect. The show’s plot is part High School Musical (jock reluctantly becomes a singer, finds true purpose in life), which is probably the comparison FOX would most like to hear from a marketing perspective, while the rest of the show kind of situates itself in a mix of television cliches. You have two unhappy relationships with all too logical third parties, you have a big event that will form the likely climax of the show’s first season (a regional championship? Why, that can’t possibly become a pivotal moment in the show’s narrative!), and you have a pilot that wants you to know that all of these things (and more!) will be part of the show’s future.
Now, I shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of subtlety for a show that contains showstopping musical numbers, but there does come a point where the Glee Club mentality, of making everything bigger and bolder, does suffer from diminishing returns. The storyline most often singled out for this is, quite rightfully, Jessalyn Gilsig’s Terri Schuester, the craftaholic, shopaholic, and psychotic wife to Matthew Morrison’s Will. Even before we learn in the preview of the Fall season that she is faking her pregnancy, it’s pretty well written in stone: while I’m glad that her demands don’t follow the traditional pattern of disappointed wife that so many shows use when a lead character is following their dreams, her hysteria is just really weird tonally, and I’m not sure if there’s a way for her character to ever feel like anything but a crazy person. If she was particularly funny, and not just a wacky version of a drama cliche, I might not mind it, but there just isn’t anything to work with there.
It’s less problematic when it’s the love triangle, implied if not explicitly indicated (other than, you know, the spoiler-filled preview of the Fall episodes), between Finn (Cory Monteith), Rachel (Lea Michele) and Quinn (Dianna Argon). While this is just as cliched, with Quinn’s chastity pledge driving Finn into the arms of his neurotic, but kind of adorable, co-star, it feels like it’s supposed to be cliched – this is high school, and these kind of things tends to happen. While the show does draw a fair number of similarities between the real world and high school, Will arguing at one point that one can’t compare to the other but later coming back to Glee Club based on reminisces of his own high school experience, these love triangles just ring false when placed into the context of adulthood.
I think there are some shades to Will and Terri’s marriage: the idea that they were high school sweethearts, and that Will would love to return to those innocent days (look, they’re playing out right before your eyes; what a coincidence!), is something that could give it some lighter touches, and as far as “other women” go I don’t think I can really hold anything against Jayma Mays’ Emma. I kind of feel the show played too many of its cards with this little flirtation, giving us too many scenes for something that obviously can’t resolve itself too quickly. That being said, I find Mays kind of irresistible, especially in roles like this one, and her germaphobe guidance counselor is certainly a better fit for Will – at the same time, the show has almost convinced us of that fact too quickly, which could be a problem moving forward.
I’m getting all of this out of the way first because I honestly love this show to death, something that I kind of knew going in but still kind of hit me pretty hard. I can ‘t help but empathize with Matthew Morrison’s Will, a Spanish teacher who wants to recapture his own high school glory while trying to give kids the same chance – there’s something about Morrison’s performance that is quite infectious, and I think the Pilot’s greatest missed opportunity was not actually letting him sing. There was a bit of it in the preview, but portraying him as “outside” the Glee Club mentality (his performance from 1993 Nationals unseen on the computer screen) is kind of ignoring the point of his storyline: he needs Glee Club as much as the members need it, because it is a part of his own identity.
Part of this is because, while the show has musical numbers, this isn’t actually a musical: the characters have voiceovers and flashbacks instead of songs where they talk about their feelings, and to be honest I feel as if I could personally stand for a bit more spontaneous singing. I understand why it’s not there, so as to not entirely alienate those who view the singing as more of a novelty, but it’s one of the reasons that the show can’t seem to decide what it is, precisely: in many ways, the songs are sort of the equivalent of patients on House or Grey’s Anatomy, entertaining elements of a series that have some sort of connection to the themes of the episode or the positions of the characters. I knew that “Don’t Stop Believing” was part of the pilot via the iTunes download, and it was clear that it was going to end up being the anthem that would bring Will around to his true calling in life. And while I think there’s some value to that, and the show is just knowingly corny enough to be able to pull it off, part of me hopes that freed from the need to setup so many characters and storyline they’ll find a way to make the musical numbers really click narratologically speaking.
That being said, there’s no way around the impact that the renditions of “Rehab” and “Don’t Stop Believing” have on the show: they are what sets the show apart, and they are being executed at a high level. It can’t be an inexpensive process, but there was something quite great about even hearing their brief audition songs, as each character’s brief introduction was being defined by a particular musical vibe. Music in television, now viewed primarily as the Grey’s Anatomy mentality of debuting new inoffensive soft rock, works best when it helps to define character more than mood or commercial viability: Supernatural has had a lot of fun with classic rock, sure, but it has become a defining part of the show’s characters as well thanks to the car singalongs.
Similarly here, the music works on two levels: the spectacle of numbers like “Rehab” is something to keep things big and bold in the glee club tradition, but the smaller songs are so much more effective at capturing mood and character. There’s something about Rachel singing Les Miserables, or Mercedes breaking into “Respect,” or Tina reimagining “I Kissed a Girl” that is far more genuine, and it translate into the final song. Yes, from a plot perspective the song represent’s Finn’s return, and there’s something lovingly absurd about Arty rocking out his guitar solo while being spun by Tina in his wheelchair. But the performance was just so much more genuine than Rehab was: the a capella opening, the choreography that was clunky but human, and the general (I know, I know) glee that they brought to the performance. There’s something really effective about being able to make these students, who are capable of singing, more endearing to the audience by making them less good, or more accurately less polished, than their competitors – it’s an instant likeability through song, and demonstrates one of the reasons why I am so hopeful about the show’s future.
Now, on the character side of things, I think that there is definitely some imbalance between Rachel and Finn, which really isn’t poor Cory Monteith’s fault. He’s a solid singer, and Finn’s classic rock upbringing allows for his ability to be somewhat less pronounced than his slightly more seasoned teammates. However, Lea Michele, who I know best as the orignator of the role of Wendla in Tony-winning Spring Awakening, is just so much more clasically trained, and while their dynamic is good it definitely makes their duets slightly unbalanced. That isn’t a huge problem, but I must admit that I find Rachel more comically interesting: while Finn leans a bit too heavily on the Zac Efron in High School Musical origin story albeit with a slightly more violent backlash, Rachel is no Gabriella (who would ever want to be?).
While I find Finn likeable, I actually really like Rachel, and think she’s has far more potential as an individual character: her cockiness is not misplaced, sure, but I like her pluck, and wish we had seen a bit more of it in the pilot. I loved the scene when waiting for food on their field trip, as she opens with “You’re talented – I know, because I’m talented” and then not so subtly hints at the idea of a relationship between them, placing herself as the ingenue of the scenario. It’s funny because she’s anything but the ingenue: she’s the instigator, and while she may be reminiscent of “Election” and any other high school overachiever I just found that it was one character which seemed like it could break out of the show’s other numerous archetypes and fit really well into this world.
We don’t spend a lot of time with the other members of the New Directions, but what we see makes them the right kind of motley crew: Mercedes is the Beyonce, not the Kelly Rowland, Arty is the guy in a wheelchair with connections with the Jazz band, Kurt is the lover of things fashionable, and Tina is quite hilariously without a speciality and perhaps better off for it. It will be interesting to see how the show fleshes them out, and to what degree they will remaine “backup singers” as Mercedes notes. Considering that Kurt appears to be trying out for the football team (which I’m hoping will be handled more comically than Landry’s ascension to football on Friday Night Lights), the show isn’t going to be abandoning them, but they got so little coverage in this already overstuffed pilot that the show is going to really need to stretch itself to make it work.
I can see why some people, who may even be warm to the subject matter, are struggling with this one: the tones are all over the place, with the teachers spouting nonsense about caste systems and medical marijuana simultaneously, and with the darkness of Will’s blackmail of Finn or Rachel’s Election-esque selfishness in getting the former Glee club head (the great Stephen Tobolowsky) fired over not getting a solo clashing with the “up with people” at least somewhat implied by the series. But, while it might make for a tough pilot from a critical perspective in some ways, I would tend to argue that it gives the series a bench as deep as a show could ask for. It means that the show can lean on Jane Lynch’s Sue when it wants to, but can let her be a one-liner machine when they don’t; the ability to jump between tones feels off in a pilot, especially one receiving a tryout like this one where expressing potential is perhaps the point of the matter, but in a series itself it’s actually a pretty good representation of the high school experience.
The show has plenty of room for improvement: subtlety is not the show’s strong suit, and while the darkly comic tone works in certain instances the balance with the more emotional side of things needs to be a bit more deftly handled. But despite some cliched character development and back stories that are more interesting musically than they are in terms of real narrative, what Glee gets right is just how much fun it has with all of it. Sure, I could poke holes in all sorts of things, but there is something about it that brings the viewer back into the world of high school, or into the world of popular music, or into that space where those worlds seem far away as the real world begins to bring pressure from all sides. These aren’t new themes, but confronting them within the espouses of this musical celebration of life, love and hope is just too ideal for me to care.
I’m on board for the fall, and FOX is trying to add to those numbers: the show will stream all summer on FOX.com, which gives it a definite leg up (combined with this preview) over other new shows debuting this season. They’re doing everything in their power to make this show a hit, and I have to hope they find ten million people who share my love for what the show brings to the table, even if there might be ten million more who can’t stand it.
- My favourite moment in the pilot might be when the Glee Club is performing “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease, and Rachel literally attacks her way through the line of people on her way to Finn. It’s some hilarious choreography, played to perfection by Michele, and I enjoy Monteith’s terror at this crazy girl who’s basically about to maul him.
- I said it above, sure, but Jayma Mays is just effortlessly charming, and to be honest Emma really isn’t anything more than that: other than her position as a germaphobe, she feels perfectly formed as an eternal optimist. The little moment where she touches a common pencil (which she was clearly not comfortable with) with record speed in order to sign up as a chaperone for the field trip was irresistable, and as I say I think they’ve unfairly stacked the deck in her favour.
- The rival Glee Club group definitely brings to mind elements of Bring It On, and other similar series, especially their name (Vocal Adrenaline) being so much more threatening than New Directions.
- Finn’s back story was pretty standard overall, but I kind of loved his mother’s Mom Jeans – the “period” element of it was really kind of great.
- I wish we had more time to get into Jessalyn Gilsig’s character without her being so darn crazy, because the idea of a character who throws themselves a “Congratulations” party is kind of great without the whole crazy (likely) fake pregnancy side of things.
- Love that the soundtrack of the show is essentially a capella, although there was some nice atmospheric steel drum use just as Finn got cornered by the Sharks and paintballed.
- The complete list of songs in the episode, by the way: “Where is Love? (From Oliver), “Respect” (Aretha Franklin), “Mister Cellophane” (from Chicago), “I Kissed a Girl” (Katy Perry), “On My Own” (from Les Miserables), “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” (from Guys and Dolls), “Can’t Fight this Feeling” (REO Speedwagon), “You’re the One That I Want” (from Grease), “Rehab” (Amy Winehouse), and “Don’t Stop Believing” (Journey). I made this list myself, so it’s possible I’m forgetting something, but I’m not seeing anything more in my notes.