FOE4 Musings: FOX’s Glee and the Limitations of Reality Competition Narrative

Glee and the Limitations of Reality Competition Narrative

November 21st, 2009

Following along with this weekend’s Futures of Entertainment 4 Conference at MIT (through the Twitter Hashtag #foe4) has been a really unique experience in many ways, engaging with an academic community I’ve only seen from afar in the past, but there are times when the topics being discussed feel almost too familiar.

By nature of the number of reviews I write about particular shows, I usually end up attacking them from nearly every conceivable angle, but there’s something about Glee that seems to inspire more angles than seem physically possible. The show has created a lot of controversy with its struggle to find a clear sense of its identity from the narratological point of view, which is the angle we television critics have been considering most carefully, but as discussed both yesterday (in the context of its use of music/iTunes to create transmedia engagement) and today (in its engagement with culture) during the conference its brand strategy has never had the same identity crisis.

I want to pick up on something that Ivan Askwith said during the discussion of the series’ engagement with culture, as he argued the following:

I am going to investigate this further, as it implicitly argues that the series’ narrative struggles are the result of an attempt to engage with a manufactured narrative structure (that will in the Spring be the show’s lead-in), a fact which is both understandable (network synergy and business logic) and complicated by the needs of serialized drama over reality programming from a narrative point of view.

Now, we can easily see how Idol and Glee (from a cultural/business point of view) both use digital distribution and music sales in an effort to widen their cultural impact. However, I want to consider how Glee is using a similar narrative structure to Idol in terms of how it taps into different audience responses through similar methods. American Idol has, in my eyes, three main narrative threads:

  • The comic embarrassment of the audition episodes.
  • The triumph over adversity in the performance episodes.
  • The bittersweet ending in the results episodes.

It is a show that for about a month makes you laugh, and then for a few months makes you become emotionally attached to various contestants only to then pull the rug out from all but one of them as they are sent home to the strains of a sad pop song (which, considering it is often a song by a former Idol success story, is sort of rubbing salt in the wound).

And to some extent, I can see how Glee is tapping into these sorts of emotions. It certainly has the humour aspect, as early episodes enjoyed the broad comedy of Rachel getting “slushied” and tapped into the relative embarrassment of Glee Club compared to other High School traditions. Then, the show used its musical performances to allow the audience to relate to these characters on a personal level, redeeming them from the social basement and allowing the audience to relate with them directly. And yet, because that bittersweet sense is part of the Idol charm, these characters don’t always get their way (sidelined by pregnancy, by a poor reputation, by the struggles of being stuck in a small town, by the lack of acceptance for homosexuality) and are forced to swallow bitter pills, albeit while keeping their head held high to move forward. This does, when you think about it, capture the journey of an American Idol contestant.

However, it also captures the problem with the reality television example: it’s designed to create an extremely simple narrative pattern, and the characters it develops are loose archetypes manipulated through video packages and a distinct lack of actual behaviour from the individuals. While Glee’s characters are dangerously archetypal, especially early in the season, they need to be able to react to more diverse situations in a less predictable, less manufactured world – while Glee may not be the most realistic show on television, it has establish real world problems and a sense of spontaneity. The challenge contestants face on American Idol is singing a different song each week, perhaps stepping outside their musical comfort zone; meanwhile, on Glee, these challenges take the form of things like teen pregnancy and the sense of being trapped in a small town, which requires a more dynamic sense of character.

And I think to some degree the show is still dealing with this sort of archetypal character mode with characters like Kurt and Artie, who have been given token episodes to deal with their particular stereotype (Kurt as the gay teenager, Artie as the disabled teenager) that help the audience relate with them but rarely go beyond the traditional narrative structure of Idol. Take, for example, Kurt’s storyline in “Preggers” and in “Wheels”:

  • Performs Single Ladies in his basement, providing humour (interpreted as embarrassment for some, perhaps, but mainly just entertainment).
  • Overcomes his father’s disappointment to take part in football in his own way (involving song and dance), coming out to his father and having an emotional moment.
  • Then, in “Wheels,” gives up a chance at a solo in Glee Club to avoid fighting up against gender/sexual stereotypes and raising uproar to spare his father the hardship.

First off, I want to be clear that this is actually one of the better examples of the show’s narrative structure, albeit one that does (with some finagling) fit into the traditional Idol mode. However, the issue here is that Kurt’s storyline can’t stop here: the show is going to keep going, and as a result Kurt’s storyline doesn’t just end with a bittersweet exit. Whereas Idol creates characters that will only occasionally be seen again (returning to perform their hits) or will evolve into a transmedia extension of the series’ brand (perpetuating the cultural influence further), Glee’s characters will remain in its universe, and will have to adapt to new challenges and (if the show is trying to fulfill standards of serialized narrative) grow in the process. While American Idol contestants need to become more than archetypes to find success after they leave the show, separating someone like Kelly Clarkson (who became an artist beyond her character on the show) from someone like Ruben Studdard (who, well, didn’t), Glee characters need to achieve this and maintain it within the context of the series itself, which is something that rarely ever happens on American Idol (See: Adam Lambert being so afraid to come out and becoming an archetype that didn’t fit into the show’s narrative).

As such, the comparison between the two forms demonstrates that this is only a short term solution, if it is being consciously or unconsciously put into action. The use of popular culture (the music, the references) in an effort to engage with viewers is a traditional Idol trick, and the way the show’s early narrative has been structured does follow the sort of reality show shorthand that Fox and 19 Entertainment have developed. However, while the show will continue to use popular culture to create transmedia extensions into the music industry, its narrative techniques will need to evolve beyond the Idol standard (especially with its supporting characters) in order to remain a sustainable narrative. The show won’t be able to dump its current cast for a new one (until the kids graduate, at which point the show’s narrative structure would need to adapt anyways and a new cast could be an option), which means that they will need to rely less on an Idol-esque cultural engagement and really tap into the dynamism available in this setting.

The show has a number of narrative issues, including some severe tonal shifting, but for me its character development (or, in some cases, its lack thereof) is the biggest sticking point. I think that Ivan’s example of the series tapping into the Idol model of “character” development is a good way of understanding the sort of shorthand the show has to this point employed, and also understand the limited shelf life the show has should it remain on that path.

Cultural Observations

  • It will be interesting to see if the show, which has had a long break before starting filming the Back 9 in January, will adapt its focus for when it will be airing after American Idol full-time: it creates expectations for a much larger audience, and one wonders if the type of music selected, or potentially the types of stories told, will change as a result.
  • It’s also interesting to note that the most inherently emotional episode of the series yet, “Wheels,” is the one that Ryan Murphy indicates is the show’s strategy moving forward. Does this mean that the show feels it has passed the “audition” stage of the series, and that perhaps we should be applying the Idol narrative to the season as a whole as opposed to individual characters?
  • There’s no confirmation of this as of yet, but I wonder if there will be any pressure to create actual synergy between the two properties and bring in music/artists from Idol into the Glee universe. I know that “My Life Would Suck Without You” (Kelly Clarkson’s single) is being used in an upcoming episodes, but I would be curious if this happens more once the two shows are literally connected at the hip.
  • And, on the flip side, I’d love to see Jane Lynch in character as Sue Sylvester as a special guest judge (replacing Kara, clearly) on Idol.
  • It’s also interesting to note that Glee is airing after the results show, which plays into the bittersweet elements of the reality series, as opposed to the performance show, so if Glee continues in that vein it will actually prove more connective than one may have thought during the show’s pilot.


Filed under American Idol, Glee

2 responses to “FOE4 Musings: FOX’s Glee and the Limitations of Reality Competition Narrative

  1. After Glee’s Dream On, and now with Steven Tyler coming aboard for Idol…we’ve come full circle.

  2. Romana Thibaut

    I always love watching american idol because the contestants are very talented. ;`,*”

    My webpage

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