For as much as live theatre is about the quality of specific performers or the strength of the material involved, it’s also about energy. There is an energy to song-and-dance performed onstage, and it’s an energy that has always been a central struggle for the recent revival of the live television staging of musical theatre.
Over the course of this recent trend, begun by NBC with The Sound of Music and now picked up by Fox with Grease Live, the various productions have been searching for how to tap into this energy when the conductive force of the audience is absent. The experience of seeing live theatre is in large part the experience of viewing it with other people, and not just in terms of being able to whisper reactions to the people around you. It’s about energy, a feeling in a room that you’re seeing a spectacle unfold before you or you’re being transported by an emotional ballad.
Social media can theoretically serve to bring the individual households tuned into one of these broadcasts together, but there isn’t the same type of energy, manifesting more as commentary than a natural emotional response. And while NBC’s musicals have evolved since The Sound of Music, this is one particular problem they’ve never quite solved: they have, by-and-large, been staging live theatre devoid of the energy that fuels it, hoping that what’s happening on the other side of the TV screens will cooperate without doing much to specifically address the issue. When Peter Pan build to its all-important audience participation moment, they accepted that the call would lead to no response in many cases.
And so when they announced that Grease Live would include a live audience, it seemed—on paper, at least—to be an effort to replicate this energy more directly. But whereas I imagined this as having an audience reacting to the production as one would at an actual theatrical production, it wasn’t like that at all. The vast majority of scenes went by without any audience reaction at all, with the audience only making appearances in selected large crowd scenes.
It was a decision I found confounding at first, but over time I started to realize that it was a byproduct of a central decision made by the production—led by director Thomas Kail—when it came to what they were making. Rather than a live staging of a theatrical production, Grease Live is the first real “television musical” to emerge from this era, designed from top-to-bottom to embrace the energy of watching live television.
And in the process, they managed to capture some of the energy of live theatre for good measure.
By the time students reach high school, afterschool specials are a laughing matter. Of course, simultaneously, the subject matter of those afterschool specials becomes infinitely more serious, as students are introduced to social problems which could very well affect many of them in their adult lives. For the most part, the only tenable strategy is to lean into the pitch, accepting that students will laugh and finding a way to spin that humor into something approaching understanding.
However, what happens if you’re a television show ostensibly aimed at teenagers (or, according to Ryan Murphy, seven-year-olds) which wants to do an episode about the dangers of alcohol? On the one hand, the show is interested in the comic potential of a drunk New Directions: it wants to see what Rachel Berry is like when she’s drunk, to indulge in the easy jokes created in such a scenario. Of course, it also wants to avoid glorifying alcohol, which means having characters serve as designated drivers, sober observers, and voices for the value of sobreity.
The success of “Blame it on the Alcohol” very much depends on what message we’re supposed to take away. As a piece of comedy, the episode is about as uneven as we’ve come to expect from the show, finding a few solid jokes but never quite landing. However, in terms of taking the introduction of alcohol and spinning it into something approaching self-reflection, the episode is actually fairly successful. It’s all a bit on-the-nose, and requires more than a little contrivance, but I was left with a greater understanding of these characters.
If not, necessarily, an outright appreciation for the episode in question.
Last week, I had an extensive Twitter conversation with Jace Lacob about Glee, and the argument boiled down to the question of whether or not the show’s characters were one-dimensional. And what was interesting is that Jace and I don’t disagree: the show’s characters are, on occasion, blindly one-dimensional. However, I argued that the show is still in its infancy, and that considering its identity crisis it’s actually doing a decent job of slowly sketching out its characters.
However, I do think that one of the show’s problems is its decision to have characters waver between substantial character development and broad archetypes week by week. While a show like Friday Night Lights, with a similar ensemble cast of characters that often move in and out of the show’s narrative, is dealing with fairly grounded and realistic characters, Glee is slowly humanizing caricatures. And as a result, you have a character like Artie fluctuating from a handicapped student struggling to relate to his classmates to a random background character in a wheelchair, which feels false. Rather than the character development compounding over time, changing the way the show’s dynamics operate, the exact opposite is happening: while individual episodes give Kurt or Quinn or Puck storylines that expand on their identity, outside of the main serialized storyline (Finn and Quinn’s baby) they revert back to their original modes.
It creates a sense that, for a show which is at its best when characters are being developed and explored in a concentrated fashion, the plots of the show itself don’t actually seem to be changing in kind, and the show reverts back to a farcical comedy more often than not. At the heart of “Hairography” is the fairly simple premise that beneath the distractions we create for ourselves is a sense of our true identity, as various characters test out potential distractions only to find that their heart takes them in a different direction.
However, Glee is a show that is all about distractions, and while this individual episode may have peeled everything back to show the supposed true colours of the various characters the show is never going to stop delivering show-stopping musical numbers or interjecting random musical sequences into largely unrelated scenes. The result is an episode that, rather than representing a legitimate step forward for the series, only draws attention to some of its long-term, cumulative limitations: it can tug at the heartstrings and build character when it wants to, but this is never going to start being a show about twelve kids singing on stools.
Especially not with a fake pregnancy storyline hanging over it.