The joyful noise of “Glee.”
by Nancy Franklin (May 10, 2010)
Mid-April, with its tax deadline, is a time that many people dread; this year, however, millions looked forward to it with great eagerness, because April 13th brought the first episode of “Glee” after a four-month
hiatus. The Fox show, set in the fictional William McKinley High School, in Lima, Ohio, is part satirical comedy, part musical, and—since its
setting is high school—a bit of a drama. It’s not exactly a high-school
musical, and it’s not exactly “High School Musical,” the Disney song-and-dance franchise, although, like that TV mo”ie and its brand
extensions, it has a long tail of tie-in merchandise and live performances. It also has over-the-moon fans—“gleeks,” they happily call
themselves—which is a notable thing for a mainstream, non-niche network show that began only last fall. The first post-hiatus episode had more than thirteen million viewers; the second, which featured the songs of Madonna, was close behind. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the show follows “American Idol” on Tuesday nights—though the pairing did pain
many people a couple of weeks ago, when a live edition of “Idol” ran
long, causing DVRs across the land to cut off the last minutes of “Glee.”
And “Glee,” although a work of fiction, is “Idol” ’s spawn, part of the current craze for watching star-making (and dream-crushing) machinery at work.
“Glee” was created and is written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan. Of the three, Murphy is the best known, having created the just ended FX psychomelodrama “Nip/Tuck” (for which Falchuk was a writer and a producer) and the 1999 WB comedy “Popular,” which was also a sendup of teen-age archetypes—as in “Glee,” there was a star
football player who was torn between sports and the stage—but involved
much more extracurricular activity among parents and families. Except for the teachers and the administrators at McKinley High, few adults appear in “Glee,” which gives the series a cartoonish feel that’s reinforced by the fact that the grownups we do see, well meaning though they may be, are as cluelessly wrapped up in themselves as the young people are. (Oddly, or not, of the group of about ten students we hang out with two have lost a parent. It seems like a lot.)
The success of “Glee” depends on the energy and the obvious talent of its young (but way beyond high-school age) performers, and on Jane Lynch, who plays Sue Sylvester, the acid-tongued, sneaky, and completely loony cheerleading coach, whose every line of dialogue is quotable (and is duly
quoted, minutes after being delivered, on Facebook pages and in Twitter
feeds). Sue’s counterbalance, and nemesis, is Will Schuester (Matthew
Morrison, who has a solid Broadway background and Leyendecker good looks, including thick, wavy hair that Sue mocks, in elegant variations, pretty much every time she sees Will), a youngish Spanish teacher and a graduate of McKinley High in the days when it had a top-notch show choir. Will makes it his project to bring back that glory, and he starts by tricking the captain of the football team (Cory Monteith), whom he hears singing in the shower after practice one day, into joining his ragtag crew.
Sue’s If Will gets funding for his group, the economy being tough—
cheerleading crew will lose theirs. Will also wants some of Sue’s girls—the Cheerios—for his group. She tells him that he doesn’t get
it—that he can’t blur the lines in the rigid caste system that is high school: “Your jocks and your popular kids—up in the penthouse. Your invisibles
and the kids playing live-action druids and trolls out in the forest—bottom floor.” What about the Glee kids? Will asks. What category are they in? “Sub-basement,” she says.
The real engine of the show isn’t the machinations of its characters or its unfolding plot but its basic structure. Because “Glee” is actually about a group of singers, it doesn’t seem artificial when the cast breaks into song;
the music fits into the proceedings organically. The songs—which
Murphy chooses—range from oldies to newies, so that there is,
theoretically, something for everybody, from “Sing Sing Sing” and
“Sweet Caroline” to “Gives You Hell” and “Single Ladies.” Still, it must be said, even people who love these songs may find something to hate in the style of singing sometimes showcased in “Glee”—the earsplitting,
maniacally melismatic car-alarm whine that Whitney Houston popularized—but, thankfully, there are quiet ballads to balance things out.
Rachel, one of the choir members, has a bit of that pleading quality in her voice, but it suits her desperate ambition. She’s played by Lea Michele, who, at twenty-three, is a fifteen-year Broadway veteran. Yet her large talent doesn’t extend to the non-singing parts of her performance. I give it
up for her gifts, but I don’t feel soul there. Rachel takes herself very seriously, and things very literally; one of the other kids, Artie (Kevin McHale), is wheelchair-bound, and Rachel complains to Will that Artie shouldn’t be singing “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” because he’s already sitting down. Artie’s take is that Will’s choice was meant to be ironic, and Rachel responds, “There’s nothing ironic about show choir!” Of course there is, but there’s more, too—there’s also real glee, when things come together and when the characters get as much fleshing out as the stereotyping and the time constraints allow. With several production numbers per episode, almost all of which have remarkably weak choreography and poorly synched lip-synching, the writers haven’t been
able to go very deep into anyone’s life.
That may be just as well. With a couple of exceptions, relationships are the weak link of “Glee,” and some of them are disturbingly off key.
Will’s wife, Terri, has to be the worst part that Jessalyn Gilsig has ever been given. She’s unaccountably unpleasant to Will, and she fakes a pregnancy for much longer than is credible. Meanwhile, he’s attracted to the school guidance counsellor, Emma, a skittish germaphobe played by Jayma Mays (whom you would have seen in ABC’s drama “Pushing Daisies,” if only you had watched it). None of this makes any kind of sense, and you don’t get the feeling that any love or wit went into
creating these two female characters. The episode in which many people’s affection for the show was cemented was the one in which it was revealed—briefly, in a moment done just right—that Sue had a human
core; it was also an episode that was free of Terri and Emma, and thus didn’t leave you with a knot in your stomach. Throughout the first season, one of the kids, Quinn (Dianna Agron), is pregnant, and though this is a central plot device, it’s dramatically gratuitous (and it makes “Glee” the second show in recent memory—the first being “The Secret Life of an
American Teenager,” on ABC Family—in which teen-age pregnancy is
treated almost blithely).
There is in “Glee” an element of creepiness, or, at least, sourness. Tonally, it hasn’t found its way yet. A teacher’s dismissal for touching a student inappropriately is treated as a joke. And Sue says to two doltish
cheerleaders: “You may be the two stupidest teens I’ve ever encountered. And that’s saying something. I once taught a cheerleading seminar to a young Sarah Palin.” I get it that a group of teen-agers singing a choral
arrangement of “Rehab” is notionally funny; unfortunately, watching it is notional fun. Still, “Glee” is well produced, and it works, even if some of the music, like high school itself, makes you roll your eyes and wish you were somewhere else. ?
(From The New Yorker)