Tube Tied: A Plea (For a Better Glee)
Due in no small part to a summer-long marketing campaign complete with the newly-de-rigeur Twittered event, everybody's been talking about the new show called Glee. Produced by Ryan Murphy of Nip/Tuck fame, it lets everybody live out that fantasy high school experience of gaining fame and popularity while joining - I know you're in suspense - the Glee Club. Glee is the hot new thing so far this season, and has given work to some pretty darn good performers, including Lea Michele (late of Broadway's Spring Awakening), Jayma Mays (completely adorable if hurtling towards Poor Man's Red-Headed Zooey Deschanel territory) and Jane Lynch (who should be in everything ever).
The pilot episode aired in May this year, and felicitously closed with a rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" that rescued it from eternal association as the song that accompanied the letdown of The Sopranos' concluding moments. Unfortunately, if the second episode, which aired last Wednesday, is any evidence, it's all downhill from here. The advertising campaign, as is so often the case, is far more clever than the show itself.
I'm not the first to point out that the show owes quite the debt to the film version of Tom Perotta's novel Election, which gleefully satirized the ambitions of high school students - only there the central conceit was student government. But there is more than a little Tracey Flick in Michele's Rachel, the self-anointed "biggest talent" in the group. (And more than a little Paul Metzler in Cory Monteith's Finn, the required enlightened jock.) The problem is that Election knew exactly what it was: a satire, and rather a dark one at that. Glee is something else again - it certainly has some affection for its characters, and the result is something like a pastiche whose most consistent feature is ambivalent about whether or not it's being sincere.
The problems of tone play out most violently in the female characters of the show. Rachel is strangely supposed to be both the one we're rooting for - those pipes! - and also desperately clueless, bossy and annoying in the way one guesses the show's writers imagine young ambitious women to be. Mays's Emma Pillsbury, the guidance counselor, is given a quirk - colloquially, germophobia - which one supposes is to confer adorable neuroticism on her, but she is otherwise so emotionally put-together a character she is clearly meant to be a saint. The hapless Jessalyn Gilsig gets the boring role of the baby-and-craft-crazy wife of the teacher-supervisor. She plays it - and frankly who could blame her given the script - as pure caricature, so much so that it's well nigh impossible to divine how sweet, sincere, well-meaning Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) could possibly have married such a neurotic mess.
Finally, and frankly most offensively, the show appears to be committed to diversity in the most drive-by of ways. The club is full of misfits, alright, but they're all broadly-painted stereotypes: a Sassy Black Girl With Pipes, a Silent Asian, and a Personality-Free Kid In A Wheelchair.
The funny thing is, in many ways this could have been a great concept if the show would just commit to it, and if it had cleverer writers who didn't rely so much on the actors to flesh the stereotypes out. Like anyone else, I do find the musical numbers, when they are heartfelt, to show a kind of joy that is missing on television these days. But the show won't survive on that alone.
Are any of you watching?
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