28 March 2011

Glee! A Convert's Testimony

Note 1: Here be spoilers--if you're behind on the English schedule, which is about six weeks behind the US schedule. We're up to Season 2, Episode 11 (The Sue Sylvester Shuffle).

Note 2: I would have loved for this to be an all-singing, all-dancing, video-clip filled, multi-media extravaganza. But: I don't have access to Hulu, can't figure out how to embed video from E4 (the source of all these pretty pictures) or imdb, and don't like either intellectual-property theft or the dead links that will quickly appear if I post pirated clips from YouTube. So, sorry for the lack of examples. There are links to videos you can click, if you're interested.

Note 3: I know, I don't even talk about Karofsky. That's a whole other post.

Oh, yeah, and it's really long. Took so long to write I don't have the heart to spend more time cutting it down.

Now, on with the show!

I heard about Glee for a long time before I had a chance to see it. Fox aired a preview episode in the US in May of 2009, and my friends' facebook statuses started buzzing immediately. I guess it was only logical that by the time I saw my first episode--on a trip back to the States in September '09--there was no way it could have been as good as what I was expecting. I didn't expect to hate it quite as much as I did, though.

Part of my problem was, I'm a big fan of realism. The first episodes of Glee--Pilot through Sectionals--are willing-suspension-of-disbelief-snappingly soap-opera-y. I could barely see the TV for all the eye-rolling.

Mostly, though, I just couldn't accept the show's premise that being in show choir is enough all by itself to brand a kid a loser. Glee is still riding this assumption, and it still makes no sense to me. Popularity, it seemed to me in high school and still seems to me in retrospect, honestly did seem to have a lot to do with what a likeable person you were, not whether you obeyed some rulebook about what clubs to join. (When I was in high school, we had Homecoming, Prom, and May Fete Queens from band, drama, and show choir.)

In any case, between the soap opera plot and the show's casual assumption that high school performing artists were losers by definition, I came back to the UK secure (and a little smug, to be honest) in my dislike of this latest pop-culture phenomenon. I wasn't bothered. I never got into American Idol, either.

But... when Glee launched here, I couldn't look away. I watched every episode. (Some of those episodes starred Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, for pete's sake; how could I miss that?) For a while I'd watch while surfing the internet, closing my laptop and looking at the TV only when the music started to play. (And then I'd roll my eyes through the songs, which at that point were little better than karaoke renditions.) But as the weeks went by, I found myself actually paying attention to the plot, and--horrors!--becoming invested in the lives and fates of the same characters I'd initially dismissed as so unrealistic as to be beyond sympathy.

The singing and dancing got good, too. Some producer on that show is still doing horrible things with auto-tune, but the arrangements are a lot more choral, and sound a lot less like something you'd hear a cover band do at a wedding, than they used to be.

After winning me over in the first season, the second season got off to an awkward start. The characters in Season 2, Episode 1 were almost unrecognizable. Rachel was supposed to have spent Season 1 learning the value of being a team player, but Season 2 starts with her trying to recruit an exchange student to the group by telling her, "I need more people to sway in the back and look at me adoringly." Mr. Schuester, the show's adult paragon of virtue, joins the evil villain cheerleader coach in bullying the new (female) football coach, who presents a threat to his already-meager budget.

The second episode, Britney/Brittany, shows off the deadpan and dance skills of cast member Heather Morris and pretty much goes to war against two school losers: Jacob Ben Israel and Lauren Zizes. The episode climaxes (a word choice so unfortunately appropriate that I'm leaving it in) with a pep rally performance of Toxic, during which Jacob and Lauren humiliatingly lose all control of themselves.

The performance was great (though it's one where you have to really remind yourself that the actors are all in their 20s), but the episode left a bad taste in my mouth. The members of the William McKinley High School glee club are all conventionally attractive; Lauren and Jacob aren't. Also, Lauren and Jacob aren't in glee. I couldn't help but wonder if the writers of the show knew how close they were treading to saying, "it's not right to bully people--when they're pretty and their unpopularity is a result of following their socially-acceptable dreams. These other people, the true freaks, they're out of control. They deserve what they get."

But, wouldn't you know it, the show's producers and writers seem to have caught themselves on that score, too. Jacob hasn't had a major part of any plot in a while (so if they're not making up for his humiliation, at lest they're leaving him alone), and Lauren has joined the glee club--and turns out to be tougher and cooler than any of them. When most of the football team quits in protest rather than join the glee club for a halftime show during the big game, the girls step up to make sure they have the enough players: and while the bulk of the plan is for the girls to lay on the ground to stay out of the action while keeping the right number of players on the field, Lauren makes it clear she's coming to play.

So, yeah, okay, the plots haven't gotten any more realistic. And while the musical numbers this season include some that are a lot more creative than in the past (the addition of an all-male, acapella competitor has done wonders), they also involve production values that don't even attempt credibility. One of the things I really liked about the first season was that, although the show completely ignored how show choirs actually work (you don't learn a new, choreographed number every week, that's for sure), they did allow us to keep believing in a public school with a very limited arts budget: the kids might perform a wide variety of songs, but they did them in costumes that could have come out of their own closets (jeans with t-shirts in coordinating colors, say).

This season has stopped worrying about even that little bit of realism, with performances like the "Thriller/Heads Will Roll" mash-up linked to above (click on "halftime show") or a mash-up of Rhianna's "Umbrella" with "Singin' in the Rain", complete with full-stage water feature, performed for no particular reason except that it makes everybody happy.

I'm finding the fantasy easier to take this season, though. It all seems to be in the service of one larger, more productive fantasy, which I really like. After show choir is for outcasts and losers, no matter what, the ethic the show pounds most relentlessly is, when you sing, you're safe. In true musical theater form, when the characters on the show want to really tell the truth about something incredibly personal and/or important, they sing it. They expose themselves through song in ways that would be unthinkable in conversation. And when someone's singing a solo, especially one they've picked out themselves, their peers listen, and nod along, and approve.

In fact, the couple of times performances haven't been well-received by the other members of glee club, it's because the singers were dishonest. In Laryngitis, boy soprano Kurt tries to get closer to his father by singing a Mellencamp song instead of the Whitney Huston he'd been planning on using to show off his phenomenal range. That he does an okay job doesn't matter: the other members of the choir look uncomfortable during the performance, and the director tells Kurt he's hurting the group by not giving the best of himself. When Kurt, frustrated, finally lets loose with his own version of "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy--that's when he finally gets the heart-to-heart, bonding moment with his dad he's been looking for.

The corollary to show choir is for outcasts and losers becomes, outcasts and losers can find a safe space to be themselves in show choir. It's, whatever you're going through, art can help. It's even, expressing yourself through art is worth putting up with all the hassles being an artist brings. This is perhaps not a surprising statement of faith to come out of a TV show, which after all is made by artists and writers and actors and singers and dancers. But it's a belief you don't see on TV all that often, and I'm really glad to have it out there, at least for an hour a week.


  1. Lauren's character really steps into the forefront in the next few episodes, as you'll see. This happens in a way that some have called unrealistic and pandering, but that works perfectly well for me. I'm interested to hear your comments when you get there.

    But I have had a problem with how uneven this season has been, how it'll have an episode that sets the characters up for something that gets abandoned in the very next episode. Shue's character in particular is one that has been kind of rudderless this year...

    oh and total agreement about the whole thing where they learn four new songs this week and never perform them again. That and the fact that both Sue and Shue would have been fired many times over for their treatment of students (Sue for the abuse, Shue for performing sexually suggestive material with his female students) are both big strains on credibility that are hard for me to look past sometimes.

  2. Oh, yeah, a big advantage to watching it regularly is the ongoing lesson on how *not* to keep multiple storylines going through a larger narrative.

    The main complaint I still have about the show is that a lot of episodes seem like rough drafts of themselves, and they don't always hold together with what's come before. The writers still seem to be thinking episode-to-episode, rather than having any thought for the season or series as a whole.

  3. Still in the eye rolling stage here. I've really tried...watched about 5 or 6 episodes but as an adult find the plot...well...lame. I, like you, just look up during the songs. I understand but can't respect the complete lack of reality in the show. Teens/tweens have enough fodder for creating their own pseudo-realities as it is. I also don't know how to feel about the token black girl also being the token fat girl. I do appreciate that it is much more enlightening than the 90210 and Melrose Place of our days. It is spurring the creation of glee clubs all over the country as well...I guess I'll keep trying.

  4. Adebro, I think 'creating pseudo-realities' is an important part of being a teenager. We kind of stick them in one, after all, by putting them in this weird twilight of adulthood.

    One of my close friends once handed me back the draft of a novel I'd asked for comment on and said, "this is what would happen in real life. Make it art." I try to keep that in mind both when I'm writing and when I'm evaluating a story: is this departing from reality out of laziness, or to serve a larger artistic vision? And I think Glee goes different ways at different times. Sometimes it seems like they're glossing over these giant plot holes because they don't know what else to do, or because they just want to get to the next bit, that's for sure. But other times I think they make choices that don't hold up in "real" reality, but do in the world of the show.

    If you haven't seen the latest episodes, you'll be pleased to know that there is now a separate token fat girl :-) As with everything about the show, there are things about her characterization that bug me, and things I love. I'm looking forward to seeing how her character develops.

    I'm also starting to get annoyed that Mercedes is the only character without a love life. I'm hoping that changes soon.