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Glee: The Best New Show That Might Not Get Canceled

gleeSo, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Glee, Fox’s new scripted high school musical comedy series, since I saw the first promo during an American Idol episode, like, months ago.

Because I could tell from those brief clips that Glee had the elements to majorly rock. I mean, Jane Lynch plays the cheerleading coach. Did you hear me? Jane Lynch plays the cheerleading coach! Plus, our stars appeared to be an assortment of teens, some of whom even look like the kind of normal kids you might see at actual high schools, singing and not being all that embarrassed about it. And let’s not forget that they got the rights to that one Journey song that everyone in the world adores, and then used the heck out of it in those promos.

But those ads played up the music and the earnestness but played down the satire, thus making the show look like it has a lot more in common with High School Musical than it actually does. So that threw me off a bit, but in a good way. Because Glee is, in addition to being very, very musical, also very, very funny. (And trust me, I’ll have more to say on HSM later.)

I wanted to embed video clips in this review, to give a representative sampling of the show’s awesomeness for those who missed it last night, but the problem is that I want to embed every clip. The songs, of course, especially “Rehab” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” But also the scene where the teacher blackmailed the jock into joining the glee club by pretending he’d found pot in the jock’s locker and that he was at risk of losing the football scholarship he never actually acquired, and just generally copying every trope from every teens-in-trouble drama ever. And the wannabe-starlet-character-backstory scene, where the cheerleaders write mean comments on her MySpace page even though said wannabe starlet is the most awesome thing ever. And the scene where the jocks prepare to flip over the port-a-potty inside which they’ve locked a wheelchair-bound glee-club kid, claiming that it’s not dangerous because, after all, the kid is already in a wheelchair. And a gazillion others. I mean, yes, not every scene scores an A+. But all of them, even the sappy scenes between our teacher protagonist and his would-be mistress, contain neat little details. Like the mistress’s plastic box of PB&J with the crusts cut off, and lines like “I’m not happy that you have marital problems, but people talk to me a lot, ’cause I’m the guidance counselor.”

So if you missed it, just go watch the whole episode on Hulu and then come back. I’ll wait.

Right then.

So, the reason Glee is awesome is that it was created by Ryan Murphy, whose work I’m unfamiliar with. (I know he did Nip/Tuck and Popular (no, not thatPopular“), and I know both of those were supposed to have been really good, but I never watched the former because I heard it was gross and I can’t deal with gross, and I never watched the latter because I had to study for my Abnormal Psych final during the, like, 12 seconds it was on the air.)glee7

Anyway, this is only Glee‘s pilot, so the story is pretty basic: A teacher decides to revive his school’s fading glee club, and leads a motley group of kids past obstacles such as a principal who lacks faith (he wants the glee club to sacrifice the auditorium so he can use it to host AA meetings; there are a lot of drunks in this town, and they pay $10 a head), as well as the rivalry of the school’s much-more-successful cheerleading squad (called the “Cheerios”), and the fact that there are only six kids on the glee club anyway (and, in the principal’s words, “One of them’s a cripple”).

Neither of the two high schools I attended had glee clubs (I lived in a more Junior-ROTC area), so what I know of this institution comes from Saved by the Bell.  I kept waiting for Violet Bickerstaff to walk out and sing “Beautiful Dreamer” while everyone else “dum dummed” in the background. Which never happened. But plenty of other amazing stuff did.

You already know about the ways in which the show’s awesomeness manifests itself, since you watched the episode, but I’ll list some of my favorites:

  • Our protagonist, Will, works as a Spanish teacher at the very same high school he himself attended. He spends his days eating chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, choosing not to break up parking lot fights, and arguing with his wife, Terri, about her Pottery Barn habit (hey, someone’s got to keep the Christmas closet stocked). The greatest moment of Will’s life occurred when he starred in a high school glee club competition in 1993, but now, his primary goal is to get Terri impregnated. Between the Election vibe the character gives off, and the promos’ promise that we will get to hear Will rap sooner or later, and the earnestness with which he imbues every line, I’m on board with Will.
  • Our star jock character, the one who secretly sings in the locker room shower (while not wearing shower shoes, ewww) and doesn’t want to just be the guy who throws eggs anymore, is named Finn. His girlfriend, the president of the Celibacy Club (and she’s also a member), is named Quinn. Hee! (And, by the way, I watched the whole episode the first time thinking Finn was played by Chris Evans, who played the lead in Not Another Teen Movie, but it turns out he was played by Cory Monteith and he and Chris Evans were just separated at birth or something. (Here’s Chris Evans.  Here’s Cory Monteith.  Tell me I’m wrong.))
  • After a total of maybe 10 minutes of screentime, our starlet character, Rachel Berry, has now officially been added to my list of favorite TV characters. Rachel won her first dance competition when she was three months old and now spouts out gems like “Metaphors are important!” and “Being anonymous is worse than being poor!” She posts a new video of her singing to her MySpace page every single day, even though the Cheerios mock her for it and the rest of the country moved on to Facebook years ago. And let’s not even get into her dads and the turkey baster.glee5
  • A rival glee club performs a song called “Rehab,” which I had not heard before and which I assumed was an original composition by the show’s writers, and I was seriously on the floor hearing those lyrics for the first time in this context. But then I looked it up and saw that it’s an Amy Winehouse song (and I guess a really famous one – look, there’s a reason I’m not reviewing American Idol; I only ever find out about contemporary music when I’m introduced to it through shows like this. I’d never heard that Kanye West song Kris Allen covered until then either. Don’t you judge me.) Anyway, regardless of the song’s origins the Glee scene is still hilarious, and it was still pretty genius on the part of the writers to do it glee-club style.
  • Did I mention that Jane Lynch plays the cheerleading coach? She does. She also has all the best lines. A sample speech: “Your resentment is delicious. I have a phoner in a couple minutes. That’s an interview, on the telephone, with a major media outlet. I’ll probably do it on my iPhone.”
  • The closing sequence, where the kids perform “Don’t Stop Believin’,” lives up to the hype promised in all those months of promos. It has spinning wheelchair guitar solos, and straight guys awkwardly rocking out with their eyes closed, and Phil Collins-esque singing from behind a drum set, and saxophonists dressed up like Matt Giraud, and evil onlookers in fauxhawks, and Rachel singing her gorgeous little heart out. I dare you watch that performance without grinning. (And if you can, you aren’t this show’s target audience anyway.)

In the face of all this excellence, I’m even tempted to forgive the storyline that equated “being gay” with “feeling up teenage boys” because Ryan Murphy is himself gay and the sequence was played for high comedy. I won’t completely forgive it because it still made me squirm. But I can’t think of anything else negative to say about Glee. Sure, I could’ve used more Jane Lynch, but we have a whole season to go and I’m sure we’ll see plenty of her yet. I could’ve used more Rachel, too, for that matter, but see above. And there were some cheesy “I believe in these kids!”-type moments, which I didn’t particularly enjoy watching but without which the show would be nothing but straight-up satire and musical numbers, and that’s not what a show like Glee should be. So I won’t fault it for those moments, even if I did spend those (mercifully brief) scenes scouring YouTube for clips of the singing that I could post to Facebook.

So, because I doubt this show would’ve ever been green-lit, much less produced at the $3 million an episode they’re reportedly spending on it, had it not been for the success of the High School Musical franchise, and since I am a genuine HSM fan (and well over the age of 11, thank you very much), let’s address the fact, shall we, that Glee is working with only a slightly more serious interpretation of HSM‘s premise. Both address those two age-old challenges facing would-be high school singing sensations: A) that singing often involves crossing clique boundaries, which is always a no-no, and B) that singing is in itself inherently dorky. In high school, being seen singing well is embarrassing (or so I’m told), and being seen singing badly is mortifying (this I know for a fact). So to voluntarily get up on stage and sing, when one is not already a theater dork and/or Zac Efron?  What teenager in his or her right mind would bring that trauma on him- or herself?

In HSM, the solution to these dilemmas is that the entire school decides singing is no longer dorky. Whereas even though Glee is set at the kind of stereotypical high school where throwing nerds into Dumpsters is typical early-morning behavior (hey, maybe I really should be making Saved by the Bell comparisons), the show still aims to be somewhat realistic in that it does not attempt to redeem singing in the eyes of the student body. So Glee‘s characters are forced to simply weather out the ridicule and buy some extra denim jackets, or else at least learn how to rinse out paintball stains.glee8

The other obvious reference point for this show is American Idol, but Glee is simply so much more satisfying than AI. I get so sick of the judges complaining about Idol contestants being “soundalike” or “karaoke” when the vast majority of the time, well-done “soundalike” or “karaoke” performances are exactly what most of us want to hear. Yes, Adam’s interpretation of “Ring of Fire” was just about the most amazing thing ever, but you know what, Lil Rounds’ performance of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was awesome too. Because there’s a reason people still listen to Tina Turner. And Glee is shaping up to give us lots and lots of those sounding-like-Tina moments, and to mix it in with dialogue that Simon Cowell only dreams he could write. And, Jane Lynch!

And then, of course, there are the Bring It On references (there are a lot of Toros in the atmosphere at McKinley High). And also I’m pretty sure I spotted a bit of parody of Friday Night Lights in there, which I know is wrong wrong wrong because FNL is a genuinely good show and whatever whatever. But I still think it was awesome. And, while we’re making allusions, let’s not forget that this is the network that brought both us The O.C. and the original 90210, and that I see both of those in Glee, too.

Speaking of which, perhaps Fox was thinking of the age-old strategy that made that latter show a hit when it came up with its weird schedule for Glee. They premiered the pilot episode this week, immediately following the final Idol competition night, but the rest of the season will air this fall. Has that been done before? Far be it for me to try to suggest scheduling strategies for teen shows – this network is the one that made the original 90210 a hit after it had already been on for a year when they made the then-revolutionary decision to air new episodes over the summer (this being back in an era when everything else on during the summer was reruns. Ah, it was a simpler time.)

Anyway, so, yes, I can heap all the praise I want on Glee, but so far we’ve only seen the pilot. From here, it looks awfully likely that things will go downhill. But rumor has it that later episodes will include even more Jane Lynch! And let’s not forget that promo in which Will rapped. Any show that has its painfully white, painfully over-30 lead character unabashedly rapping in the first season deserves a healthy grace period.

So come on, y’all, let’s give the pilot some good buzz. Go forth and download! http://www.itunes.com

For another opinion on this episode, check out Jazz Hands + Spirit Fingers = Fabulous! by J.B. Perlow.

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot (originally aired May 19, 2009)

For more on Glee, click here.

Returns Fall 2009 on Fox

Photographs courtesy of Fox and IMDbPro

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