Oxygen's The Glee Project has been sold as a “Competition Series,” but that is perhaps a bit of an overstatement.
It is ostensibly true: The show involves twelve young performers who are competing for a seven-episode guest stint on the third season of the Fox series through a series of challenges sold as a sort of “Glee Boot Camp.” And yet when we think of “competition” in a reality television context, especially relating to musical performance, we think about eliminations, live performance shows, and fan voting.
The Glee Project has one of the three: There will be eliminations, with the twelve performers narrowed down to a single winner. However, there will be no live performance shows, and Ryan Murphy has final say over the winner without any sort of fan participation — in fact, if the trailers for the show are to be trusted, they already picked a winner, which means there won’t even be a live results show (which actually makes sense, given that the writers have likely been working on the seasonal arc already and have to know what they're working with).
Obviously, this is like a large number of reality competition programs: cable shows like Project Runway and Top Chef only rarely do live finales, and have no fan voting components. However, those shows are searching for fashion designers and chefs, which only a small subsection of the show’s audience will ever experience outside of the context of the series itself.
With The Glee Project, people watching are — we presume — people who watch Glee, and people who want yet another way to engage with the series...well, sort of engage with the series. This isn’t like the recent international trend of casting theater musicals through American Idol-style reality shows (which made it to America in MTV’s Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods series) designed to push ticket sales by creating a sense of ownership in the production. Instead, The Glee Project is just a chance to expand the franchise into a new avenue and offer viewers a behind-the-scenes look into the casting process to build some anticipation for the new cast member’s appearance next season.
I’ve yet to decide which of these two options would have seemed more reflective of Glee’s storytelling pretensions. If they had let America cast votes on which performer would get the gig, then it would have reinforced the sense that the show never plans out its storylines and just makes them up as they go along. Meanwhile, this current format seems like an extension of Ryan Murphy’s ego, with what should logically be a private casting process being broadcast in order to increase the show’s profile and emphasize its empowering celebration of individuality (which is, not coincidentally, the title of tonight’s premiere).
There are moments in the one-hour pre-show explaining the auditions where the pretentions come through. Audition reels focus on a girl with one arm, and how the judges are so progressive that they don’t even mention the fact that she only has one arm, while an early montage features would-be cast members explaining that they are a transgender woman, or have been homeless, or some other element of their personality that separates them from the people who normally appear on hit television shows. They all sell Glee as this momentous television phenomenon, one that gives hope to kids everywhere that they can be somebody in life.
It’s all a bit nauseating, embodying the preachiest qualities of Glee while offering little else in return. It pitches the show as a sort of propaganda, a way to sell the ideology of the series and make it seem like every teenager who can sing or dance can only ever possibly get recognized because this show exists to help them.
And then we met the contestants. There was a point in the episode where Robert Ulrich, Glee’s casting director and The Glee Project's main judge, suggests to Ellis that her charm is in her contradictory nature as a mature 18-year-old trapped in a 10-year-old’s body, and I would argue that the same principle applies to the show itself. It is meant to celebrate the show’s impact, but the show actually does more to deconstruct and problematize that impact through its reality format.
Now, I am on the record as someone who believes that there is more to Glee than meets the eye, and that at the heart of the show there is this sense of sadness: It isn’t just about the celebration of individuality, but also about the limits on individuality that cannot be broken down through the power of song. Not every character on Glee will achieve their dreams, and the ways in which their dreams are reshaped and reformed in light of their circumstances is something I hope the series deals with as it graduates a set of characters next season.
What we have with The Glee Project is a microcosm of sorts. We start with twelve young men and women of various sizes, ethnicities, and vocal styles, all who claim to be here for the same reason: To achieve their dream of appearing on Glee. However, although the show will eventually crown a winner, it spends the majority of "Individuality" highlighting those who are struggling to keep up. The moral of the story seems to be that achieving your dreams is extremely hard, as many struggle with the choreography from Zach Woodlee or lay down absolutely dreadful recordings in the studio with producer Nikki Anders. For every contestant who succeeds, another struggles, and their struggles become highly emotional, leading to one complete emotional breakdown and a whole host of doubts regarding their respective abilities.
It is for this reason that I’d argue The Glee Project has more in common with documentaries than reality competition programming, as it really doesn’t feel like it’s ever about the competition. The “prize” for the "Homework Assignment" (think "Quickfire Challenge") is a slightly increased presence in the cheesy music video, which in terms of production values is on par with the Ford music videos on American Idol, while the final callbacks are just judge-selected performances that are too short to make much of an impact. Instead, the value of the series is in what the competition does to these kids on a psychological level: Indeed, when Ryan Murphy arrives to pass final judgment, he seems far more interested in how they answer his questions than in how they performed the song, and the person who goes home (Bryce) is the one who seemed the most negative about his experience. Whereas Ellis’ self-doubt emerged in the form of needless exaggeration, and Damian’s nervousness emerged as a sort of awkward charm, Bryce’s insecurity became a source of conflict — sure, I think they were overreacting, but he lost for reasons that have nothing to do with singing (and almost nothing to do with his poor dancing).
There is a slickness to the production of The Glee Project, using music and graphics that wouldn’t seem out of place in promos for the series, and even bringing in the same voiceover guy from the “Previously on Glee” montage during the opening credits. However, the show works best when it is the precise opposite of slick, like when it shows multiple singers giving horrendous performances in the recording studio (which are then auto-tuned in the music video, and not always in a subtle fashion) or when it shows us the behind-the-scenes looks at how the contestants are handling themselves on the shoot of a music video.
Indeed, there is a sort of innocence about The Glee Project that Glee seems too artificial to tap into: while Glee itself always has that layer of fiction which keeps its portrayals of teenage vulnerability from landing outside of rare occasions and any storyline involving Chris Colfer, here we have a collection of young adults trying to pretend to be pop stars. When you’re dealing with reality contestants that are this young, there’s always that sense that they don’t actually know who they are yet, and are very much being made by the process. As a result, the artifice of reality television becomes a sort of personality test: Their chosen yearbook slogan characters are not a reflection of themselves, but rather a reflection of who they think they should be in order to get cast on Glee.
They all obviously know they’re on a reality show that is casting a new character for Glee, and so The Glee Project serves as a window into how this hit show is being interpreted by those who aspire to be a part of it. On the one hand, some of these contestants are still fairly young, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so cynical as to presume that they are all putting on different personas in an attempt to be what the Glee producers want them to be. However, there’s a wonderful irony that telling a person to express their individuality often has the precise opposite effect, in that they choose what they think will make them individual instead of what actually makes them distinct, and a number of them seem smart enough and slick enough to be "playing the game" in a big way.
If I continue to watch The Glee Project, it is not because I am rooting for a particular contestant, or that I am invested in who ends up getting cast on the show. Instead, it would be to see how each contestant changes over the course of the competition. This isn’t a show designed to test singing and dancing skills so much as a test to see who is capable of inspiring a character on Glee, which means it’s a competition to see who can best sell a version of themselves to Ryan Murphy. Although the show will likely argue that the result will come down to who most represents “themselves” through their performances and truly expresses their individuality (among other upcoming eponymous qualities, like theatricality or vulnerability), the notion of a “true self” emerging through a reality show casting experiment is incredibly naïve.
I will readily admit that I am reading against the narrative the show is presenting, which is fitting given that this is often what I do with Glee as well. However, while I doubt The Glee Project will ever outright admit that it is really testing their skills in playing a character and pretending it represents themselves, I would say that the show seems interested in the trials that singers face on a journey like this one. This is not an endless stream of positivity, and there is a general no nonsense attitude to both of the two mentors and even to a certain degree from Murphy himself. There were moments in the premiere that made me roll my eyes, but there were also moments of surprising insight that achieved a sense of drama and character development that outstrips some of what the series itself has managed in the past.
And while I doubt the show will ever move past that contradiction, I tend to agree with the judges: There is something very interesting about a contradiction, especially within reality television.
- I don't want to dwell on this, but this is a very intriguing experiment from an industry perspective given that Oxygen has no corporate affiliation with Fox, making this an example of brand synergy but not corporate synergy.
- I am very curious to see how the eliminations go from this point: they cut what one would consider one of the alpha males in Bryce, but they also cut an African American. Are they working towards bringing in someone with greater diversity, or a different musical style, or a different personality, or something else entirely? I can’t shake the fact that Murphy has a clear agenda, and I’m not convinced that anything over the course of ten episodes will change what he and Brennan/Falchuk have in their heads.
- I think that Damian is probably the most interesting contestant for me, simply because he is Irish and toured with Celtic Thunder, which makes him such an odd choice for a show like Glee. He also had the night’s more important insight: The Bottom Three is bad, but if he manages to impress Murphy, then isn’t that more valuable than impressing Darren Criss given that Murphy is making the final decision?
- Speaking of Darren Criss, there are many things that he could mentor young performers on, but acting while singing is not one of them — I hope he didn’t teach Matheus any of his facial expressions.
- Not surprising to see Criss heavily featured in both the auditions and the premiere: He is the performer who seemed to be “plucked from YouTube” in casting, despite having come through the regular casting process, and I was actually surprised they didn’t go into that a bit more.
- There were some commercial break attempts to try to encourage fan participation by having people vote for their “Bing Fan Favorite,” who will win $10,000 and a live performance. I’ll be curious to see if the producers are paying any attention to these results, and whether they’d consider bringing some of the runners-up in to play members of rival glee clubs during performance episodes.
- “I’ve always wanted to do a Riverdance episode” — Ryan Murphy, proving that his writing style really does start with whatever cliché pops into his head.
- I am fascinated that McKynleigh is an actual person’s name, and that that name happens to also be bizarrely similar to the name of the high school on the show. That’s a very odd coincidence.
- When I wrote my review of the finale of USA’s Tough Enough early last week, I discussed the challenge of transferring a reality show narrative into a fictional narrative. While professional wrestling and Glee aren’t quite the same, I will definitely have similar questions for Glee when the seven-episode arc begins.
- Edit: I cannot believe that I forgot to mention that Brad the ubiquitous piano player SPOKE. It was so life-changing that my mind was apparently unconvinced it happened, and wiped it from my memory.