The Glee Project — “Individuality”

The Glee Project — “Individuality”

In the midst of the final auditions during The Glee Project’s first season, Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan did a bit of brainstorming. For Samuel, the brooding, dreadlocked rocker, Ryan Murphy saw a potential outlet to introduce a Christian character into the series, something he had wanted to do for some time. Irish crooner Damian, meanwhile, was singled out for his hilarious Irish accent, and Ian mused that it would be perhaps a bit funny if he was an exchange student that Brittany couldn’t understand.

Samuel and Damian won The Glee Project, and thus—as we were told to expect throughout the competition—became a part of the Glee’s cast of characters in its third season. However, I did not expect for there to be no evidence that Murphy and Brennan bothered to spend any further time developing their characters beyond the off-the-cuff comments made during those auditions. Samuel played Joe, a Christian who offered generic spiritual guidance and little else, while Damian played an exchange student that Brittany couldn’t understand. Both had solo performances, but neither of them proved memorable, or meaningful, or anything. In fact, runner-up Alex (who, along with fellow runner-up Lindsay, earned a two-episode guest stint) made a greater impact with the cross-dressing Wade/Unique, earning a prominent performance role in two late-season episodes (albeit based on his decision to perform in drag as part of—you guessed it—the auditions for The Glee Project).

When I covered the season finale of last year’s competition, I noted that there was something strange about the idea of developing characters based on the young performers taking part in the competition. While it may build a sense of authenticity, it also risks typecasting these kids based on their personalities as opposed to focusing on dynamic performers who could provide some semblance of depth. I’d argue that Samuel and Damian’s performances on the show showed this concern to be justified, as they had been put so comfortably into a particular box that they weren’t allowed to develop in any capacity, reduced to glorified extras who sat around in the choir room. They were the television equivalent of those action figures with random adjectives attached to them: The flimsy gimmick might sound exciting for a few days, but then you remember you have core action figures with more versatility, and wonder why you didn’t just buy accessories for those action figures instead of buying Piranha Blade Batman.

However, as The Glee Project returns for a second season, it’s a chance for a fresh start. The joy of the first season was found in the show’s enthusiasm and charm, which was consistently challenged but not defeated by the show’s infomercial approach to the Glee brand and the ideologies tied to it. However, based on Saturday’s audition special, the show has doubled down on the “success” of last season, with Ryan Murphy getting involved even earlier and steering conversation toward turning young actors and singers into ready-made characters ready to sit silently in the choir room as the real cast members are featured. In truth, The Glee Project is best enjoyed if you entirely ignore the fact that it’s connected to the television show Glee, and yet this season the producers seem even more insistent on playing up that potential connection.

That shift in Saturday’s audition special proved to be one of the only ones The Glee Project made in between seasons. “Individuality” might as well be an episode from last season: same sets, same themes (even reusing the same theme as last season’s premiere), same structure, and even the same closing performance of Avril Lavigne’s dragon anthem, “Keep Holding On.” While many reality shows follow the same basic formula in every season, relying on the new cast members to provide differentiation, The Glee Project is nearly shot-for-shot identical in some cases, to the point where comfortable familiarity quickly turned into contemptuous complacency. While this might just be because I spent a lot of time last season brainstorming ways to improve the show, the complete disinterest in shaking things up this year seemed like a microcosm of Glee’s own problems: Despite clear, unavoidable evidence that the show could be improved, the show’s strategy—to echo Ms. Lavigne—is to just keep holding on.

The worst thing is that the producers are going to get away with it. The Glee Project, just like last season, remains an interesting competition reality show. Although it is not designed to shine with 14 contestants, better once we’ve spent more time with them and there are less of them to focus on, the structure allows for us to pick our favorites, follow their emotional highs and lows, and then see a panel of experts pick away at them. Someone like Zach Woodlee manages to be both an antagonist and a cheerleader, balancing drill-like choreography sessions with enthusiastic—even Gleeful—waves to the contestants as they prepare to sing to stay in the competition. When Ryan Murphy suggests that this is less a talent competition and more an “inspiration contest,” my first thought—after suppressing my gag reflex—was that this is really the only way to watch this show. While we can value talent, ultimately our emotional connection is driven by whom we simply like the most, which could mean someone like Tyler (a transgender contestant transitioning from female to male) who struggled with his confidence and was nearly eliminated.

Personally, I thought Tyler’s lack of confidence revealed—more than created—failings in terms of performance, and felt the same of eliminated contestant Maxfield (whom I doomed to elimination by attempting to bestow a nickname, “John Deere in the Headlights,” on him at this early stage in the competition). I was far more interested in the kids who are effectively approaching this as a professional audition. I wasn’t that impressed with Shanna’s performance, but I appreciated how she took the spotlight when it was offered to her, just as I like how Lily was kind of pissed off that it wasn’t her in the same position. I also enjoyed that both Charlie and Blake, relatively generic as singers, positioned themselves as actors first and foremost, something that I wish the show had more interest in given Damian and Samuel’s struggles to integrate into the larger world at McKinley. This early, I’m more interested in the brief talking head interview clips than in the actual singing: Michael is confident, sharp, and personable in interviews, which doesn’t mean he’s a great actor but renders him more palatable as a reality contestant to me.

And yet I’m looking at this through a more pragmatic lens than I’m supposed to. At one point, Ali—who is in a wheelchair—notes that everyone there has overcome adversity, and that’s certainly what the show is counting on. It’s meant to be the Battle of the Beleaguered, an epic contest to see whose personal turmoil can inspire Ryan Murphy to write them a character on Glee. Accordingly, someone like Ali or blind Mario is at a distinct advantage, and one wonders what it would take for one of them to leave the competition. I like both of them, with Mario’s personality and willingness to work through the dance steps particularly impressive, but I do think making this a contest about inspiration places them in a privileged position. I relate to Michael when he says that, as an 18-year-old whose most defining characteristic is his love of math, he doesn’t know how his “individuality”—the week’s theme—can compete with some of the other contestants in that category.

And it is in this area that I have two rants I need to make. The first is somewhat less important, but nonetheless bugs me. Dani, who was barely featured during the audition special, struggled to display individuality in this week’s premiere, perhaps because we learned nothing about her other than the fact that she really wants to be on Glee. The lack of information might be because Dani is effectively a ringer, having participated in last season’s edition of America’s Got Talent (even appearing on a live performance show that I covered here at The A.V. Club). Now, a video on the Oxygen website (and a cursory Google search) makes note of this, but it hasn’t been included as part of her narrative within the show. It’s an omission that bugs me precisely because it reveals how sly the show is willing to be to pretend that these kids are underdogs plucked from obscurity. Many of them are professional actors or singers who would be auditioning for the show in other circumstances, and so to deprofessionalize them in favor of generic dreams of stardom feels disingenuous and reduces the show to propped-up emotionalism versus any real stakes. Let this be a competition between actors and singers who want a job, not kids who have a dream.

Ultimately, though, I’ve accepted that isn’t a battle I’m going to win anytime soon, at least as long as Ryan Murphy continues to want this show to operate as propaganda for his inspirational Gleegenda. However, I want to focus in on Aylin’s Last Chance Performance, because the coaches clearly felt disappointed with her performance during the competition compared to her audition. I totally see where they’re coming from, and also felt she wasn’t as interesting as compelling, not standing out as she did when she put herself out there as the Turkish Muslim girl. While I think the idea of telling her to “be herself” was an expected and logical response from Murphy, he kept going, because he doesn’t just want her to be herself: He wants her to be the flirt he knows she is, the flirt she was in the audition rounds. Effectively, two breaths away from telling Tyler to be confident in who he is, Ryan Murphy is encouraging Aylin to be confident in who he decided she was based on an audition months earlier.

Am I the only person bugged by the hypocrisy in that statement? I understand that Murphy is interested in co-opting these kids’ stories as part of their characters, which I find both lazy and uninteresting but understandable on some level. But then forcing them to remain beholden to that character, even if it isn’t something they may be naturally inclined to in a public setting—more public than the initial auditions—is incredibly unfortunate. I’m not suggested that Aylin didn’t need to find more personality, but why does it have to be “flirtatious”? Why couldn’t it be confident and professional without having to discuss which boys she has a crush on? If this was a professional audition, Murphy’s advice would be par for the course: He wants her to be more flirty, and so next time she acts or sings she should engage in those qualities to get the job. However, the blurring of the lines between the personal and professional within the series renders his advice far more wide-ranging, and institutionalizes the kind of reality show performance that the show claims to be avoiding with its focus on personal back stories and inspiration. It’s a tension that could appear as a natural function of competition between individuals, each with their own approach to the competition, which I’d find interesting. However, when it’s a product of Murphy’s own involvement, it just calls attention to how this show works against its own best interests for reasons I simply do not understand.

The changes to this season are purely aesthetic, what changes there are. The Homework Performance, for example, was seemingly recorded close to live this time around, or was at least less prerecorded than the clear lipsynching we saw in the first season. It’s an effort to provide more authenticity, and yet the rest of the show works against that. Despite the fact that we see the contestants move into bedrooms, we never really see them living in the apartment beyond a few brief snippets, and the closed-in nature of the sets means that we never even really know if it’s day or night (beyond the claim that the last chance performances take place at 9 p.m.). The passage of time may not seem important, but the lack of any connective tissue between the competition’s elements means that this never feels like it’s about the contestants. It always feels like it’s about Glee, and about Ryan Murphy, and about the idea of finding an unknown talent and delivering unto them great opportunity.

That is not a terrible idea for a reality television show, and this is a likeable and generally talented cast that I’ll be happy to watch on my television this summer. However, The Glee Project remains its own worst enemy with the way it treats its own contestants and the way it approaches this competition. This shouldn’t be a contest to see who can inspire Ryan Murphy to write a character about them: It should be a contest to see who would be the best at taking on a character that would work as part of the television show Glee. The latter may be less empowering and inspirational, but it would cut away the vacuous themes and focus on real people, in a real situation, with a real future ahead of them.

Stray observations:

  • I think I managed a mention of every contestant but Nellie and Abraham into the above, who were both fine.
  • Tyler eventually clarified that it was due to a lack of comfort with his changing body that led to his dancing struggles, which makes total sense, but the way the show positioned it initially almost sounded like he was arguing that the transition specifically took away his rhythm, which seemed… dubious? Or is that something that legitimately happens?
  • Charlie was inoffensive as a performer, but I liked that he specifically identified the “Cheese Lamp” at the recording studio as the same lamp from season one. I always enjoy when contestants are revealed as fans of the show.
  • One other slight change that was pointed out to me on Twitter: Vocal coach Nikki Anders now takes part in the Last Chance Performance deliberations. Which, obviously, changes everything (Although I’d agree with my Twitter feed that it’s nice to see her gain a bit more agency in the process, as her opinions were often pointed last season).
  • The moment I was ingratiated to Michael was when he zipped through his spiel about being excited to work with Eric White as though he had listened to every single reality contestant spiel about a guest judge/celebrity. Dude knows what he is doing.
  • Beyond the on-the-nose symbolism, I thought the video was about where the show was last year, competency wise. The “Making Of” is always going to be the most interesting part, but I like seeing how the producers cut around things like Maxfield’s complete inability to look enthusiastic.
  • Speaking of Maxfield, his departure wasn’t a surprise, but I did find it interesting that his “overcoming adversity” story was just starting to sing six months ago. So, in other words, his comparable struggle to paralyzation was career indecisiveness.
  • Murphy specifically promises that there will only be one winner this season, which means it’s prediction time: Who’s taking it?
  • While I would rarely have this much to say, if there’s any interest in weekly coverage, this is your Last Chance Performance. I’m not convinced there’s something to say about it each week, but we’re not entirely closed off to the idea.

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