Last week, in The Glee Project’s penultimate episode, the final four contestants were all forced to give “Last Chance Performances” for Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, two-thirds of the original writers and producers that brought Glee (if not always glee) into our lives two years ago.
After the performances were done, the contestants nervously walked the long walk across the practice room to the “Callback List,” the editors piecing together their reactions to eventually reveal the one person whose glance upwards would be met with their name under “Not Called Back.”
Of course, last week that moment never took place: In the spirit of indecision and positivity, Murphy and Brennan decided that everyone would be called back, inspiring a huge group celebration and denying us an overwrought, lipsynched performance of the second half of the chorus to Avril Lavigne’s inspirational dragon ballad, “Keep Holding On.”
Now, these moves are not entirely uncommon: FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance did the same thing in its first round earlier this summer, deciding to eliminate no one and just eliminate more contestants in the following week. However, these moves are always suspect, as the justification rarely fits the reality of the situation. The SYTYCD judges might have sworn up and down that this season’s dancers were just too talented to decide based on a single dance, but I didn’t have any trouble picking out the weaker couples, and I ended up being far less satisfied with the couples sent home the next week than those who had been “saved” from danger. In other words, that decision was made because the show wanted to project the idea its dancers were all simply too good to consider eliminating anyone, mostly to bolster their own egos.
With The Glee Project, this move was an extension of Ryan Murphy’s desire to use this show as an ideological platform as much as a reality competition series. Every episode has been built around an idea that is important to Glee, and what better way to transition into the finale than to emphasize that everyone deserves a second chance and that these contestants are all so tremendous that eliminating anyone would have been impossible?
Let’s ignore for a minute that two of the four remaining contestants have been living in the Bottom Three, constantly on the edge of elimination. Let’s also ignore for a minute that the other two remaining contestants have been more successful generally but have recently faced criticism for their limitations (including falseness and one-dimensionality). There was every justification for eliminating one of these contestants, and yet they chose to keep them all.
You may have noticed that I’ve yet to mention any of those contestants by name, and there’s a reason for this. The fact is that The Glee Project didn’t always show a great deal of interest in its contestants. Instead, it has been preoccupied with reinforcing what Glee is meant to represent, embodied by the theme of tonight’s episode being the made-up “Glee-ality.” As Samuel says when they’re preparing for tonight’s homework assignment, the point is not to be good: It’s to “be Glee.” Their goal isn’t to show Ryan Murphy who they are; it’s to show him that who they are is something that can be translated into Glee, which can be an entirely different thing.
It’s made for a moving target as the season has gone on, as we’ve watched Ryan Murphy search for the next contestant whose personality he could roughly translate into a character on a television show (that will be underserved and inconsistently deployed, going by precedents). There’s a point in the finale when Alex says he thinks he’d be a great character on Glee, but does that not sound weird to anyone else? It’s one thing to say that you’d be able to play a great character, but the comment suggests that he is that character. Later on, Robert Ulrich clarifies that Ryan is looking for someone he can write for, someone he can create a character for, and someone who can jump right into working on the show. While the first category is perhaps driven by each contestant’s personality, the others are dependent on skills and confirm that Murphy isn’t hiring a “character”: He’s hiring an actor and a singer, and that’s actually quite complicated. Plus, it’s made even more complicated by the fact that Murphy suggests that the most important criteria are the writers’ needs, something that the show hasn’t bothered to define outside of Murphy musing on a weekly basis on characters he’s wanted to create in the past (including a Christian character, for example).
“Glee-ality” isn’t particularly interested in solving this riddle, instead bringing back the eliminated contestants and using this last episode as a chance to return to key themes of togetherness, empowerment, and journey. “Don’t Stop Believing” is a logical homework assignment, a song that Murphy rightly identifies as definitive for the series, while the celebratory “Raise Your Glass” helps create a party atmosphere that reflects the bond that these contestants now share. By the end of the episode, it’s hard not to feel something for these contestants, and the Last Chance Performances really did feel like a culmination of a larger journey. Previous mentors returned to give standing ovations to every contestant, Zack Woodlee is so excited he can hardly sit still, and there’s this sense of pride in the auditorium that is more than a little bit infectious. It was the first time where it felt like The Glee Project was truly about its contestants, as opposed to the complicated mess that is Ryan Murphy’s Glee, and thus it was perhaps one of the most singularly enjoyable episodes of the show to date.
It was also, however, complete and utter bullshit. If I thought last week’s non-elimination was bad, the reveal of the winner was even more ridiculous: After "eliminating" Lindsay and Alex, Murphy reveals that Samuel is the winner of a seven-episode guest arc before waiting two minutes to reveal that Damian is also the winner of a seven-episode guest arc, and then continues on to explain that Lindsay and Alex will be receiving two-episode guest arcs. The result is exactly what the show was looking for: Four young performers on a stage drowned in confetti looking around with either jubilation or awe at the life-changing situation they’ve found themselves in.
Now, to be fair, this bullshit made for great television. Damian’s reaction, in particular, was an extension of his likeable presence throughout the series, as his initial humble and gracious defeat is turned into utter disbelief as he learns that he, too, has become a part of the Glee cast. As everyone celebrates around him, the camera catches him just standing there taking it all in, and there’s something strikingly honest about that moment. In fact, it seems awkward when the show starts intercutting between taped interview sound bytes and the on-stage celebrations, because the latter are tremendously powerful and don’t really need to be explained in any great detail. As many problems as the show’s premise might have, seeing Damian on that stage soaking in his victory was immensely satisfying, a distillation of what Glee manages at its finest: Transcendent moments of human emotion amidst a glossy and overproduced environment.
I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting that The Glee Project has been the strongest reality series of the summer, and I would agree with one large caveat. In my view, The Glee Project has been strong in spite of its best efforts to be weak, as the show has consistently undermined its basic strengths. I wish that networks were still interested in reality television that hearkens back to the documentary and that The Glee Project could have aimed for authenticity rather than marketability. It’s the same advice I would have for Glee, but it’s almost more frustrating with The Glee Project because it was much closer to capturing it. The contestants felt like real people, both in their interviews and in their performances, which is why it was so frustrating for them to be subjected to Ryan Murphy’s grandstanding at the end of each episode; by comparison, when it happens to fictional characters, it’s somewhat more palpable (if no more satisfying).
If the show returns for a second season, which seems likely, given that the show was prompting viewers to audition toward the end of the episode (albeit without outright confirming a renewal), this needs to change. We need to learn more about each contestant, and we need to see the contestants outside of the confines of the reality competition engine that the producers have installed. The show could spend more time on the audition process, introduce a bit more diversity into the challenges (including some pure acting challenges, for example, to further address the different skills on display here), or simply just give less time to Ryan Murphy sitting in judgment and more time to the contestants experiencing the ups and downs of auditioning for a hit television show. Don’t give us Nikki Anders’ or Zach Woodlee’s summary of how an event went: Show us the event, and let the contestants share their own feelings about it. It’s their show, at the end of the day, and letting them own it is the best way to capitalize on this year’s success.
It would also help clarify why this show exists. It isn’t, just to be clear, in order to find new cast members for Glee: That would be more logically done within a traditional casting process, which doesn’t require this much effort or this much time. However, it shouldn’t be to reinforce the show’s message of tolerance and positivity, which is a shallow goal that grew more shallow as the season wore on and Murphy’s media comments began to seep into the text. No, the goal of The Glee Project should be highlighting how young performers with a dream receive an opportunity of this magnitude and how their character is tested by the challenging tasks placed before them. In other words, The Glee Project shouldn’t really be about Glee. Our interest in this show might fuel our interest in the one that spawned it, and it might therefore prove a valuable extension of the franchise, but it needs to be allowed some room to breathe for that to happen.
I am not convinced that Damian and Samuel are going to be a great fit on Glee: Damian’s crooner style is pretty narrow, while Samuel’s acting generally ranged from “sort of intense” to “somewhat intense” in any given episode. Damian is charming, and Samuel does have a certain allure (even if I don’t see it myself), but those seem like thin pegs for Glee to hang its hat on. However, the best way to enjoy The Glee Project is to acknowledge that it has its own hat entirely. Forgetting for a moment the long-term ramifications of casting untrained actors for substantial arcs on your major network television show and framing this instead as young people aspiring to something life-changing and spectacular, tonight’s finale concluded a season that I’d consider likeable and entertaining. While it must deal with the baggage of its parent program and dealing with it proved a distraction throughout the season, The Glee Project was at its best when you could forget about the prize and focus instead on the journey.
If Murphy and Ulrich can find a way to dial down the Glee-infused “Up with People” theatrics and if the other producers can find a way to make the show feel more down-to-earth and less slickly produced, The Glee Project has the basic ingredients to be a really excellent piece of reality television; as it stands, it was a fine way to spend an hour a week in the summer.
Finale Grade: B+
Season Grade: B
- Admittedly, now that the show is over, my attention turns to the prize. I’m immensely curious to see to what degree the show calls attention to their Glee Project past (perhaps having them audition with songs they performed on the series?), given that most Glee viewers likely haven’t watched this series. I’m also interested in whether Lindsay and Alex appear as lead vocalists for rival schools or whether they’re given parts that showcase their acting skills (which isn’t something the show has done very often). It’s not something that’s ever really been done before, so I’ll be watching closely to see how the writers’ room handles it.
- Interesting to see how people have been discussing that both The Glee Project and the Glee 3D concert movie are in some ways more consistent and more satisfying than the show itself, as they are able to avoid the worst excess of the parent show. As a critic, I find Glee much more interesting than either of the spinoffs (I have no interest in the concert film, just like most viewers, according to the box office results), but I can see why some would enjoy this show and not Glee itself.
- The other cast members, in pointing out the benefits of the various contestants, twice suggested they could serve as foils for existing contestants. I really hope that this isn’t what the show has planned creatively, as that just seems like a really dull idea. By comparison, however, I hope Ian Brennan follows through on Brittany not understanding a word Damian says: That was gold.
- I wonder how early on they figured they would be casting more than one role. From the beginning? When they saw the talent? Only in the final weeks? I’m guessing Murphy is avoiding interviews for a while, but maybe Ulrich can offer some perspective.
- Nikki Anders hasn’t been afraid to criticize contestants behind their backs, and she hasn’t exactly pulled punches when speaking to their face, but her absolute smackdown of Damian was incredibly harsh. It made his eventual victory that much sweeter after Nikki suggested he wasn’t the best at, well, any of the criteria they were judging on a weekly basis. The power of intangibles, it seems, won out over her defeatism (as she herself sort of predicted, but without sounding less bitchy when doing so).
- I normally thought the Last Chance performances were pretty dull, but I thought Lindsay and Alex had particularly memorable performances. Of course, they both “lost,” but that’s the nature of such a bizarre competition. This definitely didn't end up being a singing competition, that's for sure.