The Glee Project—“GLEE-ality”

The Glee Project—“GLEE-ality”

While roughly on par with the first season in terms of entertainment value and casting, The Glee Project’s second season has built to an anti-climax since we checked in on the season premiere. Although the cast proved talented, and the switch to live vocals during the Homework round dramatically improved the overall quality of musical performances, the buildup to tonight’s finale left me entirely disinterested in who wins this competition. Perhaps this is a function of growing disillusioned with Glee itself, but it’s also a sense of frustration with another season so often determined by bizarre variables that never made any sense to me.

It seems unfair to complain about something I fully expected, but Ryan Murphy seeking to box contestants in based on their most clearly defined character traits made no more sense than it did last season. It made the season more comprehensible than last year, I will give him that: Nellie and Shanna, two contestants who gave consistently strong vocal performances, shouldn’t have been surprised to go home when they did. Nellie failed to express the proper amount of desire to be a part of Glee, not realizing that simply singing well wasn’t enough, while Shanna made the mistake of being too good for too long, giving Ryan Murphy plenty of time to learn the life stories of less successful contestants—who gave regular “Last Chance Performances” for him—while she remained a blank canvas (which, when you’re effectively running three shows simultaneously, is apparently just too much of a bother to fill in?).

I wasn’t particularly frustrated with either of those eliminations, to be honest—Nellie really did have trouble expressing an interest in the job (which you would judge someone negatively for in any job interview), while Shanna was talented but didn’t show enough range for me to feel as though an injustice had been done. Once you accept Murphy’s criteria, you can see how these two contestants should have made different decisions throughout the course of the competition; if Murphy is going to treat this as a job interview, you do kind of have to adjust to his expectations.

However, the peril of Murphy’s criteria is that it creates two separate spaces of disagreement. We can disagree about whether someone is talented within most reality singing competition shows, but here we can also disagree about whether a person’s life story makes for an interesting character idea. These basic subjectivities converged as the season went on, to the point where I found it difficult to root for any of the three contestants moving onto tonight’s finale given that none of them fit into both categories. Aylin’s personal story would be interesting if the writers didn’t keep reducing it to “Turkish Muslim with Strict Parents,” Ali’s narrative has never evolved beyond “Wheelchair Girl” (which is the show’s fault and not her own), while Blake is the definition of milquetoast. Meanwhile, while I’d argue Aylin is fairly talented, Ali’s personality and overly mannered vocal style frankly annoy me, and—outside of a single standout performance with Nellie—Blake has failed to offer a single defining moment for his ability as a singer. As a result, while I perhaps went into the finale with a slight lean toward Aylin, this was certainly not a case where I felt one of the contestants absolutely deserved to win.

Now, having said all of this, I thought “GLEE-ality” was kind of a hoot in spite of it all. As always, the musical performances were uniformly strong, and there was a party atmosphere surrounding the return of the other contestants that helped engender goodwill. Regardless of my cynical critical attitude toward the show’s larger project, it remains a fun hour of television most weeks, and while I would have liked to be more engaged in the result of tonight’s finale, I don’t think being disengaged dramatically impacted the quality of the episode. I still refuse to believe “GLEE-ality” is an actual thing, and I still stand strong in my belief that Ryan Murphy’s criteria for this show is fundamentally broken to result in this top three, but I think seeing people sing for a role on Glee remains a fun way to spend 40 minutes a week.

And, as noted above, it helps when the episode delivers both earnest pleasure and some unintended comedy. I generally don’t have strong opinions about Blake either way, but I was truly and honestly delighted that he chose Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” as his final performance song. It is such a wonderfully bland and boring pick that it completes his transformation into the generic male love interest in an ABC Family Original Movie. When he then proceeded to deliver some original poetry, it was like the icing on the cake, the "joie de vivre" that endeared him to me through the commitment it takes to establish such overwhelming but earnest dullness.

And yet Blake ends up winning The Glee Project because of this fact, which I found tremendously fascinating if not necessarily exciting (what with the dullness). The arguments for Ali and Aylin were both specifically tied to their personalities: Aylin’s Muslim background—which I am going to return to in a minute to discuss Charlie’s ineffable contribution to the episode—was a source of potential story material, while Ali’s infectious energy and attitude made her someone who stood out to many of the existing cast members in particular. However, what bolstered Blake’s chances was that he had no identity. When he revealed that he was half-Cuban in his poem—which despite my cynicism above was perfectly charming in the way earnest poetry can be—it was a revelation, and it made me wonder: Why didn’t Ryan Murphy latch onto his Cuban background? Was wasn’t his race the calling card that would define him for Ryan and the audience? Why was he continually pitched as a generic white dude when he is not, in fact, a generic white dude except for his ability to pass as one? The answer seemed to be that it was because it was to his benefit: While Aylin and Ali were sold as one-dimensional, boxed-in characters, Blake was adaptable, capable of playing any number of roles. You’d almost swear that he won because he was the best actor, someone capable of evolving beyond the story of their life to play a character on a television show.

It showed an odd reversal of Ryan’s general pattern, and a complete reversal from last season’s winners. It reminds me a lot of what would have happened if Lindsay had won Season One, actually: When she appeared on Glee, it was in a role that didn’t seem to be inspired by her, but rather a role that you could see her auditioning for and getting simply as a singer and actress. That didn’t happen with Damian or Samuel, and it wouldn’t have happened with Aylin and Ali, and it basically means that there’s a chance Blake’s character could be a real character with an identity beyond a logline. It is also possible that Blake becomes yet another generic white dude, or that Murphy retroactively decides to emphasize his Cuban heritage as opposed to his whiteness, but the idea that the writers haven’t already figured it out is itself a huge win for the series. I might have preferred Aylin on a personal level, but somehow, Blake’s complete lack of personality makes this a progressive and subversive choice for the series, which doesn’t make sense when I write it out like that but totally made sense in the moment.

And yet although Blake serenading us with “I’ll Be” was looking likely to be the most enjoyably over-earnest moment in this finale, Charlie was not to be outdone. His relationship with Aylin was the closest the show got to a real storyline this season—I’m not counting the Aylin/Lily feud, which felt trumped up—and his return resulted in a rekindling of their romance. This led to a brilliant moment where the camera cuts to Charlie as all of the writers and cast members are expressing their appreciation for Ali and Blake with no one speaking up for Aylin, and he’s dramatically turning his head around hoping someone—anyone—will speak up for her. Seeing no one, Charlie takes it on himself to be her champion, knowing that if he doesn’t she’s totally going to hang him out to dry when she sees this back on television; the result was this:

“Ryan, I think Aylin may not be the best actor. But you can get her there! What Aylin has the potential to do for you and this show is to take the bridge of fear and intolerance that has defined the post-9/11 decade in this country and burn it to the ground.”

While I have a lot of questions regarding his choice of metaphor—where is the bridge going? What does it connect? Doesn’t a bridge help people? Is the bridge made of wood? Who makes a bridge out of wood anymore? Can you burn a bridge to the ground if it’s above water?—and will readily admit I nearly fell off my couch laughing during this scene, it was also incredibly earnest and genuine and one of those cases where someone believing in the power of Glee to change lives is something other than cloying (even if that something is unintentionally hilarious). I still don’t believe that Aylin’s character would have done anything for the understanding of Muslim culture, and still have to think she dodged a bullet by not having to represent that culture within the reductionist worldview of the series, but in a weird way Charlie’s emotion nearly sold me on the project at the center of the series.

Would this be a better series if it delved more into the careers of each contestant and framed this as a documentary about kids who want to make it into the industry as opposed to kids who want to inspire millions of people and make their dreams come true? Absolutely. But after another affable season, The Glee Project comes to a satisfying conclusion that it’s tough to see as anything but logical: When all else fails, you pick the most generic performer with solid acting skills who’s easy to work with and who offers the most potential for playing a wide range of characters depending on your needs at a given time. Blake is not exciting, and I have no idea if he defines “GLEE-ality” because that is simply not a thing, but I’d ultimately argue that The Glee Project did a fairly good—if predictable—job of serving as a casting farm for a primetime television show, which is more than I can say for last season.

Season Grade: B

Finale Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • I was excited to see Nellie, and then less excited to see that the editors were seemingly less excited, as she barely had any screentime. She remains the most enigmatic performer from the season in my eyes, and I’ll be curious to see where she heads next.
  • I was getting a major Survivor vibe from the three finalists talking about how weird it was to be at the end, and I decided in the moment that every reality series would be better if the final three burned their home down before departing for the final stage of the competition.
  • In terms of the final performances, I thought Aylin was fairly solid on “Rolling In The Deep,” while Ali was trying way too hard to mimic Kristin Chenoweth—poor, poor, Kristin Chenoweth—that it did little to mitigate the annoying during “Popular.” For someone whose biggest problem was how utterly Broadway her performance persona is, even though the judges never suggested this was a problem, that song really didn’t do her any favors as far as versatility goes.
  • I know I made fun of “I’ll Be” above, but I know all the words, and got indignant when Blake didn’t do a little run on one of his last “I’ll be / love suicide”s. Unacceptable.
  • Chris Colfer didn’t seem particularly convincing in suggesting that “Everyone’s a winner!” in the homework assignment, but Darren Criss spun the hell out of his “Oh, and all of the contestants seated behind me were also unique and special and wonderful” moment. Dude’s a pro.
  • “He has that clumsy Finn factor, but he’s good.” — Zach Woodlee with a Cory Monteith BURN.
  • Curious to know if anyone is watching this show without watching Glee, and if Blake winning has any potential to get you to start watching.