Glee premieres tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT. Or whenever Idol gets over.
The best television shows construct highly specific, highly detailed worlds they exist in. This is the crucial difference between, say, Seinfeld, with its very particular spin on New York, and most every other Seinfeld clone. It's what used to separate the original C.S.I., with its borderline hallucinatory Las Vegas, from all of its spinoffs. And it's what sets apart something like The Wire, which is so deliberate and exacting in its setting that by the time you finish it, you feel as though you, too, live in Baltimore. A television show is all about establishing a unique place the audience will visit week after week and just the right characters, themes and stories to inhabit that place. Don't do that, and you risk viewer apathy.
So while Fox's Glee, debuting tonight in a weird "special preview" strategy then going away until the fall, is far from perfect, it does two things right: It suggests that its spin on the high school dramedy, while not original by any means, is going to offer a new perspective on stories we've seen before, and it basically wears down any objections you have to it by smiling a lot and putting on an entertaining show (that's meant as a compliment).
At this point, Glee kind of feels like a series that debuted three years ago to huge critical acclaim, aired a number of adored episodes, then courted a sizable critical backlash rather than something that's just debuting tonight, but that's the price of Fox's incessant promos for the show and the instant reaction factor of the TV blog-o-sphere. To that end, it may feel a little disingenuous to say Glee is neither as good as you've heard nor as bad as you might have feared. The pilot, indeed, is very, very good, the best network pilot in a good long while, and its most major flaws are of the sort where you end the episode worried that they'll be able to balance the show in a believable and interesting way, rather than of the sort that leave you nitpicking the show's very essence.
Glee, despite its smalltime high school show choir trappings, feels huge. The ensemble bounces from the kids in the show choir to their friends to their teachers to those teachers' friends and significant others. The story seems to take up nearly a month of the characters' lives. The tone veers wildly from camp to satire to achingly earnest sincerity, and the whole thing cribs style points, seemingly at random at first, from high school TV show and movie sources as divergent as Freaks and Geeks, Election and Friday Night Lights. This makes the pilot's first ten minutes almost a chore to swallow, as it tries to cram every possible plot point and character into the narrative in a way that feels cluttered. It doesn't help that you've seen, literally, all of this before. Did you know the popular kids don't get along with the losers? Well, Glee is happy to inform you, they don't.
If you can make it through that with a few ounces of goodwill left for the show, however, it starts to deepen and enrich its universe almost immediately from there on out. There's essentially no good way to do an original teen drama anymore, so every new teen drama just tosses a few new elements into the mix and hopes for the best. Glee's betting on large-scale musical numbers that start as laughs (a rival show choir covers "Rehab") and turn into plot commentary. Creators Ryan Murphy (he of Popular and Nip/Tuck), Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan use this conceit – of small-town kids longing to perform, to be famous – to provide all sorts of meta-commentary both on the desire for fame and the ways it can cripple. And this is where the show begins to unveil how both its world and its characters are deeper than they first appear.
The show choir sprung up first in the Midwest (in Indiana of all places), seeming to respond to an innate need in kids who lived in the middle of nowhere but wanted to perform and then giving them a place to do it. It, of course, spread, but the major show choirs are still based in the Midwest (the one in my region growing up was the somewhat inexplicably named “Friend de Coup”). For many show choir participants, this is the biggest chance they’ll ever get to perform in something approaching a Broadway caliber show, and many who leave high school and go off into the world, failing to find something similar to take part in, find themselves as disappointed at the turn of their lives, the difficulty of chasing dreams, as the storied high school quarterback gone to seed.
Indeed, where Friday Night Lights uses the Dillon Panthers to suggest the ways small towns can rally around seemingly insignificant things to build new communities, Glee uses the show choir at the pilot’s center to muse on how frustrating it would be to be hyper-talented and stuck in Lima-frickin’-Ohio, a place where no one would appreciate such a thing. It’s also wise both about the ways we limit our own dreams and, even more crucially, the ways they can limit us. Sure, there’s a big song-and-dance climax, but on the way there, lead character Will, a teacher obsessed with restoring the show choir to recapture an ounce of his faded glory, has moments when he pretty much seems like a complete nutball, hellbent on remembering who he was and forgetting who he’s become. Broadway vet Matthew Morrison manages to play all of these shades ably. He even gets to sing, and though it feels completely shoehorned in, Morrison’s voice is so nice that you’ll be willing to give that element a pass.
The cast, in general, is terrific, and as the episode goes on, they find similarly subtle shadings in their characters (in a way that might have seemed impossible in the episode’s early going). Lea Michele (another Broadway vet) and Cory Monteith are both agreeable and a little desperate for an outlet as the show choir’s central two singers (Monteith’s character is also on the football team, and if you guessed that he would be forced to choose between his football player friends and his new show choir friends, Glee has a few fun door prizes for you on your way out). The long underused Jayma Mays finds intriguing hints of sorrow in a character that could have been completely irritating. And Jane Lynch is, of course, hilarious, though she only pops up here and there, like a secret comedic weapon.
The show’s biggest misstep comes from how it treats Will’s wife, Terri, played by Jessalyn Gilsig. Gilsig’s a more than capable actress, but she seems to bounce from shrill female stereotype to shrill female stereotype, and while there are hints here that she may turn out to be something more than she seems (particularly in a late scene where she makes an announcement that feels sadder than it should), for the most part, she’s just that stereotypical Wife Who Is Holding the Main Character Back. Tightly wound wives who are obsessed with shopping, cleanliness and/or crafts are a dime-a-dozen nowadays and fairly offensive as a character type. Terri, to the show’s discredit, is obsessed with all three.
The other big pitfall here is the name most being used to promote the show. Ryan Murphy, while a fine, fine writer and director when he wants to be often gives in to his own worst impulses when running a show. Popular was always a little too clever by half, choosing not to create a world but, instead, to just leech off of other worlds and make fun of them. And Nip/Tuck, which started promisingly, just turned into a mess fairly rapidly. There are indications here of the unsteady hand that pushed those shows too hard, and it’s tempting to prematurely worry that the series is going to founder on the rocks of too much camp or gobs of soap opera or dialing down on the heartfelt sincerity and crushing sense of desperation that makes the rest of the wildly divergent stuff hang together. There are plot points introduced late in the show that seem destined to be mishandled down the line, simply because of Murphy’s previous track record. Even as he seems to be trying to keep himself in check, it’s an uneasy balance, and it may prove unsustainable.
But you know what? I’m not sure any of that matters. Glee is the kind of show that builds to a climax so improbable (how did these kids get so good so fast?) that it washes away your objections to it almost as soon as you can formulate them. It is decidedly not going to be for everyone, and I suspect it will always have its detractors (in the way, say, Buffy did) as opposed to something universally loved like Freaks and Geeks. At its best, though, as it is for much of its pilot, Glee is a show that knows what it is to be stuck with no idea of how you’re going to get going. It’s a show that knows the anticipation of the curtain going up, the excitement of the spotlight flickering on.
- Hey, look, I got through that and we didn’t address the elephant in the room. Despite both properties being musicals set in high school and featuring jocks who just wanna sing, Glee could not be more tonally dissimilar from High School Musical if it tried.
- Because the pilot is so huge, there are characters here who are basically extras in the episode but are series regulars. To that end, I’m most intrigued to see what happens with Finn’s cheerleader girlfriend, who’s also head of the abstinence club. I sure don’t see a new way to play this material, but I’m willing to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, all of the non-leads in the show choir will need some additional shading in the weeks to come.
- OK, I know the “Don’t Stop Believin’” routine is not THAT difficult, but it does seem surprisingly polished for kids who just started doing this. I will grant you that. At the same time, I’m not sure Glee, with its “Let’s clean out the gym and put on a show!” spirit, needs to be wholly realistic in its musical sequences.
- And with that, Glee (and any AV Club coverage of same) bids you adieu until the fall, when it will return with a re-edited pilot and 12 additional episodes.