Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cartoonish, sordid, bawdy--and irresistible: Glee

Trust me to come late to any party. I've been hearing about the Broadway-goes-to-high-school Fox series Glee for over a year. Up until recently my aversion to TV programs that aren't BBC adaptations of 19th-century novels won out over my curiosity. Now that the complete first season is available on DVD, though, I've bowed to the inevitable.

Glee follows the fortunes of a high school glee club in a small midwestern city, and the format allows many opportunities for the cast (many of whom look like they haven't seen the inside of a high school classroom for a decade or so) to perform song and dance numbers. Unlike in most Bollywood movies or operas, in Glee musical numbers are usually diegetic. That is, when a character is singing and dancing, they're doing it in the context of an audition, a rehearsal, or a show that's actually happening in the world of the other characters. But like all musicals, Glee still offers the singing-in-the-shower fantasy of effortless performance. We see the performers going over a few dance steps, working on a couple of bars of music, and then the next thing we know, some Top 40 song or show tune standard has been reinvented in four-part harmony and synchronized gestures.

One reason four-part harmony and synchronized gestures don't happen spontaneously in my real life, apart from my lack of talent, is because they actually require hours of planning and grindingly repetitive rehearsal. Glee pretends to acknowledge the hard work that goes into that illusion of effortlessness, but in fact the rehearsal scenes are pretty cursory. Instead of watching our heroes practice under the critical eye of their director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), most of our time is spent learning the details of their lives. This being Fox, those details are often cartoonish or sordid. I'm going to betray my old-fogeydom here, but the script is amazingly bawdy for a show that's broadcast (at least for now) at the family-friendly time of 8 pm on Tuesdays. It's also amazingly funny, with the evil cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Emmy-winner Jane Lynch) getting many of the most cutting lines.

Glee also pretends to side with the misfits and outcasts against the popular kids, but in the first half-dozen episodes we spend far more time with the Glee Club queen Rachel (Lea Michele), the conflicted quarterback Finn (Cory Monteith), and the mean head cheerleader Quinn (Dianna Agron) than with Mercedes (the amazingly talented and criminally underused Amber Riley, who seems to be the only black person in the school), Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz, who similarly seems to be the only Asian person), Kurt (Chris Colfer, whose bullied gay teen is one of the few characters on the show who actually looks teenaged) or Artie (Kevin McHale, whose wheelchair-bound character could raise lots of interesting issues if he were allowed more than one line per episode). Having served their purpose—tokens and foils—they've been pushed into the background.

But there's no point in being curmudgeonly about Glee—it breaks down all resistance, not to mention rational thought. The creators of the show have an unerring instinct for the soundtrack of Midwestern young adulthood over the past three decades: Journey, REO Speedwagon, Queen, Bon Jovi. And the arrangements of these "classics," glee-club style, are both inherently funny and surprisingly effective. What does it say about me that I actually enjoy the Glee-ified rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'"? Nothing very good, probably.

Throw in cameos and special appearances by Broadway stalwarts like Kristen Chenoweth (an original cast member of Wicked), Idina Menzel (an original cast member of both Rent and Wicked), and Neil Patrick Harris (of the brilliant Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog), and it's a pretty irresistible cocktail. Yep—I'm addicted.

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