Glee it seems is the TV show of the moment, burning as brightly in the pop cultural landscape of 2010 as The OC did in 2004. Unlike the millions throughout the world who think Glee is the greatest show since… well the last popular TV show, I find it ever so infuriating. Its highs are downright fantastic, its lows so cringe worthy, they induce vomit in the back in my throat. About half through its first season I was ready to give up, but somehow I managed to hang on in there. After viewing yesterday’s finale, I realise this unevenness is what makes the show watchable.
The Glee soundtrack acts as a microcosm for the show. I’m a musical theatre fan from way back and count Rent as probably my favourite theatrical production of all time. However with Glee, the music acts as more of a marketing arm of the entire craze. Autotuned to high heaven, the songs are always produced within an inch of themselves. Sometimes this can work (See in order of musical greatness: here, here, here, and here), but more often than not the songs turn into utter disasters. For every Total Eclipse of the Heart, there is an Ice, Ice Baby. These songs are then placed outside the show’s context and on to ITunes to compete with the latest idiotic Katy Perry single for pop chart supremacy. Without context these songs lose all their pleasing qualities, as musical numbers are only supposed to service the plot to peek inside a character’s emotional state and extend it out into the audience.
The same dilemma occurs with the show itself. Sure it aims to be an inspiring musical about the trials and tribulations of a high school glee club, but beyond that the show remains confused about what type of show it wants to be. Is it a dark comedy? Or a teenaged moralistic fable, ala Degrassi with a choir? The show isn’t quite sure and neither is the viewer. It is here that the most enjoyable part of the show takes place, not within the show itself, but in the wider discussions of the episodes within a critical context. Television Critic for The A.V. Club Todd VanDerWerff even put forward his own theory midway through the first season to suggest that Glee is in fact three shows in one to explain his own frustrations:
Glee is unusual in two regards. It seems to be written entirely by its three creators – Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan – but all three of those creators also seem to have wildly different ideas of what the show is. Murphy, responsible for “Acafellas” and … “Vitamin D,” is most interested in making the show a funhouse mirror version of an afterschool special. Brennan, responsible for “The Rhodes Not Taken,” is most interested in the sadness buried down at the core of the show’s concept. And Falchuk, responsible for [Throwdown] and “Preggers,” still probably the best post-pilot episode, is most interested in pulling the two approaches together in a hybridized fashion while deepening the teenage characters on the show. (For the record, the three wrote the pilot and “Showmance” together.) I don’t doubt that the three creators all plot out where the show is going generally, as well as what’s happening in each episode, but where Brennan (on the scant evidence of one episode) mostly tries to avoid the soap opera plotting of Murphy’s show as much as he can, Falchuk tries to incorporate those verifiably insane moments while sticking with Brennan’s more emotionally realistic tone. I don’t imagine this is going to be a way the show can work going forward, but the three writers are somehow making all three of their different visions seem like they take place in the same universe, which means the show is still working. But just barely.
As the first season progressed, I become more and more convinced of this theory, and of the show’s bipolar nature, particularly with regards to its supporting characters. Naturally, I took an interest in Artie, the paralysed, wheelchair bound geek who finds a sense of purpose in joining the glee club. His character was superbly handled in the episode Wheels where he got his own storyline that was empowering, positive and encouraging for someone who doesn’t see a lot of physically disabled characters acting as positive role models on television. But by the time Artie’s storyline was revisited in Dream On, he had turned into a stereotypical pitiful, pathetic, cripple who longs to be able bodied. Where I was overjoyed in Wheels that my story was being told to a mainstream audience, I was downright outraged in Dream On that the same viewers were being told that my life was meaningless unless I could get up in a mall and do The Safety Dance
So what to make of Glee? It’s a middling show that doesn’t deserve the over hype its getting. Favourite TV critics of mine Myles McNutt and VanDerWerff give excellent overviews of the season in their reviews of the finale. The show may be groundbreaking and edgy, but the challenge for the writers next season is to find some solid New Directions for Season Two. Otherwise Glee may well be headed in the same place as Seth Cohen.