Thursday, 10 June 2010

Glee: The Most Frustrating Show on Television?

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.


  1. I'm glad for that review actually. I've only seen one episode bu enjoyed it. I've been considering buying the first season, but I can't find anyone willing to watch it with me. (I watch so little television that me chances of me choosing to watch it alone are hugely unlikely.)
    My reasons for wanting to watch it are my LOVE of musical theatre! Do you think it would be worth investing my time?

    Also kudos on Rent as your choice of favourite. It's been my favourite since before I actually understood the storyline- as a 9-year-old I thought that "Would you light my candle" was sooo romantic (LOL).

  2. Oh yay, another theatre geek. Perhaps hire it out at the video store to see if you like it, I'm pretty noncomittal, but its worth watching for your namesake character alone if you're into musical theatre/

    I seeriously burst out laughing at the 'Light My Candle' comment! :D

  3. Great assessment! I also wrote a post (check it out here: about Glee, or more specifially, Tuesday's finale and why I enjoyed it- the music. I think that although we all approach it differently, we're pretty much saying the same thing. The show itself is a rollercoaster- there are moments that are good and then it starts to suck. After the season 2 premiere, I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue watching but although the storyline is often cheesy and all over the place, I come back for the music (which can be hit or miss as well).
    Anyway, I like your writing style and will be following along.

  4. I largely agree with your assessment of the show. The one statement that encapsulates my feelings about the show is when you said "Is it a dark comedy? Or a teenaged moralistic fable, ala Degrassi with a choir?" I'm so confused by the show. Like a trainwreck, I'm mortified by it, yet I can't look away. I come back week after week based solely on the potential of the show. I tune in just to see if they'll get it right this week. It's kind of like my obsession with Heroes. I don't know what it is with me and these mediocre shows lately. Specifically the two I just mentioned. I mean, the premise behind them is great and the pilot and the first few episodes, but like an open bottle of soda they just seem to fall flat after a while. Maybe because in the beginning they had something to prove, but after a while they just ended up pandering to their audience. But somehow these shows lost their way. I've seen very few shows that start strong and end strong. What I liked about this show was partially it's similarity to a show I used to watch back in the '90s called "Popular". I like the darker side of the high school life. And I felt like, in the beginning, this show was making fun of the "high school musicals" of the world. But, I dunno... Too much Lea Michele and them killing the fake pregnancy storyline too soon (among other things) killed the show. Fortunately, the premise of the show is so good that I am will continue tuning in just to find out if they will "get it right this time".

  5. Thanks Griper for your comments and the follow. I will head over to your blog and check out your thoughts. Dutch, its interesting that you mention Popular, because I assume you know that the creator of Glee, (Ryan Murphy) also created that show. I was a big fan and believe that it was hugely underrated. I miss Mary Cherry! Further to both your comments, I believe Glee has become a victim of its own marketing. and as Dutch points out it ends up pandering to its audience rather than telling great stories (i.e. the Madonna episode) Thanks to you both once again for your insightful comments.