Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Take a Bow, "Glee"; You're All Washed Up

You have to hand it to Fox's marketing department on this one. There was not a particularly large amount of people who watched the "Glee" series premiere when it aired a few months ago but, more likely than not, you heard someone chatting up the show over the summer. Fox slipped in the pilot episode of the series at the end of the spring and, quite purposefully, made the episode ubiquitous on the internet over the summer. As is typical whenever a big media company tries to harness the power of the internet, the results were mixed. On the upside, Fox created a moderately-sized crowd of incredibly devoted followers with only one episode. (In a quickly shrinking industry, that is cause for celebration.) On the downside, they had created demand for a product that had yet to materialize, with no indication that it ever would.

Those who praised the series' pilot heard more than they saw. The first episode is rife with classic songs, many of which are preformed by the show's talented a cappella singers. It was good stuff – their cover of "Don't Stop Believin'" deservedly sold quite well on iTunes. The time spent between those songs (you know, the story), on the other hand, was altogether different.

It is quite difficult to describe the story of "Glee." No, not because it is particularly complex, or anything; it is simply hard to elaborate on the actions of something that merely... lies there and twitches. Even within the introductory episode, the series' writers display a marked inability to identify a theme, character or plotline and then develop it to any satisfactory degree. On paper, you could say that the show is about Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison), a lost, young teacher, who finds new meaning in his career when he assembles a group of outcasts to form an underdog show choir.

Yet, even a premise so woefully trite as this one seems to be above this show's abilities. Why he is so lost is never quite established – sure, his wife is a bitch, but he does not really seem to mind when it counts; he is utterly oblivious to the cute coworker grovelling for his attention. Despite the fact that he draws obvious joy from working with the choir, he still ruminates on whether or not he should really be doing it – he goes off and joins a boy band in one episode – again, raising the question of what, exactly, his problem is, but never answering it. The choir is supposed to be a collection of lovable oddballs, but few of them get more than a line or two (this persists for episodes at a time with some of them), so they remain shallow stereotypes. Furthermore, a major character in the show is the boisterous cheerleading coach, played by Jane Lynch. She is quite funny, but if you know her typical character (dryly creepy and full of glib monologues), you know how out of place she would be in an ostensibly uplifting musical comedy.

This is, after all, the most serious issue plaguing "Glee" – tone. The show wildly banks from sappy to smug to earnest to downright mean from scene to scene. Narrative deficiencies could be overlooked a bit more easily if it was all brought together by some sort of overriding feeling, but "Glee" consistently fails to achieve such cohesion. The cheerleading coach, for example is willing to see her team succeed at any cost and she often makes some of the show's darkest quips when criticizing her cheerleader's bodies. This is an obvious bit of satire, but it proves incongruous in a show that is usually much lighter. At the same time, Rachel (Lea Michele), the choir's lead singer is a deeply insecure girl who is actually bulimic. Her character is usually played quite earnestly (many soulful solos come from her) but, whenever the subject of her bulimia is raised, Rachel brushes it off with a joke and whatever given adult she is speaking to pretty much goes right along with it. Such attempts to be both dark and light at the same time result in many moments that are just plain ugly.

A similar example came last week, in what was actually the show's strongest episode yet. I say it was the strongest not because it was particularly good, but because it did manage to glaze over some gaping plotholes and a bizarre message with a fairly consistent tone. The show's token gay character, Kurt (Chris Colfer), wants to prove to his judgmental father that he is actually straight. (He was revealed as being closeted the week before. I laughed out loud at this, as he is an egregious gay stereotype. Yet, I was okay with this, as it was an attempt to deepen the character, if not a terribly good one.) He does so by joining the football team and kicking field goals to the tune of Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies." (Yes, he dances up to the ball.)

Once such a performance wins the team a game, his father grudgingly resigns to the fact that his son is gay. Kurt sheds a tear and they hug. (You heard it here first: It is okay to be gay as long as you do something stereotypically straight in your own, stereotypically gay way. Inspiring.) Despite the concerning, strange message, the plotline benefits from a consistently light, yet genuine tone.

The rest of the episode is a different story. Kurt teaches the entire football team to dance in the process of winning over his dad? This is not entirely absurd, as many football players do, indeed, study dance, in order to improve their agility. The problem, here, is that the football team has already had its brush with performance art, rejected it and went back to being a bunch of stereotypical douches. In episode three, their alpha dog joined the boy band mentioned above – do not ask – but, in this episode, the boy band is defunct, and the alpha dog is back to calling dancing "gay." Character develo-what?

This episode also has a deathly serious subplot that clashes with the main plot as much as it does itself. A cheerleader is pregnant and she chooses to keep the baby, ensnaring her boyfriend in a lifetime of child support, despite fact that it is really his best friend's baby. (Sorry, did I switch to ABC Family, here?) The solution to her problems presents itself in the form of Mr. Schuester's bitchy wife. She wants to take the baby, so that she can lend some truth to the fabricated pregnancy she has been using to prevent the man from leaving her. As screwed up as the wife's plotline is, it is generally played for laughs. Yet, the writers see fit to have it intersect with the cheerleader's very serious plotline. Add in the score, featuring the a smug, a cappella rendition of a death march and you have a tonal train wreck. (And, uh, why is a supposedly upbeat show so comfortable with being seedy and amoral?)

If these are the only heights that "Glee" has managed to reach over the course of four episodes, it is clear that this show has already overstayed its welcome. There is simply nothing at its core. I, along with many others, wanted "Glee" to work – anything that is not a cop drama gets my support at first – but its consistent sloppiness exposes it for what it is: the work of ad men. Everyone knows that musicals are the rage right now and, one day, some suit at Fox clearly stood up and pointed this out. When all that a show has going for it is a huge budget (securing music rights is not cheap, folks) and a shrewdly executed ad campaign, it comes in lieu of a story. Sadly for the makers of "Glee," a TV show needs a story. Hoping that fans will continue to fill in the gaps with their own desire to see a good show will not carry it much further. With such soulless writing, something tells me that, ultimately, few people will miss it, anyway.

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