Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Glee: It's gonna be a bumpy ride

Glee has a wonderful premise for a show, and it happily lives up to the promise of that premise much of the time. Its combination of wicked humor, talented performers, the fertile setting of a high school glee club all combine to make a show that seems like it can't miss, right?

When it plays for farcical laughs, Glee is great, and when it adds songs that play off that energy, it's fantastic. However, most of the time, it doesn't do that. Glee has a big problem: it can't decide if it's Arrested Development with songs or Desperate Housewives with songs. There is a lot of melodrama. An excess of melodrama. Mostly involving babies. For several episodes in a row, the main plot was something involving one character's pregnancy. It's not terribly funny, and because we don't really know the characters, it's not terribly moving. It's like the Simpsons quote: "There is no moral, it's just a bunch of stuff that happened."

Glee is occasionally praised for its insane energy with regard to plots and subplots, but in the first season of a show, that can often mean burnout. It's occasionally compared to The O.C. and Grey's Anatomy, two shows that lost a lot of their drive early on, but it reminds me most of Battlestar Galactica. That too had a sensational pilot and first thirteen episodes, but it just moved so quickly that it forced the writers to come up with more and more outlandish things as the show moved on, eventually resulting in a near-complete collapse. Glee is moving faster and doesn't have as much of a core. At the rate it's going, it could be a disaster by the middle of the second season.

There is some hope, though, but only if the writers manage to pull it together. Glee focuses on the teachers and adults as people more than its teen-aged students, who only occasionally move beyond one-dimensional stereotypes into, well, two-dimensional stereotypes. If it takes some time and turns them into people instead of Wheelchair Guy or Asian Kid and Other Asian Kid, it should be able to take a deep breath and improve its quality. In roughly the same number of episodes, Freaks and Geeks managed to make its student characters three-dimensional and likable - Glee can too.

Second, Glee's music choices vary wildly, and they represent two different visions for the show. The first vision is of Glee as musical theater. This is when the show takes itself literally. A kid who's sad decides to sing a sad song. The plot exists to provide a vehicle for the characters to experience emotional swings, and sing about those swings.

I tend to get tired of Glee when it goes in this direction. The serialized nature of television, combined with the melodrama required to make the musical theater work, seems like it contrives to make every episode end on one character gazing longingly at another/into the distance, singing about how sad they are, while the energy required to maintain the melodrama simply cannot last. The songs also tend to be montages, and decidedly unrealistic in a way that musical theater just can't do.

The other version of Glee is a a comic show about musical theater. Much of the time, Glee works this way. The music is diegetic and, in order to work within the show, it has to resort to absurd and farcical situations. The best example of this is, of course, "Single Ladies:"

Making the show about a musical theater troupe, instead of musical theater itself, also allows for the occasional take-the-brakes off number, where hey! This cast is talented. Let's let them show just how damn talented they are, in exactly the kind of competition that glee clubs do. The final episode of the first 13, "Sectionals," finally allows Lea Michele and the rest of the cast to show off just how well they can sing.

I hope that Glee's show-runners get together and figure out just what kind of show they're doing, and go with it full-force. But that's just a hope. I expect that it'll burn out within a year or so. Which is unfortunate. Still, it's fun now, and it should be fun for a while.

1 comment:

Renaissance Poet said...

While I am getting sick of the baby drama, I do feel there is a rhyme and reason for the sad songs. In high school, I had so many moments--as many of us show choir geeks have--where I picked up my hairbrush and sang my broken heart out into the mirror. That's the emotional touchstone to the ballads; I can relate to the impulse and passion of the performers. Quite frankly, I think those are some of the most beautiful musical numbers- longing, loss, and pain.

However, the mediums of film and TV allow those questionable montages, where musical theater is more realistic. I wonder if the directors are using the montages in lieu of beautiful simple shots (a la Wong Kar Wai) because they just aren't talented enough cinematographers. Or if they believe that American TV audiences can't handle stillness for the length of a song.