Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Eight episodes into the first season.
Warning: Glee causes whiplash. The high school show choir dramedy will be clever and witty and sensitive and fresh, and then, a moment later, it will be stupid and unfunny and cruel and clichéd. Then it will launch into a musical number so energetic and charming that you forgive the bad stuff, and then the bad will take a truly ugly turn, and you wonder how you ever thought it was good enough to make up for that. The choir’s hyperspeed cover of Beyoncé’s “Halo” mashed against “Walking on Sunshine”—yay! The choir teacher’s deeply uncomfortable cover of Sisqo’s “Thong Song”—boo! Awesome, bizarre humor involving Jane Lynch advocating caning and prancing around in a zoot suit—yay! Stupid, bizarre humor involving the football team being coached to dance, literally dance, in the middle of a play—boo! A poignant, beautifully acted scene in which a gay teenage boy comes out to his father—yay! Yet another nasty, misogynistic scene in which an impossibly shrewish woman browbeats her impossibly saintly husband—boo!
Assessing Glee means weighing the good against the bad, and I, at least, have yet to get the scale to stay still long enough to take its measure. The show bewilders me, delights me, and disgusts me—and even when I stop hating it long enough to love it, I feel a little bit dirty about doing so. But I keep watching. It has me hooked. That has to count for something, I guess.
Glee centers around a show choir made up of a few misfits at the bottom of their high school’s social food chain. The choir’s new teacher, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), tries to bolster their numbers—and their reputation—by recruiting (i.e., blackmailing) football quarterback Finn (Cory Monteith) to join, much to the delight of the choir’s high-strung star, Rachel (Lea Michele), who has a crush on him. Meanwhile, psychotic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Lynch) fears a successful choir will draw funding away from her award-winning team and vows to sabotage Mr. Schuester’s efforts, using head cheerleader Quinn (Dianna Agron), Finn’s girlfriend, as a mole into the choir’s world o’ singing and dancing.
There’s more, much of it melodramatic and kind of insane (creator Ryan Murphy is also responsible, after all, for the truly whacked out Nip/Tuck), but what mystifies me is how much of it concerns not the students but the teachers and their pitiful love lives. Will is married to his high school “sweetheart,” the monstrously selfish Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), to whom he is devoted, despite carrying on a chaste flirtation with germaphobic guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays). Will and Emma are perfect for each other, of course, but Terri casts a long shadow, especially after she begins faking a pregnancy, egged on by her even more monstrous sister, Kendra. None of this makes any sense (how in the world could a small, thin woman convince the man with whom she shares a home and a bed that she’s carrying a child?), but for some reason, it’s one of the overarching plots of the show. We return to it again and again, and it’s not fun. It’s mean-spirited and mind-bogglingly stupid. (Seriously. I’ve also sheepishly been watching The Vampire Diaries, and I can more easily suspend my disbelief with regard to blood-sucking creatures of the undead than with this faux pregnancy nonsense. Ugh.)
What’s more, the Will-Terri-Emma triangle—quadrangle, if you count football coach Ken Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher), who nurses a hopeless crush on Emma—is one of the many story elements that carries the unpleasant suggestion that most of the world’s problems can be laid at the feet of manipulative, self-absorbed white women who blithely take advantage of the well-meaning men in their lives. Emma and Rachel might not be half as malevolent as Sue, Terri, and Kendra, but they, too, fit that rough profile. I can’t imagine that the show’s writers sat down and decided to make evil women a recurring theme, but it’s sort of fallen out that way, which is truly disappointing, considering all the squandered potential here: the students. Why can’t there be more plot lines for them?
Instead, most of the students spend most of their time embodying descriptions on a casting list: sassy black girl, sassy gay boy, blond cheerleader, brunette cheerleader, bad-boy lothario, boy in wheelchair, goth Asian girl. Occasionally, they get the chance to transform into someone with more than one dimension. Sassy black girl becomes Mercedes (Amber Riley), who gets to display real vulnerability and humanity—and who gets a killer dream-sequence musical number with “Bust Your Windows”—but after one brief episode in the spotlight, her plot is abruptly disposed of and she’s back to being a featureless sassy black girl so that we’ll have time to watch Terri blackmail her obstetrician.
Surely—surely—the Glee writers must realize by now how stupid this kind of plotting is. At one point, the school principal names Sue co-director of the choir as a punishment for Will (don’t ask—it involves Terri), and Sue takes the opportunity to turn the minority students against their beloved Mr. Schuester by pointing out how they’re always stuck singing back-up to Rachel, Finn, and Quinn. Clearly Sue doesn’t have their best interests at heart, but what’s truly uncomfortable about that episode is that she’s right. If the storytelling with Rachel and Finn and Quinn were well done, there would be that, at least, but it’s not. The plot careens forward, stalls, and doubles back, with inconsistent characterizations from episode to episode, and now that Terri has discovered that Quinn is pregnant and doesn’t want to keep the child, the student love triangle has become entangled in the Idiotic, Interminable Plot from Hell.
So if I hate Glee so much, why am I watching? Because I love it, too. The storytelling might be crap, but the writing, on a line-by-line basis, throws out some snappy-sharp one-liners and howlingly funny non sequiturs and the occasional genuinely touching moment. Jane Lynch is a comedic genius with brilliant comic timing, and her rabid Coach Sue is a hoot. Lea Michele is a show choir diva of the very best sort (she originated the role of the Naive, Vulnerable Waif, better known as Wendla, in Spring Awakening, but I don’t hold that against her), and her empassioned performance of Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” made me adore both her and the gorgeously bitter ballad.
In fact, the musical numbers are generally well arranged and performed (if sometimes a bit over-produced and over-reliant on Auto-Tune). The show’s producers have lined up a shockingly strong, diverse selection of songs—everything from Kanye West to Queen to Jill Scott to Neil Diamond to Broadway musicals—and have attracted a few great guest stars. The always incredible Kristin Chenoweth appeared in one episode to perform, among other things, “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret (eeeee!!), and I hear Michele’s former Spring Awakening costar Jonathan Groff has a multi-episode arc later this season.
Maybe Groff’s appearance is evidence that the writers are planning to move toward more student-centric plots—please, please, please. The rivalry between Will and Sue is fun, and Emma is cute enough, but that’s plenty. So please, writers: Ditch Terri, and focus on the kids. Give bad-boy lothario Puck (Mark Salling) something to do. Learning eight episodes in that Salling has a rich, slightly gravelly voice—far better than Monteith’s nasal, boy-band whine—is a travesty. Give sassy gay boy Kurt (Chris Colfer) a damn story arc. Colfer has nailed every actual scene you’ve given him, and he deserves much more material. Same goes for sassy black girl Mercedes. Riley, too, has proved that she can move far past cliché given the opportunity. No doubt wheelchair boy Artie (Kevin McHale) and goth Asian girl Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) have potential, too. (Ushkowitz is another Spring Awakening alum, for god’s sake.) Take the time to introduce them to us!
I really want Glee to work. At its best, underneath all the glorious silliness and appalling hideousness, the show captures high school with real poignancy—that flickering suspicion that these really might be the best days of your life, and if they are, that’s not good enough. Despite the title, there’s real sadness here, but not in a hopeless way. At its best, Glee understands that even something as silly and frivolous as show choir, if you love it enough, if it gives you a chance to share your heart—even show choir can ward off the quiet desperation. Why settle for a musical Melrose Place? This could be a musical Freaks and Geeks! The talent is there, if only Murphy and his writers get their act together long enough to bring out the harmony.