Fox TV’s Glee began its formal run two weeks ago, after attracting a great deal of buzz from its summer premiere teaser. And rightly so. Produced by Ryan Murphy, the creator of the much racier but equally off beat and refreshingly bizarre series Nip/Tuck, Glee’s pleasures come from its characters’ slightly insane quirks and the actors’ fully committed, somehow fully tongue-in-cheek performances. The smart writing creates plausible but slightly skewed situations as, for only one instance, when Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), the African American diva/belter, (“Effie,” as in Dreamgirls, as a snide subsidiary character calls her) yearns to have a boyfriend and actually thinks she can hook up with Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), the obviously gay chorus boy. Their cross-purposed relationship quickly fails, but offers the kids (and Murphy) a chance to underline the series’ “I’m okay/you’re okay and it’s good to be different” message.
Somehow, the relatively obvious and insistently repeated moral of each episode so far doesn’t feel heavy-handed or get stale, in part because it, too, is delivered with just the right satirical touch, as though Murphy is poking open fun at all those movies in which the “believe in yourself and your dreams” motto is dragged out for the inspirational ending. Each episode of Glee trades in these platitudes satirically enough that you’re encouraged to respond both cynically and sincerely. Glee’s fun comes from its willingness to find earnestness endearing and necessary, rather than allowing the forces of skepticism and apathy to win out.
The narrative threads that develop these meanings are predictable, but always just wrong enough to point out how absurd they’ve always been, not just here in Glee but in any film or TV show that continues to want us to invest in the “follow your dreams” kind of truth. For instance, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) the hunky but soft and vaguely feminine quarterback who sings like a dream and joins glee club despite his teammates’ fear for his masculinity, might easily remind viewers of the Zac Efron character in the High School Musical films.
Finn, though, is taller and has more bulk, which ironically makes his performances that much more fey. He anchors the club, which consists of a Bad News Bears-style assemblage of mis-matched singers and dancers. Along with the African American diva, Mercedes, and Kurt, the drama queen she thinks she can seduce, glee club includes Artie McAdams (Kevin McHale), a young man in a wheelchair, who rolls and does wheelies while others do their steps; Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), an Asian-American young woman who stutters; and Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), a serious singer who’s in love with Finn and an outsider to the more popular cheerleader crowd that rules McKinley High where the series is set. Rachel, the character’s on-line bio notes, has two fathers.
In fact, Glee flaunts its incipient queerness quite happily. Stephen Tobolowsky performs in a recurring role as Sandy, a proudly swishy teacher who wears pastels and a sweater constantly tied around his shoulders. In the premiere,Sandy was fired for fraternizing with an under-aged male student, but in a recent episode, he returns to McKinley High, since the restraining order requires only that he stay 50 feet away from students. Sandy’s more flamboyant over-the-top middle-aged gayness contrasts nicely with Kurt’s teenage queer style. Although these two are the only explicitly queer characters, Glee addresses in many ways how masculinity is performed and what it means, and each character, happily, stretches the envelope of normativity.
The series’ tone is colored with wistfulness, since the glee club at McKinley High is lead by the tenacious and idealistic Spanish teacher, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), who was the club’s star back in his own high school days. Part of the first three episodes’ comedy come from Will’s insistence that his students replicate his early 80s successes by performing disco numbers. Will is clueless but sweet, and his faith in his ragtag band of performers gives them the courage to, of course, pursue their dreams. Will’s wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who was his high school sweetheart, desperately wants a child, and concocts a fake pregnancy to pursue her own dream. Will, meanwhile, has an unarticulated crush on his colleague Emma (Jayma Mays), an OCD-plagued, germ-fearing teacher at McKinley who admires Will from not that afar enough for Terri, who notes their mutual affection and uses the fabricated pregnancy to keep Will close.
These adult relationships play out among those of beleaguered high school students fraught with all the typical hormonally-induced crises; among teachers confined by their routines, hoping for something more to grace their lives; and among administrators who suffer funding cuts and a lack of parent confidence that inspires bizarre conciliatory efforts. The school principal plays Moses in each episode, choosing between the conflicting desires of Will and his glee club and the evil Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and her cheerleading squad, offering resources to whichever teacher seems most likely to endear him to the school’s parents.
Lynch plays one of her best roles outside of the Christopher Guest movies in which she’s a regular, demented ensemble member. As the scheming, megalomaniacal gym teacher, Lynch is costumed in matching Adidas track suits, which change only in color from episode to episode (or scene to scene). She works out on the elliptical machine behind her desk as she instructs her hench-girls—Quinn (Dianna Argon), who’s Finn’s plastic blond girlfriend, and Quinn’s look-alike sidekick—to infiltrate and destroy the glee club on her behalf. But when she climbs down from the machine with a towel thrown jauntily around her neck, it’s clear Sue hasn’t broken a sweat. She doesn’t want to work hard; she just wants herself and her cheering squad to be the center of the school’s attention.
Sue is jealous of any dollar the principal gives to the glee club, and will go to any lengths possible to see the club fail.Lynch’s dry one-liners are hysterical (“I haven’t seen performing that tasteless since I saw an elementary school performance of Hair,” she scoffs after the glee club students perform a sexually explicit dance to “Push It” for a school assembly to encourage more students to join). Lynch is expert at the droll remark, and at making outlandish characters like Sue seem logical and righteous despite their insanity. (That Sue is clearly a big ole dyke goes without saying.)
In last week’s episode, Victor Garber and Debra Monk, two veterans of the American musical theatre, showed up as Will’s loving parents. Garber plays his father as a schleppy would-be lawyer who never pursued his own dreams, and Monk does a perfect comic turn as Will’s sloppy, alcoholic mother. Terri’s pregnancy, which Will and his parents think is real, inspires some heart-to-heart between Will and his dad, as Garber tells Will that being a good dad is what makes a man a man. The two men’s masculinity couldn’t be more dubious, held up against conventional norms—Garber teaches Will about manhood while wearing a red bow tie, and Will embraces his dad fervently before running off to choreograph a number for the boy-group he’s formed. But under the terms of Glee, masculinity includes a love for music, for dancing, for community, and for family. There might be irony in the script and its delivery, but there’s earnestness in the characters’ interactions that’s sincere and even moving.
In last week’s episode, the glee club kids’ impatience with Will’s anachronistic music choices forces them to hire the director of a rival group to choreograph their numbers. Will, dejected, decides to start his own men’s group, which the four guys decide to call “Acafellas.” Turns out that Will, Finn, the gym teacher, and a maintenance man really know how to rock out when they perform their white boys’ hip-hop number for a school assembly. The fun of Glee is that it assumes even the most macho guys want to get up and sing. For instance, Puck (Mark Salling), Finn’s buff, gruff, and pushy teammate, can’t resist putting on a tux and crooning with the other guys. And his singing and dancing only make him sexier (in a hetero way), even when the flamboyant Sandy joins the act and gets the group a chance to open for Josh Groban. It’s as though the canvas of a musical act is capacious enough to let desire manifest itself along a continuum of sexual options.
Sandy botches the gig with Groban, who arrives backstage (playing himself) with his body guard to serve Sandy with still another restraining order. But Glee doesn’t consider Sandy pathetic—just overly romantic in his mis-directed desires. Groban hooks up with Will’s mom, insisting that although people think he’s got a cabal of teenaged girls following him around, Groban actually prefers blowsy middle-aged alcoholics. Monk’s character giggles wetly as they flirt to the episode’s end.
Meanwhile, the glee club kids realize that hiring a hot new director comes with costs too high to finance. The fascist, little-person director is so mean he makes kids at his home high school vomit with fear and dismay during rehearsals. But when he brings his cutting, derogatory style to McKinley’s glee club, the kids resist his derision. The new guy, of course, wants to kick out all the misfits, and doesn’t waste time before he dismisses Mercedes as an Effie-wannabe, Artie as “crippled,” Kurt as queer, and Rachel as needing a nose job.
But as they turn to leave, Rachel realizes that it’s the new director who should be fired instead, as he’ll never replace the liberal, democratic Will in the kids’ affections. Rachel is a Jewish girl—Lea Michele looks a lot like Idina Menzel—who cites Barbra Streisand’s refusal to get a nose job as her own cri de coeur, insisting that her difference is what will make her a star. In fact, she proclaims, the glee kids’ uniqueness comes from their differences, which she embraces as the source of their talent and their pride.
In the face of her rallying cry, all the kids puff out their chests—Artie in his wheelchair, wearing his ubiquitous driving gloves, Mercedes in her radiant, zaftig, belting divadom, Kurt in his queer elaborateness, which only he thinks is a secret, and Finn in his femme-y football hero straightness. They can all get behind being different as their club’s distinctive reason for being. When Will sheepishly but happily returns as their coach, he sets the best earnest example of what it means to ride that difference to your dreams.
Glee’s actors all boast backgrounds in musical theatre, although some have more professional experience than others. Matthew Morrison, who plays Will, performed on Broadway in Hairspray, was nominated for a Tony for his work in Light in the Piazza, and played Lt. Cable in the recent revival of South Pacific. Lea Michele, Glee’s Rachel, received a Drama Desk Award nomination for her performance in Spring Awakening in 2006. Each of the show’s glee clubbers has performed live somewhere, and bring to their roles the authenticity of awkward young people who find themselves electric and at home when they’re on stage.
Glee’s jokes come fast and furious, but always with affection and never truly at a character’s expense. The show is designed in bright, candy colors that underline its satire, and shot at angles that pointedly indicate who’s the good guy and who’s the villain. But often, the villains turn out to be good guys, transformed by the power of singing to find their glowing inner decency.
That’s a moral for a story I can get behind. And the songs are great, too.
The Feminist Spectator