Harmony and Irony

I saw the, um, original repeat of Glee’s first episode the other day and wish I’d been able to post a review before the encore encore tonight. Was it music to my ears? Not entirely, but I’m rooting for it.

a person's right hand making an L shape to fit into the word 'glee'
Glee photos © 2009 and logo TM 20th Century Fox Television.

Uneven but interesting, that pilot is certainly worth sampling before the series
finally continues next Wednesday, Sept. 9th, at 9 p.m. ET. It was previewed last spring — in prime real estate after American Idol — even though the show’s actual debut was always scheduled for this fall. Fox must have felt it had an offbeat winner and hoped
to stoke buzz throughout the summer; indeed, reception was generally favorable and songs from the series have been popular downloads on iTunes.

Whether you should check it out depends heavily on your ability to (a) relate to the politics of adolescence, (2) appreciate tautly sung show-tune versions of pop songs from various eras, and (c) accommodate yourself to entertainment presented with and without irony in quick alternation if not simultaneously.

The first part is easy for me. As for the next, I love good a cappella and enjoy new interpretations of familiar music in general, but when rock, R&B, and other music of rebellion is rendered as crisp musical theater the results can be iffy. Case in point: Glee’s incongruously choreographed take on Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”. On the other hand, Journey’s already tacky “Don’t Stop Believin’” became a nicely arranged anthem and REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” as sung in the shower by Cory Monteith was, in stark contrast to the original, not only tolerable to me for once but kinda nice. The third part is where things get tricky.

Clockwise from top left: Matthew Morrison as Will Schuester, Jessalyn Gilsig as
Terri Schuester, Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester, Jayma Mays as Emma Pillsbury

On the Glee homepage you’ll see rotating pictures of its cast happily making the L-
for-loser sign on their foreheads, and that pretty much sums up the show’s tightrope walk over the chasm of self-parody. Will Schuester [sic], a Spanish teacher in Lima, Ohio, has taken over the glee club at cash-strapped McKinley High. His best memories are of performing in that club back in the day, but now his wife is urging him to take a better-paying job in accounting as they try to start a family. The few and proud glee-club students take their music as seriously as the show itself does, which is more seriously than the show takes the characters.

From the reviews I’d read and the content of co-creator Ryan Murphy’s previous
series, WB’s Popular and FX’s Nip/Tuck, the sincerity of Glee surprised me. You might assume that a TV show about the trials of a high-school show choir would be handled with a big wink in today’s cultural climate, despite the success of Idol and High-School Musical, especially when it features Jane Lynch as a take-no-prisoners cheerleading coach — Lynch is versatile, but probably best known for her gut-busting deadpan turns in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Role Models. As Will, Matthew Morrison plays his conflict completely straight, while the adult supporting cast tends toward the patently quirky and the kids are earnest in a way that befits the context but often feels tongue-

Clockwise from top left: Lea Michele as Rachel Berry, Cory Monteith as Finn
Hudson, Mark Salling as Noah Puckerman, Dianna Agron as Quinn Fabray

Music is a calling to the glee-club kids, including, to his surprise, the football star played by Monteith, derided by his teammates for joining the singing social misfits. Lea Michele, from the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening, brings pipes, ambition, and a hint of crazy to the role of Rachel, student leader of the club and perceived threat to Quinn, the cheerleader girlfriend of Monteith’s Finn. Jessalyn Gilsig, late of NBC’s Heroes and so together on Fox’s David E. Kelley drama Boston Public, brings more than a hint of crazy as Will’s wife Terri, the former cheerleader who has a (literal) closet obsession with Pottery Barn and an attitude that feels one small breakdown away from Gilsig’s character on Nip/Tuck. Will and Terri have been together since high school and married for five years now, which makes it discomfiting to have the show nudge us into rooting for Emma, the McKinley High guidance counselor played by once and future Heroes guest star Jayma Mays, as she carries an unrequited torch for Will.

Clockwise from top left: Amber Riley as Mercedes Jones, Chris Colfer as Kurt
Hummel, Jenna Ushkowitz as Tina Cohen-Chang, Kevin McHale as Artie Abrams

So apparently Glee is going for satire with both heart and heaping angst, positioned somewhere between the territories staked out by Judd Apatow (director of 40-Year-
Old Virgin
and Knocked Up, producer of Superbad) and Christopher Guest (maestro behind Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and For Your Consideration) — but in the PG, broadcast-TV framework of Boston Public and last year’s Judy Greer sitcom Miss Guided. As a weekly series, Glee has different parameters than Apatow and Guest’s underdog tales: It can’t be so potty-mouthed, it probably doesn’t have the budget for improv, and most importantly it won’t wrap up in about two hours. Rather than introduce an outcast ensemble, put them through comic trials tinged with brutal reality, and end with at least a semblance of triumph, Glee has to sustain its mix of winking humor and sincerity on an indefinite basis. The tension between when to laugh with the cast and when to laugh at them could be difficult to maintain, especially because serial storytelling often calls for exploring its protagonists’ flaws and their antagonists’ humanity.

The style and substance of the series have much to recommend, but it remains to be seen whether the joyful, outsize harmonies of the musical numbers can coexist with the storylines’ dissonance in tone. Have you tried Glee yet? Did it strike a chord with you
or fall flat?

Related: G Love Brittality Vocal Opposition
McKinley High Anxiety Nooner in Song


  1. I finally caught up with Glee and I have to say I'm pretty much enjoying it. I like the musical numbers, but I would consider it more of a drama than a comedy. It just doesn't have enough of that comedy feel.

    And I too find it awkward to be basically rooting for the marriage to break up. I find severla aspects of the show odd ans vaguely uncomfortable, yet the show itself is complusively watchable. Very strange.

  2. Very strange indeed, SM. I agree that it's more of a drama than an outright comedy, but one infused with sly, awkward, and sometimes ribald humor. The second episode confirmed that the smash-up of styles is intentional and still fascinating; I'd written up some thoughts that didn't get posted over the weekend, but after tomorrow's episode I'll probably revisit it. My plate is so full of reviews to finish and other stuff to read and/or watch that I still haven't made it over to Nikki's rewatch blog yet, and I really miss all of y'all.