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Every Heart Sings a Song: An Advance Review of FOX's "Glee"

"Some days there won't be a song in your heart. Sing anyway." - Emory Austin

Sometimes as a critic you need to take what could be an unpopular stand when just about everyone is gushing about a particular television series or feature film.

That time, my friends, is right now.

Despite the overwhelming love and support for FOX's impassioned new series Glee, which will offer viewers a sneak peak at the pilot episode following tonight's American Idol, I have to say that I'm not jumping on this particular bandwagon, as much as the publicity machine at FOX might want me to. Call me a cynic, call me jaded, but I just can't muster any, well, glee for Ryan Murphy's new series.

For those of you who haven't seen the series' ubiquitous commercials, billboards, and print ads, Glee, written and directed by Murphy, tells the story of sad sack Spanish teacher Will Shuester (Matthew Morrison), the type of guy who is married to his high school sweetheart and still clings to his glory days of glee club championship. When the principal (Iqbal Theba) of McKinley High, the Ohio high school where Will works, threatens to shut down glee club following an incident involving the club's last faculty adviser Sandy Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) and a male student, Will offers to step in and keep glee going, even at the expense of his wallet... and possibly his marriage to the bitter Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), a woman so ego-centric that it seems impossible for her swollen head to fit through doorways.

Despite Terri's protestations, Will does take over the school's glee club, now populated by social outcasts and misfits, and sets about trying to find some new talent, a position which pits him against award-winning cheerleading coach Sue (Jane Lynch) and PE teacher/football coach Ken Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher), who happens to be his romantic rival in a love triangle with the adorable OCD-afflicted careers counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays). A triangle that Will seems to be oblivious that he's even enmeshed in.

As for the kids, they are a motley bunch. There's headstrong Tracy Flick wannabe Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), wheerchair-bound Arty (Kevin McHale), stuttering Asian punk Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), fashion-forward Kurt (Chris Colfer), and brash Mercedes (Amber Riley). But despite their dreams of superstardom, they are missing that elusive X-factor and Will discovers it when he overhears star quarterback Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) singing in the locker room shower. Desperate to lure Finn to the glee club, he blackmails him into participating by pretending to have discovered pot in his locker during a random inspection.

Despite the insanity of the situation, Will believes that this is best for everyone involved, even a reluctant Finn, so desperate is he to relive his glory days with his own glee club. Finn, meanwhile, is caught by Will's trickery between the singing that feeds his soul and the football that provides his popularity. Forced to choose one or the other by his moronic friend Puck (Mark Salling), Finn chooses ultimately to do both because neither one of the groups can win without him.

As Glee follows American Idol, there's no end to the musical numbers, montages, and performances in the pilot episode and this series will definitely be placing a strong emphasis on the musical element of its formula. There's a head-turning and rollicking rendition of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" performed by the kids' glee club rivals and the gang finally comes together in the face of adversity (when Will is nearly trapped into leaving his position at the school) to perform Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" together in front of various onlookers.

It's a joyful moment of musical exuberance and youthful optimism which seems diametrically opposed to the tone set at the beginning of the pilot episode, which seems more in line with Murphy's trademark wicked sense of humor. It's this caustic element which falls by the wayside as the pilot episode goes on and I wish that Murphy and Company had sought to balance the sweet with a little bit more of the bitter as well. (Indeed, the only holdout from causing the audience a tooth ache completely is the wonderfully acerbic Jane Lynch.)

As it is, Glee comes across as more than a little saccharine and it's hard for this critic to shake the feeling. Given Ryan Murphy's history with dark teen comedy--before Nip/Tuck Murphy created the short-lived but much-beloved Popular--I expected more of a balance in tone but the pilot episode can't quite find its footing tonally, swerving from mordancy to earnestness with a whiplash-like movement.

Not helping matters is that here the characters, including students and faculty alike, are drawn in one-dimensional terms that allow them as much breathing room as logline archetypes and reduce them to little more than cartoons. There's the angry former beauty queen, tyrannical coach, surly disabled kid, effeminate fashion plate, manipulative diva wannabe, quiet punk, brooding jock, overbearing bully, etc. Yes, this is just the pilot episode of Glee but these characters should spring to life and fill us with excitement, given the subject matter at hand. Instead, you'd be hard pressed to remember their names, much less any real defining attributes, once the credits roll.

Ultimately, Glee might extol us to don't stop believing, but with an overabundance of such forced glee, it's hard to give into the magic of belief when you're being relentlessly hammered over the head with such a message.



Glee premieres tonight at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX. It's set to return this fall.

Comments

AskRachel said…
Thanks for your honest opinion, Jace! I've also seen the pilot and didn't understand what all of the hype was about. I really wanted to like it but also felt that it could have been smarter and funnier.
Lacey said…
That's too bad. I was looking forward to the show (I loved the concept) but, so far, I have been less than wowed by the previews. I was hoping it would be Popular set to music but it sounds like their pitch is off.
Ally said…
While I enjoyed the pilot and will be front and center come fall, I agree with much of what you said. I definitely want more of the Popular bite here. Also, as i said to my colleagues, "It's a total Election rip-off in a lot of ways, but still fun."

Also, I think the main teen guy is totally wooden. And he's not that great a singer. Hard to go up against Lea M, but still.
Page48 said…
This POS should be canceled before I go to bed tonite.
Alex said…
I'm glad someone else felt the same way I did. God, that was unbearably bad. I feel like I need an insulin shot. I wanted to shoot myself after 10 mins in. Hoping Fox cans this fast.
joy said…
I don't think anyone can help comparing Glee to Popular, or Election, and to a certain extent, Christopher Guest movies, as well. And it's nowhere near as good.

While I didn't hate it, I'm probably hanging off the tail end of the bandwagon, ready for a good bump to knock me off.
Adam said…
I enjoyed watching the pilot, but I had a lot of problems with it. Which I will now share, since all other places seem to be full of Glee-love.

1. I can't understand why they would end their first episode with a big, climactic and pretty perfect song from the school that is supposed to be the underdog. Where do they have to go from here? I think if I was writing the pilot, it would've been much more interesting to have a moderate, full performance of the Grease song, mid-way through the show, and end with the rival's performance of "Rehab."

2. The teacher's storyline. The main thing that bothered me was they structured it so that he dropped out as soon as he saw the competition and then signed back up as soon as he saw the talent he had in his group. The other problem with his storyline...

3. The pregancy and the wife. *Why* did they think it was a good idea to do this story in the way they did. First, why couldn't they make the wife likeable? Does everyone who doesn't support the Glee club fully need to demonized? Making her so annoying just makes it so much more difficult to understand why he's so ready to leave the school and the club. And why would they introduce the pregnancy so early? We've known the characters for less than a half-hour and we're supposed to care that she's pregnant?

4. The stereotypes. Aghh! The football jocks, the cheerleaders, the gay kid, the black kid, the cripple... they're all so paper thin. I don't really mind stereotypes in television, as long as they're used a jumping point for a real character. But I see no indication of that with these characters. Considering that Ryan Murphy also created Popular, which liked to play with these stereotypes and invert them, I was disappointed, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

5. That Journey song would've worked fantastically as the end of episode five or six. At the end of the first episode, I just don't buy it.
Jace Lacob said…
Adam and Joy,

Head over to the Talk Back for "Glee" to discuss your post-air thoughts on the pilot:

http://www.televisionaryblog.com/2009/05/talk-back-foxs-glee.html

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