Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Glee: Pilot

Whatever becomes of Glee after this, that was one hell of a pilot. At this point, Ryan Murphy's creation is more style than substance, but the style is so terrific that I'm okay with that for now. It is a problem that has to be addressed going forward, however.

But first, that style! It's not exactly the case that none of this has been done before. But I think it is fair to say that none of this has been done all at once and in this medium before. The first quarter of the show plays like a rehash of Election, which is fine as far as it goes. I think Election would probably make a pretty great TV show, actually. But, to Glee's credit, it soon grows out of that simple rehash (though, to be sure, it retains elements) and begins layering pieces of other shows on top of it: we see bits of Murphy's old show, Popular, and of Freaks and Geeks, and of Friday Night Lights, and, most obviously, of High School Musical and American Idol.

The smörgåsbord of inspirations makes for compelling television, but also for a delicate balance. If the show leans too hard toward High School Musical, it risks becoming, well, High School Musical. But if it leans too hard toward Friday Night Lights-like realism, the musical performances will seem even more absurd and out of place. And if it gives in too much to irony and fails to take the musical performances seriously on some level, it risks turning them into camp and dragging the rest of the show down with them. The presence of Murphy makes maintaining the show's balance seem all the more unlikely. Though Murphy's an excellent writer, he's been known to do some stupid stuff and drive shows into the ground. (Shockingly enough, Nip/Tuck didn't always suck.)

But television is unpredictable. I wouldn't have guessed that Friday Night Lights would very nearly run itself off the rails until Landry went and killed that guy. And I wouldn't have guessed that The Big Bang Theory would become a solid little sitcom that I look forward to watching every week after its painfully hackish pilot. TV shows evolve and devolve, hang together and fall apart in interesting and unexpected ways. And yet part of reviewing a television show is trying to predict the future, because television is by its very nature episodic, and one episode does not a series make. And so I'll say this: Almost all shows collapse eventually. Glee will not escape that fate and, because of its balancing of styles, is indeed likely to meet it sooner than most. But right now, it's a great show. And when it comes back in the Fall, everyone should endeavor to watch it. Because pilots like this don't come along very often.

Just how soon Glee hits its collapse, and just how painful that collapse will feel to its viewers, depends on whether it can improve on its pilot's weak points by deepening its themes and sharpening its characterization. As of right now, Glee doesn't really seem to have anything new to say. Insomuch as it has cribbed its style from various inspirations, it has cribbed its themes as well, and the mix of themes is far less compelling than the mix of styles. High school is symbolic of a caste system from which we never really escape, even if our roles get changed around. There's more to life than the collection of material wealth. There's a conflict between the belief that we can achieve whatever we want to achieve and living in a small town in which most everybody has failed to achieve even their most modest of dreams. Etc. Etc. All true and potentially interesting, but nothing I haven't seen done better before.

Even more problematic is the squad of archetypes Glee sends forth to tackle these themes. Most grating is Jessalynn Gilsig's Terri, who is the shrill and shrewish housewife at once holding her husband back from his true potential and pushing him into a career he's sure to hate. It's not Gilsig's fault—she's a fine actress, one for whom I've always had a bit of a soft spot—but the character as written is an appalling stereotype and a shortcut for referencing the problem with materialism without actually tackling it. Equally stereotypical, though more amusingly so, are the gym teachers, played by Peter Gallagher and the always fantastic Jane Lynch, who provide yet another thematic shortcut, this time for referencing the high school caste system.

Fortunately, these are the sort of problems that can be corrected. In particular, I'm not too worried about the characterization. Toward the end of the pilot, certain characters, such as Lea Michelle's Rachel, were already moving beyond the types on which they had been modeled. Add to this a uniformly excellent cast and a talented writing staff, and there's every reason to believe the characterization will work itself out to a certain extent. The thematic shallowness is more concerning, and I'm not sure I trust the show so much on that front.

Despite these shortcuts in characterization and the thematic deficiencies, Glee is easily one of the best pilots I've seen in a long time. The world of the show is already recognizable and well-defined, and the show itself is unlike anything else on TV. More than that, it's just a pleasure to watch, as purely entertaining as anything I've seen all year. And that in and of itself is no small accomplishment.

Other stuff:

  • I'm ready for more episodes now. And yet I have to wait until Fall. I have mixed feelings about this promotional strategy.
  • I managed to get through that entire review without mentioning how great Matthew Morrison and Jayma Mays were. For shame.
  • I spent the entire episode waiting for former Celtic Kevin McHale to show up. And then I realized that it was a differet Kevin McHale, and he was playing the kid in the wheelchair. Moral of this story: I'm an idiot.
  • When properly deployed, any piece of music can be effective. And, to be sure, Glee used “Don't Stop Believing” very effectively. But Journey sucks. A lot. Let us never forget.

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