So this is it, huh? This is what you guys were freaking out about all summer? I admit, I haven’t seen the supposedly wonderful pilot, and picking up a series at its second episode probably isn’t the best idea, but…still, I have to say, I don’t really understand all the fuss about Glee.
A Fox summer sensation, Glee follows the occasionally musical adventures at William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, centering on the school’s glee club (hence, duh, the title). Led by the school’s Spanish teacher, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), the club combats all the usual stuff — indifferent school administrators, hostile popular kids, et cetera — while singing and dancing their way through covers of songs like “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Gold Digger.” As you might imagine, given the title of the series, there’s an awful lot of perky, quirky humor on display here — but there’s also a strong underlying note of melancholy; not only are the kids in the glee club as dumped on as you might expect (in the first five minutes, club star Rachel [played by Lea Michele] stands up to a cheerleader and gets a pair of blue Slurpees to the face for her comeuppance), but the adults in their lives are also utterly unfulfilled.
It’s a nice bit of contrast, and one that helps Glee have its cake and eat it too — not only does the show get to haul out “Don’t Stop Believing” for its umpteenth post-ironic curtain call, but it also gets to pluck the heartstrings of dream-deficient grownups and rehabbed nerds with a poignant message about the elusiveness of dreams. The musical numbers draw the viewers; the other stuff triggers waves of Pavlovian applause from critics. And it’s working, at least so far: the pilot, which premiered way back in May, pulled 10 million viewers, and earned what seemed like a weekly repeat berth over the summer.
It’s all very nice, and the cast is solid — particularly Jayma Mays, who plays the school’s germaphobic guidance counselor, and perennial low-rated series vet Jessalyn Gilsig, who plays Will’s shallow harpy of a wife — but watching it, I never stopped wondering why Glee has struck such a chord. Particularly during the musical numbers, which are intentionally over the top (I’m guessing, anyway), but because the show never really earns that kind of ridiculous release, they just feel corny. The opening act runthrough of “Gold Digger” is a good case in point: Teacher walks in, hands kids lyric sheets, and voila! Instant, poorly lip-synched dance number. If you want to have a character as spectacularly Caucasian as Will Schuester supposedly rapping the verses of a Kanye West song, you’ve got to make us believe it — especially after you’ve already featured an overweight black teenager shouting “hell to the no!” — and I didn’t think Glee ever reached that point during last night’s episode.
Is it bad? No, and even at its worst, Glee still has Jane Lynch going for it (she plays Sue Sylvester, the androgynous cheerleading coach and Will’s nemesis), as well as a young cast that manages to make the most of its stereotypical roles — not to mention an undeniably rich, intriguing premise. In an era that has given us eight seasons of According to Jim — and a season that will give us Jay Goddamn Leno every miserable night of the week — Glee is actually something of a shining beacon on the schedule, and if I hadn’t been subjected to months of hype before I watched it, I probably would have enjoyed it more. If the show manages to find its jazz hands (no sure thing — this is still Fox, after all), I can see myself periodically tearing away from Friday Night Lights, Lost, or The Office to revisit it. Don’t stop believing, I guess.