Why has ‘Glee’ succeeded when other TV musicals have failed?
May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Fox show Glee, about the comic travails and triumphs of high-school singers in Ohio, developed a fanatical but small following last fall, took a break for three months, and upon its return to the air in April began scoring viewership numbers no first-year network series has seen in years. The show is a landmark of sorts. Since the dawn of television more than 60 years ago, the networks have tried and failed dozens of times to produce a weekly musical comedy. Glee is the first series to do it successfully—ever. How has it succeeded where so many predecessors failed?
The conventional answer is that Glee is a fictional knockoff of American Idol, featuring a large cast of talented young unknowns singing several brilliantly arranged and extraordinarily crisp pop numbers each week. Like Idol, Glee plays off the emotions previously generated by the American bubble gum songbook, so that its viewers bring their own preexisting responses to those songs with them. There are no duds, no dead numbers to sit through; everything you hear and see has already been granted the seal of approval by millions of fans.
Ryan Murphy, the creator and guiding light of Glee, somehow sussed out the great failing of all earlier efforts to make a musical series; their songs were invariably unmemorable, because how could any program successfully generate four or five fresh new numbers a week for 13 to 26 weeks? It’s rare enough for a Broadway musical on which people work for years to have even one memorable song. Murphy has been savvy enough not to feature a single original song, perhaps cognizant of the fact that the nightmarish climactic moment of every American Idol season has been the performance of a perfectly ghastly tune no one ever heard before or would want to hear again.
Murphy, who directs many of the episodes as well, is clearly a student of the musical, and understands how to film the numbers to give them maximum impact. To watch and hear Lea Michele, the clarion-voiced female lead, angrily belting out the recent pop anthem “Take a Bow” is to have the rare experience on television of the kind of transport usually only available to Broadway audiences who were in the presence of one of those performers of legend, like Jennifer Holliday bringing down the house in Dreamgirls. The show’s first episode concluded with Michele performing a duet with the male ingénue, Cory Monteith, to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” in a rendition so sharp and thrilling it succeeded in making one forget that this was the same song that accompanied Tony Soprano’s journey to endless purgatory in the final scene of The Sopranos. Glee is greatest hits on steroids, and that has made all the difference.
It has to, because when the extraordinarily exciting cast isn’t singing on Glee, the show is repulsively sour and mean-spirited—though its ugliness is somewhat disguised by Murphy’s purposefully stylized and deliberately unrealistic depiction of a high school. The glee club is a collection of misfits and ne’er-do-wells managed by a well-meaning but extremely naïve Spanish teacher called Mr. Schue (Matthew Morrison). For no particular reason, the glee club lives under a sustained attack on its existence by Sue Sylvester, the iron-willed coach of the school’s cheerleaders (Jane Lynch, delivering what may end up as one of the medium’s most memorable turns).
Sue is one of the seemingly unending lineup of female monsters. Mr. Schue is married to a brittle and unpleasant woman who fakes a pregnancy to keep him; and he’s attracted to a guidance counselor who is so germophobic she is repelled by the thought of personal contact. The club’s lead male singer has been cuckolded by his thoughtless and selfish girlfriend; she becomes pregnant and, though they have never had sex, she convinces him the baby is his anyway. Finally, there’s Rachel Berry (Michele), the ravenously ambitious lead singer whose raging egotism is outdone only by her clumsiness; she’s every bit as sociopathic as Sue Sylvester except that she can’t get the job done.
The outlandishness of the pregnancy plot lines became too much to handle for a show that was proving to have mass appeal. Murphy and his team toned it down and sweetened it up when they brought Glee back this spring, but they made sure to add a few more horrible women (played by the hilarious Molly Shannon and the fascinating Idina Menzel). Glee is not only notable for its unprecedented triumph with the musical form on television; it’s also the most misogynistic show I’ve ever seen. Because of Glee’s sheer novelty, Murphy and Co. are getting away with it, but if they don’t get control of themselves, their show’s poisonous depictions of women are going to drive viewers away by the millions once the novelty wears off.