I Love Glee
Who knew a musical comedy could be so good?
In some social circles—those of dirty East Coast liberals, for instance—the fashionable new comedy of the season is Modern Family. Good for it. Good for wit that contributes to screwball tartness on network TV. But, for the record, the best new comedy is probably Glee (Fox, Wednesdays at 9 p.m., ET), created by Ryan Murphy and now back on air after a break for the World Series. And yet it happens that Glee is a musical comedy, and according to TV-biz conventional wisdom, many people feel such revulsion for that genre that they will not read this article any further, much less consider watching an hourlong show.
Their loss. At its best, Glee is not just entertaining but elating, dramatizing Breakfast Club-quality teen angst with the aid of tight production numbers covering new and classic popular songs. How can you fail to love a show featuring songs from great American writing teams including Bernstein-Sondheim, Kander-Ebb, Lerner-Loewe, Holland-Dozier-Holland, the dudes behind "The Thong Song," and Steve Perry and his fellow power-balladeers in Journey? The cast covered "Don't Stop Believin' " for the charismatic finale of the series pilot, a scene that will convert any reasonable person to the show's effusive charm.
Here we are at William McKinley High School in Ohio, that iconic easy joke of a boring place. Spanish teacher Will Schuester is a McKinley alumnus who never got out of town and is now, to some unhappiness, married to his high-school sweetheart. He is not as thoroughly emasculated as Matthew Broderick's schlub in Election, despite some similarities.
Hating his classes, Will instead gravitates toward extracurricular activities, taking on the role of the glee club's faculty adviser. His antagonist is a cheerleading coach played by the excellent Jane Lynch. Maneuvering against Will by trying to undermine his funding and foment discord among the glee-clubbers, she is so burlesque a villain that her only compare is Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz. She tells a reporter that she's all about empowering her girls: "I empower my Cheerios to live in a state of constant fear by creating an environment of irrational random terror."
Of course, the social structures of high school are so rigid and the codes so baroque that Claude Levi-Strauss couldn't get to the bottom of the matter if he had lived for another 100 years, and this complicates Will's recruitment efforts. McKinley is a place where popular kids can splash Slushees on the dorky ones with impunity. To sign up for glee club is to fling oneself to the bottom of the caste system. But Will finagles a way to get the nice-guy varsity quarterback to sign up.
In a hot-tub-related incident, said quarterback gets his cheerleader girlfriend pregnant—or so it seems. The real baby daddy is the QB's meathead teammate Puck, whom the cheerleader once got with on the sly. Her recounting of her motives for this hook-up is typical of Glee's tartness and sting and disregard for propriety: "You got me drunk on wine coolers, and I felt fat that day." Glee wouldn't truly be a Fox show if it did not have a coarse edge and a provocatively rude tone. We have jokes here about Schindler's List and tripping old ladies so they fall down the stairs. The show is eager to offend, and on the other hand, it flaunts good morals—hard work and collective struggle and all that. It has its earnestness and spits its sarcasm, too.
To continue describing the romantic quadrangle: The quarterback's girlfriend's backdoor man has been carrying on with a girl named Rachel, who is a theater geek, a drama queen, and a diva-in-training all wrapped up in one Jappy package, to use an adjective consistent with the tenor of the show. Puck interprets a dream about her as a call to embrace his ethnic heritage: "Rachel was a hot Jew and the good Lord wanted me to get in her pants." Actress Lea Michele plays Rachel, who dreams of going to Broadway, as detestable and adorable in ever-varying measures. She is a preening and egoistic eager beaver who, practically since toddlerhood, has been waking up at 6 a.m. to sing into her hairbrush. And now she and the quarterback have been locking eyes with increased intensity in the hallways. All around, it is a pretty good roundelay.
Filling out the cast, we have a sassy black, a punky Asian chick, and an effeminate young homosexual. (The gay kid's awkwardly loving blue-collar father is one of the few parents represented here, most being as unimportant as so much Charlie Brown wa-wa-wa-wa-wa.) Today's papers bring news that some groups object to the fact that Glee casts an actor who can walk (Kevin McHale, not to be confused with the power forward) as a student in a wheelchair. Me, I'm troubled only by the fact that, after Friday Night Lights, a high-school show working a plot about wheelchairs this hard is like an otherwise good novel playing up scenes about harpooning a white whale. Still, in this Wednesday's episode—one notably more of an after-school special than its predecessors—McHale delivers an exhilarating cover of Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself." The style is sort of barbershop rockabilly. His voice is like a proud mellow bell with some melancholy in its peal, and it sounds to me like the makings of a clear hit.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from Glee by Carin Baer/Fox © 2009 Fox Broadcasting Co. All rights reserved.