Low Point Number 4: 'Glee'
Glee baffles me more than any show on television. It’s a moderately interesting show that relies on glittering production numbers fashioned on fairly bland Top 40 pop singles. The writing is half-assed; there’s a complete absence of character development. Yet the show consistently garners a string of award nominations and receives a degree of discussion and notice completely out of proportion with any real merits.
There are a host of genuinely intense questions facing kids in high school. On Glee, these tough questions are not so much dealt with as used as ornament. The collection of kids on the show seems like tokens of the various versions of “outsiders”. And the problems that get weekly treatments feel almost like the writers were working down a list.
Take the question of kids who struggle with morbid obesity. On another celebrated high school series, Freaks and Geeks, some of the characters on the show gradually get to know a kid who not only is extremely overweight, but has a serious body odor problem. The protagonists on the show befriend the guy in a way that doesn’t dismiss or minimize the very real social stigma—whether justified or not—that attaches to his weight and odor problems.
On Glee, in contrast, a morbidly obese girl (by definition someone whose Body Mass Index is over 40)—in one of the most cringe worthy arcs in any high school series of memory—is not merely treated as a good, interesting person (although in fact, the character is presented as a bit mean), but is the object of the passionate interest of Puck, one of the hottest guys in the school. The problem of how we confront our own feelings about others who are obese is not so much dealt with as dismissed into comic fantasy. Like all problems on Glee, all apparently solid problems melt into air.
Although Glee parades out a group of kids that supposedly are ostracized one way or another—kids identifiable by the slushy periodically tossed in their faces—none of their problems ever feel real, apart perhaps from Chris Colfer’s sense of persecution for being effeminately gay. Most of the kids have their problems evaporate in fantasy or dismissed in song. But in real life problems are confronted by being confronted, not by being dismissed.
This is not to imply that Glee never deals successfully tough questions, only that it rarely does. I can count the number of times that I have felt the pain of a character on the number of thumbs on my left hand. Contrast the stories on Glee absent the songs to any other good show about high school—say My So-called Life or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars or the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks—and Glee’s superficiality becomes palpable.
Or contrast the songs on Glee to the way music functions on what is probably the finest musical episode on any show of the past 15 years, the Season 6 episode of Buffy, “Once More With Feeling”. Two things stand out. One is that Glee relies on nonoriginal material; well, except for the end of Season 2, and that was enough to make us all hope they won’t try original material again. Buffy’s songs were all original, fully integrated with the narrative. The second thing that stands out is that on Buffy, each song moves along the story. On Glee, the songs never drive the story, because there isn’t much of a story to begin with.
On “Once More with Feeling”, each song was a transition to something more; the episode was more than the sum of its songs. On Glee each song is not a transition, but a destination, or to put it another way, on Buffy the point was the story, while on Glee the point is the song. Interestingly, one of the few episodes where the songs did advance the story was in the Season 1 episode “Dream On”, where Joss Whedon—who not only directed “Once More with Feeling” but wrote the episode and all of its songs—was the guest director on. Interestingly, none of the songs on Whedon’s episode of Glee were nondiegetic, which is to say that each of them arose from within the narrative, like when Will and guest star Neil Patrick Harris sing “Piano Man” along with a jukebox, and later perform together Aerosmith’s “Dream On” as part of an audition for a musical.
And then in what may be my favorite performance ever on Glee, Artie tells his girlfriend that the cure for paralysis that she had investigated has worked, allowing him to sing and dance to “The Safety Dance” with the poignant chorus “I can dance if I want to,” only to have the song end when we learn the whole thing was his fantasy, and that really he can’t dance at all. The tragedy is that the way songs were used in this episode was the exception and not the rule on Glee.
Clearly, there’s acknowledgment somewhere—the producers? the studio? the network?—that the writing on the show leaves much to be desired. For the first two seasons, all the writing was done by the three person crew of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan. This created two problems: the writing can never be better than the joint abilities of these three and; three people are too few to spread writing duties between. The best shows employ a team of writers with an executive producer who does rewrites on each individual script to make them fit with all the others. On Battlestar Galactica, for example, Ronald D. Moore only received writing credits on a handful of episodes, but he actually worked extensively on every script on the show. But on Glee, there are overwhelming time demands on the writers because there are so few of them to begin with. The writing on the show as a result always feels a bit trite.
Glee will have an expanded writing staff in its third season, an obvious concession that things have not been working as smoothly as they might wish. They include Allison Adler (Chuck, No Ordinary Family), Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, as well as films Fright Night and I Am Number Four), Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Big Love), Michael Hitchcock (MadTV), Matt Hodgson and Ross Maxwell are joining the show as producers or writers. Will it be enough to turn a mediocre series to a good one? I’m doubtful, but at least with this degree of a shakeup, there is hope.