It’s hard to imagine that television in the year 2009 will bring us any greater joy than the high school glee club performance of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” in the pilot episode of Glee, first broadcast in May. A showstopper in every sense of the word, the number is choreographed with blitzkrieg cheerfulness and adds a huge and soulful backing chorus to the original’s Motown revival sound. The kicker is that it is performed by the rivals of the show’s underdog stars. The members of the show’s titular glee club are left sitting in the audience, jaws agape, realizing exactly how much work they had to do.
In presenting such a killer showpiece in the pilot, though, the creators of Glee may have set the bar almost impossibly high. It’s more of a music theater-nerd fest than even Scrubs is/was, and just like any musical worth the name, and no matter what kind of melodramatic web the writers are able to create for their characters, the show’s success is going to hinge on whether they can pull off more big numbers.
That said, Glee is starting out smartly, a promising blip in a fall season dominated otherwise by the usual reality sludge and forensic law enforcement blah-blah-blah. Set at a high school in a small Ohio town (one of the many hints that the writers seem to have Heathers on the brain), the show tracks Will (Matthew Morrison), a well-meaning Spanish teacher who decides to take over the school’s underperforming glee club once the faculty member originally running it gets caught fondling a student. The assembled glee kids are a mix of the school’s most ignored, from Tracy Flick-like overachiever Rachel (Lea Michele) to the impeccably swishy Kurt (Chris Colfer).
If it was just a case of rounding up a few misfits and showing them that they all had star potential, the show wouldn’t have much to offer. But there’s a slew of impediments for everyone to overcome, from Will’s shrewish wife demanding that he abandon teaching for a more lucrative career, to the school’s vicious band of cheerleaders, the Cheerios, whose coach Sue (Jane Lynch, in fine form) sees the glee club as competition for rare resources, and thus worthy of extermination.
The first three episodes show Glee‘s frisky intelligence, nipping quickly from one scene to the next and rarely overplaying its hand. The show exists in a sort of hyper-real universe, where the colors are always quite a bit brighter and people just that much sharper and stranger (very much in the pop-satiric vein of Heathers, without quite as much emphasis on catchy putdowns). This makes the swift elisions go down easier (those rehearsal sessions don’t seem to take much time at all) as well as the bizarre behavior of many of the characters.
Some of the more offbeat characterizations don’t always click. Emma, the fussy guidance counselor (Jayma Mays), longs in a very not-concealed manner for Will. With her doll-like makeup and outfits and color-coded Tupperware, she seems like a guest player from a willfully quirky episode of CSI. But for every off note, Lynch delivers another salty line; as when she notes never having seen anything more offensive, “and that includes an elementary school production of Hair.”
As the biggest Broadway stars in the cast, Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele do a good job of hiding some of their rather ridiculous star appeal, at least until it comes time to belt out a song. Then the results are something approaching magic. Michele delivers a simply angelic version of “Don’t Stop Believing” and Morrison a terrific take on a Kanye West number without resorting to shtick or mimicry. Other cast members have impressive pipes as well, with the exception of the odd man out in the group, Finn the football player, played by 27-year-old Cory Monteith, who’s charming but too old for the role and not so vocally brilliant as his fellows.
And, as effective as the big numbers can be, they don’t always pay off (the use of Beyoncé‘s “All the Single Ladies” in the third episode, “Preggers,” is less than perfect). The show also has a bad habit of delivering easy solutions to the kids’ problems. If the show is going to have any legs—and judging by the ad push so far, it seems that Fox is going to give it a fair try—it will need to make its characters work for their epiphanies. A showstopper can’t always save the day.