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Glee: The Complete First Season

(Fox; US DVD: 14 Sep 2010)

Sue Sylvester: High school is a caste system. Kids fall into certain slots. Your jocks and your popular kids up in the penthouse. The invisibles and the kids playing live-action out in the forest: bottom floor.


Will Schuester: And where do the Glee kids lie?


Sue Sylvester: Sub-basement.


  —“Pilot”


Riding a strong advertising campaign and an advance airing of the first episode after American Idol nearly four months before the series began, Glee’s first season was a certified hit right from the beginning. Its mix of campy, over-the-top stories and poignant moments of real emotion, offer a unique blend of storytelling that makes it difficult to straddle the line between the two, yet often does just that. Oh, and it’s also a musical.

Creator Ryan Murphy’s previous high school series, Popular, played with many of the same elements as Glee. However, there’s a bit more savviness to this recent incarnation of teen life.  While not always successful, Glee maintains balance, and much of that is due to its use of music. In bringing together a group of underdogs, the series uses its relatively unknown cast to set up a story of real triumph.


Many of the high school archetypes television viewers are familiar with are in place, along with the storylines that go with them, but Murphy still finds a way to add a twist. Rachel (Lea Michele), the uber talented, yet highly unpopular controlling lead in glee club, is given further depth by having her be unapologetically ambitious. She is so focused on her goals that being hated is often just seen as another obstacle to overcome. 


Kurt (Chris Colfer), unambiguously gay and more at home with the girls than the boys, is given a real and complex relationship with his widowed father to deal with. Quinn (Dianna Agron), head cheerleader and resident mean girl, is suddenly ostracized when she becomes pregnant. While she eventually comes to understand what the unpopular kids are faced with, she still has trouble leaving the trappings of her popularity behind, making for a more interesting characterization.


The young cast is clearly talented, with an enthusiasm that comes through in every episode. With such a large ensemble, unfortunately, not all the characters get the same amount of screen time.  However, Michele is obviously the standout in a group of very capable performers. With an impressive Broadway career already under her belt, she is experienced and confident – everything Rachel should be. 


While the younger cast may be the main focus of the series, glee club teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), his wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) and guidance counselor Emma (Jayma Mays) are all given their own stories. In fact, Glee’s breakout character has unmistakably been Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the cutthroat cheerleading coach whose only goals are winning and bringing down the glee club by any means. Lynch delivers one liners like no other and she does so with relish. The frequently ridiculous opinions and reactions that Sue spouts without an ounce of self-awareness are a highlight of the series, and Lynch is so likable that even when Sue says the most horribly offensive things, viewers can’t help but root for her.


In addition to its regular cast, Glee has also managed to get some wonderful guest stars. Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, and Neil Patrick Harris have all had turns that showcase their considerable vocal abilities. Chenoweth, in particular, is excellent as April Rhodes, Will’s boozy, washed-up idol and former crush. She’s hilarious and outlandish in a role that seems tailor-made for her.


Unfortunately, Glee is not always successful is finding the balance between its more ludicrous plots points and the emotional components in the episodes. Terri’s fake pregnancy was unbelievable and at times, frustrating to watch. The love triangle between Finn (Cory Monteith), Quinn, and Rachel also loses some steam when Finn is often portrayed as weak and ineffectual. Sometimes, the ‘lesson of the week’ moments can also be a bit heavy-handed and they lose impact, especially when the series does such a good job of showcasing its cynical side. It can also be irritating to watch Finn get lead vocal after lead vocal when most of the other guys in glee club have better voices. Despite these stumbles, Glee still offers enough winning moments that its weaker ones are easily forgiven. 


The music on Glee is its strongest asset and one that is as inextricably linked with the series as any of its characters, maybe more so. For the most part, Glee’s music choices have been very smart. When used most successfully, the music can punctuate a scene perfectly. Whether it’s the triumphant use of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the end of the pilot or Rachel’s excellent duet with April Rhodes on “Maybe This Time” or Kurt’s emotional version of “Defying Gravity”, the show manages to stir the audience in ways only music can – and when it works, it really works. 


On the flipside, at times some of the music choices have been clumsy or even downright cringe-worthy. Will’s version of “The Thong Song” and Rachel’s duet with Finn’s friend Sean on U2’s “One” are examples of songs that seem unnecessary and even cheap, lessening the impact of better choices.
 
The songs used in the show frequently end up at the top of the iTunes charts the next day, making many artists eager to get in on the act. Music that is familiar gets a fresh twist when paired with just the right moment on the series. “Don’t Stop Believin”, a mainstay on classic rock radio for years, had already been given a new lease on life when it was used in the finalé of The Sopranos, but even now, is still further invigorated when used on Glee.
 
Glee’s blend of optimism and cynicism and jubilant performances and histrionics combine with a talented and engaging cast to make one of the most refreshing series to come along in some time. While it has had its uneven moments, it still manages to inject enough charisma and energy into the episodes on the whole that the series easily overcomes them. Soon the phenomenon that is Glee may be reaching the backlash stage, but for now it’s still a breath of fresh air. 


The DVD is full of extras that include numerous featurettes, behind-the-scenes, interviews, auditions, casting sessions, and promotional material. With over two hours of bonus features, it offers more insight into the genesis of the series and the precarious nature in making a show as untested as Glee was in terms of premise and the abilities of its cast. It’s a set that’s been put together well, and should please gleeks everywhere.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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