Glee bounces onto the screen as a mishmash of genres, each with a long and, to be honest, hackneyed history. A likeable high-school teacher, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) hopes to escape a home life from hell by reinventing the school’s once award-winning glee club. Because all the money goes to the cheerleading squad and all the glory to the football team, Will is left with no budget, a crew of misfits, and no place to rehearse. His principal would rather rent the school auditorium to Alcoholics Anonymous than let the glee club practice there.
The show’s most immediate ancestor is the hectic rah-rah of the “let’s put on a show” musical, and its TV offshoots like Fame. Then there’s the underdog subgenre, where losers of one kind or another battle adversity and prejudice in pursuit of their art, the hero (or, occasionally, heroine) winning a contest with raw talent and heart. Glee draws as well as from stories of high school’s lower castes, where freaks and geeks prove human too. The lessons are many: follow your passions, no matter who mocks you. Think for yourself. It’s okay to be poor if you do what you love.
The result of all this cliché-lifting should be a mess. Instead, it’s an exhilarating hour satirizing American socialization processes, with a wicked soundtrack. Creator and writer Ryan Murphy (formerly guru of nip/tuck and Popular, an obvious precursor to Glee), along with co-writers Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, works this alchemy through complex characters, acid dialogue, and sharp performances. The cast includes Broadway stars like Morrison and Lea Michele, who plays Rachel, the diva daughter of two devoted Dads, not to mention the glee club’s most talented singer, as well as TV and film veterans like Jane Lynch, as lean, mean, cheerleading coach Sue—clearly longing to deploy her handheld blender on something meatier than milk and protein powder. This mix proves effective: each player resists the temptation to parody, instead highlighting characters’ endearingly awkward efforts to navigate everyday life unharmed.
These kids and adults appear exactly as they would to someone who pretty much despises them, every quirk exaggerated and every weakness magnified. Rachel starts her daily MySpace post by snapping open the legs on her video camera tripod with the deadly energy of a battlefield sniper. Will’s wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) hopes to use his ardent desire for a child to push him into more lucrative employment as an accountant; she claims exhaustion from a job that keeps her on her feet “four hours a day, three days a week.” Emma (Jayma Mays), a fellow teacher with a crush on Will, dons plastic gloves to wipe down the lunch room table, then finds herself prostrated on a campus bench by bubblegum on her high-heeled pump. Quarterback Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), whom Will bribes into the glee club with a wholly invented marijuana bust, marks his four-month anniversary with his girlfriend Quinn (Dianna Agron), even as she presides over the celibacy club. It’s all hyperbole, sharp caricatures of conventional aspirations for money, love, prestige, and fame.
It’s also very touching. Will’s own limits are laid out when he acclaims half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, banned at home because his wife is allergic to nuts, as the best sandwich he has ever eaten. The pudgy football coach (Patrick Gallagher) drives everywhere in a golf cart and leers at Emma, encouraged to persist by a politeness he is too obtuse to read as distaste. One of the cruelest cons perpetrated on the young is the promise that adolescence is merely a particularly unpleasant “phase.” Glee, with malicious joy and some sympathy, reveals the adult world no less uncertain and delusional.
By the end of this first episode, Glee recalls Friday Night Lights more strongly than it does its obvious comedic predecessors. Both series evoke the ambiance of a declining town on the far edge of the American dream: in Glee, it’s the rustbelt Midwest of Lima, Ohio, where the population has dropped by a third since the 1950s. Lack of hope pervades the student body; as Will remarks, “There’s no joy in these kids… That’s why they all have a MySpace page.” Only half of their high school graduates go to college, and very few ever leave the state to do so. “We’re all losers here,” Finn tells the football cronies who still think brute force and athletic skill guarantee success. More clear-eyed than teachers, the students in Glee are already facing an America in economic decline, with only evanescent celebrity as a strategy for escape.
Such daunting themes are hardly resolved in this “premiere event.” Though Finn exhibits delight as he crosses caste lines to play football and to sing, his claim that the team can’t win without him isn’t absolutely assured. We’re left wondering how long it will take Will to see through his wife’s machinations. Will the principal’s need for money kick the glee club out of school? Will Emma win Will or will Sue emasculate him so thoroughly that he leaves the school forever?
These open questions pose something of a problem. Fox and the production team have scheduled Glee’s premiere directly after the concluding segment of American Idol, a strategy to cross over an audience primed to appreciate popular music and the triumph of the unknown. No more episodes will appear, however, until this fall. The summer is a risky hiatus, even for well-established shows, especially now that the summer season nurtures its own crop of steady earners for both the networks and cable. We all have to wait to see how much of that Idol audience returns, just as we have to wait to see Murphy and crew can keep the satire popping.