Midway into the pilot of Glory Days, two men have the following exchange in a small-town diner:
“We were best friends, how could you think I was gay?”
“I didn’t. I don’t. Are you?”
My first impression of the show mirrors the ambivalence of this answer. I saw the pilot, but I’m still not sure how the show intends to blend the weird of The X-Files, now in its last season, with everyday teen problems of Dawson’s Creek, Glory‘s creator Kevin Williamson’s longstanding hit series. At the time when almost every other TV drama seeks to provide easy answers to U.S.A.‘s international crisis, this one impresses by its utter lack of direction.
According to its promotional ads, Glory Days belongs in a long line of eerie-tv work, including David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Chris Carter’s The X-Files, and any miniseries authored by Stephen King. Evidently, Glory Days’ protagonists hold the same opinion. At 21, Mike Dolan left his hometown, Glory, and wrote a best-selling murder mystery, incidentally called Glory Days. His novel portrayed the townspeople as freaks, his father’s accidental death as a murder, a local waitress Hazel Walker (Theresa Russell) as the killer, and his best friend Rudy Dunlop (Jay Ferguson) as a gay simpleton.
The series begins as, four years later, Dolan comes back home, broke and reviled by relatives and former friends. On the ferry back to Glory, the small island town near Seattle, Mike becomes the only witness to a murder when he sees someone push a man overboard. The trouble is, no one believes him. The locals agree that “body count” in their town is high, but consider Mike’s morbid Glory an invention. As Hazel puts it, when Mikes asks her how she is doing, “Words can’t describe . . . Accurately.”
Mike immediately butts into the investigation, conducted by his former friend Rudy, now the sheriff, and forensic pathologist Ellie Sparks (Poppy Montgomery), who did not grow up in Glory and hence has nothing against him. Her no-nonsense demeanor combines the traits of the women investigators in CSI, as well as The X-Files’ Dana Scully. Like CSI geeks, she has a penchant for morbid experiments of dubious scientific value, such as monitoring the decomposition of corpses stored in her garden. Like Scully, she firmly believes in scientific explanations, and uses Glory’s high mortality rate to advance her teaching career: when she discovers a fingerprint on the victim’s ass, proving that he was pushed, she notes to herself to demonstrate the procedure to her students.
Similarly, the teenaged characters are fairly matter of fact, demonstrating that adolescent life can be weird without being supernatural. Sam Dolan (Emily Van Camp), Mike’s youngest sister, is the only relative who is happy to see him come home. And she and Ellie are the two people who point out the obvious, that Mike’s novel was his way of dealing with his father’s death, rather than a real roman a clef. Part of the premiere episode’s mystery involves an “illicit” activity pursued by Sam and her friends—a homespun “Grim Reaper” board game that prompts them to play jokes on their neighbors, such as filling a mailbox with dead fish. But their problems have more to do with their parents and love lives, all fairly standard issue for teens.
By contrast to this matter-of-factness, the show’s treatment of sexuality is almost coy. The pilot makes much of Rudy’s alleged homosexuality, devoting at least three one-liners and one heart-to-heart talk to the subject. But all the while, it suggests but does not quite demonstrate, that there are none and never were any gay people in Glory, and Rudy is the only victim of any sort of prejudice. In this way, the show at once explores the subject and avoids it, and also leaves it open for future episodes.
At first glance, the pilot ties up too many loose ends for a serial production, as if its creators fear cancellation before the storyline gets a chance to develop. Wonder who sent Mike the note that lured him back to Glory? Sam already confessed. Increasing numbers of cases of pranks, break-ins, vandalism, and indecent exposure? Part of the “Grim Reaper” game invented by Sam’s childhood friend and admirer, Zane Walker (Ben Crowley). What about Mike’s tensions with relatives and townspeople? Well, Hazel, whom Mike portrays as a murderer in his book, all but forgives him for saving her son’s life in the pilot’s final moments; Mike’s other sister, Sara Dolan (Amy Stewart), offers him a job reporting for the family newspaper, The Glory Gazette; and Rudy warms up after solving the murder case (and it turns out there is very little scientifically or psychologically weird about this: a wife’s lover has murdered her husband, a trivial family affair).
By the end of the first episode, apart from Mike’s dad’s still unresolved and allegedly accidental death, little is left to support the town’s reputation for creepiness. In fact, it resembles a drawn-out version of Williamson’s Scream and its sequels—a parody of a horror film rather than the real thing. In a “scary movie,” most terrifying scenes reveal a prank or an innocent bystander, and only rarely, usually at the very end, does the film conform to the rules of earnest horror. In a TV series, the pranks and false alarms will conceivably outweigh the terror even more than in a two-hour film.
Still, Glory Days stands out because of what it does not (at least not yet) dwell on: no threats to national security, no supernatural villains, no venom-spitting aliens, no openly gay or transsexual characters, just to name a few. Because it leaves open the possibility that all these issues could still be addressed, the show still has a chance to explore these topics with irony and common sense, rather than with saccharine earnestness that has invaded the current TV season.