My Problem With “Glee”

November 8th, 2010 § 0 comments

Before I am beset by rampaging hordes of “gleeks” incensed by the title of this entry, let me state for the record that I am in fact a fan of the television series Glee. I have seen every episode to date, save one (due to an unfortunate DVR mishap). While I don’t place it in my TV pantheon along with The Sopranos (1st season only),Hill Street Blues (yes, I’m old), the first ten years or so of The Simpsons, and the glorious Slings and Arrows (if you’ve never seen it, you must), I enjoy and applaud Glee for its championing of artistic expression, of the importance of pursuing what you love even when others would belittle you for that love. Frankly, even if the series were little more than musical numbers interspersed with the inspiring and heart-breaking scenes between Chris Colfer and Mike O’Malley, I would enthusiastically endorse it.

But as with members of our family, we can care for them and still have issues with them. So it is with me and Glee.

Glee disappoints me because I feel that it stints in one area. I am willing to admit that perhaps I am setting the bar too high, or asking something which is beyond the range that the show’s creators wish to tackle, and I am a strong advocate for judging the work of creative artists based on their parameters, not my own. I should also share with you that when I once ventured to discuss this issue with the arts editors at a major U.S. daily newspaper, I received the verbal equivalent of a “slushie attack,” the form of ridicule so thoughtfully re-popularized by Glee‘s writers and producers.

So now that I’ve built it up, let me simply state my problem: when do these kids actually rehearse?

Think about it. We see the students in the show choir rehearsal room on every episode, where they discuss song choice – but then they either break right into that song, fully arranged (with musicians who magically and disappear as necessary) and note perfect (except when dramatic effect requires something less than perfection and they turn off the auto-tuner), or they are whisked into a flight of fantasy in which they are costumed, made-up, choreographed, coiffed, lit, and edited within an inch of their life in settings that even Sue Sylvester’s cheering budget couldn’t afford. The vague bows in the direction of rehearsal always seem to take place in someone’s bedroom, involving both lip-syncing and lip-locking in most every instance, or if they’re actually on a stage, the rehearsal usually ends suddenly due to someone’s personal crisis.

Obviously you could look at this in many ways. The show is, like all scripted television (and in fact most “reality” television), a gloss on life and why should we expect fidelity to accuracy? Or perhaps Glee is something more than that, a descendent of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, in which every musical moment is a fantasy counterpoint to the harsh realities of life? Maybe the entire show is an obscure metaphor, and in its final episode we will discover everything took place in the mind of an autistic child?

All that aside, Glee is squandering what could be its most valuable and longest lasting asset. Let’s face it, in less than a season and half Glee has become America’s leading public advocate for arts education in our schools. It weekly champions the glory and beauty of musical performance, and packages it in a manner which is drawing audiences presumably beyond just the high school students it portrays. It is wise enough to show teachers who get carried away by sublimating their own ambitions through the achievements of their students, but doesn’t have the courage to show that performance is actually hard work, not an endless series of divine musical inspirations that have singers knocking everything out of the park at the very first mention.

The football team and cheerleaders practice, and are coached. But when did Mr. Schuester last say, “Let’s take it again from the bridge,” or “Someone was flat in there. Was it you, Rachel?” As a former high school chorus member (though the show choir concept was alien to me when the series began, and thank god I never encountered it, as I can sing but not even “move” well), I recall being drilled over and over in material we were to perform, working from something quaintly known as “sheet music,” which you can now download illegally from the internet (but that’s another blog entirely, already written by Jason Robert Brown).

Accepting the fictional construct behind the show, I can liken Glee most closely to sports movies, like The Rookie and even Major League, in which an underdog or group of misfits fight their way from the very bottom to the very top. But part of what makes those films so emotionally stirring is that we see how hard the athletes have to work to achieve their goal and as we watch them do so, we become part of their struggle to defeat the odds and triumph when no one had any belief that they could ever do so. Would Rocky have been half so effective had we not seen Stallone punching sides of beef, drinking raw eggs and running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum?

Young people (and their parents, who can effect arts funding) would surely benefit from the occasional scene of rehearsal struggles, which show the rigor of true performance, show that kids need the arts and the arts need support, that we don’t just open our throats and sound like Barbra, but have to work at it. And even for those tens of thousands who will never achieve the perfection put forth by Glee and the recording stars who both the characters and their viewers idolize, isn’t it important that we see the efforts to achieve if indeed show choir is a competitive event, and that even those who don’t make the cut, or don’t pursue it professionally, will make the audiences – and understanding parents – of tomorrow? One does not magically become great, let alone a star, without work and sacrifice.

Glee has ratings and buzz, which in the world of television, means that Glee has power. But as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben taught us, with great power, comes great responsibility. Do you hear me Ryan Murphy? You’ve done a lot, but there’s more to be done. The great work begins.

* * *
 My advocacy is complete. I will leave the following to your own discussion, for extra credit:

1. Who is the guy with the beard at the piano, and why is his presence never really acknowledged? Is he Matt Groening? Is he invisible?
2. Who is running the drama club at this school, and aren’t they awfully upset, especially over a Rocky Horror production that was to come to full fruition in only two weeks, without any consultation?
3. Is Heather Morris playing a barely disguised version of herself, or is she actually giving, through underplaying, the most brilliant performance on television today?
4. Is Show Choir a class or an extracurricular activity, and does anyone at this school ever learn “The Hallelujah Chorus”?
5. Is Kristin Chenoweth playing “the Dennis Hopper role” on Glee (from Hoosiers, people, not Speed)?


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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