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Critic's Notebook: 'Glee' is at a crossroads

With the Fox hit reaching a high-water mark in scope and popularity, the producers face tough choices in moving the show beyond the novelty stage in its second season.


If a musical is ever made about Ryan Murphy and his amazing Technicolor cast creating "Glee," the big climax at the end of the first act should correspond to this particular moment in time.

The show has reached a peak, in terms of popularity and artistic ambition. In the last two weeks it's tackled two of the most controversial subjects of our time: religion and Britney Spears. The ratings are through the roof, the iTunes downloads just keep coming, and celebrities such as Amy Adams, Javier Bardem and future guest star Gwyneth Paltrow have all publicly expressed their enthusiasm for "Glee."

GLEE_BACKLOT_GALLERY_SLUG Like Rachel Berry (played by actress Lea Michele), the show's would-be Streisand who, musically at any rate, is the central character in this ensemble show, "Glee" is also wildly ambitious and earnest about what the lively arts can accomplish. If Murphy and his team had done nothing more than create a viable television series employing the structure of musical theater, that would have been enough; it's never really happened before in prime time. ("Cop Rock," no; and "The Singing Detective" hailed from the tony BBC.)

But "Glee" has gone further, using the softening agents of song and schticky humor to take a strongly left-leaning stance on issues including teen pregnancy, abstinence, gay visibility and the rights of the disabled. Grabbing huge audiences with these plotlines — not to mention its fundamental role as a cheerleader (pun intended!) for arts in the schools — it's a potent pop-cultural force in opposition to the rightward push of that other pop phenomenon of the moment, the Tea Party movement.

So, as Rachel might have sung in this week's Joan Osborne-honoring episode: Yeah, yeah, "Glee" is great. But in that fantasy musical about the show's rise, we'd be at the beginning of the second act right now — the point in the plot where things get more complicated.

So far this season, reviews have been mixed. The season opener was a plot-pusher, with download-courting but thematically pointless song choices such as the group rendition of "Empire State of Mind," serving "Glee"'s function as, to quote Daily Beast commentator Jace Lacob, "a singles delivery system."

The much-hyped Britney Spears-themed episode made clear that "Glee" watchers split into two camps: those who want a classic book-musical approach, with each song advancing the plot, and those in it for the more contemporary gratification of video re-creations and cover songs easily imitated on YouTube. Most recently, the God-in-a-sandwich musings of "Grilled Cheesus" in Tuesday's episode caused some to cry "too serious," even as others lauded its respectfulness toward spiritual diversity.

Behind these quibbles lie the questions that "Glee" must face as it moves beyond its impact as a novelty. How can it serve both the viewers who love its uplift and classic feel stemming from its musical theater roots, and those who love what scholar Christine Bacareza Balance has called its "karaoke aesthetics" — the "unabashedly public singing and unapologetic cover versioning" that connects it to the music of right now?

Connected to that formal issue is one related to the show's approach to characters. How can it revel in stereotypes, tapping into the broad humor of vaudeville, and yet move beyond them to do what television must ultimately do: present characters that viewers feel could be their friends?

The answer, I think, lies in a strong focus on the very contemporary pop-soul of "Glee." Like much of today's mainstream music, "Glee" is a hybrid: a mix of different approaches and historically unbound sounds. As it continues to refine the balance among its key elements, "Glee" can evolve into an enduring hit that, like other medium-advancing programs from "All in the Family" to "Lost," actually broadens the possibilities of television itself.

Musically, "Glee" is mostly three things. It's a twist on the book musical, using songs the way shows like "Oklahoma" or "Billy Elliott" do, to uncover the beating hearts of its stock characters and, periodically, to explosively propel the plot. Second, it updates the legacy of the cover band to suit the age of YouTube — it's no accident that Charice Pempengco, one of the newest cast members, found her initial fame through that democratizing medium. And finally, it's a celebration of the amateur voice, from show choir to the local bowling-alley lounge to the iPhone "Glee" karaoke app that brings the viewer into the experience.

Right now, "Glee" is showing the strain of reconciling its musical-theater side with its more contemporary elements, and not only in the weakly integrated numbers by breakout star Michele, who for all her talent sometimes literally stops the show. Most urgently, "Glee" needs to continue to refine its attitude toward stereotypes. Caricatures like Rachel's Jewish American princess, Kurt's (Chris Colfer's) "nelly" gay boy or the mannish women coaches Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and Shannon Beiste (Dot Jones) relate to this history — one that goes all the way back to minstrelsy, the knotty root of all American pop.

One function of musical theater has been to defuse the tensions of prejudice by making us laugh at the grotesques we create under its influence. "Glee" does this consistently and well. But with characters like Jacob Ben-Israel (Josh Sussman), the arguably anti-Semitic embodiment of Portnoy's complaint, or the infertile shrew turned vengeful ex-wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), the satire festers. This happens partly because "Glee" is not an old-fashioned musical: it's a series, and we trust that its characters will grow, at least incrementally.

Music can solve this problem. "Simple characters in a musical book can be full and memorable because they have the richness of music, song and dance to make them alive in performance," writes Richard Kislan in his history of the musical-theater form. That's happened, sometimes in predictable ways, with characters like the African American baby diva Mercedes (Amber Riley) and the as-yet silent "other Asian" Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.), who expresses himself through dance.

At the same time, "Glee" can tap into those other key elements in its makeup — the cover-band strain and the karaoke gene — to remind viewers how music affects and even transforms their own lives. The critic J.D. Considine has written that "Glee" reminds us that songs "belong to anyone, from fictional high school kids on TV to those at home watching and singing along."

This aspect of the show can't be stressed enough. Whatever "Glee" says about social mores, its key message is that music connects us, helps explain one person to another, and opens us up to grief or love. "We have to carry each other," sang the "Glee" kids last season, covering U2's "One," a song that demonstrates compassion musically. "Glee" shows how we do that, every time its characters carry a tune.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Cory Monteith, as Finn, prays to a sandwich in the "Grilled Cheesus" episode of "Glee." Credit: Fox


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Comments () | Archives (24)

3 seasons, thats how long I expect it to last in popularity. Once Rachel Berry leaves high school the show, no matter who replaces her, won't be the same.

Glee is great. I am 60 something and I think these individuals do a fine job of getting the message across to anyone who is willing to listen and then think about it.

Music is a universal language. Keep on singing, keep the story going and be willing to push the envelope Glee!

This is an overrated show, nothing more.

From the article:and the as-yet silent "other Asian" Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.), who expresses himself through dance.

He had the most heart breaking line of the season 1 finale: Before I joined the glee club, I'd only danced alone in my room.

the Brittany Spears episode lost me completely. Seriously, for me it just about killed the series in a single episode. combine that with the fact that the Rachel character looks about 30 something all of a sudden and the Will character is a whiny unlikeable guy and I am wondering what the heck I ever saw in the show.

If Murphy would think about more than just Kurt's storyline and give Michele a story that was thought out and not rushed he wouldn't have to throw in an extra song for her to sing.

Will the adult storyline goes nowhere too.

The writing need help so that the leads can have a interesting continuing storyline all season while the support cast has their stories through out individual episodes.

He can't give to much to some of the supporting cast becasue they have yet to prove they can act. Amber Riley can sing but as evident again in Grilled Cheesus just can't do drama.

"But "Glee" has gone further, using the softening agents of song and schticky humor to take a strongly left-leaning stance on issues including teen pregnancy... and the rights of the disabled."

So giving birth to the child of an unplanned pregnancy and disabled rights are "strongly left-leaning stance[s]?" And all these years I thought it was the left who said it was perfectly OK -- in fact, almost a requirement -- to dispose of a child before birth because it was inconvenient or less than perfect. Silly me!

Were none of the members of New Directions seniors last year? Are any of them seniors this year? Won't they have to graduate? Will there be a whole new cast next season? And the season after? What happened to the two new glee club members that got introduced a few weeks back with big numbers but haven't been seen since? Do any of these questions make sense? I don't get any of it.

Sorry. Just like "Will and Grace" this is actually an animated cartoon with real people playing the parts, as is made obvious by the clumsy and pervasive stereotyping. I'm glad it's at least trying to be a force for good, but really . . .

Left leaning...no illegals in the cast or roles?

The television series version of "Fame" successfully employed similar devices to those found in "Glee." I'm surprised Ms. Powers overlooked that. "Fame" jumped from NBC into syndication, where it had a fairly long run. While the show went through a few characters who graduated high school and left the show, it retained a few core members by making them instructors after they reached adulthood on the show.

Given "Glee"'s successes in so many platforms (television ratings, iTunes downloads and so on), I suspect Fox will hold on to it, much the same way that Fox has held on to "American Idol," long past the point where it's any good, so long as the network can promote the "Glee" brand.

Entertainment, not a diversity workshop, "Glee" does not need "to continue to refine its attitude toward stereotypes."

A creative genius, Ryan Murphy's scenes keep us laughing, singing, and glad to get to know the show's endearing characters and talented performers.

Following Ann Powers's create-by-the-numbers instructions would mostly likely suck the show's Mojo, cramp the performers' talents, and turn "Glee" sour.

Yes, actually, Timothy, silly you. Liberals believe it's YOUR CHOICE. So she would be free to have her baby or not, depending on her personal circumstances.

As opposed to some self-righteous stranger demanding she have the baby regardless of the circumstances. Someone like you, for example.

And just so you know--no liberal has EVER believed babies should be dumped like trash because they're inconvenient or less than perfect. They simply believe it's not your business to tell me mine. Sort of like the tea party--you know, those guys you hang out with.

Were none of the members of New Directions seniors last year? Are any of them seniors this year? Won't they have to graduate? Will there be a whole new cast next season? And the season after? What happened to the two new glee club members that got introduced a few weeks back with big numbers but haven't been seen since?
The answer to your first and I guess, second question: Last season they were mostly sophomores so you can guess where they are now. Will they have to graduate? At some point. But here's the thing... in TV land, when actually remains to be seen. 90210 practically had their cast in high school for 10 years. It's not unusual for a cast "to be in their high school" years for a prolonged period of time to keep up with the storyline. Just because an entire year passes by in the real world doesn't mean they'll treat it as so in a television series. As for the two characters (Sunshine and Sam, I think you're referring to?), they'll likely be introduced more as the season goes on allowing for their characters to be built up more.

As far as those calling it "overrated," I doubt the cast or crew cares. After 19 Emmy nominations, high ratings, and (mostly) continual praise from critics, I'm sure they find some way to sleep well at night.

At it’s best Glee is fabulous fun – but the show also has a LOT of flaws…

Here’s 7 tips to keep the series on top for seasons to come… written by a TV producer…


Where in the world did Ann Powers get the idea that this show is somehow in opposition to tea party sensibilities because it showcases singing, the disabled, and homosexuals? The tea party has to do with fiscal responsibility, not social medievality. Must authors track their political agendas onto every carpet? That being said, it’s nice to see that top flight performers are getting a prime time showcase for truly high quality performances, unlike the more typical in-your-face attitude without substance that so often passes for music today.

I love this show, having been in theater in high school and one of the only male members in choir (and incredibly I am straight although no one in high school thought I was), I can relate. These characters, especially Rachel are getting the self importance and quite frankly the delusion that most performers during that time of their life had.

Grandma, what's a "single"?

Also: it's literally impossible to know if something is at its "high-water mark" unless it's in decline, which if I'm not mistaken isn't really the case?

I'm 50 something and shocked that I would watch a show about a glee club in high school. But I'm amazed at all the chances it takes (mostly with success), the music (which I don't always like) and above of all, the talent (in front and behind the camera). I admit that as I watched "Grilled Cheesus", I got nervous. Has this show gone to far? By the end of the episode Cheesus wept and so did I. Brilliant.

One fun fact though, all the characters in the show were wrong concerning the 1st amendment. The Surpeme court has consitantly ruled that student led religion is ok. Also religion from a historical perspective etc is ok.

As long as Mr. Shue wasn't up there preaching, then he was fine.

@Dave Parker: Is what you wrote a criticism or just a random observation? Judging from the word "Sorry" at the beginning of what you wrote I'm assuming it's a criticism. However, what you describe is exactly the definition of musical theater (although "animated cartoon" is redundant and only vaguely makes the point I think you're trying to make). Musical theater is all about animating characters and over-playing pervasive stereotypes, so you're really just stating the obvious. Glee isn't Law and Order nor Will and Grace - those are dramas and sitcoms respectively. A musical is about abandoning your grasp on strict attention to a rational and thoughtful story arc. It doesn't have to be SO serious. Sure... a message can be conveyed, but it's exactly the whimsical and "draw outside the lines" freedom that a musical allows that provides the entertainment value. For example, the cheerleader character Brittney. Every line she utters is ridiculous, hysterical, and completely silly. That's what makes her character so perfect. My point is that instead of seeing what you call "an animated cartoon with real people playing the parts" as a negative thing, try seeing it for what it really is - a musical; meant to provide nothing more than entertainment and an hour of fun. There's really not much more to it. If they convey a thoughtful message along the way (all stories, be they comedy, drama, musical, etc., convey some type of message) then more power to it.

I loved the first season but I'm in the classic musical group. The songs should push the story along. They should add to the story, not be the story. This season it seems that the songs come first, and then they have to scramble a story line around that. Hate to think what West Side Story would've been if the movie was plotted around Gee, Officer Krupke.

THe Britney episode showed a lack of creativity and an over use of marketing and hype....misjudging Britney's popularity I think as she hasn't put out decent material for some time.

Also...left leaning? There is no leaning, they are over hugging the left wall.

Although I think they touched on way to serious a topic for a light hearted show, I wonder if they anyone noticed that the only one showing any kind of hate was Kurt, they gay kid, putting his friends on blast for their beliefs, when they actually accept him for who he is. Last I checked nobody on that show story wise was trying to shove beliefs down his throat.

Stop the Kurt after school specials. Give Rachel Berry a story that isn't rushed.

You have 2 leads give them sotries and let the weaker suporting cast do that jsut suppor theleads.

Too many bit players.


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