At the crossroads
The second season of Glee is showing the strain of reconciling its musical-theatre side with its more contemporary elements.
The second season of Glee is showing the strain of reconciling its musical theatre side with its more contemporary elements.
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.
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 TV series employing the structure of musical theatre, that would have been enough; it’s never really happened before in prime time.
Glee has gone further, using the softening agents of song and shticky humour to take a strongly Heather Morris portrays Britney Spears in the
episode of 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 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 the Joan Osborne-honouring 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, 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 Spearsthemed episode made clear that Glee watchers split into two camps: those who want a classic bookmusical approach, with each song advancing the plot, and those in it for the more contemporary gratification of video re-creations and cover songs on YouTube.
Most recently, the God-in-asandwich musings in the episode Grilled Cheesus 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 theatre 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 humour 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, the series 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 programmes 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 Elliot 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 democratising 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 musicaltheatre 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 JewishAmerican princess, Kurt’s (Chris Colfer) “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 theatre 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. — Los Angeles Times/ McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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