Friday, May 22, 2009

"Glee" Is Worthy of Fox's Interesting Publicity Stunt

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Fox finished the 2008-2009 season as the highest-rated network in the key 18-49 demographic, and in second position in total viewers. But if you scratch the surface a bit, you see the big hits that drove Fox's success are all getting long in the tooth. The network's biggest success, "American Idol," is showing its age, with the singing contest's finale scoring the lowest rating ever in the 18-49 demographic for any of the seasons' final episodes. And in addition to "Idol" crowning its eighth winner, "24" just wrapped up its seventh season on the air, and "House" will be entering its sixth term in the fall.

So despite Fox's high numbers, the one thing it has had trouble doing lately is launching a scripted hit. (In fairness, it's not like any of the networks are rolling in new hits now.) "Fringe" has been a critical darling with decent ratings and a loyal following, but the network is throwing it into the Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. fire next season, where it will have to battle ratings juggernauts "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI" (plus demographic-friendly comedies "The Office" and "30 Rock"). "Lie to Me" has generated respectable numbers, but the much buzzed about Joss Whedon creation "Dollhouse" didn't find more than a cult audience and barely survived for a second season, and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" was a high-profile disappointment that has been canceled.

One oft-cited reason for Fox's problems with launching new programs is that during the time when most networks introduce their new offerings to the American public, Fox is busy broadcasting the baseball post-season. With later debuts (or worse, shows making early bows and then disappearing for weeks during the games), the network was at a disadvantage.

So you have to give credit to Fox for looking for ways to reach viewers, as evidenced by this week's airing of the pilot of the one-hour musical/comedy "Glee." Knowing that it had the attention of millions of people with the next-to-last episode of "Idol," Fox slotted in "Glee" to follow it (even beginning a few minutes past the hour, further discouraging viewers from clicking to another network after "Idol" was done), even though the program won't begin its run until this fall. The screening thus served not only as a sneak preview, but as a basis for the network to amp up promotion over the summer.

Whether it works or not, the move was innovative and forward-thinking, and Fox deserves credit for giving it a shot. So I thought it was only fair for me to catch the pilot of "Glee" and see if it's worth waiting for.

To be clear: I have never seen any of the "High School Musical" movies. (The closest I got was being in the theater next-door to watch "Zack & Miri Make a Porno," and it was odd to walk through a sea of tweens to get to a film about two friends making an adult movie.) And I am not a big fan of Broadway musicals (I prefer plays). I am in no way the target audience for "Glee." Which is good news for Fox, since I actually liked the program. It helps that I am a big fan of rock music and keep up with which pop tunes are popular, since music is, obviously, a huge part of the show.

What separates "Glee" from the "HSM" franchise is that the true protagonist of the story is an adult, teacher Will (Matthew Morrison, like many in the cast, best known for turns on Broadway), who agrees to pay $60 a month for the right to take over the high school's glee club (that's how low it ranks on the principal's priority list). Will quickly realizes that he has taken on a huge challenge, when only five kids sign up for the group, four of whom are far from ideal candidates: a wheelchair-bound band geek (Arty, played by Kevin McHale, though not the basketball player who is more than a foot taller than him and 30 years his senior); a tone-deaf punk-esque outcast (Tina, played by Jenna Ushkowitz); a fashion-obsessed gay teen, who is regularly harassed by the football team (Chris Colfer's Kurt); and a plus-size diva-in-training who declares, "I'm Beyonce, I'm no Kelly Rowland" (Mercedes, played by Amber Riley). And the fifth, Rachel (Lea Michele), the stop-at-nothing aspiring star (so much so that she affixes a star next to her name whenever she signs it) with a huge voice and even bigger ego to go with it (she is uniformly despised at the school), is threatening to quit unless Will can find her a worthy leading man.

Will's personal life is a bit of a sitcom-friendly mess. He is married to his high school sweetheart, the pretty-but-demanding Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who has an addiction to Pottery Barn that they can't sustain on their meager salaries. (Terri works at the obviously -- but humorously -- named Sheets N Things, and she whines, "I am on my feet, four hours a day, three days a week.") Will and Terri want to have a baby, and Terri would like Will to work as an accountant instead of a teacher so she can have more of the material things she proudly covets.

Meanwhile, at school, Will is the not-so-secret object of a crush by the saucer-eyed, clean-freak teacher Emma (Jayma Mays, who, like several in the cast, did a turn on "Heroes," in her case as Charlie). When Will takes the kids on a field trip to see the school that won the glee club title the previous year, Emma eagerly signs up to chaperon, all to be closer to Will. I couldn't help feeling like Emma, as neurotic as she is (nobody has ever prepared and packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich more precisely than she does), is a better match for Will, since she is so much nicer than the shrill Terri. But just when you think things might be moving in that direction, Terri announces that she's pregnant, and Will gives his two-week notice at the school, setting off a traditional follow-your-bliss final act that culminates in Emma showing Will (and us) video of his performance in the 1993 glee club championships. Yes, high school stud Will was in the glee club, which is why he was so eager to take it over now.

Stephen Tobolowsky, the evil Bob on "Heroes," is very funny as the deeply-in-the-closet Sandy (he claims to have an out-of-town girlfriend in Cleveland, even as he rampages through Sheets N Things like the long-lost sixth star of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," who was kicked out for being obnoxious and tasteless), who preceded Will as glee club teacher, losing his job when Rachel made false claims that he sexually harassed a male student. (He didn't give her the part she wanted, which she thinks justifies the false claim.) Don't worry about Sandy, though. He landed on his feet as a pot dealer, selling his medically prescribed cannabis to teachers at the school, including the football coach.

On a drama or even a single-camera sitcom, Will's cliched lesson of doing what makes you happy rather than what will pay the bills (it's nice to live in TV land, where bills magically pay themselves) would be enough to make you dismiss the show. In fact, all the plot lines in "Glee" come together way too quickly and neatly. But it's all besides the point. In the hands of creator Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck"), the show is in on the joke. It's all about the comedy and the music, and, in a way, exposing the silliness of pop culture. And on that level it works.

I think one of the reasons I related to the show is that the adults are not just there as props for the kids. As you can see, I wrote paragraphs about the plot without even mentioning one of the key teen characters: quarterback Finn (Cory Monteith, who, by the way, is 27, which tells you a lot about the approach of "Glee"). Will tricks Finn (using a pot sample gifted to him by Sandy) into joining glee club (and providing a suitable male lead for Rachel) after Will hears Finn singing in the shower (the so-awful-it's-great REO Speedwagon ballad "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore"). We learn in flashbacks that Finn has secretly been into music, ever since his mom's boyfriend sang Journey's "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'" with him and complimented his abilities. (And it wasn't the last Journey appearance in the episode.)

When we meet Finn, we know he's not like the other jocks, because he makes his teammates allow Kurt to take off his new Marc Jacobs jacket before they throw him into the dumpster. Like Will, he is tempted by another woman (Rachel awkwardly intimates her interest in him) while in a relationship (he is dating a bible-loving, chastity-preaching cheerleader who seems to have forgotten any and all Christian teachings about being nice, as we see her rip into Rachel at one point). And like Will, Finn has a follow-your-bliss resolution to his story arc, preventing his teammates from rolling Arty around in a porta-potty and rejoining glee club so he can connect with his love of music (while continuing to play football).

The final scene, a dress rehearsal in which the club has put together on its own (before Will returns) an elaborate production number to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" (I told you), is a lot of fun. It capped off a full hour of musical references, as the kids sang everything from "On My Own" from "Les Miserables" to Aretha Franklin's (actually, Otis Redding's) "Respect" to a spectacularly awful version of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." And, of course, the inevitable "You're the One that I Want" from "Grease," which let "Glee"'s Sandy and Danny (Rachel and Finn) have their moment. Not to mention the rival school's Broadway-caliber production of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab," which left both Will and his charges amusingly dumbstruck.

Two other elements of "Glee" warrant notice. First, the great Jane Lynch (of, well, seemingly everything, from Christopher Guest's improv films to playing the creepily horny store manager in "The 40 Year Old Virgin") is funny and convincing as the drill-sergeant leader of the cheerleading squad. (The first line of the pilot is Lynch yelling through a megaphone to her team: "You think this is hard? Try getting waterboarded.") When Lynch lays out for Will the cruel iron-clad class divisions in high school, she is at once matter-of-fact and entertaining. Second, the score of glee is all done a capella, which is especially impressive since, at times, you wouldn't even realize it unless you listened carefully, while at other times the vocals are played up for effect. It's a neat little creative element that adds to the atmosphere of the show.

In the end, "Glee" is a sprawling, sometimes-over-the-top, fun, joyful hour of silly entertainment, so full of, yes, glee, that even I was not immune to its charm. I'm not proud, but it's true. And just think, if Fox hadn't come up with the sneak preview idea to try and call attention to its new show, I may never have even watched it in the first place.

(You can watch the pilot of "Glee" online here.)