I’d be lying if I said that the pilot of Ryan Murphy’s Glee was perfect. It was far from it, but so much of the show is so winning that it’s easy to overlook its few flaws and fully embrace it. It’s not a silly musical in the slightest. Ryan Murphy has always treated music with much more respect than that, even when he’s being ironic or cheeky during surgeries on Nip/Tuck. On that show, the surgery music is used to dig deeply into something as seemingly superficial as plastic surgery. Sometimes it’s funny (such as the use of Don McLean’s “Vincent” during a surgery in which Rosie O’Donnell as Dawn Budge gets a transplant ear grown on a mouse’s back . . . it’s a long story), and sometimes it’s incredibly moving (to this day, I can’t hear Leo Delibes “Flower Duet” without thinking about conjoined twins Rose and Raven Rosenburg, who died after their separation surgery and asked to be put back together when they were buried).
On Glee, the music functions as it should in any great musical: it’s intended to give us an insight into the characters, and I can think of no better example of this than Lea Michele’s (Broadway’s Spring Awakening) audition song for the new glee club, “On My Own” from Les Miserables. I hate Les Mis, but to hear Rachel Berry sing it while hearing about her backstory was the most sublime use of that song. You see, despite the fact that Rachel’s two gay dads raised her to be an overachiever and to strive to be known in the world because “being anonymous is worse than being poor,” she’s lambasted by her peers for being talented, for being different. She posts daily MySpace videos of herself singing in her bedroom, all of which receive comments from her peers basically suggesting she should kill herself (cyberbullying that would probably destroy someone with less self-confidence). She also often has things thrown at her, because for as much of a type-A personality as she is, Rachel is, in fact, on her own. She might be a little cocky and a little dogged in her quest to be special, as evidenced by her claim that the former glee club director molested the boy he gave Rachel’s solo to, but there is something in her that deserves to be recognized for who she is. And there is a tremendous sadness in the fact that no one sees her specialness but her . . . and her two gay dads.
So with the former glee club director out of the picture and the club in danger of being shut down, Matthew Morrison’s Spanish teacher Will Shuster decides he should take over. After all, Will sees that these kids need a place where they won’t be bullied, and where they can cultivate their talent. But as usual, the activities in which the popular kids reign get more funding, especially The Cheerios, the cheer team coached by Jane Lynch, which receives the bulk of the school’s budget because they keep winning national competitions and bringing the school a lot of press, which ultimately means more funding. So Will is allowed to operate glee club, recently renamed New Directions (which is weird for me, because that’s the name of a counseling center that a friend I know from high school theatre works for), on a $60 budget, which struck me as incredibly realistic given the dire nature of arts education in America, by which I mean, the lack thereof. But even that $60 budget eventually gets cut and Will is asked to run New Directions with his own $60, something that is, for him, very difficult because he lives off his teaching salary and his wife’s 12-hours-a-week job at Sheets and Stuff.
We meet a lot of characters over the course of this hour-long pilot, but even though there are some of the glee kids we don’t know all that well, I’d say that Jessalyn Gilsig’s Terri is the least well-drawn. Terri is obsessed with an idea of womanhood that allows her to contribute little to her marriage and spend all of her time crafting and decorating. She’s largely just a stand-in for the thing that’s holding Will back from what he really wants from life. But that said, I think Jessalyn Gilsig, as always, turns in a brilliant performance of very little material. I mean, this is a woman who nearly suffocated her own daughter in a cargo hold (on Heroes) and, more importantly, a woman who got fucked off a building (on Nip/Tuck). I am certainly not used to her playing someone demure, and she creates a sort of quiet insanity in Terri that makes her seem both utterly unreal and yet absolutely the kind of woman who thinks her life should be what she sees in magazines. She is deeply shallow, and I think there’s something exceptional about placing a character like that amongst so many other deeply real people. She’s a wonderful contrast.
[Husband Note: Gilsig also did wonders with the quite poorly written role of teacher Lauren “The Nun” Davis on Boston Public, as well an incredible job as the oblivious sister-in-law-party-girl-way-past-her-prime on Friday Night Lights. She’s not the best actor, but she’s a serviceable television performer, and that’s good enough for me.]
Because Terri won’t give Will an extra $60 a month to run glee club (as she’d rather spend it on trinkets from Pottery Barn and crafts), he tries to drum up more membership around the school, taking guidance counselor Emma’s (the lovely and talented Jayma Mays) advice to recruit a few popular kids into glee club, and the rest will follow. He tries to get a few Cheerios in the club, but Jane Lynch’s Sue refuses to give up her girls, setting up a rivalry between the glee kids and the cheerleaders that I’m sure will continue throughout the series. But then, by a stroke of luck, he catches football star Finn singing in the shower, and blackmails him into joining glee club by “planting” some weed from the Chronic Lady (the former glee club director’s new profession: dealing weed) in his locker and telling him that he can spend six weeks in detention (which Will is now running, unpaid, due to budget cuts) which will go on his permanent record, or he can join glee. There was a moment in this scene that I truly loved because it was very representative of how Glee likes to play with cliches from high school movies. Will tells Finn that if he chooses detention, it’ll stay on his permanent record and they’ll take away his football scholarship. Finn asks, incredulously, “I got a football scholarship? To where?” And because that’s just something Will said because he heard it in a movie, he continues on, “You could go places, son.”
With Finn in the club, Will takes New Directions to see the current national show choir champions, and Emma decides to chaperone, as Terri has already turned Will down for some crafting-related outing. Emma, who clearly likes Will, is something of a germaphobe, a trait Jayma Mays does not play up for comic effect, but rather allows into the open with a kind of reserved sadness. In addition to cleaning surfaces in the teacher’s lounge with disposable gloves before she eats off of them, she brings her own food, even to public events, ands he and Will have a conversation about the state of his marriage to Terri over a peanut butter sandwich prior to the choir concert. Over that sandwich, which he says he never gets to eat because Terri is allergic to nuts, he confesses that he’s not entirely happy with his marriage. There’s just something about his relationship with Terri that isn’t working, but he rationalizes that it’s okay because he does love her, and he does want to have children with her, even if they aren’t totally happy. If you want to know why they’re not happy, look at the scene in which Terri makes Will do a puzzle with her in her craft room while she tells him it’s important for him to have a creative outlet, while in the same breath telling him that she doesn’t want him to run glee club because they don’t make enough money with him teaching. She’d rather he be an accountant, the epitome of jobs that lack creativity.
The rival choir puts on a ridiculous performance of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” which is stunningly choreographed and sounds great, but is obviously wildly inappropriate for a high school choir to sing and is incredibly funny if you absolutely don’t ever take your mind off of the lyrics. You just can’t do choreographed lifts when you’re singing a line like, “I’m gonna lose my baby / so I always keep a bottle near me.” (On the other hand, though, I think you absolutely can sing “I Kissed a Girl” for a glee club audition, because that’s just funny.) Clearly, a performance of that caliber is intimidating, but that’s not all of the problems facing New Directions. Finn’s teammates find out that he’s been lying to them about where he had to go when he missed practice. They are not pleased that he pretended his mom was having prostate surgery, and pelt him with paintballs. (“Chicks don’t have prostates. I looked it up.”) Finn eventually stands up to his football teammates when he finds that they’ve locked the wheelchair kid in a port-a-potty, telling them that, like Troy Bolton in High School Musical, he’s not going to choose between being a jock and being a singer. He’s going to do both. “Because you can’t win without me, and neither can they,” he snarls.
And when Terri announces that she’s pregnant, Will quits, following his wife’s suggestion to apply for a job at an accounting firm, leaving his newly formed club without a mentor. Emma tries to talk some sense into him, setting him up with a guidance appointment with her when she catches him filling out an accounting application at H.L. Mencken (oddly, named after a writer and literary critic for the Baltimore Sun who had some interesting ideas on elitism within social classes, rather than a traditional class or race-based social hierarchy . . . I must miss Lost a lot if I’m looking for these kind of references on other shows). Emma shows Will a video of the year the school’s glee club won nationals. It was 1993, and Will was in that choir. And he was happy. She asks him if providing money for his wife and child is really the same thing as providing them happiness, but being a man of his word, he heads off, presumably never to return.
Meanwhile, Rachel and Finn have taken over New Directions and have recruited the jazz band to help them stage their first performance, with Mercedes doing costumes, Rachel choreographing and Finn doing vocal arrangements. As Will heads down the eternal hallway, he hears them singing strains of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” another instance of perfect music choice. Not only does it serve as a ballad for these kids who just want to believe they’re good at something, but for soloists Finn and Rachel, those opening lines serve as portraits of themselves. Never before have I been teary-eyed hearing someone sing, “Just a small town girl / Living in a lonely world” or the phrase “S/he took the midnight train goin’ anywhere” until last night. They took that song, and made it transcendent – enough to make me believe in the beauty, sadness, humor and joy of this little show and enough to convince Will not to leave, but to remain with New Directions.
This is a show about lonely, sad people, trying to find something that actually makes them happy, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t made happy by music. So even for those of you who don’t really like or get musicals, know that Glee is simply about people trying to find happiness, and that happiness is achieved through music. I also take that last song as something of a plea to those of us who watched Glee and everyone at FOX, executives who clearly believe in taking a risk like this enough to promote it now and schedule it for Wednesdays at 9 p.m. throughout next season, picking up on SYTYCD results shows and Idol results shows as a built-in audience. FOX wants us to believe in Glee, and I do. Your Journey-infused plea has not fallen on deaf ears, Ryan Murphy.
I believe, I believe, I believe. Oh, I believe.
Some other notes:
- “I’m Beyonce! I aint’s no Kelly Rowland.” – Really, Mercedes? Because you seemed so happy to be asked to do costumes later in the episode. Are you sure you don’t want to host The Fashion Show on Bravo?
- For as much of a monster as I think Jessalyn Gilsig’s Terri is, she’s really funny. Two winners from her: “If my diabetes comes back I can’t get pregnant” and “Don’t go in the Christmas Closet!”
- I’m told the first episode aired in the fall will be a re-edited pilot. My first edit: eliminating the references to MySpace and replacing it with something more culturally relevant. Like the word, “Facebook.” Or maybe even “YouTube” in some cases.
- Spring Awakening fans, that last line was for you.
I honestly thought we were going to wait to review this show until the fall, but as it stands, here it is.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to find many parallels, mostly in tone and narration, between Glee and Alexander Payne’s biting 1999 high school satire Election. Not only do we get some wonderfully insightful yet overly self-centered internal monologues from our main characters at only the most opportune times, and also revel in both the show’s insistence on clichés and its subversion of them, but Cory Montheith, the actor who plays Finn, bears a striking resemblance to a young Chris Klein. (You know, before Chris Klein started sucking.)
This is quite a show, just from the pilot, what with its heightened emotions, its parody of high school affectations, its very focused jokes and, of course, the usage of Journey. True, there were some considerable lulls, and I thought the Finn transformation happened way too early, but there is definitely something special about this show. A dramedy of the highest order, I hope it helps brings even more respect to the musical form.
And on that, some might argue this isn’t a musical. Yes it is. It’s just not a “traditional musical.” People don’t have to break out into song, but simply have the music define much of the piece itself. And Ryan Murphy, as my wife pointed out, is very specific about his song choices, so “Don’t Stop Believin’” as sung by Finn and Rachel, knowing what we know about them, defines who they are, amplifies their backstory, and fits perfectly into this world. Sounds like a musical to me. Definitely as much of a musical as Cabaret.