Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Musgo likes a good high school television show. High school is a ripe setting for emotional and dramatic storylines. We have been living in the ultimate era of TV shows that revolve around teenagers and their schools. Musgo has decided to take a deeper look at one of the biggest success stories for this genre, Glee – The Complete First Season released on Blu-ray this month. The show has not lacked for overcoverage from FOX and print media in the past year, not to mention Golden Globe awards, People’s Choice awards, and even Emmy awards. With all that has been written about the show, Musgo will try to step outside the hype machine and take a look at what makes the series’ ratings hum along at such a fast pace.
We’ve come a long way since Archie, Jughead, and Reggie were hanging out at Riverdale High School. The high school based show can encompass many different genres. The simplest solution for much of the ’70s and ’80s was to use high school as a medium to bring together a diverse group of teen actors. In most cases, the adults were mostly window dressing or as merely a catalyst to help the students learn a lesson. I don’t think that demeans the quality of the genre. Within that setup many shows found ways to feature exciting new actors and make some really funny shows. Shows like Room 222 and Welcome Back, Kotter let the students run the show despite being nominally about the teacher.
Many of the shows that followed, would embrace the ensemble high school cast but only use the classroom and even the school setting as just a jumping off point. Shows like Head Of The Class, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, and even the Saturday morning staple Saved By The Bell used their large casts of students to tell traditional sitcom stories but also used more traditional aspects of soap opera love relationships to expand the possibilities of storylines.
At the same time, there was a parallel movement of quality teen dramas set in or around high schools. In the dramas, the casts of students either seemed to be much smaller or the stories moved quickly out of the high school. One of my favorites, James at 15, was very introspective for a teen show and addressed “real” issues in the context of a teenager’s life, like his first sexual experience being more a normal event and not the type of decision that is fretted over for months like in other shows. This show and The White Shadow among others, set the bar for dramas that would incorporate more adult storylines like Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and My So-Called Life.
New networks like The WB and UPN positioned themselves as “teen friendly” networks. They didn’t just bridge the gap between Disney shows like Even Stevens and traditional network adult fare. These networks took chances and pushed the envelope for everyone. A show like Buffy The Vampire Slayer took the high school genre and combined it with the horror genre. Alone, the horror genre, does not seem to be able to sustain a lengthy series. But mixed with a group of attractive and hilarious teenagers, the show set a new bar for shows with a high school setting. These networks pushed the bigger boys with Popular, One Tree Hill, Veronica Mars, and still today with The Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries.
NBC was the only larger network that seemed to embrace the creative freedom of mixing genres in a high school setting. They aired the groundbreaking Freaks and Geeks and have stood behind the critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights. Once again, like Buffy, FNL takes a genre that can’t stand on its own – the sports-themed show – and mixes it with a healthy dose of teen drama. The show has consistently found a way to tell dramatic, real stories and work the drama around the small town football theme.
Glee debuted on Fox in May of 2009 after an episode of the most popular show of the past decade American Idol – which also happens to attract people who like singing. The show took a unique marketng strategy. Only the pilot episode aired in May. That episode was then available online through a number of sites for the rest of the summer. FOX believed that they could create a buzz through the summer and give everyone a chance to show their friends that first episode. Those initial post-Idol ratings weren’t matched in September but the ratings were promising. The show aired 12 episodes before taking a hiatus and making room for a new season of American Idol. That break was just what the show needed. People were able to see episodes, the music from the show was all over retail outlets for the holidays and when it returned after Idol in April for nine more episodes, the show had become a true phenomena.
It’s hard to imagine that most people don’t know the basic premise of the show. It’s about a group of students who form a Show Choir or Glee Club in their high school in Lima, Ohio. The group is initially formed with all of the stereotypical characters required for every high school comedy or drama – there’s the jock who can sing, the “geeky” girl who no one in the school seems to realize is beautiful, the fat black girl who can sing her butt off, the overly gay male, the quiet but talented Asian girl, and a musically gifted geek in a wheelchair. The teaching staff is equally as stereotypical. The Glee group, New Directions, is led by Will “Shoe” Schuester, the Spanish teacher. His main rival is Sue Sylvester who coaches the Cheerios (the cheerleaders). For dramatic purposes, there’s a bumbling but lovable gym teacher, and a potential love interest for married Will / voice of reason in Emma the guidance counselor. As the series progress through the starts and stops of Season One, it’s important to look at four key moments.
“Pilot”. I’m actually amazed that the series made it too far past this initial effort. If there had not been such a long break to fix some of the basic problems here – I don’t know if it could have lasted a full season. As with any show that’s going to have an ensemble cast of more than 10 recurring characters, introducing them is always going to be an issue. The benefit of having such broad stereotypical characters is that we don’t need many clues to understand who is who in the school. The problems arise in uneven use of narrartion – the show starts to veer off into Scrubs realm or Wonder Years but not with the same insights. The music is also an issue here. The biggest lesson learned between here and the rest of the season is that they listened to what the characters are saying – Glee is about joy. They learned to have fun with the music. I found it an interesting steal from the Grey’s Anatomy playbook to use a cover of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane” as a musical montage at the end to show us the lessons learned. It gives us a peak at how a little creative placement of the tunes can surprise and give hope for future episodes.
“Showmance”. The second episode was a very important signpost for the show. Viewers had waited all summer with just the excitement of the ending performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’” from “Pilot”. Now, the show had to show some direction, a plot that will carry us through a whole season and that it’s not going to be a Journey-Song-Of-The-Week show (despite how much I might pray for that!). Musically, the show is a winner – with superb performances of “Gold Digger” and a hilarious “Push It” routine and later “Take A Bow”. This show tells us in so many words that it’s not going to take itself seriously – the music numbers are going to be a wink to the audience – the vocals are produced and the lip synching isn’t always perfect but it’s fun. From a story perspective, this episode doesn’t tell us much more than we could have guessed. There’s a couple love triangles forming – one with Rachel, Finn, and Quinn and the other that should inform the student triangle happening with Will, Emma, and Terri. The tone is lighter and more viewer friendly than “Pilot” but I still found it hard to judge what the writers were trying to get from the series yet.
“Hell-O”. The 14th episode marked the return of the show after a five month hiatus. Here is where the show has found its groove. The first “half” of the season ended with “Sectionals” – the most dramatic epiode of the season – bringing to a head most of the soap opera-ish storylines. With that lead-in, “Hell-O” is a tipping point. We’ve reset the lives of most of the characters – the songs were as good as the season got and now you have to start up the engine again. Part of the show feels like a “here’s where we are” reminder but then the show drops right back into its groove. The theme of Hell and Hello in the songs and plot are what make the remaining portion of the season so much fun. The songs aren’t just pauses in the plot like they felt earlier – now they are clever choices that also mean something to the audience. In this second half of the season – there seems to be an increase in the length and number of musical perfromances which helps draw out the character development over a longer period of time. This episode sets the table for the following week’s “The Power of Madonna” – the episode that would finally tip the show to being more about the music than the plot.
“Journey”. The 22nd episode is the Season Finale. The show tries to get back a little to the roots of those first few episodes. We’ve finally reached the Regionals – whenever the show needed to refocus – it could always fall back on this quest. When it finally arrives, there’s a sense of accomplishment. Comparing the “Journey” to “Pilot” is like looking at two different shows. The musical numbers are more confident and flashy – the cast understands that the show is essentially a broad musical comedy that has several dramatic plot points. I credit the writers for recalling the Journey references from the initial episode and keeping with the Glee = joy theme that has defined the show. The show tied a nice bow on the season but left themselves plenty of dramatic rope for Season Two and Three.
Glee has found a perfect little niche. They have hit upon America’s love of musicals but taken out what the masses don’t like about musicals – not knowing the music. They’ve created a mini-karaoke show where you can sing along at home but all within a fun teen drama. They address serious issues of teenage pregnancy, etc. but always with a nod to the unreality of the show. The likable cast pursues joy and that’s what they give. I don’t forsee that same freshness lasting more than a couple seasons but that’s all you need to be so fondly remembered as some of the other high school shows of the past.
The Blu-ray disc includes all 22 episodes, commentary on the Pilot plus the usual audition pieces and meet the stars type of extras. The video is given an 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer (aspect ratio of 1.78:1). The audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. For those known as Gleeks (is anything more forced than that term?) – there’s plenty of sing-along opportunities on the disc through karaoke tracks and a jukebox.