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TV Review: Glee – “Pilot”

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This summer, I’ll be going back to review the season one episodes of FOX’s Glee. These are fresh reviews, not reposts, and I hope you will enjoy reliving the first season with me.

Many things had to happen to set up the story in FOX’s Glee “Pilot,” which originally previewed in May 2009, then re-aired in September as the series went weekly. Glee is hinged on musical numbers, but with no glee club to speak of as the series begins, the first episode is very light on them. Instead, two major stories unfold. In one, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) finally gets the chance to live his dream, directing the glee club at the high school where he teaches.

He is basically restarting the program from the ground up, but is torn when his wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), announces she’s pregnant. Will considers giving up his passion to better provide financially for his family, but guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) convinces him that a life without joy is not one worth living. Meanwhile, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) is blackmailed into joining the glee club, but once in, really loves in. He must decide if he should stick with something that makes him so happy, or bow to peer pressure about what is acceptable.

Perhaps the most perplexing thing about “Pilot” is that it begins with the Cheerios practicing, not anything to do with singing. In fact, the first few minutes are really not much of a set up of the premise. It’s a little slow getting started.

Before Will can take over the glee club at McKinley High, the current director, Sandy Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) must be fired, which is done when Rachel (Lea Michele) accuses him, not falsely, of touching a student inappropriately while coaching the student to sing “Where Is Love?” Because proof is in short supply, charges are not pressed, but Sandy does leave the school and becomes a drug dealer. Though, apparently, all current members of the glee club, except Rachel, including the boy Sandy touches, have no desire to stick around, since Will must hold auditions and recruit new members. Why did they all jump ship? They are only there because they like Sandy’s attention? If so, that’s a bit sick. It doesn’t quite add up.

The problem with the firing is Rachel’s teary confession of witnessing molestation to Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba). While Rachel is willing to go to great lengths to achieve the stardom she believes she deserves, putting on an emotional show to ruin a teacher’s career seems way over the line. All she sees is Sandy touch the boy’s stomach through his shirt. She leaps to conclusions. Perhaps she justifies it by knowing Sandy will not go to jail unless the allegations prove true, but he does lose his job over it, and jealousy should not be enough to motivate such soulless cruelty in a girl who, in the same episode, proves sweet, if a bit naive.

Another completely out of character scene is when Will plants pot he got from Sandy in Finn’s locker to force him to join glee club. Sure, Will is in a desperate place, but does he have no morals at all? This is lower than low, knowing he can seriously jeopardize Finn by accusing him of having drugs. Not to mention, Will bringing the drugs into the school in the first place breaks rules and laws. It’s a shady, evil move worthy of Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), not the director of the New Directions.

As touching as it is that Emma convinces Will to follow his dreams, he has a baby on the way. He is making the responsible, adult decision. He can still join a community choir, or even start an adult glee club as an outlet for his creative energies and keep working the better paying job. While staying at McKinley is ultimately the right decision for Will, because of many things that happen later, it is not posed as such in “Pilot.”

Lastly, why do the McKinley kids still use MySpace? It’s fall of 2009! Everyone is jumping ship by then. Facebook is big, not MySpace. Perhaps the lag time in making the pilot and going to series explains this oversight, but it makes the episode seem older than it really is.

Enough complaining, because over all, this is a really solid episode. Many of the characters, save the aforementioned Rachel and Will scenes, are already set in stone and well defined in this first hour. Mercedes (Amber Riley) utters her first “Hell to the no.” Kurt (Chris Colfer), while not out of the closet, has the confident, accepting personality he will later demonstrate. The hatred between the popular kids and the gleeks is in place. Sue is a totally vindictive woman, set off when Will tries to upset the social order.

Rachel exposes her own vulnerabilities in a heartfelt talk with Schue about her future. Rachel has a serious crush on Finn, and lets him know it, but the two also begin to form a friendship as she talks him into ignoring peer pressure and remaining in the singing club. She and Finn are the glue that soon begins bonding the club, though the others are not willing to let her hog all the credit, nor should they.

Finn also exposes depth in his struggle to maintain his image, balanced with his desire to sing with the New Directions. He allows his friends to throw Kurt in a dumpster, but only after saving Kurt’s new item of clothing. He also rescues Artie from a port-a-potty. Of course, the second example comes after he decides what he really wants. Finn standing up to Puck (Mark Salling) is one of the seminal moments of the pilot. Puck will eventually come around, but Finn is clearly the leader right from the start.

The love triangle between Will, Emma, and Terri is set up very early on, and all three are outlined perfectly right from the start. This is definitely a plot that ripened before ever touching the screen. Ken’s (Patrick Gallagher) thing for Emma feels a little more sandwiched in, as if the writers weren’t sure that Terri will be a convincing roadblock for too much longer, once she begins her deceit. Which lends more credence to the theory that Terri is already mapped out as a character.

Really nice is that Sue shows a bit of compassion for her fellow teachers, by bringing them lattes after her overspending on the Cheerios causes Figgins to pull coffee from the teachers’ lounge. This lasts until Will crosses her, but it’s still an early hint that Sue is more than the unlikeable surface she usually shows.

A lot of the singing in this episode comes when Will holds auditions. Rachel, Kurt, and Mercedes do what they do best, showcasing who they are and where their talent lies. Kurt is perhaps a bit timid, but his “Mr. Cellophane” is kind of a metaphor for who he is at this point, before fully embracing himself. Mercedes belts out “Respect,” what else? Rachel touches every heart with her beautiful “On My Own.” Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) awkwardly stumbles through “I Kissed a Girl,” but practically all of her solo singing will be awkward, so it fits.

Artie (Kevin McHale) is the only one not shown in an a cappella solo, but that is probably because he leads the singing of the club’s first song just after the audition scenes, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” The irony of a kid in a wheelchair and this particular song is not lost on anyone, beginning Glee‘s trademark brand of cheesy humor. The performance is terrible. A little bit later, “You’re the One That I Want” is only slightly better. But of course, after some rehearsal and pep talk, the group comes back with a truly inspiring “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Also in “Pilot,” either to set a bar for the New Directions, or because the episode has lacked any great musical numbers up to this point, the students visit a nearby high school and see Vocal Adrenaline perform “Rehab.” Show stopping. Amazing. And Vocal Adrenaline will return many times, so it’s a preview of what is to come.

Besides Rachel’s solo and the ending group number, there are two other pieces that really illustrate wonderful talent. Will sings a soulful “Leaving On a Jet Plane” after he decides he must quit McKinley that  may evoke tears if watched in the right frame of mind. Finn’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is a joyful burst from deep within, giving clear view of Finn’s love of music. The flashbacks to his childhood show further motivation, but are unnecessary. The song says it all.

Many essential elements of Glee get their seeds planted in “Pilot.” For one, Quinn (Dianna Agron) hates Rachel immediately. Even before Finn begins talking to Rachel, Quinn is making disparaging comments on Rachel’s MySpace page. This reveals that the animosity reaches much deeper than a simple jealousy over a boy. Perhaps it is foreshadowing Quinn’s big twist that she has had plastic surgery and changed everything about herself prior to high school, which is shown late in season two? That would give her reason to not like someone so obviously confident in themselves, as Rachel is.

In another first of many, Puck throws a slushie on Rachel. It is the only such occurrence in “Pilot,” but there will be many, many others over the years to come. Too bad one who will become one of their own fires first.

Fans of Glee have often wondered when Rachel’s dads might be cast and shown on screen. They are, in fact, shown in picture form in “Pilot.” They are a geeky looking white guy with glasses and a tall, African American. If her dads do end up on screen, it may cause slight outcry from diehards if these two actors are not used, but just from the picture, it’s not clear if they are any good or not. At best, they look like a big ball of cheese, which would not be totally out of line with the series.

For those who wonder why so many musicians hang around the New Directions and play for them all the time, Artie mentions he plays guitar in the jazz band (wtf?!), and that is why they show up in the “Pilot,” and presumably, almost every week after. Though Artie’s love of jazz or participation in the instrumental group is never mentioned again.

The only real inconsistency complaint “Pilot” deserves is that not all of the recurring characters appear where they should be. Quinn is followed around by Santana (Naya Rivera), but even in the larger Cheerio scenes, there is not one glimpse of Brittany (Heather Morris). Similarly, there are many shots of the football players, but Mike Chang (Harry Shrum Jr.), Matt (Dijon Talton), Dave Karofsky (Max Adler), and Azimio (James Earl) are not in any of them. Maybe, going by later dialogue, there is a disease keeping Brittany and all the football players she recently slept with at home?

A wonderful pilot setting up beautifully what will become a much better show. Glee will return to FOX this fall.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com
  • Barbara

    Oh, I love it that you’re doing this. It just might make me rewatch season 1 all over again. Anyway, I’d like to give my input on some of your opinions or doubts:
    – Maybe Will held auditions for the club again because it actually ended and he had to restart it again as New Directions, therefore having to recruit new members, even if most of the old ones didn’t want to come back.
    – I don’t think Rachel’s emotional show, as you put it, to fire Sandy Ryerson is not out of character or cruel at all for her. We’ve seen many times that, even if she is a good person, her goals of stardom often blind her from good judgment and makes her do some awful thins such as sending Sunshine to the crack house later on.
    – While on Will’s case it might be somewhat out of character for him to plant the weed in Finn’s locker, it was a good example as to the lenghts he would have to go to to make the star quarterback actually stay in his Gleeclub – which he really needed, for the male lead.
    – Also, on a side note, both situations are bizarre and funny in a way that helped set the tone for the whole show.
    – Last but not least, the explanation as to why Mike, Brittany, Matt, Karofsky or Azimio are absent from the pilot is because it was actually shot months before being picked up by Fox and only moths after that they begun shooting the first 13 episodes, where those characters were created and introduced.
    Ok, I don’t even know if I could express myself clearly, but I hope I helped and I’ll try to follow all of your next reviews for the following episodes.

  • http://twitter.com/juliana_marques Juliana Marques

    Cool. I Like your review and I’ll enjoy reliving the first season with you ;)

    I read that when they shot the pilot Heather and the others had not been cast yet.
    (sorry for my bad English I’m not fom US)

  • http://twitter.com/juliana_marques Juliana Marques

    Since we’re talking about the pilot, I think I like more the screener version everything does make more sense with the scenes that they cut included.

    if anyone want to see here is the link :)

  • http://jeromewetzeltv.blogspot.com/ Jerome Wetzel

    Barbara – Good point about Rachel’s treatment of Sunshine! I had forgotten just how badly she wrong her! I do understand the limits of shooting schedules, especially with pilots, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing this giant continuity error didn’t exist.

    Juliana – Exactly. See what I said to Barbara. :) The pilot on the DVD is the Director’s Cut, so it has the deleted scenes added in. Or at least, a few, but it’s longer than the other episodes.

    Episode 2 review should be done this weekend! Thanks for joining me!

  • http://twitter.com/juliana_marques Juliana Marques

    Jerome – the screener version has more scenes like in the begin is not the Cheerios practicing is the old glee club on Nationals, with a young Will Schuester :)

  • http://jeromewetzeltv.blogspot.com/ Jerome Wetzel

    Wow! I’ve never seen that one! That would be cool!

  • jay

    You need to further yourself from what you have seen already. This was the pilot of course all the secondary characters such as the Cheerios and Football players will not be present. The pilot sets up the premise and the 3 main stars storyline.

    And really after all the continituy erros on glee as long as Rachel’s has a black dad and a jewish looking dad people will adjust.

  • frank

    It isn’t a continuity error not to have some of the football players no tin the pilot. It is just the way pilots work. Sometime major parts are recasted.

    The sceener is better.

    As far as Rachel goes she usually has multiple reason for her actions. This time she wanted the solo and she knew Sandy was creppy. When she sent Sunshine to an inactive crack house she was scared of her talent and getting the solos but also Sunshine taking her place in the glee club the only place Rachel has. When she told Finn about the baby it was because she thought he should know but also to gain points with Finn.