Do the cheerleaders or Jane Lynch play an important role in the narrative of Glee? No. In an impressive directing decision, the cold open completely fails to illuminate neither the show’s story or characters.
Cut to scene of our protagonist Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) pulling into the parking lot, where jocks throw a nerd into the dumpster.
“OK,” says you. “One of the show’s central themes is that high school is hard.” Accurate guess, were it not terribly wrong. Yet more impressively, Strangers with Candy does a better job of conveying that than Glee ever does. A better theme for the show would be the word mish-mash. “High school is tough” is mish-mashed with “Teacher Will Schuester struggles with making performing cool” is mish-mashed with “Rocky marriage turns into family and romantic drama” is mish-mashed with “Bully struggles with peer pressure” is mish-mashed with “Unpopular kids finding their place in the world” is mish-mashed with “Woman finds unrequited love in married man”. Glee spends all of 12 minutes (act one) packing these plots and subplots in before cutting sporadically in and out in the longer act two.
(In the interest of fairness and disclosure of my own laziness, I stopped watching after the second act.)
“OK, the plot has problems, mainly that I’ve seen both Strangers with Candy and Hamlet 2 and High School Musicals 1 Through 9. What about the characters?” You can’t see me, but I’m patronizingly ruffling your hair right now. Will Schuester is a teacher going against both his administration and the de facto social structure. Someone we can root for, until he frames athelete Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) for marijuana possession. “A complicated character,” you say. Great until you take two steps back and realize that he did it to force Hudson into joining glee club at which point the Disproportionate Action-Motivation Train rolls into town and everybody gets on board for a magical journey far far away from Suspended Belief Land. Schuester is a Good Guy; the story hammers that enough into the viewer like any good “teacher against odds” plot (subplot? sub-subplot? main plot? impossible to tell?). If the writers wanted Schuester to be a Good Guy with Flaws, they took the certainly took the most heavy-handed approach possible.
But at least Schuester is not a flat character. Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) is the over-ambitious student learning to tone it down a notch; done to death. Finn Hudson is the school quarterback who’s more thoughtful than he lets on: no drug use, cares about his academic record, and wants to be successful in life; done to death. Sue Sylvester is Gayle Sweeney from Role Models with better lines. Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) is the stereotypical sassy black woman; even 30 Rock can’t pull that off without seeming pretentious or over-trodden despite that show’s self-referential nature, Sherri Shepard’s role as Tracy Jordan’s wife, Johnnie Mae’s wonderful conversation as an airport screener with Liz Lemon (“Sandwich Day”), and the show’s generally gorgeous writing. The one-off flamboyantly gay ex-glee club teacher sexually harassing a teenager at the beginning … in the pilot … of a musical comedy series—well, it’s hard to tell if that’s a stereotype or offensive mistake or who knows how you’re supposed to feel about that in all of the three seconds the show devotes to it. The school’s jocks are jocks; the school’s cheerleaders are cheerleaders; never mind that these cliché cliques rarely form along such clean lines in high school or with such sheep-like meanness. And now you know the inhabitants of the overpopulated Glee universe.
Yet it’s clear despite the suffocating writing and haphazard plotting and epileptic directing that the acting is decent if not wonderful. Jayma Mays is fantastic as Emma Pillsbury (pictured in the Hulu thumbnail), a character we can actually sympathize—possibly the only one—with saddled by the writers with a germaphobic quirk that’s neither realistic (as in Monk) or funny (as in Monk). Cue a five-second scene where Pillsbury cleans a table that neither drives the story or character forward nor provides laughter. Principal Figgins (Igbal Theba) deftly strikes the balance between hard-ass and fatherly as the slightly cynical principal. And perhaps with more time and breathing space these characters can become people with depth and humor and drama and backstory, with whom we can empathize and I certainly have no reason to doubt that. But by throwing them into an overflowing cauldron of a pilot episode aboard the Disproportionate Action-Motivation Train chugging at light-speed away from Suspended Belief Town into Weird, Mish-Mash Plot Land, Glee does a great disservice by handicapping the story and the characters for what appears to be no gain.
Perhaps the greatest roast beef I have with Glee is that it’s billed as a “musical comedy”. For the first part, it should be noted that no original music is being written for the show; that is, the music itself is not actually comedic. Nor is it staged particularly comedically. It’s telling that the funniest music scene is the regional glee club competition, and even those laughs are pulled off by contrast not actual music (for reference, see Little Miss Sunshine). As for the second part, Glee treats comedy as a filler in between scenes of drama leading to a particularly flawed form of comedy-drama—which is a much more accurate, if more nebulous, genre if we’re going to be assigning those as the cavemen did—where comedy and drama are in separate rooms and try to take peeks at each other through a single small muddy window; meanwhile, the writers take turns throwing mud at the window. In pointing out the places where comedy drives the story or the character development, I could give you the scene with Hudson by the dumpster or Berry on the receiving end of a berry smoothie, but I’d be hard-pressed to offer anything more substantial. In a strange way, Glee takes the same approach to comedy that Family Guy or Punk’d or Sit Down, Shut Up or a large chunk of Adult Swim’s programming does: a vehicle for jokes, one-liners, quirky characters, and pie/smoothie-to-the-face jokes mostly devoid of basic human compassion for the characters involved, something that propels Arrested Development or 30 Rock or even Everybody Loves Raymond to a level far above Glee.
But this is just a pilot. Glee is a decent show at heart that certainly deserves to become the success everybody else already thinks it is provided, every now and then, it lets itself breathe and expand. I’ll be rooting for it.