Has there ever been a more exasperating TV show than "Glee"? This is a program with the potential to be one of the most memorable TV series of all time, one that reaches powerful, throat-tightening heights, yet it keeps undermining itself with dumb plotting and inconsistent character motivation.
"Glee" is a weekly musical wrapped inside a teen drama and social satire. The music gets most of the attention, with the "Glee" club characters and their high school faculty performing the equivalent of six to eight music videos a show. By focusing the show around songs, "Glee" has rediscovered what Broadway understood decades ago: music heightens and amplifies emotion. A feeling that seems trite when expressed verbally is profound when sung aloud. Consequently, "Glee" has more exhilarating moments than any other show.
Of course, by their very nature, musicals require a willing suspension of disbelief. We have to accept a world where students sing in high school corridors and master amazingly complicated song and dance numbers with little apparent rehearsal. But "Glee" asks us to suspend too much disbelief; it's one thing to accept the conventions of musical theater, but it's another to accept plot twists that make no sense. Since it's a high school soap opera, I'm almost OK with the cast's numerous and highly unlikely romantic couplings and decouplings. But "Glee" has also asked us to believe, for example, that a wife, though the use of a fake belly strapped to her stomach, can dupe her husband into thinking she's pregnant for months on end. Some of these plotlines are played for farce or satire -- but for farce to work, it needs to have some connection to reality.
For many viewers, the silly plots don't really matter -- they're just the tissue that connects the musical numbers. And if the show were only lightness and confection, that would be fine. But "Glee" aspires to more. The "L" in "Glee"'s logo is the universal symbol for Loser. "Glee" is a show about outcasts, not only the usual high school losers (the kid in the wheelchair, the fat girl, the gay kid, the Asian girl), but also the beautiful cheerleaders and handsome quarterbacks who have their own issues, fears and yearnings. Underneath the music and humor, "Glee" is a serious show: "Friday Night Lights" with music.
Class provides a critical sub-context to everything. These kids believe that even if they survive high school, their futures are limited by financial and social circumstance and, like their own "Glee" club coach Will Schuester, who dreamed of Broadway but ended up as a high school Spanish teacher, they will be stuck in Lima, Ohio for the rest of their lives. It's a sobering reality check hanging over the show. This "Glee" club could be the highlight of their lives.
And of course the series is drenched in sexual issues. Kurt's journey as a gay teen in a bullying high school has been treated as a deadly serious matter. Quinn's unexpected pregnancy also showed the downside of thoughtless sex. Many of the characters are or were virgins, and they wrestle with desire and a fear of its consequences. Sex is often used as a weapon on "Glee," but it is almost never treated as a joke.
For me, the problem with "Glee" is that there are too many episodes. The "Mad Men" producers say only needing to create 13 episodes per season makes it possible for them to maintain their high quality. "Glee" produces twice that many shows, and the strain shows. In creating 26 episodes a year, the writers seem to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. If they could just take a breath and ask themselves how a particular plot twist fits into the overall arc of the show, "Glee" could be as good as "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" or the great HBO series.
Still, for all this, "Glee" remains the most original show on television. How do we know that? Because, despite its high ratings, there are no imitators. We now take it for granted that there is a show on TV that offers an original musical every week, but forget what a strange concept that was just a year and a half ago. There has never been anything like this on television, and it will be hard to duplicate.