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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Freaks and ‘Gleeks’

My feature on Glee in today's Weekend magazine

As a new decade dawns, it seems fitting that the hottest show currently airing on American TV is one that has brilliantly co-opted, tweaked and distilled the winning formulas that have driven the most zeitgeist-tapping and commercially successful pop culture behemoths of the past 10 years.

Glee is a coming-of-age musical comedy-drama that has just started airing on TV3, but it has become a phenomenon across the pond ever since its pilot episode aired last April and subsequently began its debut season run last September.

The show’s 13-episode first series averaged between 7-9 million viewers every week in the US, and its buzz grew even louder due to the popularity of the show and its musical numbers on internet sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. By the broadcast of the seventh episode, some 1.7m Glee songs were bought by fans - known as ‘Gleeks’ - on iTunes, five of which made the iTunes top 10. Two soundtracks have subsequently been released.

In addition, Glee has gotten rave reviews in everything from the Wall Street Journal to Vanity Fair. The cast sang for President Obama at the Human Rights Campaign dinner last October, and the show was named as one of the top 10 TV shows of 2009 by the American Film Institute. What’s more, next Sunday night it will compete in four categories at the Golden Globe awards, including Best Comedy Series.

So what is the show about, and what exactly is the secret of its success? The weekly plot of Glee revolves around the Glee Club (which, to the non-US viewer, is a musical/singing society) of William McKinley High School in Ohio. The club used to be at the top of the show choir world, but years later, a series of scandals have turned it into a haven for misfits and social outcasts.

When Will Schuester (played by Broadway star Matthew Morrison), a former pupil and glee club member himself, joins the staff as the idealistic, optimistic new Spanish teacher, he opts to take on the Herculean task of restoring McKinley’s Glee Club to its former glory.

This proves to be a tall order indeed when the brightest stars of the glee club include Kurt (Chris Colfer), a camp, nerdy soprano with a flair for the dramatic; Mercedes (Amber Riley), a dynamic diva-in-training who refuses to sing back-up; and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), an awkward girl with a stutter.

Will’s only hope lies with two true talents: Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), a perfectionist firecracker who is convinced that show choir is her ticket to stardom, and Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), the popular high school quarterback with movie star looks and a Motown voice who must protect his reputation with his cheerleader girlfriend Quinn (Dianna Agron) and his arrogant, MILF-loving team-mate Puck (Mark Salling).

As Will’s personal problems mount - including an attraction to sweet, neurotic colleague Emma (Jayma Mays) and dealing with a borderline insane wife (Jessalyn Gilsig) who is faking her pregnancy - he grows ever more determined to prove that the glee club can triumph in the state finals.

Essentially the show’s premise is a carbon-copy of High School Musical, the 2006 Disney tween-targeted musical romance starring Zac Efron that exploded into a multi-media extravaganza incorporating three movies, stage adaptations and multiple albums worth almost $1bn in total.

But Glee builds on the formula, tapping into - as well as critiquing - the seemingly insatiable popular thirst for emotionally-exploitative, fame-fixated reality shows like American Idol and The X Factor. At one point, Rachel remarks: “Being anonymous is worse than being poor. Fame is the most important thing in society” (incidentally, the show will air straight after Idol when it returns to US TV screens in April).

Glee’s musical numbers are the main selling points of the series, encompassing everything from Amy Winehouse’s Rehab, to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin, to a storming mash-up of Beyonce’s Halo and Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine.

The musical numbers are polished and note perfect, often with imaginative musical re-arrangements, and offset with elaborate, high energy choreography. Its extraordinary and wildly eclectic musical renditions haven’t gone unnoticed in the industry either. Broadway star Kristin Chenowith (Wicked) guest stars in the first series, while singers Eve and Josh Groban also make guest appearances. Additionally, Madonna has granted permission for the show’s producers to use her back-catalogue, and indeed a full episode in the next series will be devoted to Madge’s music.

But the music isn’t the sole reason behind Glee’s popularity. It also has a sharp, sarcastic and wicked sense of humour, so much so that it allows the show enough wiggle room to also wear its big, thumping, often cheesy heart on its sleeve as it simultaneously celebrates both musical theatre and its central characters all of whom grow to revel in being seen as misfits.
Glee is the brainchild of writer and producer Ryan Murphy, the creator of the increasingly twisted plastic surgery drama series Nip/Tuck. But a closer look at the 43-year-old’s CV should give some idea as to why he was able to conjure the magic that has helped Glee to strike such a chord with viewers.

Murphy was also the creator of Popular, which ran for two seasons between 1999-2000. The similarities to Glee are quite pronounced: Popular was also set in a high school, populated by eccentric staff, and had as its focus the tensions and mutual rivalries and jealousies between the unpopular, nerdy kids and the cool clique of cheerleaders and football players.

In both shows, Murphy specialises in finding the common ground between these warring factions, blurring the lines to make the point that there is no such thing as a “typical” teenager, and that being “different” can often be as great a blessing as popularity is a curse.

But if an unashamed love of music and dance, and communality with those who proudly fly their Freak Flags, are not good enough reasons to get you interested in Glee, the show has one more ace up its sleeve in the form of the school’s cheerleading coach - and the glee club’s chief antagonist - Sue Sylvester, played by the glorious Jane Lynch (Role Models, The L Word), a Golden Globe nominee for the role.

At the risk of overstatement, Sue is, hands down, the best villain - if not the best character - currently on any show on television. The tracksuit-bedecked Sue is harsh, unsentimental and obsessed with winning, and she is determined to destroy the glee club in order to build up more funding for her own cheerleading club, the Cheerios.

Jane Lynch devours the role, calmly but venomously spitting out lines like, ‘All I want is just one day a year when I'm not visually assaulted by uglies and fatties’, and, ‘I can't stand the sight of kids getting emotional, unless it's from physical exhaustion’.

All in all, the show goes out of its way to be entertaining; as Vanity Fair commented last month, Glee has arrived at a time when we all rely more on entertainment to “chase our cares and woes into somebody else’s backyard”. What better reason is there to tune in?

*Glee, TV3, Wednesday 8pm

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