My review of Glee for the Times Literary Supplement:
One of the central myths of American television and cinema is the conflict between the popular kids and the outsider kids and the implied debate as to which of them is more cool; another is the idea that talent will out, that poverty does not matter, that we can do the show right here in the barn! Part of the strength of Ryan Murphy’s hit new show for the Fox network – shown here on E4 – is that GLEE makes no attempt to hide its roots or the extent to which it is a mash-up of the dark and cynical high-school movies of the 80s and the commercialized innocence of Disney films like the High School Movie series.
A teacher at a rundown Ohio high-school decides to re-live his own high school glory days by taking over the moribund glee club – a group that performs close harmonized song and dance numbers based on a mixture of Broadway and current pop. He has to cope with his own emotional issues – his marriage is threatened by his dim yearning for a sweet-natured germ- obsessed colleague and his wife’s hysterical pregnancy, which becomes fraud when she arranges to buy the child of a pregnant cheerleader . The strident head of the over-funded cheer-leading programme is determined to break him as a threat to her own power and income. And then there are the actual adolescents in his charge – whose vast talents are exceeded only by their neuroses.
What keeps Glee from being hopelessly bland and sentimental is its creator’s sardonic and misanthropic attitude to his characters – an attitude which, in his show about Miami plastic surgeons, Nip/Tuck, has become so utterly bleak as to make his characters hateful. For a protagonist, Will Schuester is remarkably morally ambiguous, blackmailing the football player Finn into joining Glee by planting drugs in his locker, and not taking nearly enough care about physical boundaries between himelf and his acolytes, resulting at one point in his having to repel a crush on him by his female star, the monstrously egotistical Rachel, a Streisund in the making. The moral gap between him and the cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester – the excellent Jane Lynch – is often as thin as the gap between their hatred and contempt for each other and the attraction that crackles between them when he teaches her swing dance for a date.
The show is richly textured, partly because its direction allows us to see so much of what is going in non-foregrounded parts of the screen. It has been widely and not unjustifiably criticized in its internet fandom for concentrating on its white leads and reducing its Asian and African American characters, and its gay and disabled characters come to that, to the status of backup singers. Yet the strength of the performances by for example Amber Riley as the aspiring soul diva Mercedes lies partly in their ability to steal back scenes through non-verbal communication. At least one interesting plot thread – the lesbian relationship between two of the cheerleaders planted in the group as spies but who increasingly go native – is conveyed through glances in scenes concerned with other matters until its confirmation by a single line in the thirteenth episode.
And then there is the music – sometimes prompted by the emotional hothouse of the plot, sometimes an exploration of the musical strengths of particular characters and always driving, powerful and less bland than its format. This is a show in which finding your voice is both a plot point and an overwhelming metaphor – Will is claiming his life back; the extravagant sissy Kurt is findin a way of coping with his schoolmates; and the overbearing Rachel is learning to play well with others. Glee is a show that, predictably but not tritely, is all about creating ensemble.