Glee - My big fat teenage crush
Sure, it's derivative and cliched in places. But it is also wickedly funny, unexpectedly moving and subtle. Fiona Sturges explains why she is an unabashed fan of 'Glee'
Friday 12 February 2010
It was, I should point out, in the interests of professionalism that I first watched Glee. Obviously I would much rather have been cracking open the latest in my prized collection of Tarkovsky films. But as an arts writer it's my job to be au fait with the latest zeitgeist-surfing US television series. It's a tough job, but when it comes to lolling on the sofa and watching teen fluff on the box, you can rely on me.
On paper Glee sounded pretty rotten – an all-singing, all-dancing series about an embattled American high-school teacher called Will, and his efforts to revive his school's musical-performance club with a ragtag cast of geeks and misfits, all the while combating the derision of fellow staff and students.
Surely the last thing any of us needed was another gaggle of dysfunctional, fame-hungry, tone-deaf ne'er-do-wells vying with each other over their best impression of Mariah Carey. Hadn't we just got rid of The X Factor?
But it turns out that the makers of Glee have been brilliantly crafty in their efforts to reel us in, every last one of us. Back in the old days, family entertainment came in the guise of fusty old game shows such as The Generation Game and Ask The Family. Now we have an up-to-the-minute drama series that has in-jokes for the kids, risqué ones for the grown-ups and music for the kidults that we have all clearly become.
While Glee strikes the occasional bum note with its heart-tugging, where-did-it-all-go-wrong solos, it has created some unforgettable set-pieces using some terrific songs including Amy Winehouse's "Rehab", Kanye West's "Gold Digger" and, lest we forget, Journey's AOR classic "Don't Stop Believin'". Through these musical interludes Glee has single-handedly turned the rules of pop consumption on their head: while thirty-, forty- and fiftysomethings are now shaking their booty to Kanye West behind closed doors, tweenies are humming Journey ballads on the way to school.
While Glee utilises the success of High School Musical to ensnare its younger viewers, it awakens feelings of nostalgia in older viewers – or at least it does with this one. When I was in my early teens, the New York-set TV series Fame was at its height. It was series about the power of performance and tapped into every young girl's – and the occasional boy's – furtive desire to stop what they were doing in the middle of the street and jump on the nearest car to belt out a solo. In Glee, of course, they prefer choreographed numbers in the school canteen.
Watching it, I have found myself mourning my own school days, which in my mind are now rendered in dreary monochrome. We didn't have a drama club or a song-and-dance club, and we certainly didn't have teachers to whom we could pour our hearts out. Neither did we have – and this hurts most – long, scrupulously polished corridors lined with lockers, so perfect for re-enacting the latest pop video du jour.
Amid largely positive reviews, there has been some carping about Glee's lack of originality. There are, certainly, deliberate echoes of High School Musical, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Election. But this is a high-school comedy – its success lies not in its originality but in how it subverts the formula. Sure, there are stereotypes, but they are ones with which the scriptwriters enjoy some serious, shameless sport.
And so we have Kurt, the gay guy who is resigned to being thrown into the dumpster by the football team every morning – "One day you will all work for me," he declares as he sinks beneath the rubbish bags – and Mr Figgins, the Asian headmaster whose determination to do everything under budget leads him to turn a blind eye to the political skulduggery of his staff. There's Rachel, a "failed" bulimic and prima donna who ends her signature with a gold star. And, of course, there's the villain of the piece, the cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, who resents anything that draws focus away from her team and sets out to sabotage the Glee Club. "You do with your depressing little group of kids what I did with my wealthy, elderly mother," she tells Will. "Euthanise it."
The one-liners come thick and fast. Much of the humour sails close to the wind, on subjects such as eating disorders, disability, obesity and paedophilia. Even more startlingly, the gags are contained in a strait-laced format, and are often delivered by actors who look like they might have just stumbled out of a toothpaste ad. I nearly didn't catch the remark from Emma, the school's guidance counsellor, when she finds Rachel trying to throw up in the bathroom. "I guess I just don't have a gag reflex" said Rachel glumly. "One day when you're older that'll turn out to be a gift," came the response.
But perhaps the scriptwriters' greatest coup is in pulling off the more moving moments without recourse to theatrics. Glee is silly when it wants to be but it can also deal in subtlety. When Kurt, modelling a black-sequinned unitard, announced to his ex-footballer father that he was gay, I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the explosive fall-out. It never came; his dad already knew.
At its best Glee is an impeccable collision of the romcom, the teen soap, the satire, and the late-night drama. In short, I'm hooked. As long as it's on, Tarkovsky will have to wait.
'Glee' is on E4 on Mondays
WHO'S KEY IN GLEE? A GUIDE TO THE CHARACTERS
A sweetly naive Spanish teacher marooned in a loveless marriage, Will hopes to bring some razzle-dazzle into his life by taking on the musical performance club.
The ultimate desperate housewife, Will's shrew-like missus feigns pregnancy to push her husband towards a more lucrative job in accountancy.
The hugely talented, monstrously ambitious, relentlessly self-promoting star of the glee club.
Bambi-eyed, pathologically phobic guidance-counsellor who dons surgical gloves to eat her lunch. Emma secretly loves Will, but will she ever tell him?
Played by Jane Lynch, star of several Christopher Guest movies, Sue is the cheerleading commandant and the repository of the show's best lines.
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