It was the most buzzed-about new show of last season. A crossover hit that managed to pull in huge audiences in addition to making a fortune in record sales and promotional tie-ins. But the biggest problem with a hugely successful first season is how to follow it up. It's not, as Glee's creator Ryan Murphy is discovering, as easy as you might think.
The high school dramedy, which returns to the UK in January, is now halfway through its second season in the US and the response has been, at best, mixed. As Entertainment Weekly's respected television critic Ken Tucker wrote: "When Glee premiered... it struck me as fresh, innovative, funny, and occasionally touching. Now it regularly makes my skin crawl – it strikes me as repetitive, preachy, mawkish and only occasionally funny."
So what went wrong? Glee has always been a maddeningly inconsistent show with even its most fervent fans criticising its obsession with guest stars, celebrity cameos and "very special" musical episodes. Addressing this perceived flaw, Murphy claimed last summer that the second season would focus more on the show's core cast. The reality, however, has proved to be somewhat different. So far the new season has featured an episode dedicated to Britney Spears, a Rocky Horror Show special, a guest appearance from Gwyneth Paltrow and the announcement that the show's Super Bowl episode will feature a take on Michael Jackson's "Thriller". These have all included glimpses of greatness, but aren't quite enough to overcome the growing feeling that in trying to be all things to all people, Glee is losing the anarchic humour that was a large part of its original charm.
Murphy has always had a tendency to lurch uncomfortably between satire and sentimentality. Now for every witty, well-balanced episode, there's one filled with platitudes of the week. It's not helped by Murphy's insistence that bullying, in particular the bullying of gay teens, should be the over-arching theme of the season. While the main storyline involving an alienated Kurt has been sensitively tackled, allowing Chris Colfer to shine, it's made problematic by the fact that bullying is elsewhere treated as a joke. Even as we sympathise with Kurt's problems, we are asked to admire Sue Sylvester's acerbic putdowns or laugh as the wheelchair-using Artie asks bad boy jock Puck not to push him down the stairs, or giggle when the ambitious Rachel falls victim to a deliberately slippery floor.
It's also hard to avoid the feeling that Murphy's identification with Kurt's character has blinded him to Glee's growing problems, most notably those surrounding the female cast. Last season, the New Directions girls were depicted as independent individuals, who made mistakes but who always did so of their own volition. This season, the girls of Glee can be summed up in three words: "My boyfriend thinks..."
Whether it's Rachel agreeing with Finn that she can be difficult, Tina trying to choose between Artie and Mike Chang or Quinn tentatively taking steps towards a relationship with newcomer Sam, few of Glee's females have had a plot that doesn't revolve around them catching a man.
An acerbic post on The Ebb and Flow blog noted that not only does Glee have a problem with women's sexuality – "the girls are either uptight and won't give their poor, poor boyfriends any sex, or they're too promiscuous... and can get no real respect" – but that it's also sending out the damaging message that "Rachel has too many opinions and too much self-confidence, so she's annoying and we should punish her for it."
This is perhaps Glee's biggest problem. When it started it was a show that stood up for the underdog. In the second season, much of that has been forgotten. Instead, Glee, which once celebrated the triumph of the teenage oddball, is now all about relationships, the football team and the Cheerios squad. In other words, it's like every other teen show out there, and all the blander for it.
Glee's second season starts on E4 in January