Material Girl, BBC1
A new US sitcom gleefully pokes fun at 'High School Musical' clichés, and the Brits fall flat in the fashion world
Sunday 17 January 2010
At the end of last year, I would have been perfectly happy if I had never had to endure someone emoting their way through a power ballad or shimmying off their sequins on the small screen again.
If The X Factor, Strictly, Britain's Got Talent et al demonstrate anything beyond the bloody-mindedness of the British and the folly of men who wax their hands, it's that singing and dancing, two of the oldest forms of human entertainment, can make ludicrously dull telly.
Stripped of any real context and performed by people you couldn't care less about, even a pitch-perfect rendition of an old favourite or the most accomplished samba routine can leave one cold, if not comatose.
So as news of an all-singing, all-dancing TV comedy set in an American high school began to snowball into predictions of the next pop-culture phenomenon, I feared I was going to find myself, once again, missing the gene that would allow me to participate in the fun.
Relief, then, after the first episode of Glee, to find I'm human (or at least vaguely in accordance with the majority of E4 viewers) after all. The basic plot is thus: good-guy teacher Mr Schuester resurrects his school's musical performance club (known as "glee" clubs in the US) with the help of a variety of fat/gay/disabled/ swotty misfits and an all-American jock who just happens to have a heart – and vocal cords – of gold under his football sweater.
Nul points for noting that it's far from original and replete with stereotypes; the writers know they are treading on clichés and are out to have some serious sport. From the ball-breaking female cheerleading coach who knocks back protein shakes while delivering one-liners worthy of Dirty Harry, to Schuester's charmless, Martha-Stewart-on-Prozac wife, it's unashamed caricature, with each scene as highly choreographed as the dance routines. This, for example, is a world where bullies courteously allow their victim to remove his box-fresh Marc Jacobs jacket before manhandling him into a rubbish bin.
Such slick stylisation might begin to cloy were it not for a punchy script that's often very funny and casually provocative. Disability, ethnicity and homosexuality provide pretexts for punch lines, and although it seems obvious that these gags are intended to ridicule the prejudices of the moronic or outright lunatic characters who deliver them, it's still a bold tack that takes an anodyne tweeny format into adult terrain.
Ironically, thanks to their essential function in the plot, the song and dance numbers slip into the action seamlessly – no spontaneous outbursts of canteen choreography so far anyway – and feel like one of the least contrived element in the show. It's very Broadway, with its big voices, wide eyes and white teeth, but since I can't remember the last time I had some decent comedy served up coherently alongside some crowd-pleasing musical numbers, I was happy to sit back and enjoy the jazz hands.
If Glee grabs its stereotypes and gives them a big, bone-crushing bear hug, Material Girl, the BBC's new fashion-world drama, lacks the courage even to shake hands with the stock characters it promised to deal with.
The first episode found young designer Ali putting the finishing touches to what was supposed to be a fabulous high-end collection backstage at a Paris fashion show. Sadly, it looked more like the latest Ann Summers range had exploded all over the catwalk and the credibility of the show spiralled downwards from there on.
The problem with the costumes (The Apprentice has better-dressed casts) is one of many. Worse is the uneven tone – Dervla Kirwan, who went high camp with her arch bitch performance, clearly didn't get the memo that told the rest of the cast they should play it straight to the point where they seemed to be boring themselves.
The whole thing is accessorised with some crudely sketched moral dilemmas ("Is fashion more important than being a good person?"), lots of clunky name-dropping and a female Iraq veteran with Hollyoaks body whose post-traumatic stress appeared to be solved by a skimpy orange dress.
The fashion industry may be many things, lots of them worthy of a send-up, but it is rarely dull and never worthy so it's baffling that Material Girl managed to be both. An independent report published earlier this week suggests that the Beeb should spend less time and money chasing 16- to 35-year-olds and focus on quality broadcasting. If confirmation were needed, this series is it.
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