Last Night's Television - The Last American Freak Show, More4; Glee, E4
A school that rocks
Wednesday 16 December 2009
Glee is a perfect example of why an ingredients list is often a hopeless way of judging a television programme. Let's see... what have we got on the side of the pack? American high-school setting, Football Jocks (Stupid), Cheerleaders (Catty) High-Energy Cover Versions, and Teen Romance. Exactly the same ingredient list as High School Musical essentially – that grim, Disneyfied version of Strength through Joy. Strictly speaking, it should have the same cloying, aerosol-cream taste. But it doesn't. Glee – offered in a sneak preview of next year's transmission – is terrific, a couple of tiny E number additives, such as waspish wit and camp flair having transformed the basic recipe. Indeed, it's an object lesson in how small the tweaks have to be to turn the predictable into something intriguing. When Mr Schuester, a haplessly idealistic Spanish teacher, drove up to school at the beginning of the pilot, his clunker of a car was trailing sparks from the exhaust – as the clunker cars of underpaid teachers have in a hundred high school movies. But then, as the football team moved in to dumpster an unusually well-groomed student, his plea for mercy surprised you: "Wait," he said, "this is from Marc Jacobs's new collection!" They allowed him to take it off, and then they upended him into the trash.
Mr Schuester, a prince at high school himself, yearns to recover his youthful glories and spotted a chance when the teacher running the school's glee club was sacked. In the teeth of a cynical headmaster's incredulity ("You want to captain the Titanic too?") and despite the fact that he actually had to stump up $60 a month for the privilege, he took on the job, renaming it New Directions in the hope that he could shake its loser status. His early volunteers were all high-school oddities, and included Kurt Hummel, the fey Marc Jacobs fan, Mercedes Jones, a hefty black girl who tortured Aretha Franklin's "Respect" for her audition, and Rachel Barry, an overachieving stage-school monster, who in a more predictable series would simply be an object of contempt. Rachel thinks it's sweet that "to this day" she doesn't know which of her gay dads' sperm donations gave rise to her, a little dab of character that took on extra perspective when she opened her locker and you saw cosy family snapshots of a white guy hugging a black guy. She's a starry-eyed airhead ("These days being anonymous is worse than being poor," she said earnestly) but importantly she isn't just on board to be bullied by writers who are much smarter than she is.
Mr Schuester's home life isn't perfect. His wife is a materialistic craft freak who dreams of being able to afford a working glue gun and doesn't appreciate his vocational commitment to teaching. When he popped into her part-time job to explain that he might have a few more late nights in future she was appalled by his selfishness: "But Will," she said, "I'm on my feet four hours a day, three days a week here! Now I have to go home and cook for myself?" And initially his dream that the glee club might provide a consolation looked a little forlorn. When he tried to strengthen the male voices by appealing to the football team for volunteers the only sign-ups were Gaylord Wiener and Butt Lunch. He was appalled to discover that the competition had toughened since he was a student too, with a rival school unveiling a barnstorming version of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab", a typically funny mismatch of subject matter and bobbysoxer wholesomeness. But there are signs of hope, in his attraction to Emma, a teaching colleague with a bad case of OCD, and the defection of one of the more talented jocks to the cause of close-harmony and choreography. And what you won't find anywhere on the ingredients list is the sprinkle of offhand sight gags and the happy effervescence that the whole thing gives off when you pop the cap. "By its very definition, Glee is about opening yourself up to joy," read the caption on a photograph the camera panned past in the opening minutes of the show. The sickly piety of that line would put a stake through the heart of a mediocre show. Here, it's simply a serving suggestion.
Richard Butchins's film The Last American Freak Show was a documentary road movie, tagging along with a shambolic caravan that aims, in the words of one of its founders, to "celebrate genetic diversity". Or, in the opinion of its many detractors, to exploit the disabilities of its members, who include Lobster Girl (one mildly deformed hand) and Elephant Man (who has neurofibromatosis). "It's Blair Witch meets Animal House," was how the director himself summed it up. He could have added Easy Rider and Mad Max, given the counter-culture vibe and the post-apocalyptic transport. Occasionally a bumpy ride but worth going all the way.
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