The Weekend's TV: Glee, Fri, Channel 4
Glastonbury at 40: from Avalon to Jay-Z, Sun, BBC4
It's time to learn some new moves
Monday 21 June 2010
There was never a show so schmaltzy as Glee, as Friday's season finale so winningly proved. At least three mothers reassessed their relationships with their daughters.
Barely a minute went past without someone weeping like an open sore. The whole thing concluded with a duet of "Somewhere over the Rainbow", accompanied by a mandolin.
Now, I love a mandolin. I love mums. And I love a good cry as much as the next quivering pudding of a man. So all this is fine by me. But it's not the sort of thing I'm prepared to indulge in without absolute confidence that no one on the same sofa is going to call me a pansy. Thank God, then, for the indomitable cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, whose flamboyant disdain for everyone else at William McKinley High School makes the show's sentimentality manageable for even the most repressed of softies. As the show reached its climax, Sylvester went on one of her trademark tirades, distinguished, as everything else about the show is, by its unhesitating embrace of the excessive.
"You tear up more than Michael Landon in a sweeps week episode of Little House on the Prairie," she snapped at glee club director Will Schuester, as sappy viewers across Britain hid their Kleenex lest she turn on them next. "I spend large segments of each day picturing you choking on food, and I recently contacted an exotic animal dealer because I had a very satisfying dream that the two of us went to the zoo and I shoved your face into one of those pink inflamed monkey butts that weeps lymph."
This, remarkably enough, was in the middle of a heart-warming reconciliation scene. Earlier on, when the stakes were really high – her surprise status as a judge at the Ohio regional round of a national show choir competition threatened the glee club's survival – Sylvester had come out with a withering put-down that was also the perfect summation of her view of the world in general. "I realise my cultural ascendance only serves to illuminate your own banality," she said. "But face it. I am legend."
Sue Sylvester's glories have been a welcome outlet for the considerable talents of Jane Lynch, one of the most brilliant comic actresses working at the fringes of the American film industry, and there's no question that she steals the show. Still, the usual ingredients that make Glee such a nailed-on ratings winner were all present and correct: the song-and-dance spectaculars, of course (one number ran to five and a half minutes, which in television minutes is roughly equivalent to the Ring cycle), the romantic roller-coasters, the unstinting focus on families being torn apart and knitted together again.
This last isn't mere gloop, actually: Glee's attention to families is sincere and thoughtful, and one of the things that elevates it above more mediocre middle-American treats. The teenagers who find a home in the glee club, besides being social misfits, are often the products of deeply hairy domestic situations, and their gradual and mostly hard-headed paths towards accommodation with their idiot parents have been the show's bread and butter throughout the series. As reformed jock Finn told Mr Schuester "I didn't have a father, someone I could look up to, model myself after, someone who could show me what it really meant to be a man," the choir struck up a tremulous version of To Sir with Love – and yet the whole thing somehow held together. "I remain unmoved by your nattering of trite platitudes," Sue Sylvester said later, but it was hard to totally agree.
The only pity was Sylvester's own peculiar volte-face in the show's conclusion, whereby she saved the club's bacon but reserved the right to be as horrible to them as ever next year. It wasn't so much that it betrayed her heart of gold – a heart that's been hinted at before, and not unexpected given the tendency to mushiness that I might have already mentioned – as that it felt too much like a million other shows, an awkward writing-around-a-problem that swiftly resolved the episode's every inconvenience in time for the next series to open on exactly the same premise as this one concluded. Drama rests on change, not the maintenance of the status quo, and if there is one broader criticism of Glee, it's that the dynamics that define the show haven't especially moved on as the series has progressed. There's no doubt that it's a sweet note they strike, but it'd be nice if the writers could find some new ones for next time.
Last night, for those whose taste for sentimentality veers towards the nostalgic, the BBC offered Glastonbury at 40: from Avalon to Jay-Z, Mark Radcliffe's potted history of the festival. Anyone expecting a proper documentary would have been disappointed – this was a glorified clips show – and there was a definite sense that the first 20 years of the festival mattered a good deal less than the last 20, so skewed were the snippets on offer. And yet what snippets they were, and what a history Glastonbury has, rich enough to fill the inevitably constricting alphabet formula with ease (with thanks to Queens of the Stone Age and Quintessence).
If the festival has lost a little of its old antic charm, Radcliffe's snippets of narration and the prevailing mood of the piece reinforced the sense that it remains the essential music festival, as much for its history as its cutting edge. Like Glee, for those who plunge in, it remains an indulgent pleasure that the sceptics will never be able to dilute.
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