‘Glee’ is the first successful scripted music show, but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised (TV commentary)

Why is “Glee” (8 p.m. Central Wednesdays on Fox) the first widely popular scripted music show? I’m almost certain the answer is “random chance,” but that would make for a rather short blog post, so I’m going to theorize a bit further.

Here are arguments for why “Glee’s” ratings success isn’t completely out of left field:

First, when compared to “Cop Rock” or “Viva Laughlin,” “Glee” is simply better. I’ve never seen those musical series, but anecdotally, I hear they were pretty bad. The entry points were accessible — “cop show” and “Vegas show” are arguably even safer bets than “high school show” — but most who tuned in didn’t like what they saw.

From episode one, “Glee” hooked everyone with the “Don’t Stop Believin'” performance, the adorable high school archetypes and the quirky style. Crucially, Fox gave people plenty of chances to get hooked: While a modest number of people watched the pilot episode when it aired, many more watched it on Hulu or Fox’s web site.

Second, “Glee” is not in the same category as most “unsuccessful shows about music.” The shows critics are referring to with that phrase are about the music industry and musicians more so than the music itself. Examples include “Love Monkey,” about a music executive; “Kaya,” about an up-and-coming rock singer; and “Instant Star,” about the winner of an “American Idol”-type show. (Actually, “Instant Star” did have a respectable four-season run, but it was on The-N, so it flew entirely under the radar.) In contrast to those shows, “Glee” is entirely about the music — and the characters, of course, but we see these high schoolers more as people than as musicians (they are certainly talented singers and dancers, but that doesn’t define them).

Third, viewers actually have turned to TV to get a music fix through the years — even on scripted shows — so “Glee” isn’t breaking new ground in that regard. Some shows even had music venues as part of the fabric of the show. “Beverly Hills 90210” had the Peach Pit After Dark, “Buffy” had The Bronze and “The O.C.” had The Bait Shop. These locations served two purposes: 1, it was a ready-made set for scenes of characters hanging out and talking, and 2, it was a place for a guest band to play.

On “90210,” the musicians tended to be established acts (so Fox could say, “Tune in tonight to see Color Me Badd on an all-new ‘90210.’”) On “Buffy,” they were SoCal bands that no one had ever heard of, but they sounded good. On “The O.C.,” they were cool indie bands (legendarily, Death Cab for Cutie got a sales push when Seth Cohen identified them as his favorite band). All three of those shows had successful soundtrack sales, too; the “O.C.” albums were essentially a less-mainstream “Now That’s What I Call Music.”

Finally, and perhaps the biggest reason why we shouldn’t be surprised by “Glee’s” success, “Glee” has identified itself more with “American Idol” than with any of the aforementioned shows. Because it’s on Fox, “Glee” feels like a scripted show for “American Idol” fans. I’ve never watched “American Idol,” but I assume that the time devoted to musical performances on “Glee” isn’t much less than on “American Idol.” “Glee” delivers three to five complete or partial songs per episode, and the downtime is taken up with plot instead of judges’ comments or hype from Ryan Seacrest; I suspect reality show fans transitioned to “Glee” easily.

And consider this: The shows I mentioned earlier in this post (from “Cop Rock” to “Kaya” to “The O.C.”) pushed new music from new artists. “American Idol” and “Glee” push old music from new artists (who become more familiar with each episode, of course). It’s music of the past, not music of the future. It’s really good karaoke. It’s music that people have heard before, performed well, and that’s why people like these shows.

Fundamentally, we’re talking about the same reason why that awful classic rock station is still on the air whereas all the FM stations with DJs went out of business earlier this decade. But there’s a key difference: “Glee” isn’t awful, it’s quite good. (And although I’ve never watched “Idol,” I have enjoyed a few songs by “Idol” alums, so as a training ground for new talent, it certainly has its virtues.) The song selections tend to be respectable. “Don’t Stop Believin'” is the greatest song ever, so that was a no-brainer to launch the series with. But how ’bout that mash-up featuring Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life?” That’s my favorite song from the New Jersey rocker, so I was thrilled when the kids performed it, and they knocked it out of the park.

I don’t love every song selection, but there’s something about this small-town Ohio glee club that makes me give even my not-so-favorite songs a chance. I never thought I’d enjoy a performance of Jordin Sparks’ “No Air” — which I had kind of disposed from my brain, it being a disposable pop song and all — until the “Glee” cast tackled it. And a few episodes back, the glee club ripped through a rap song that I was only vaguely familiar with, and it was totally awesome.

Not all of the performances are necessarily better than the original. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” is, strictly speaking, superior to the glee club’s take. But the youthful hopefulness of Rachel and Finn does add a key dimension to the remake, so it sparkles anew. Puck’s “Sweet Caroline” won’t have Neil Diamond shaking in his sequined shoes, but it was still a neat solo showcase.

Sometimes the remakes improve upon the original. I like Avril Lavigne’s “Keep Holding On” well enough, but it was never one of my favorites from the Canadian popster. When the glee clubbers sang it, they added exactly what it needed: A full chorus. It went from being a slightly whiny wannabe epic to a truly epic song where the message shines through rather than being forced through.

With music shows through the years, you never knew what you were gonna get, and while I liked that (especially on “Love Monkey”), it also scared off the casual TV viewer. With “Glee,” you don’t know exactly what you’ll get, but you do know it’ll be something you’ve heard before. That makes the show fun for everybody around the water cooler, and that’s why it now seems more like an obvious hit than a surprise hit.

What’s your favorite “Glee” song so far? I vote for the “It’s My Life”/”Confessions” mash-up (which unfortunately isn’t on the first soundtrack, but maybe it’ll be on the next one). To refresh your memory of what’s been sung so far, check out gleesongs.com.

Comments

Twunked's GravatarFirst, to your question: Poison, though I Say a Little Prayer and Gold Digger are up there for me. (Never trust a big butt and a smile!)

I think part of Glee’s success is that first, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, even when it’s not dealing with the kids. Second, it doesn’t just deal with the kids — yes, the subplot about the face pregnancy needs to go away, but the adults are first-rate too. Especially Jane Lynch, who just may be the funniest person on T.V. (“You want hard? Try being waterboarded. That’s hard.”)

The details have all been nailed down as well. The one gay teacher getting fired (an allegedly gay Midwestern Glee Club adviser getting canned? Not in real life! Oh, wait …) who they keep bringing back to deal weed, as in the latest episode. Mr. Schu’s ongoing love of R&B and hip-hop. Puck’s entrepreneurial skills. The nerdball, undersexed school reporter. Even Lynch’s “You want hard? Try …” lines, which manage to make me laugh not only because they’re well-written as offhand throwaway lines, but because of her delivery.

In fact, I’d argue Glee succeeds because it’s smartly-written and smartly-promoted (who knew Fox was capable of such a thing?) more than because of its music, simply because many of the vocals are so overproduced as to be unlistenable. (Did you mention No Air? I think I actually turned the sound off for that one. I don’t like singing robots.)

But Glee’s music choices, in and of themselves, are largely smart ones. To wit: “I say a little prayer” for Quinn and the cheerleaders. Rachel auditioning with “On My Own.” (As I watched the pilot and saw her come out, I said, “I bet she’s singing On My Own.”) And that’s even funnier because she was in Les Mis, so it’s a multilayered subtle joke.

And the choices are consistent. We’ve seen rivals Vocal Adrenaline twice. The first time they did Amy Winehouse’s Rehab — which, as a glee club number, HYSTERICAL — then the second time around, they did Duffy’s Mercy. Somebody’s paying attention back there, and I like it.

# Posted By Twunked | 11/13/09 9:07 PM

John Hansen's GravatarAlly—

Welcome to the comment threads of John’s Blog!

It’s interesting that you seem to like “Glee” for its non-music aspects more than its music aspects. I agree with your assessment of the brilliant line-readings by Jane Lynch, something I mentioned in a previous post. I saw Lynch on “Chelsea Lately,” and she is just as witty as the characters she plays, with absolutely no sense of shame. Definitely an actress worth rooting for.

Generally, it’s good that the storylines are a little bit on the lighter side. The idea of everyone breaking into song is inherently ridiculous, so if the general feel of the show is a little ridiculous, the transitions into songs aren’t too jarring. “Family Guy” and “The Cleveland Show” can also break into song without the viewer batting an eye, because they are literally cartoons. And “Glee” is figuratively a cartoon.

Several storylines are very easy to rip into (although I get the sense that the writers KNOW that these storylines are stupid). Still, I’ll mention a few examples here:

The fake pregnancy is annoying, but that’s only because it centers on the wife, not Emma, the girl who we actually want Will to be with. To me, the stupidest storyline is Emma marrying the football coach yet not living with him or really behaving like a married couple in any way. That’s a horrible way to treat somebody, and I would’ve thought Emma would have the common decency not agree to the marriage. And, even from a selfish perspective, what does she get out of it? Being in a phony relationship is no better than being alone; in fact, it’s almost certainly worse.

On second thought, the dumbest plot point is Finn thinking he impregnated Quinn even though they never had sex. And the way Quinn is treating him now, he shouldn’t have any problem dumping her ass once Puck tells him the baby is his, not Finn’s.

And here’s a recent development I didn’t care for: Artie dismissing Tina because she was faking her stuttering. He managed to twist her fake stuttering into an insult against his handicap. In reality, no one is offended in such a convoluted way (unless they are looking for things to be offended by, and I didn’t see Artie as that type of person; I thought he was a little more self-deprecating and clever, like when he said “Just to be clear: I still have full use of my penis.”). Artie and Tina could’ve been a cute couple, and a fresh challenge to write. To me, the writing staff backed away from something really cool.

So I disagree about the characterizations being consistent, but nonetheless, the characters hold my attention. The writing is compelling and silly, in about equal proportions.

That having been said … the show survives and thrives on its identity as a music show. And I’m not necessarily defending every music choice (we both agree that the success rate is far less than 100 percent). I’m just saying I love the fact that every week, there’s a chance that we’ll see an amazing music performance. Probably, we’ll only get fair-to-decent performances, but that chance is still tantalizing. (Also, although Will [the adult main character] is easy to like when he’s not singing, I like Rachel [the teen main character] because her hopeful but sad nature comes out through her singing. Off stage, she’s a typical brooding teenager.)

This week’s episode only had a couple of music numbers (“Dancing with Myself” and the group wheelchair number), and I felt shortchanged. It needs to fit in four musical numbers per episode, in my opinion, and I believe they should be full songs wherever possible.

“Glee” is a classic musical (only it’s better than any musical you’d see in a theater or on the Disney Channel) in the sense that the stuff between the songs is entertaining, but really, you’re watching for the songs. And, perhaps more importantly, the dances. I bought the soundtrack, and being able to only hear the performance (and not see it), is indeed a shortcoming.

Interesting that you mention Vocal Adrenaline. Seth and I were saying the other day that we need more of them and their amazing choreography, and we also need more of the Cheerios performing “Bring It On”-style numbers; they are supposedly a great cheer team, but we haven’t really seen it in the performances. And “Glee” needs to bring back the Acafellas, too.

So … “Glee”: Not without it’s problems, but certainly entertaining.

John

# Posted By John Hansen | 11/14/09 3:33 AM