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.