A friend of mine recently said he hates “Glee” (the first-season finale will air at 7:59 p.m. Central Tuesday on Fox). He shared his opinion after the episode that featured two KISS songs, and he’s a big KISS fan, and I think it might have been the first episode he watched, but still, he makes a valid point: Why perform songs if they are going to be inferior to the original version?
Entertainment Weekly, on the other hand, loves “Glee.” Sue Sylvester ranked No. 18 on the magazine’s recent top 100 characters of the last 20 years, a list so competitive that it didn’t have room for Bender, Veronica Mars or anyone from “Firefly.” It seems “Glee” has taken over “Lost’s” position as the show EW fawns over more than any other. And average joes and janes love it, too. I’ve had friends tell me I underrated “Glee” when I put it at No. 8 on my 2009 TV rankings.
My view of “Glee” doesn’t make for juicy copy: I think it’s good enough to keep on my viewing schedule, but too flawed to rank among TV’s elite.
A perusal of some of the tracks on the latest “Glee” music compilation (“Volume 3: Showstoppers”) illustrates what’s good and bad about the show.
1. “Hello, Goodbye.” The cast performance is inferior to the Beatles version, of course. However, if superiority over the original were a requirement for a song being covered, no one would ever cover the Beatles. And the “Glee” performance is still pretty good, simply because it’s a good song to begin with.
2. “Gives You Hell.” I don’t know if this is better or worse than the original, because I had never heard of this song before (I looked it up, and it’s by the All-American Rejects). But the anger — “Hope it gives you hell/Hope it gives you hell” — comes through even outside the context of the “Glee” storyline (which is good, because I can’t recall the context), so it’s worth doing to expose non-top-40 listeners to a good tune.
6. “Beautiful.” Amber Riley’s (Mercedes) version isn’t as good as Christina Aguilera’s, even though she has one of the best voices on the show. However, when Mercedes sings it in front of the school, calling out anyone who feels like an outsider and getting absolutely everyone to join in, it’s a powerful moment. Sometimes “Glee” does what a good musical should do: Advance the story by means of a song.
8. “Physical.” Olivia Newton-John joins Jane Lynch (Sue) on this version. It’s similar to the original recording, but Newton-John (as she says in the episode) saw this as an opportunity to replace an old music video that she wasn’t proud of. But the new video isn’t inspired — it’s just Newton-John and Lynch parading around with shirtless, fit men. It didn’t meld into the story particularly smoothly, so this is an example of a boring and unnecessary cover.
9. “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s a good song, and we just like to hear it now and then. It’s like when I saw a high school staging of “Grease” a few years ago, and they concluded with the fan favorite “You’re the One that I Want.” As good as the original? Maybe not, but it was still fun.
13. “Dream On.” It’s a rather dull Aerosmith song to cover, considering how many options there are. And, surprisingly, it’s not a good rendition by Neil Patrick Harris and Matthew Morrison in an episode directed by Joss Whedon (they just sing it in a bar, and later on a stage with minimal decor). It fits with the story (Harris’ character needs encouragement to keep dreaming), but in such an obvious way that I was thinking “OK, I get it” through the whole performance.
14. “Safety Dance.” It’s a catchy song, and a catchy cover. More importantly, it’s the best piece of choreography of the season so far. Kevin McHale’s character, Artie, gets out of his wheelchair in a daydream sequence and dances expertly with an entire shopping mall full of people, and there are hints that it was filmed in the midst of real shoppers who stopped to gawk. “Glee” doesn’t do big-time choreography as often as it should (or, perhaps, as often as it wants to). I have no idea why they put their best dancer this side of Heather Morris in a wheelchair, but I’m glad Artie got on his feet for this one.
16. “Loser.” This Beck song never connected with me, because of the obscure foreign-language chorus. Given just a bit of context (Puck, Finn and others feel like losers), it came to life for me, and it’s sung well enough that I suspect Beck would approve.
18. “Beth.” I didn’t realize this was a KISS song when I saw the episode (I apologize to KISStorians). But I certainly noticed that the setup of the four guys sitting in classroom chairs singing it to the girls was as bland as it gets. The song bored me, too. This and the episode’s other KISS performance (done with full makeup and costumes but performed in rote fashion) landed flat for KISS fans and non-KISS fans alike.
19. “Poker Face.” Two talented singers — Lea Michele (Rachel) and guest star/singer Idina Menzel — do a good job with their slow version of this Lady Gaga tune. By slowing it down, it matched the emotions of the story (Rachel wants to get to know her mom, but doesn’t want to seem desperate about it). However, the fast version is certainly superior, so in “Glee” album form, “Poker Face” becomes a skippable curiosity.
20. “Bad Romance.” Lady Gaga’s version is catchy, and so is the cast’s very similar cover. The choreography is strong, though, and the costumes (everyone dresses up as a Gaga character) make it pop off the screen. That’s why it’s totally worth doing, even if it doesn’t improve on the original recording.
So there you have it. Sometimes “Glee” gets it right, sometimes it gets it wrong. I keep tuning in because when they get it right it’s a lot of fun, and when they get it wrong it doesn’t really affect my life negatively.
Maybe I’d feel different if I was a KISS fan, but I will add this note. I love Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue, and Kristin Chenowith and Matthew Morrison sing Springsteen’s “Fire” in a roller-skating rink in one episode. It’s not as good as the Springsteen version, but I wasn’t bothered by their attempt because one, I love the fact that they tried their hand at a Boss tune, and two, it was pretty neat how they sang it while roller skating.
“Glee” isn’t any better or worse than when it started, but as the novelty of a successful serial musical wears off, the backlash will certainly set in, and “Glee” will give critics no shortage of things to criticize. It looks like I find myself in the position of being a “Glee” apologist, but not a “Glee” lover.