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Glee: Season 1 – Part 1 (Episodes 1-13)

September 25, 2010

Premise: Spanish teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) takes over as head of the Glee Club at William McKinley High School, a once popular school program that is now hanging by a thread and likely to be axed due to budget cuts. A large portion of the school’s budget is being used by the Cheerios, McKinley’s nationally recognized and dominant cheerleading program headed by the ruthless Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch). As Glee Club gains momentum under Schuester’s tutelage, the enormous budget of Sylvester’s program is threatened and a heated rivalry is born between the two teachers and their respective clubs.

I had written Glee off as a corny high school show that probably featured its cast bursting out into random musical numbers in mid-conversation. The TV spots and the few times I skimmed by Glee while it was on the air, did nothing to quell this assumption. After receiving a ridiculous amount of Emmy nominations (including a few wins), a lot of attention for the Sue Sylvester character, and good word of mouth over the summer, I found myself excited to be adding it to my Netflix queue.

With the popularity of singing-based reality shows, the premise for Glee couldn’t come at a better time. The question was: how can you turn a TV show into a musical without coming across corny? Glee succeeds because there is nothing random about the musical numbers performed. Since the characters are part of a Glee Club, all the performances are premeditated and performed as part of their after school activity and only once during the first thirteen episodes did a character seem to start singing out of no where. While it takes some getting used to the fact that all the vocals are prerecorded–creating a sense of detachment from what’s happening on screen and the feeling the actors aren’t really singing (oh, but they are!)–it’s a necessary process. We get to hear these kids at their best instead of struggling to catch their breath while singing and doing demanding choreography sequences at the same time.

The cast is tremendously talented and the casting directors should be lauded for managing to bring together a group of relatively unknown actors that possess such amazing skill. Leading the pack is Lea Michele, who plays Rachel Berry, a character that constantly reminds me of Tracy Flick played by Reese Witherspoon in 1999’s Election. While Michele’s character is an obnoxious know-it-all hell bent on her own success before others, her talent is undeniable (a fact the Glee group reluctantly has to swallow constantly). Watching the pilot episode, I found Rachel only mildly attractive… and then she started performing, and suddenly I was declaring my love on Facebook. This is a woman that would probably be a hands down favorite in almost any American Idol competition, and from what I’ve seen, her range knows no boundaries. Glee is just going to be the first big step (Michele is a noted Broadway actor already) into a wildly successful mainstream career for this enormously talented actress/singer.

Jane Lynch is the other standout in this cast. Even after Lynch won the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Emmy, I was pretty skeptical when I read a couple online articles that separately declared Sue Sylvester the 18th best character in pop culture over the past twenty years and one of televisions greatest all-time villains. That’s some pretty lofty praise for a character that has been on air for less than a year… yet, it was all justified by the end of the first thirteen episode arc. Sylvester gets all of Glee’s best lines and Lynch delivers them with confidence and hilarity. Sylvester’s obsession with bringing down the Glee Club provides the series’ most laughs and her constant feuding with nemesis Schuester is almost always laugh-out-loud funny, especially her constant references to his hair. There were moments when I thought Sylvester might simply become a petty enemy, but by the close of the first half of season one, she has cemented herself as truly evil and Lynch is worthy of all the accolades showered upon her.

Lynch and Michele are definitely the stars of Glee, but the rest of the cast is pretty talented too. Although relegated to background duty most of the time, Amber Riley (who plays token black girl Mercedes) is almost as talented as Michele. She gives Jennifer Hudson a run for her money with her rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and stands out in several other numbers as well. Matthew Morrison is probably the best actor of the bunch (outside of Lynch) and has some good singing moments as well, particularly his mash up of “Young Girl” and “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” when the teacher is trying to keep Rachel’s feelings for him at bay. Chris Cofler, the gay kid, while over-the-top with his flamboyance a lot of the time, actually can sing too. He kills “Defying Gravity” in a “diva off” with Rachel. On top of the great individual performances, it’s when the entire Glee club comes together to perform a number that the cast is at its best. I might be as gay as Kurt Hummel for admitting this, but the first time I heard them do Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” I actually got chills.

The performances and talent on Glee are great, but the writing seems to have a hard time keeping up. The moments in between musical numbers and Sue Sylvester appearances can be excruciating. Outside of the Sylvester vs. Schuester drama, the major conflicts of the first season center around the pregnancies of Will’s wife (she’s faking it) and Quinn Fabray (the gorgeous Dianna Agron), the head cheerleader and lead male vocalist Finn Hudson’s girlfriend (she’s pregnant by his best friend Puck). Rather than drive the story forward, these conflicts just cause annoyance. Will Schuester is made out to be a blind idiot married to a woman that has absolutely no admirable qualities and the love triangle between Finn, Puck and Quinn is equally obnoxious, as they trade loyalties like baseball cards and go from throwing punches to smiling and hugging in a musical number a few scenes later.

Speaking of relationships, there’s not a single couple on Glee that you’re rooting for. It seems like we’re supposed to want Will to hook up with guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), and she is somewhat adorable, but she’s also a complete wacko. Between her obsessive compulsive disorder, phobia of germs, and some ridiculous decision-making, it’s hard to believe this is someone we want our main protagonist to hook up with. There’s a similar vibe for Finn and Rachel, which is understandable when they’re performing together, but off stage these characters lack any sign of charisma: Finn’s a self-conscious moron and Rachel’s obnoxiousness is often taken to extremes. Maybe the writers think they are making an accurate depiction of high school life, but none of these kids have any consistency and constantly walk the line between lovable and repulsive. The lone exception is Sue Sylvester and it’s odd that the writers can always display such brilliance with her dialogue and arcs while being so messy with the rest of the characters. If they could learn to apply that writing ability to the rest of the show, Glee might be able to elevate past an awesome novelty and turn into something that can be taken a bit more seriously.

Now here’s a list of the best numbers from the first 13 episodes (search for them on YouTube):

New Directions – “Don’t Stop Believing”
Will Schuester – “Young Girl”/”Don’t Stand So Close To Me” mash up
Rachel & Finn – “Smile”
Rachel & Kurt – “Defying Gravity”
April Rhodes & Rachel – “Maybe This Time”
Mercedes – “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”
New Directions – “Push It”
New Directions – “Look At All The People”

Grade: B+

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