Although it’s hardly the most popular new show of the Fall television season, few have been the water-cooler sensation amongst 20-somethings as Fox’s Glee, and on the surface it’s pretty easy to see why.
The show is a melodramatic high school comedy with a dark bite to its jokes. Half of the cast has Broadway chops, while the other half has comedy cred to burn (particularly the always-great Jane Lynch, easily the show’s standout).But most would probably agree that the core of Glee’s appeal is the music: flamboyant, colourful performances of popular music hits ranging from pop to hip hop to classic rock, impeccably staged and choreographed.
That’s all great on the surface. Beyond that, however, things get a bit more complicated. Because Glee is actually an awful show.
Calm down, fanboys/girls, hear me out. Because I kind of want to talk about Prince and Purple Rain first as a way to get back around to Glee.
I’d heard the obvious Prince singles here and there before I purchased Purple Rain six or seven years ago, but hadn’t paid much attention to them. When I bought the record at a used CD store in Sydney, Cape Breton, it was kind of on a whim – and to make a complete set of five CDs for a discount. Turns out that as an album, Purple Rain is every bit as brilliant out-of-context as it must have been in-context in 1984 as a world-domination manifesto. To this day, it’s not only my favourite Prince record – even as I recognize that it’s FAR cooler to prefer Sign of the Times or something more off-beat like Dirty Mind – but it still ranks among my favourite albums ever made.
So a couple of years later, when I finally got around to watching the film to which the record soundtracks, my hopes were high. And in some ways, it delivered: there’s a case to be made that the performance footage in Purple Rain is the most captivating ever put to film. Prince and the Revolution take the best songs of the Purple One’s career and performs them with such over-the-top passion that it almost makes listening to them without visuals silly. It’s awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping and a must-see for any music fan.
The rest of Purple Rain, however,is awful; awful in a way that Glee could never even dream of being. And yet, I kind of want to love it. The live performances are so amazing that I sort of lie to myself when I watch the rest of the film. I overlook the fact that Prince can’t act, his female lead is vacant eye candy, the characters have no clear motivation outside of some clichéd melodrama, and any semblance of plot is only awkward connections between the musical performances. I take what is awesome about the movie and extrapolate it onto everything else, imagining that the drama is sexy, the tension palatable and Prince not emo but totally badass. In short: I pretend it’s the movie I want it to be.
The show that Glee wants to be is, on paper, promising. And its pilot came pretty close to delivering on that promise (aside from the “crazy wife” storyline, which remains the show’s nadir). But the moment it had to move beyond an introduction and become a “show” things began to fall apart. On both character and plot development, Glee is an abysmal failure. The show is so desperate to maintain its kinetic energy that it does so by moving storylines unrealistically quickly – arcs that on most shows would build over a few episodes get burned through in 20 minutes, leaving reasonable characterizations flattened in their wake and keeping most of its cast resigned to being cut-out caricatures. And yet, the show also has an annoying knack for leaving each episode so self-contained that we always end up back at the same place we began, ensuring that we’ll be going through the EXACT same motions next week.
Jane Lynch, of course, remains the show’s comedic highpoint and is absolved from my scorn. And while there’s nothing quite in the Purple Rain league, when the show’s performances hit they really hit, whether it’s the pilot-concluding “Don’t Stop Believing” (which worked in SPITE of the song’s hilarious overuse) or pretty much anything Kristen Chenoweth did in her guest role (that version of “Alone” kind of killed). But five episodes in and the returns are already diminishing to the point where the songs are slight reprieves from the reams of mind-numbing stupidity in-between.
(Amy Dehnart made a more generous argument along these lines over at MSNBC online earlier this week in an article bluntly titled “‘Glee’ has rabid fans, but they deserve better.” It gives the show WAY too much credit – how is having the celibacy club president getting pregnant “cutting satire”? – but it hits most of the reasons why I think Glee is such a crippling disappointment, especially in comparison to the show that it COULD be.)
And yet, for all its problems, Glee has a growing army of ardent fans clinging to their television sets each Wednesday night. The show may not be around in another year or two – I struggle to see how it’s in any way sustainable – but viewers are clearly making the most of it while it lasts. And I find it hard to begrudge them their pleasure. Because if I’m allowed to enjoy Purple Rain for the film I want it to be, who am I to judge those who love Glee less as the show it is and more as the show it aspires to be?