Occasionally an excess of charm or sweetness will overcome all of my annoyances, reliably so with the latest addition to the cast, a suave dandy named Blaine who serves as counterpart to the glee club’s delicate gay kid Kurt. When he burst out with Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” you could faintly hear Gleeks across the nation, queer and straight alike, swoon in their living rooms. Shit, watch the webcam audition of actor Darren Criss and try not to awwww:
A performer like this kid has the power to reverse Glee’s music-ruining paradigm – I not only watched his rendition of Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” a song I hate with every molecule in my eardrums, all the way through – I rewound and watched it again. And again. Once in awhile they even reverse-engineer music that was actually good to begin with into something fresh. The Britney Spears episode “Britney/Brittany” had a crafty meta-textual charm, and I enjoyed a recent rendition of MJ’s “PYT” that was brisk and laid-back, everything the show isn’t at its grandstanding worst.
No matter how grating and conversationally tone-deaf the show becomes, it remains weirdly enthralling mostly because it defies generic pigeonholing. When I first saw ads for the premiere, I thought it had to be a comedy, and probably an annoyingly pandering one at that. Look at these high school outcasts! There’s even one in a wheelchair! Watch them have antics! Ever since Napoleon Dynamite captured the hearts of faux-alternative suburban brats everywhere, Hollywood’s really taken to the loveable-misfits-in-middle-America motif. “Time to laugh at losers until I hate myself again,” I thought. To its credit, though, it made good on the promise of tonal complexity, if not coherence or accuracy. What surprised me was the actual, fragile sincerity the show often affects, but what’s more confusing are its attempts to show its edge. When Rolling Stone did a cover story last April – its glossy cover complete with a baiting glimpse of star Lea Michele’s pantied ass behind a miniskirt – the labored hook indicated some illicit juice to be found in its fictive world: “Beneath the show’s sunny exterior beats a heart of darkness.” The array of expletives (rock and roll journalism, yeah!) doesn’t necessarily correspond to the substance of the show, but there is an unexpectedly candid inclination to Glee’s narrative. Two of the first season’s main storylines dealt with adultery and teen pregnancy, after all, and their good-hearted resolutions didn’t fall into a neat stylistic pattern.
This uncertainty about the show’s intended nature might be what keeps me watching it. It was created by Ryan Murphy, whose earlier series Nip/Tuck and Popular I haven’t seen but have heard to have been darker and less conciliatory in their satire. According to RS, he adapted Glee from a much more explicit and cynical screenplay, which is probably where the trouble arose. The plots fluctuate so wildly between wholesome progressiveness (Being gay is okay! Be honest in relationships!) and kinky/defiant provocation (Casual teen sex! Bureaucratic ineptitude!) that you’re never sure what’s being served, your tastes or the demographical bottom line. As The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff put it, “Murphy’s so intent on pushing what makes the show ‘edgy,’ that he’s going to be the death of it. What makes Glee work is everything that ISN’T edgy.” That is, the critic finds its earnest audience-pleasing moments to work more intuitively than its tired “risqué” tics. I don’t know if the two are so divisible; the specific feel that it’s developed, and has made it so appealing and successful, is based on the conflation of these two modes. The villainous cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), for example, couldn’t be so viciously sardonic if she wasn’t granted a quota of sympathetic, feel-good traits and decisions (e.g. she employs a sweet girl with Down Syndrome as confidant and sidekick)—like I said, softened tartness. A true satire may make you laugh, but you’re never quite comfortable at the end. In contrast, by the third act Glee is nothing but smiles, though it cuts some logical corners to get there.
Nobody’s saying Glee is bad because it isn’t realistic. I entirely buy and endorse its retarded fantasy of arts education. It’s awesome how they never seem to practice the same song twice, how a scrappy, beleaguered public school club has a professional band on hand at all times and how they manage to pull together an expensive-looking production of Rocky Horror on a few days’ notice. It’s all good, Gleeple, seriously. But I wonder how long they’ll be able to keep up their high-wire narrative act, mingling fan-service and innovation in adequate measures. As exploitative and off-putting as it can be, Glee works because it’s a story about being hungry – for fame, for acceptance, for a new kind of love – but there’s only so much time before you starve.