Fans of the FOX series Glee refer to themselves as “Gleeks,” which is a portmanteau of the show’s title and subject and the word “geek,” but it’s also an example of the softened tartness that is the show’s default quality. In Glee’s sly fantasy of high school tumult and aspiration, to not fit in is to be a star. The eccentric are the heroes, while the normals and populars are just background noise. The viewers mean to see themselves, one supposes, as members of the endearing band of dweebs that are this world’s focus.
I’m not exactly a Gleek. I’ve seen most of the show’s run so far, but I’ve never watched an episode upon its original airing. These days I do most of my purposeful TV viewing on Hulu (usually hung-over in bed Friday mornings) for convenience, but with Glee it’s a necessity. For all that’s interesting about it, the show is breathlessly, terrifically annoying, a glorious camp train-wreck that has bizarrely hit a bull’s-eye nerve in the American pop zeitgeist. There’s no way I could watch it without the ability to pause every other scene to wince in embarrassment, rewind to catch bits of stilted acting, or, most integrally, skip entire scenes—most often the frequent musical numbers.
I’ve yet to fully process what it means that I insist on keeping up with a show while hating its central conceit. Initially, I was as charmed as anyone by the gaudy rush of desperate teens breaking into song. The pilot’s final moments, in which between-two-worlds jock Finn (Cory Monteith) belts out some Journey, are more or less the show’s mission statement, and we were all swept up in the inclusive starry-eyed grandeur. But then Glee became a breakout hit, a minor cultural phenomenon, and it went further – faster than anyone involved expected. The writers had to start finding creative ways to maintain its leads’ compelling underdog quality (they haven’t run out, eventually resorting to general physical abuse as a breezy trope of high school tribulation) as well as fresh showcases for their explosive performing power.
The problem, though, is that karaoke is the lowest form of performance, even when it’s really, really good karaoke. As the cover songs became more popular, eventually being collected on hit records and performed live during a national tour, their initial endearment – pertinent to the home-grown winningness of the characters – turned sour. The nadir of this development was first reached in the eighth episode when, in a kind of frantic budget-blowing convulsion, they had glee teacher Mr. Shue (Matthew Morrison) assign the kids “mash-ups.” No, readers, these aren’t your beloved, irony-chic pairings of The Carpenters and Young Jeezy to which you bounce while rolling in some desolate Williamsburg hotspot. The mash-ups in Glee are an ugly thing, abominable hybrid monsters that dare to subvert God’s pop music will in the name of expressing the creativity of pretend characters. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a combination of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and “Singin’ in the Rain” (the show’s strained obsession with themes is a constant nuisance) reduce two joyous songs to one arrhythmic, chemistry-free choral dirge, I direct you to the finale of “The Substitute,” guest-starring Gwyneth Paltrow. (Ms. Paltrow is married to the Coldplay guy, so, uh, [withering joke at their expense].)
One of the most maddening things about these scenes is their insistence on ADD music video-style editing. The choreography and production design are elaborate but they’re usually shot and chopped up with such awful sense of scale and flow that it’s headache-inducing to follow the action. Look at this clip of “The Safety Dance” from the episode “Dream On,” directed by Joss Whedon:
Why do they keep cutting between wide and close-up shots every second? We get it, they’re in a mall. This is not how you watch people dance. I’m annoyed mostly by the lack of self-faith in the professed theatric object; do they think we’ll forget their budding stars’ faces if we don’t see them in HD every other instant? (I have to admit the possibility of recent exceptions to this assessment due to lack of research – like I said, I’ve taken to generally skipping these sequences in part or whole.)