TV: Glee

Glee: The Complete First SeasonHalf-naked cheerleaders, electric guitars from nowhere, terrible jokes about the deaf, Nazis and O.J. Simpson, a stereotypically butch female athletic coach as a villain and themes about confidence, regret, and betrayal…the first season of Fox’s hit musical television show, Glee, is available on DVD and the show is a mashup of styles, songs, and classic stories. After hearing endlessly about this show, which I did not watch in first run, I can attest that Glee is irresistible. While there is plenty to improve upon, the one-hour dramatic musical comedy is humorous, thought-provoking, and poignant. The series is enormously entertaining.

Cashing in on its high school and musical predecessors, ABC’s Room 222, the movie and NBC series Fame, and Disney’s cable movie franchise, High School Musical, and many others in film and television, Glee is centrally the story of a white male authority figure named Will. Gussied up as an egalitarian band of misfits who join the Midwestern William McKinley High School’s glee club, complete with tokens of every politically correct type, it’s relatively wholesome, which is the key to its overwhelming success. Spanish teacher Will instructs the students, each of whom yearn to be treated as an individual. His shrill, shallow, low-down wife calls them “dancing delinquents” and their asinine relationship is the only thing that is pure fantasy in this otherwise reality-based show. With multiple soap opera storylines about true love, teen pregnancy, and budding sexuality, Glee casts a wide net and always roots itself in American middle class pop music.

It works wonderfully. With arena rock staple Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” at its heart and soul, an idealistic counterpoint to the vacant nihilism of HBO’s Sopranos, with its horrible take on the same triumphant song, the glee club travels from formation to the final episode’s competition with reverence for the ideal. The songs, performances, and dance routines are overproduced, overly structured, and they lack pathos at key intervals, but each episode expresses a positive view of life and, sometimes, something unusual to think about, such as envy of those of ability, racism against whites, and what it feels like for a girl, or to be gay, pregnant, or mentally or physically handicapped. Each student shines at his or her best, in clothes, lines, and melodies that capture the possibility, not just the pain, of youth. And not just the young. Will’s love interest with another member of the faculty is the most interesting part of the show and his ongoing power struggle with the masculine cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester, is the funniest. Whether riffing on the empowerment of music by Madonna, a heart-wrenching fantasy sequence to “The Safety Dance” (originally performed by Men Without Hats), or working in enjoyable appearances by Olivia Newton-John as herself, the musical approach is clean, honest and respectful.

Yet the playful Glee is unabashedly daring in its own way. In an age of cynicism, with sneering television personalities testifying before Congress, it takes courage and imagination to showcase tunes such as “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, “Heartbreak Beat” by the Psychedelic Furs, or “The Lady is a Tramp” to express the idea that the good is possible here on earth and one ought to pursue one’s goals if based on reality and do it with passion, drive, and integrity. Wiping off the cultural slime (or slush) that engulfs us, Glee is gleeful about all of that. Whether in Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” or Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”, each performance is a step toward competition; an expression and a progression in revolving narratives of distinctively original characters. Every aspect of the production, including the cast, is excellent.

The premiere season DVD is a good product, if nothing sensational. As usual, extras without much substance appear on the box for marketing purposes, and much of the material is more fan-oriented than informative or entertaining. Bits include a video jukebox to play performance scenes, video diaries, tidbits, and features on fashion, choreography, and the final episode’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen) performance. Nothing lasts longer than 15 minutes and most are not worth watching twice, though some bonus bits are fun. On one feature, co-creator Ryan Murphy says he hopes the audience at least feels Glee‘s love for each song. After watching the first season, I do.

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