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Reviewed by Will Harris
here is an unofficial subgenre within the world of television known as “the love-it-or-hate-it series,” so known because there’s virtually no middle ground when it comes to viewers’ feelings on a show. This is very much a fair assessment of Fox’s “Glee.”
The idea of trying to take the goings-on within and surrounding a high school glee club and make it into a viable primetime series would seem on the surface to be madness, but the knowledge that “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy was one of the series’ masterminds was enough to make discerning viewers sit up and take notice. And in a world where “High School Musical” is a veritable phenomenon, there could be no better time to take a shot with such a concept.
It is said that Murphy originally conceived of “Glee” as a film, and if he had chosen to go the cinematic route, then it’s a fair bet that very little of the pilot episode would’ve been cut from the final product, as it offers the perfect set-up: a former glee club member turned high school Spanish teacher – Will Schuester, played by Matthew Morrison – decides to revisit his roots and take over as the sponsor of the club, attempting to shape up the group and train them to the point of winning sectionals. We learn about Will, his unfulfilled dreams, and his wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who loves him but doesn’t understand how much he’s haunted by what might’ve been and therefore can’t fully appreciate the importance of the glee club to him. We see the auditions of the potential members and, unlike the early episodes of every single “American Idol” season, there’s no attempt to mock those who can’t sing. All we see are these kids who, although they may be perceived as misfits by their peers, want nothing more than to share their gift of song with the world. By the end of the episode, when the group joins forces to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” if you’re not a full-fledged “Glee” supporter, then you likely never will be, as it is one of the most uplifting moments of television to see air during 2009 and, arguably, the decade.
“Glee” is, to offer an imprecise comparison, a bit like a mash-up between “High School Musical” and “Freaks and Geeks,” alternating between song and dance numbers and the trials and tribulations of peer interaction within the high school clique system. There’s considerable validity to the suggestion that teenage society cannot conceive of a world where football players, cheerleaders, and glee club members all exist on the same level playing field of popularity, but as someone who’s found himself at several different heights on the social status bar graph over the years, I find it fascinating to see Will Shuester’s attempts to defy convention by telling the members of the glee club to – gasp! – be themselves.
The young actors and actresses who play the members of the glee club were predominantly unknown prior to joining the cast of the show, but there’s little question that they’re somebodies now. As Rachel, Lea Michele manages to capture the emotional turmoil of a teenage girl who knows she’s talented but can’t figure out why the people around her don’t appreciate it, and while Cory Monteith doesn’t offer a showy performance while playing the football-playing Finn, that actually works for the part. What football player would dare to reveal anything other than the most limited range of emotions? As such, his explosive reaction to his girlfriend’s pregnancy is all the more affecting. All of the kids are pretty great, actually, and from Mercedes to Kurt, from Artie to Tina, they all get the spotlight at some point during the course of this set.
There’s plenty of time for the adults to shine as well, of course, with Will’s character dealing with a bit of sexual tension in the workplace between himself and the school guidance counselor, Emma Pillsbury, played by the way-too-cute Jayma Mays. Unfortunately, between the fact that Will’s married and Emma’s found herself engaged to football coach Ken Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher), it would that there’d be little chance for them to end up in each other’s arms. Why, if only Will’s wife were to fake a pregnancy…
As noted in the opening paragraph, “Glee” isn’t a show for everyone, but judging from the ratings, CD sales, and iTunes downloads, it certainly is a show for quite a few people. If you haven’t dared to check it out, now’s your chance, since the show won’t be returning from its network-imposed hiatus for a few months yet. The best part about it is that it doesn’t necessarily require a huge investment: if you don’t like the first episode, you needn’t bother watching any more. If you do dig it, though, then plan on a marathon, because you’ll find yourself moving from disc to disc at a rapid clip.
Special Features: For a half-season set, this thing is pretty decently pimped out. First off, there’s a very funny “Welcome to McKinley” featurette, with Iqbal Thiba hosting the tour of the high school as Principal Figgins, unabashedly reading his cue cards all the way. Also included is a music video for “Somebody to Love,” a pair of audition pieces, a backstage featurette from the Fox Movie Channel, and video diaries and “Things You Didn’t Know About…” pieces from the cast members.