TV Preview: Tom Shales on Fox's 'Glee'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Glee," the musical drama series premiering tonight on Fox, is an hour full of "howevers." It seems a show in the tradition of buoyant, youthful performance vehicles such as Disney's sensational "High School Musical" trilogy or, much earlier, the movie "Fame" and its offspring syndicated series.

However, most of the face time on the show, at least to judge from the opener, will be going to the adults in the group -- the teachers who work at bringing the school's glee club (hence, title) back to life and who have their own fairly tedious relationships and problems to deal with. They're a dull group, the dullest being the supposed ringleader -- Matthew Morrison as Will Schuester, whose baby the revitalized glee club mainly is.

Morrison is definitely not gleeful and doesn't seem particularly well equipped to be a high-school impresario; as pipers go, he's not even marginally pied. However, the adult contingent of the cast also includes a first-rate and very funny actor named Jane Lynch, who is fondly remembered by many a moviegoer as Ricky Bobby's mama in Will Ferrell's "Talladega Nights."

Anyway, viewers ought to be warned perhaps not to become too fond of the show in one outing -- and a very high-profile outing at that, following as it does the season's final performance episode of "American Idol." "Glee" is clearly quality television -- ambitious and ebullient. The more you like it the unhappier you might be, however, because the second episode won't air for four more months. It's perhaps the earliest premiere of a "new fall series" in history; Fox is giving the pilot a slot that's akin to the Super Bowl "after-party" to tease viewers with a very quick look, hoping it will keep appetites whetted through the spring and summer.

That's a lot of whetting. Especially for the American television audience, which is being conditioned by erratic programming patterns to become more jittery and impetuous every day. In America, we tend to ask not "what's on" but "what else is on"; poor little "Glee" could easily get lost in the stampede.

It's not really "poor" or "little," however, having been relatively lavishly mounted by director and executive producer Ryan Murphy, one of TV's reigning mini-geniuses at the moment. Perhaps Murphy deserves kudos for putting so much emphasis on the adult members of the cast, because, of course, conventional wisdom is that the younger the audience, the more demographically desirable it is. Or maybe he is guilty of paying too little attention to a troupe of sparkling and lively young performers so he can give a crop of fairly tired adults a playground in which to romp. Well, enough of the howevers and back-and-forths; whatever the drawbacks and quixotic quirks, there's plenty of time to de-botch the show between now and the fall.

"Glee is about opening yourself up to joy," says a quotation on the wall at McKinley High. Right off the bat, the show will remind experienced viewers not only of "High School Musical" but also of "Grease," "Election" and, of course, "American Idol." The girls even spritz themselves liberally with aerosol cans, evoking at least a superficial resemblance to "Hairspray."

When Schuester tells the principal he wants to dig the glee club out of mothballs and put it back into service, the principal asks, "You want to captain the Titanic, too?" Ha-ha, good one, princey. Then in the middle of a turn-tossed night, Schuester gets what is supposedly an inspiration: "New Directions," his name for the revived glee club.

One of the show's major pluses is that the music performed isn't confined to the latest tuneless melodies to come dribbling down into iPods everywhere. During auditions for the glee club, one kid sings "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from the great Frank Loesser musical "Guys and Dolls." The finale from "Grease" -- "You're the One That I Want" -- is performed later, as is a theme from "Austin Powers" and the golden folk oldie "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

There's almost as much varied good music as you'd hear on a Time Life infomercial -- but you get to hear more than just 22 seconds' worth of each song. And no sign of Tony Orlando or Dawn -- at least, not yet.

The glee club and its exhumation become a symbol for renewed hope and optimism at the school. Naturally there are forces of evil -- or pretty darn close -- who are trying to keep the place mired in ennui and self-loathing; this nasty group considers it a cute prank to trap a boy in a wheelchair inside a portable toilet and then try to tip it over. Fortunately, one of the coolest guys in school -- Cory Monteith as the school quarterback -- joins the glee club, which certifies it as at least partially "cool" in the eyes of the others.

Dramatic tension isn't exactly plentiful, but pleasingly staged songs and a general aura of retro ingenuousness come through, and seem awfully if fitfully refreshing, especially compared with all the gloomy police and doctor procedurals that dominate prime time. "American Idol" made prime time safe for songs again; maybe "Glee" will make it safe for full-fledged musicals -- and, yes, even for glee itself.

Glee (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 5, and will air regularly this fall on Wednesdays at 9.

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