You're Just In Time to Join the 'Glee' Club

The musical comedy focuses on an optimistic high school teacher as he tries to transform a group of ragtag student performers.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

People have a lot to say about how pop-cultural depictions of high school affect them still, maybe more than high school itself. In the wake of filmmaker John Hughes's death last month, critic Greg Beato quipped in an essay: "The first rule of 'Breakfast Club,' is that you totally talk about 'Breakfast Club.' "

Now it's time to forget once and for all about "The Breakfast Club" and totally talk about "Glee," which is perhaps the best new show of the fall TV season, returning to Fox on Wednesday night at 9, taking its place among the pantheon of sharp tales of teendom, a list that includes everything from Holden Caulfield to Hughes to "Heathers" to "Election" to "American Pie" to "Freaks and Geeks."

The pilot episode of "Glee" debuted after May's "American Idol" finale to much tittering and Twittering; if you missed it, don't worry. The minute the football team tosses the gay kid in the school dumpster in the opening moments of this new episode, you'll know right where "Glee" is headed (besides a front table at the next GLAAD media awards dinner). Its fantastic cast and peppy pace will quickly usher you into multiple story lines that feature new interpretations of the usual villains and heroes of the hallways.

With music!

Co-created by Ryan Murphy (who helped make "Nip/Tuck," and wrote and directed the movie version of the memoir "Running With Scissors") "Glee" is filled with ribald joy and a delicious (if cruel) dose of antisocial cynicism. Yet its heart is pure, and rooted in song and the thrill of performance. And what might have been its downfall -- actual show-choir numbers that adapt unlikely pop hits to the jazz-hands genre -- makes it only more charming.

"Glee" chronicles the foundering state of the glee club at William McKinley High School in the Ohio nowheresville, but really it's about all of high school, everywhere, anytime: the crowded halls, the unlimited slights and insults, the football team, the cheer squad (McKinley's nefarious Cheerios, coached by the vainglorious Sue Sylvester, played by the wickedly funny Jane Lynch); there is the nervous guidance counselor, the inept administrator and, at the bottom of all this pecking order, the six students who've signed up for glee club. ("Five and a half," Coach Sylvester taunts. "One's a cripple.")

Indeed, of the five kids in glee club, one (Kevin McHale as Artie) is wheelchair-bound, which is funny and open-minded. Another is an Aretha-diva wannabe. Another is a quiet Asian girl in Goth eyeliner. Another is Finn Hudson (played by the talented, if too old-looking, Cory Monteith), the star quarterback with a secret song in his heart. There is the inevitable sissy, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer). And there is Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), "Glee's" own Tracy Flick with CĂ©line Dion pipes.

Sponsoring the glee club, and anchoring the entire series, is one Will Schuester (engaging Broadway actor Matthew Morrison) who wants only to restore McKinley to its state-championship glee heyday of his own high school years. He is thwarted at every turn by Coach Sylvester, who jealously guards the school's activities budget. "My first thought was that your students should be put in foster care," she sniffs, after the glee club's too-hot-to-handle performance of Salt-n-Pepa's "Push It" at a school assembly.

Stripped down, "Glee" is just a naughty twist on "Hey kids, let's put on a show," which is everyone's favorite story anyhow. A highlight of Wednesday's episode has Mr. Schu getting down with his gleesters to Kanye West's "Gold Digger," and, when not focused on the kids' dramas, "Glee" happily plumbs adult concerns: Mr. Schu is an oppressed husband, married to the overbearing Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who is frantic to reproduce and force him into buying an expensive show home. When he tells her they can't afford the sun room and the grand foyer, Terri calls the decision "my own 'Sophie's Choice.' "

"Glee" is another paradox of life within Rupert Murdoch's Fox empire, which can, on its news network, stoke the paranoia of the right wing, and then, in prime time, offer up "Glee," as some sort of weird antidote. "Glee" is rife with digs at McMansion lifestyles, God-squadders, the "abstinence-only" movement and uptight homophobia. It can be viewed (and already is, by fans whom the network has christened "gleeks") as a gay victory, if not in content then certainly in sensibility. (Just wait a couple of weeks, when Kurt joins the football team and dances to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies [Put a Ring on It]" on the field.)

"Glee" gets the one universal thing about high school that Hughes so skillfully manipulated: We never leave it, and our memories of it make it seem only more dramatic, more surreal. And high schools keep spitting out newly damaged young adults who failed to fit a certain type or ideal (or think they didn't fit), and thus develop the semi-permanent condition of disaffectedness, dissociation and regret. Thus they become part of a finely woven, if glum, American tapestry of People Who Hated School. "Glee" is pure, unadulterated revenge for the losers.

This is not to say it's a perfect show. "Glee" never passes up a serving of ham (or cheese, in the case of the musical numbers), and its frenetic pace will enthrall its hippest viewers and exhaust others. Well, they need to get with it.

"Glee" is certain to delight likeminded grown-ups, but I'm most happy for the teenagers who can (and will) watch and embrace it. When they venture back to their reunions in the future and dance to "Single Ladies," they won't have to watch other people's high school movies and TV. Kids today will always have "Glee." Score one for the underdogs.

Glee (one hour) airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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