Last I saw “Glee,” it had driven straight off the cliff of its own success. I heard screams as cast members plummeted, but it turns out they were just singing Lady Gaga songs in unison. What a senseless tragedy — a show about bullied underdogs became burdened with popularity until you could no longer relate to its vapidity nor stand the sight of their moony faces.
Show creator Ryan Murphy, along with his staff of choreographers, musical directors and casting experts, has apparently been mulling at least one of my concerns about “Glee” — the staleness factor. The current “Glee” kids can’t linger at fictional McKinley High much longer; they need to graduate before, say, age 29.
Thus, “The Glee Project,” a reality-competition show premiering Sunday night on Oxygen, is a rather sincere attempt to acquaint fans and wannabes with a sort of audition process for new “Gleek” cast members. Forty thousand people, viewers are told, tried out for one of a dozen slots on “The Glee Project,” which promises the winner a role in a seven-episode story arc on “Glee’s” next season.
Unlike “American Idol,” “The Voice” and other manufactured chances at a hollow sort of fame, “The Glee Project” promises a somewhat sensible shot at a temp job that might pan out into something permanent, which should resonate with today’s unemployed millennials. The show is also refreshingly entertaining, even when it relies on familiar cliches of the singing-competition genre.
The 12 performers assembled here, ranging in age from 18 to 22, are promptly put to work by their blunt but encouraging mentor, Robert Ulrich (“Glee’s” casting director), who has them quickly work up a group rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).”
If nothing else, it’s clear these people have watched their share of “Glee.” Two other mentor/judges — the show’s choreographer and musical director — then put them through the paces, asking the aspirants to imagine what sort of gleek their character ought to be. Character means everything to “Glee”; Murphy and the show’s writers emphasize the need for big, broadly rendered school archetypes around which to build new stories. “Show us who you are,” says Murphy, wearing a ridiculously floppy, Seussian knit cap. “Not who you think we want you to be.”
For some, this “inner character” is rather obvious: Matheus, a Brazilian immigrant who stands 4 feet 9 inches tall, is an Artie-like misfit, minus the wheelchair. Ellis is a cherub-faced college dropout who worries that she will always look like a 10-year-old. Damian is the awkwardly handsome exchange student from Northern Ireland who has been performing in a Celtic roadshow. There’s also a worried fat girl, a gay kid who is 99 percent diva and a shapely bimbo-in-training. You can almost see certain boxes on a list being checked off.
Lindsay, a ready-made Rachel, has already ascertained that she’s the best singer of the bunch. When the gang learns that its big number will be Katy Perry’s “Firework,” she smugly tells the camera that “it’s a belty, fist-in-the-air anthem for people like me.”
As annoying as “The Glee Project” could have been, its first episode is compellingly simple, effortlessly accessing what remains of “Glee’s” original appeal. It also provides some neat background about how the show’s musical numbers are hastily recorded, choreographed and filmed.
After a lot of “Firework” caterwauling and a music video shoot, three of the contestants are marked for elimination, which means they are each assigned a new song and have only two hours to practice before they must perform it for Murphy, who will send one of them home. (In a nice twist, this is done like it was in high school, with the dreaded posting of a cast list on the glee club bulletin board.)
Poor Damian, who came up short on personality, is assigned a quite popular hit from 30 years ago. “I don’t know what [this song] is,” he says, listening to it with stupefied panic. “I don’t know who sings it. I don’t know how it goes.”
But he gets on stage and gives it his mangled-lyrics best: “I wish that I WAS Jessie’s girl,” he croons.
A boy wishing to be a girl?
Now he’s got Murphy’s attention.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Oxygen.