Glee is about—wait, don’t gag—misfit kids and an inspirational teacher who find joy in the high-school glee club. Luckily, this new Fox series explodes the sappy expectations that premise brings to mind. It opens with the cheerleading coach (a droll Jane Lynch) shouting at her squad: “You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded, that’s hard.” She later argues that high school is a caste system and glee-club members its irredeemable losers, making her the show’s voice of reason.
Her character illustrates why Glee hits this cultural moment just right: It has a snarky, cynical Gossip Girl surface and a gushy, hopeful, Susan Boyle heart. What could make more sense? The lesson of Boyle, the phenomenon of the frumpy spinster with a voice of gold who gained instant fame on Britain’s Got Talent, is that we need to move past the sneering cynicism we felt when she first stepped on stage. It’s so misplaced, especially in the age of Obama and all that hope.
I fast-forward through American Idol, only watching the condensed version so I can keep my pop-culture license. If I enjoyed Glee, it really must have something for everyone.
But we can’t quite let go of the lessons of Gossip Girl, which are that we all want to be the Brahmins in the caste system of life, the rich and beautiful usually do come out on top, and wasn’t it a little deluded of Boyle not to at least color her hair before her audition anyway? We may be hopeful, but we haven’t lost our minds.
In this context, the unexpectedly funny and entertaining Glee, with its collection of losers trying to be winners, probably touches us now more than its creator, Ryan Murphy, could have guessed. (He also created Nip/Tuck, a series no one would call soft-hearted.) Fox has such high expectations for Glee that the pilot is being shown this Tuesday, May 19th, after American Idol, teasing the series months before it appears in regular rotation.
Each character seems to offer something for optimists to admire and something for skeptics to identify with. Finn is a smug football jock blackmailed into joining glee, where he actually finds he’s happy. Rachel has two gay dads who combined sperm and a donor egg to produce their dream child: an overambitious Broadway belter (played by Lea Michele, who was actually on Broadway in Spring Awakening). The cheerleaders amuse themselves by laughing at Rachel’s MySpace page with its videos of her singing songs from " Les Mis,'" as she so fondly and nerdily calls it. A sweet-looking guy auditions by singing “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago; what kind of kid sings “Mr. Cellophane”? There’s a geeky-looking guitarist in a wheelchair. Even the goody-goody teacher, Will Schuester (played by a plucky Matthew Morrison, is haunted by doubts about his marriage and his attraction to Emma, a germ-phobic but sweet fellow teacher.
Most of the songs come in snippets, with a terrific exception that perfectly captures the show’s—and our culture’s—unlikely blend of cheerfulness and irony (its Obama hope and its reality check). The glee club goes to watch the reigning regional champions, a group that performs a full-blown song-and-dance number reminiscent of Hairspray, the girls in swirling full skirts, the guys in white shirts and ties, the whole American Bandstand vibe, all while singing a happy, bouncy: “They tried to make me go to rehab/ I said, No, No, No!” Co-opting a hip song for an uncool purpose is an old trick, but it works. And what is that Amy Winehouse hit if not the exact inverse of Glee—a cheerful surface cloaking a self-destructive message?
Believe me, I am not a pushover for this kind of thing: I would rather eat nails than see any production of Gypsy; I fast-forward through American Idol, and only watch the condensed version so I can keep my pop-culture license. If I enjoyed Glee, it really must have something for everyone.
Is Glee itself a cynical calculation, with its methodical recipe of skepticism and goo? Sure it is. The Fox publicity material even begins with two definitions of glee: one synonymous with hilarity and the other with malicious gloating. But it may be less cynical than American Idol, with its showbiz-savvy contestants and endless product placements (you can fast-forward, but you can’t escape). And it may speak to our time more directly than hours of the evening news. Anyone who ever laughed at Susan Boyle, then felt moved by her, then on second thought kind of snickered again (we are millions) will feel at home watching Glee. Whether we’ll feel that way months from now when the series starts for good might be even more revealing.
Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.