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09.29.10

Why I Loathe Glee

Glee may have hit a ratings high, but the popular show has hit a new low in terms of story. Jace Lacob on where the Fox musical-comedy has gone horribly, offensively wrong.

From a ratings standpoint, Fox’s musical-comedy Glee is on a roll.

The show has managed to break its own records with this week’s Britney Spears-themed installment, which attracted 13.3 million viewers. Those are massive numbers in this fragmented media age.

But even as Glee continues to steamroll the competition, it’s increasingly apparent what’s being lost as the show piles on the musical numbers, gimmicky guest stars, and theme episodes: Plot, characterization, and logic fly out the window.

And while Glee might be one of the more inventive broadcast-network offerings in recent years because of its format, it’s also at times the safest, a show that’s more concerned that it will confuse the audience with things like serialization or three-dimensional characters than delivering a consistent narrative experience.

Following the trend established in the latter half of its freshman season, after two episodes of Season 2, Glee’s characters are still little more than archetypes. Rachel (Lea Michele) hasn’t been expanded beyond her self-absorbed bitchiness; Finn (Cory Monteith) is little more than a void with a haircut; Kurt (Chris Colfer) is fabulous but one-note; and second-tier characters like Mercedes (Amber Riley), Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), and Artie (Kevin McHale) rarely get a line of dialogue, much less a meaningful storyline these days. And don’t even get me started on Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), the preening man-boy with a penchant for rapping and embarrassing dance moves.

Meanwhile, creators Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk have stolen some of Sue Sylvester’s bite. Whereas Sue (Jane Lynch) initially was a major antagonist of the glee club, she’s been undone by cheap attempts to give some shading to her loathsome character in the forms of a mentally disabled sister and Becky (Lauren Potter), a cheerleader with Down syndrome who flutters about Sue like a bespectacled Tinkerbell.

I’m not sure what to make of newly installed mannish football coach Shannon Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones), clearly intended to become a new adversary for both Will and Sue, but who has already been reduced to a saccharine storyline about her self-esteem—she is a crying child inside a beast’s body. Her oddness might be an effort to make Sue seem more grounded. Or it’s just a Ryan Murphy trope about twisted exteriors that viewers of his Popular and Nip/Tuck find queasily familiar. (Both shows went off the rails creatively.)

Worse, while rough edges have been intentionally shaved off of Sue Sylvester, the supporting characters have become even more egregiously offensive, but none more so than Jacob Ben-Israel (Josh Sussman), a.k.a. “Jew-Fro.”

Video screenshot

The handling of the character—here presented as a sweaty, stammering, and compulsively masturbating Jew—borders on the anti-Semitic. Is it a case of Kosher panic? Or another symbol of that eternal Glee crutch: the use of stereotype as shorthand for character development? Either way, the butt sweat stains, over-the-top hairstyle (“It’s like a Jewish cloud,” cooed Brittany), self-pleasuring during the pep rally performance, and his attempt to actually buy Rachel from Finn are in shockingly poor taste, considering the series’ self-professed messages about acceptance and equality.

Instead of illustrating the unspoken and inner desires or fears of the characters, the songs here seem like coldly calculated viral videos, designed to rapidly spread across the Internet.

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(It’s also another indication of the often-contradictory nature of the series itself, one that vacillates between the cheesy and the caustic, sometimes in the same scene.)

What is Glee doing when other shows would be moving forward, or showing their characters in challenging, or funny, situations? Well, Glee has become a music single-delivery mechanism. Scenes involving dialogue or plot development are shoehorned between massive musical set pieces, which draw from the vast and varied world of popular music. Instead of illustrating the unspoken and inner desires or fears of the characters, the songs here seem like coldly calculated viral videos, designed to rapidly spread across the Internet.

The more it focuses on the music and less on the characters, the higher the ratings climb. Why, I ask as I tear my hair out, is the show so beloved?

Perhaps the answer is as simple as why people loved American Idol so much for so many years. The songs on Glee are not original; they’re culled from a huge catalogue of singer-songwriters, rock bands, and alternative types, but what they have in common is that they’re all part of the pop-culture lexicon already. These are songs that people know the lyrics to, after all. By redoing them within the context of Glee, Fox and its sister studio, 20th Century Fox Television, have created a cottage industry of mass-produced knockoffs, easy to consume and cheap to buy. (It might also be why Idol is so successful, but the original songs for the finalists fall flat every time.)

That said, the “Britney/Brittany” episode wasn’t entirely repulsive. The producers wisely realized the undeniable strengths of scene-stealer Heather Morris, who soared here as ditzy cheerleader Brittany S. Pierce. Morris has become one of the show’s brightest stars, as adept at dancing as she is tossing off non-sequiturs. She quickly transformed from background scene-filler to one of the main attractions, and justifiably so. This Brittany-centric episode was the perfect showcase for her considerable charm.

As for what was bad about the episode? Everything else.

Week-to-week consistency has been a problem with Glee since it began—storylines develop and are just as quickly wrapped up before the closing credits, often with five or six songs thrown in to distract from the improbability of the situations. If the characters don’t conform to the story, they’re frequently manipulated to fit them. In Tuesday’s episode, Morrison’s already insufferable Will Schuester became an entirely unrecognizable character, ugly and impulsive. Michele’s Rachel, already deeply polarizing, took the plunge into full-on nastiness, becoming further unlikable and unsympathetic, even as boyfriend Finn became even blander.

Which is the problem: Putting aside the lavish Britney Spears numbers, there were no real stakes, no genuine emotion.

While Glee may have found ratings success, the long-term picture for its health is questionable. By shortchanging story and characters, one can’t help but wonder whether it has eroded its chances at lasting. Will Glee, self-made savior of the music industry and glee clubs everywhere, burn out like a one-hit wonder?

Ultimately, despite the show-stopping dance moves and auto-tuned audio tracks, what remains after you sweep away Glee’s musical trappings is something empty and vapid, the very definition of mass-produced entertainment that’s intended to distract even as it asks you to hit download on iTunes.

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.