September 16, 2009

TV: Glee (Fox, Wed 9)

We got a sneak preview of this one in May, and the first new episode this fall was just as good. (The sneak seems to have helped the show build tremendous word of mouth and ratings over the summer, too, so we can expect to see more such previews next May.)

Matthew Morrison stars as Will Schuester, high school Spanish teacher who suddenly finds himself in charge of the school's glee club. During Will's own high school days, the glee club had been a national champion, but these days, it's fallen on hard times, and Will is determined to restore it to its former glory.

The principal isn't wildly enthusiastic, but Will's harshest critic is Sue Sylvester (the spectacular Jane Lynch), who fears that if the glee club catches on, it'll take time, money, and attention away from her own national champions, the cheerleading squad.

Each episode gives us two or three musical numbers, and they're very cleverly done; we're often left both impressed by the level of talent and stunned by the gloriously tasteless choices of repertoire (Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" was the jawdropper in the pilot.) The entire show walks a similar line between deliciously mean humor and surprising sweetness; it's a very carefully balanced tone, and maintaining it will be the show's biggest challenge.

The biggest flaw at this early point is in the show's use of its supporting characters. Will's wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), is a painfully unlikable character. She's meant, I think, to be the at-home counterpart to Sue at work, but Gilsig doesn't have Lynch's gift for delivering horribly inappropriate lines in a way that makes her a love-to-hate character; Terri is just hateful. (Not entirely Gilsig's fault; the character's not terribly well written.)

And the glee club itself is, so far, focused on the pretty white kids -- football star Finn (Cory Monteith) and self-absorbed diva Rachel (Lea Michele). The other kids are reduced to background stereotypes -- the gay guy, the sassy black girl, the Asian girl, the guy in the wheelchair. I really hope that they'll be fleshed out and given storylines of their own in future weeks; Chris Colfer, in particular, has the potential to do very interesting things as Kurt, who's not quite the TV cliche of the gay teen.

Glee leaves me feeling much the same way I felt when Pushing Daisies premiered two years ago; it's so different, and its tone so quirky and offbeat, that I wonder how they'll be able to maintain it in the long run. Even more, I fear that something so odd won't be able to sustain the audience it needs to survive. But for now, at least, it's a marvelous show, and I'll be watching with crossed fingers, hoping for its success.

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