Last spring, when Fox made an unusual marketing move and ran a preview of Glee after the finale of American Idol, I was prepared, like critics at nearly every news outlet from The New York Times to USA Today, to cheer it (albeit far more reservedly). Glee certainly had some problematic content, what with its teen love scenes and soap-opera-worthy subplots, but it also had promise.
Something of a snarkier, smarter High School Musical (to which, no doubt, it owes its existence), a group of singing, dancing teens tries to make its mark on a campus that is far more Breakfast Club than Mickey Mouse Club. Most of them are outcasts, humiliated daily by classmates who throw drinks in their faces and post messages like "get sterilized" on their web pages. Glee club, thanks to earnest coach Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), is the one place they feel like something other than losers. And in the first episode, as they performed a series of spirited musical numbers and maneuvered to raise their status in the adolescent shark tank, I rooted for the characters and looked forward to seeing them again.
Nevertheless, aware that this part-celebration, part-parody of the musical genre comes courtesy of Ryan Murphy, co-creator of arguably the most sexually perverse show on basic cable, Nip/Tuck, I was wary. So far Glee is nowhere near Murphy's earlier creation in terms of over-the-top depravity. But the writer who once declared that his goal is to remove any barrier to showing explicit sex on television commits a bait and switch between the first installment and the second.
Of his new venture, Murphy commented, "I've done eight years of darkness and really adult stuff, and I was like, OK, I want to try something different. I want to do a show that has a bigger heart and is kinder, but make no mistake. It still has an edge." Does it ever. Murphy wasn't content to pepper the second script with crass dialogue and visual gags and use its storyline as an intrusive platform for those who argue that teens are incapable of restraining themselves from intercourse, it also paints an aggressively ugly picture of Christians. For example, look to the character of the sexually abstinent cheerleader who runs the Celibacy Club. "It's about the teasing not the pleasing," she purrs.
And that's one of the most unintentionally ironic elements of Glee. Murphy claims his aim with the show is to stick up for underdogs and misfits, yet only in Hollywood is a teenager who pledges to keep herself pure until marriage the one doing the ostracizing instead of the one being ostracized.
Still, for all that he possesses the worldiest of views, Murphy is a gifted enough writer to achieve some true and noble moments. A scene in which an exterminator sprays the football field while singing "Don't Stop Believing" at the top of his lungs manages to bolster the show's satiric bonafides while also making a sincere appeal to the cynics in the room. Sure the guy's a dork with a mullet, but he's on to something. Namely, that sometimes it feels great to throw your head back in the sun and belt out an uplifiting tune, that apathy, however fashionable its garb may be, is no match for the thrill of using your talents as best you can.
Murphy also provides his characters with some thoughtful observations as when Will notes of his students, "There's no joy in these kids; they feel invisible. That's why every one of them has a MySpace page." That's what's so frustrating about Glee. Occasionally, it sings a new song on the television stage. The rest of the time it busies itself humming the same old sorry tune.