I come from a long line of glee-club people. Granddaddy was a glee clubber. Mommy and daddy were glee clubbers (dad still is). Both sisters sing. Uncles croon. Aunts warble. Cousins thrice removed carol, vocalize and serenade. Karaoke Fridays at Chez Dobrow are like Monday-morning film sessions with the Manning boys.
So yeah, I loathe glee clubs with every fiber of my knows-all-the-words-to-"Luck Be a Lady" being. Singing is a fine and noble pursuit when confined to certain corners of the musical universe, like Giants Stadium or a car populated by the driver alone. But when validated with formal club status, it becomes an ego-ridden beast, a baritone-on-baritone mano a mano. It used to be about the music, man. Remember when it was about the music?
That's why I love, love, love "Glee," which received a sneak preview on Fox the other night in advance of its September debut. Though packed thick with pointed barbs and selfish, blissfully malicious characters -- it is set in an Anytown, U.S.A., high school, after all -- the show celebrates the twin loves of music and performing in a way that feels, dare I say, pure. Better still, it does so with equal doses of nostalgia and disdain for the high-school caste system that pinballs the teen protagonists to and fro. Think "Election" but filtered through "My So-Called Life" and with more awesomely earnest Journey covers.
For me, the secret of the show's success is its sporadic nastiness. Perhaps one character on the show -- quarterback-turned-glee-club-disciple Finn (Corey Monteish) -- can reasonably be described as well-intentioned. Everybody else has an agenda, whether the shrewish wife with a Pottery Barn fetish (Jessalyn Gilsig, alternately buttery and bitter), the cheerleading coach (Jane Lynch, with Ditka brio) or the doe-eyed teacher (Jayma Mays, adorable even while saddled with a germophobe gimmick). The mix of the sardonic and the sincere connects because they're meted out in equal doses.
To be honest, I'm not sure how a show like "Glee" gets greenlighted by a major network in this day and age. It shuns the rote pacing of most sitcoms (wacky situation presented/resolved in 22 minutes) and dramas (man meets corpse, man investigates corpse, man comforts surviving family members by placing a firm, pretty hand on their shoulders). It is proudly, boisterously politically incorrect: a wheelchair-bound teen is used as a prop in dance sequences, while glee clubs themselves are dismissed as "tone-deaf acne factories." There are songs.
But when the musical numbers kick in, everything gels. As opposed to accidental camp like "Viva Laughlin" or "Cop Rock," "Glee" plays the musical sequences straight. They work because they're presented in the context of the action, rather than as fantasy sequences or elaborate set pieces. Glee clubs sing. That's what they do. It's one of the few settings where people spontaneously breaking out in song makes sense. My shower would be another.
I also love the confidence Fox has shown in "Glee" by unleashing it for a look-see a few months early. The strategy of holding the next episode until September could backfire, I suppose: Viewers who happened upon the show simply because they were too lazy to change the channel after "American Idol" may not be able to remember what they had for breakfast, much less what they watched a few months ago. At the same time, "Glee" should have legs online, even after the current buzz fades to murmur.
I have no idea what Fox's dot-com minions are planning, but there are any number of ways that they might capitalize on the premiere's critical success and pretty darn OK viewership (it won its time period, owing to that "Idol" lead-in). Maybe have the actors rehearse the musical sequences in character, then post some clips online. Throw together some fake rejected glee-club auditions, or introduce new characters in a similar manner. Unveil yet-to-be-aired songs and videos via iTunes. Do something, dammit.
It'd be criminal for the network to squander this opportunity. "Glee" is sharp-elbowed enough to be enjoyed by the "Arrested Development" set, caste-conscious enough to appeal to "Breakfast Club" buffs and crammed with so many absurdly talented performers as to lure the "American Idol" cultists who now have time on their hands. Marketed progressively (and the early launch is a good start), this show should realize its mainstream appeal. It has heart in abundance. That's not a bad thing.
I love the concept. I love the self-assurance. I love "Glee." It's the most joyous, charming piece of programming to hit TV in some time, and eminently deserving of your attention and support.