Glee S1E1, “Pilot”

I used to write about Glee. Some of you may remember the blog I used to have, and how I wrote thousands of words a week to review each episode the day after it aired. It was the show that introduced me, via “the 3 Glees,” to a world of film and television criticism that I didn’t know existed. I bought the albums and a smattering of the singles from the show. The word “Gleek,” which I don’t know that I remembered until this precise moment, was thrown at me a few times.

Eventually, maybe mercifully, that obsession died. I had a class on Wednesday afternoons when I used to rewatch each episode and write the reviews. Hulu started posting episodes no sooner than a week after they had aired. I got over the girl who introduced me to Glee, defined my freshman year, and broke up with me very gently during the summer. And, maybe most importantly, the show that I had been hate-watching (it was my favorite television show, but I confess, I did not have the term “hate-watching” in my lexicon when I was 19) turned into a show I hated watching. Somewhere in Season 3 I quit watching. By my senior year of college, Tuesday night was for Chopped, not Glee.

The show itself continues to fascinate me, even though I confess to an almost total ignorance of the back half of Season 3, and of the other three seasons. (I even confess to not knowing that Season 6 existed.)  Glee is a show which, like a terrifying Frankensteinesque experiment, cobbles together bits and pieces of a recognizable quantity and says, “Ta-dah!” The after-school special is there, and so is the musical. The Freaks ‘n Geeks ‘n Jocks Model of High School is on display, like the C- diorama it is. And yet, it’s hard not to think of Glee, and especially Glee‘s advertising, and not jolt to the shocking electric pastels. Freaks and Geeks looks like a John Hughes movie in eighteen episodes. Glee looks like Community would if Greendale became “Neongreendale.” I wonder more than I should: how different would Glee have been if anyone in the writers’ room had even an ounce of self-restraint or self-editing? I wonder: if the show had merely done well rather than cannonballed out of the gate, would it have become an iTunes-first plot-second show the way that it did? I wonder: if Kristin Chenoweth’s guest role in Glee‘s best episode, “The Rhodes Not Taken,” had been a flop, would everyone and their mother wanted to guest star on a show that already didn’t have time to develop its ensemble? I wonder: what if the writers had decided that Kurt would have been more interesting if his role had been “human being” instead of “human soapbox,” or that there was more to Sue Sylvester, really, than a series of rapidly diminishing one-liners? I wonder: what if the show were, unlike its prepubescent fans, able to pace itself and draw out storylines over the course of a season or two rather than a torrid three-episode arc? This sounds like hindsight; what you just read are the majority of my complaints from a blog that spent its time dissecting Glee‘s second season. (Man, it feels good to get that out.)

Having hindsight so firmly on our side makes watching the pilot especially interesting. The show may begin with cheerleaders, most of whom we never see again, performing the least intricate routine of the series. Jane Lynch calls from the bleachers: “Y’think this is hard? Try being waterboarded. That’s hard.” (title card) But in the first episode, we are led to believe that it’s Will Schuester, a vest-wearing, hard luck having, pensively smiling Spanish teacher, on whom we are to focus our attention. (Personal note: casting Matthew Morrison, who had played an Italian from Italy in The Light in the Piazza, as a Spanish teacher, was the kind of minor genius that occasionally infected the show.) He stops in front of the school’s trophy case, where he looks at a big ol’ trophy and the picture of a troubled obese woman. The trophy is for winning the national show choir championship in 1993. The woman is Lillian Adler (1937-1997), who coached the team and said, somewhere along the way, “By its very definition, Glee is about opening yourself up to joy.” The camera even zooms in on the plaque before it goes back to Will, zooming in on him the same way.

What a marvelous start! Already the discursive motors are churning. The title card says the show is called Glee. And here it is again! Referring to a glee club! Callooh! Callay! The show felt like something almost instantly, as if it had the same kind of energy that Will has when he tells Figgins he wants to take over the club after Sandy Ryerson (Stephen “Ned Ryerson” Tobolowsky) gets fired. (I should have known when they cast Tobolowsky as anyone named Ryerson. I should have known. Curses on me for not seeing the first three episodes when they first aired.)

The pilot is not like the other episodes of the show, when it comes to the musical performances. The singing is significantly less cleaned up. The Glee-sound, which is a slightly more refined Kidzbop, wasn’t really present until the last number. Lea Michele’s rendition of “On My Own” sounds much more like Wendla Bergmann than Rachel Berry.  There are nicks in the song. It’s wonderful; a person is singing that, even if Rachel doesn’t always qualify as people. There’s a Pepsi-Cola quality in songs even an episode later – “Take a Bow” and even Dianna Agron’s introductory number, “I Say a Little Prayer” – that stay through my entire knowledge of Glee.

Will and Rachel’s conversation on the bleachers after Rachel’s first walkout has always been one of the key moments in the series for me. Will is supposedly our main character, the guy we’re to follow through thick and thin. His eyes are ours. But Rachel is always going to come in like a wrecking ball, fiery with “being part of something special makes you special” and opening monologues about wanting desperately to be famous. It’s an important scene, one that the show will reference later on. But it’s also symbolic. Rachel will always be the last one on stage as Will Schuester backs off. Her face in close-up, Will deferring. The little crazy children, as John Proctor might have said, are going to jangle the keys to the kingdom of Glee.

Our third principal is one of those little crazy children, wrapped in, as so many are these days, by the wiles of the Chronic Lady. Will Schuester discovers the quarterback rocking out to his own rendition of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” in the shower. Will Schuester blackmails him, using a packet of said femme fatale, into joining the glee club, which he has serendipitously named “New Directions.” (That’s said “Nude Erections,” not “Gnu Die Wreck Shuns.” I really can’t believe I didn’t see like, Lost Generation-style disillusionment coming for me about this show.) Their conversation is as enlightening as the one that Will had with Rachel about ten screenminutes earlier. Rachel overshadows Will, but he sees himself in Finn. It’s not until Will’s wife, Terri (a pre-Viking Jessalyn Gilsig), chastises him for wanting to use glee club as a way to relive a brilliant high school career do we realize that Finn reminding Will of himself might not be entirely a compliment. Will tells Finn that he expects him “to be better,” a note that resonates strongly with Frankenteen. Will tells Emma (Jayma Mays) that Terri’s persistence  to make him “better” only serves to make him wonder, “Better at what?”

The show is very often sad. I don’t mean sad in the way that the first season of Mad Men was so bleak that I had to start it three or four times before I could get into the show. But Glee is set in contemporary Ohio, in the hometown of Ben Roethlisberger, just after the economic inside job of 2008. The show rarely refers back to its Rust Belt roots in any meaningful way. Most of the time, the Lima name-drop is convenient or funny – one of my favorite moments in the show’s run comes when Finn rants to Kurt that they don’t live in “New York or San Francisco or some other city where people eat vegetables that aren’t fried” – but it’s there. Finn leads off the hometown bashing by telling his teammates that all of them are losers for the mere fact that they were born in Lima, Ohio, and will probably die in Lima, Ohio. (Paging Schuester, Will Schuester.) The seeds of several other disappointments among the main characters are planted here: Will Schuester’s dissolving marriage, Sue Sylvester’s manic desire to be the face of a championship cheerleading team, Rachel Berry’s lust to be loved by a crowd, Finn Hudson’s tacit understanding that he’s peaked. That disappointment in the pilot isn’t even limited to the main characters. Ken fawns over Emma, but she fawns over Will, who is handsome and charming and married. Even Terri’s disappointment – though one imagines that it is more along the lines of “I wish I had a hot glue gun that works!” rather than something a little bit more John Updike – is present and genuine even if it’s shrewish. Glee has a talent at taking that disappointment and combining it with a longing that only gets to come true on television, and which never does come to pass with any fulfillment in Season 1. What Glee never did seem to understand was that disappointment, when it’s allowed to linger and fester without making it Bright and…Gleeful with a song, is a powerful force for narrative.

The sadness is maybe best evidenced by Will’s solo-for-no-one in the auditorium, “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane.” It’s a short moment, but it’s a willingness to linger that Glee doesn’t take advantage of terribly often. Is it a perfect song choice? No, but at least it wasn’t recorded by Jay Sean. And it’s done reasonably well; the lighting on Will suggests a starkness that the show, usually richly colored, doesn’t engage in frequently. It gives you just enough time to wonder about what Will intends to give up – Emma, the kids, glee club, his career for goodness’ sake – even though one is hard-pressed to believe that he’ll go anywhere, even in retrospect. It just lets you taste it, and while it feels scripted, it doesn’t feel dishonest.

And, heaven help my heart, the longing is bound up in “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which didn’t become the worst song in the world until 2005, but given the material Glee worked with, it was probably a perfect song choice. Glee makes an incredible amount of headway working with popular signifiers. Finn is the quarterback before we even see him on the football field, just like Rachel is a showgirl nerd before we hear her sing a note. How much subversion Glee actually attempts to engage in is a completely different question for another blog post, but the show, in its bright spots, knew how to pick an effective number for an affective moment. “Don’t Stop Believin’,” with its immediate associations of “underdog” and “upbeat” and “irrepressible,” was tailor-made. And Will Schuester, walking back into the auditorium, his eyes as red as the bleariest of Chronic Ladies, commands: “From the top!”

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