Tube Tied: A Plea (For a Better Glee)

Michelle Dean
View profile »

Due in no small part to a summer-long marketing campaign complete with the newly-de-rigeur Twittered event, everybody's been talking about the new show called Glee.  Produced by Ryan Murphy of Nip/Tuck fame, it lets everybody live out that fantasy high school experience of gaining fame and popularity while joining - I know you're in suspense - the Glee Club.  Glee is the hot new thing so far this season, and has given work to some pretty darn good performers, including Lea Michele (late of Broadway's Spring Awakening), Jayma Mays (completely adorable if hurtling towards Poor Man's Red-Headed Zooey Deschanel territory) and Jane Lynch (who should be in everything ever).

The pilot episode aired in May this year, and felicitously closed with a rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" that rescued it from eternal association as the song that accompanied the letdown of The Sopranos' concluding moments.  Unfortunately, if the second episode, which aired last Wednesday, is any evidence, it's all downhill from here.  The advertising campaign, as is so often the case, is far more clever than the show itself.

I'm not the first to point out that the show owes quite the debt to the film version of Tom Perotta's novel Election, which gleefully satirized the ambitions of high school students - only there the central conceit was student government.  But there is more than a little Tracey Flick in Michele's Rachel, the self-anointed "biggest talent" in the group.  (And more than a little Paul Metzler in Cory Monteith's Finn, the required enlightened jock.)  The problem is that Election knew exactly what it was: a satire, and rather a dark one at that.  Glee is something else again - it certainly has some affection for its characters, and the result is something like a pastiche whose most consistent feature is ambivalent about whether or not it's being sincere.

The problems of tone play out most violently in the female characters of the show.  Rachel is strangely supposed to be both the one we're rooting for - those pipes! - and also desperately clueless, bossy and annoying in the way one guesses the show's writers imagine young ambitious women to be.  Mays's Emma Pillsbury, the guidance counselor, is given a quirk - colloquially, germophobia - which one supposes is to confer adorable neuroticism on her, but she is otherwise so emotionally put-together a character she is clearly meant to be a saint.  The hapless Jessalyn Gilsig gets the boring role of the baby-and-craft-crazy wife of the teacher-supervisor.  She plays it - and frankly who could blame her given the script - as pure caricature, so much so that it's well nigh impossible to divine how sweet, sincere, well-meaning Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) could possibly have married such a neurotic mess.  

Finally, and frankly most offensively, the show appears to be committed to diversity in the most drive-by of ways.  The club is full of misfits, alright, but they're all broadly-painted stereotypes: a Sassy Black Girl With Pipes, a Silent Asian, and a Personality-Free Kid In A Wheelchair.

The funny thing is, in many ways this could have been a great concept if the show would just commit to it, and if it had cleverer writers who didn't rely so much on the actors to flesh the stereotypes out.  Like anyone else, I do find the musical numbers, when they are heartfelt, to show a kind of joy that is missing on television these days.  But the show won't survive on that alone.

Are any of you watching?

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

12 Comments Have Been Posted

Saw the second episode, but not the premiere

It was meh. It kinda felt like middle period WB (think Popular) with musical numbers. It wasn't awful by any means, but it wasn't amazing.

On the stereotypes front - don't forget the evil blonde cheerleaders.

Glum about Glee

Out of all my friends, I'm the only one not watching the show. I saw the pilot, it was cute, but how the producers will make this into a (good) series, I don't know. It seems hinged on two love triangles: one for the teens, one for the adults. And really, how can you top 'Don't Stop Believin'? It's all downhill from there. Oh, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks the supporting kids are token stereotypes.

Was a little disappointed too

I was so excited for the season to begin, and also ended up feeling let down after I saw last week's premiere. Mostly b/c of the musical numbers, which were my favorite part of the premiere. The "Gold Digger" number - it didn't seem like they were even trying to hide the fact that it was pre-recorded and probably not even the teacher's voice we heard. I love most of the characters, with the exception of Mr. Schuester's wife, for the reasons mentioned above - and I will continue to tune in, at least for a few more episodes, but I guess my expectations are pretty high. Maybe we'll meet in the middle - I'll enjoy it for not being another stupid sitcom and they can step up their game just a tad?

I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed!

I agree on the sound mixing! It was so wonderful in the pilot, the sound fit the acoustics of the room and the voices of the actors...but I too was very dissapointed when the season premeire hit and it was so blatantly and un-apologetically fake and studio recorded. Completely ruins the entire point of the show and is so distracting that it pulls my focus away from the story. I'm almost motivated by that flaw enough to stop watching it.

I feel let down. The pilot was so fantastic and had great potential for paralleling adult relationships to that of young people and could have made a great statement about society and development. Boo.

I agree about the music as

I agree about the music as well. The difference between the pilot and the season premiere was really noticeable. It was a huge disappointment for me.

I saw the preview episode

I saw the preview episode earlier this summer, but not the more recent episode. I agree that the show plays up a lot of less than interesting stereotypes in terms of characters and plotlines. My review of that early episode to a friend was, "I wanted to love it more."
I think I'd hoped the show would be more darkly funny because of Jane Lynch. Based on some of the early commercials with Lynch, I got the idea that they were going to put a lot of the show's comic focus on how absurd antipathies between adults can be. Based on my small town high school experience, if a kid wanted to be a footballer player and a member of the glee club, no kids would have likely cared. (That's a conflict for the male teen lead. He's on the football team, dating the lead cheerleader. He has to reject all of that to join the Glee Club.) It was more likely to create conflict between the football coaches and the music teachers. They are the ones who compete for the scarce resources of talented kids' time, practice spaces and funding. In addition to antipathies between the adults, I also hoped for some dark comedy as Jane Lynch's character would be mean to these glee club kids for no better reason than that she values athletics and the athletes in the school. It's something pretty sick and twisted about high school ready to be made fun of. Then throw in renditions of popular songs performed by kids? Like I said, I wanted to love it.

C'mon now

Yes, Will's wife is a nightmare. But I don't think she's supposed to be a commentary on women or wives. If anything, she's an accurate portrayal of most retail managers.

And Will isn't any prize either. Why should his character be married to anyone really great when he's so boring and bland? Even though his bleeding heart dedication to teaching makes him seem like a moral character, he still blackmailed someone onto the Glee club.

Also, I think the character you call the "Kid in a Wheelchair" who, by the way, has a name (Artie) has plenty of personality. See: Push It performance in episode 2. If anything, it's refreshing to see someone who is differently abled be treated simply as a band geek. The only comments about him being in a wheelchair come from the most ignorant characters (and the joke's really on them.)

I see a legitimate problem with the sassy-black-woman-with-pipes stereotype being played out, but it takes more than two episodes to get an insight into how that will be handled.

Overall, I don't think it's fair to judge female characters on this show as sweeping commentaries on women. I wouldn't seriously expect the male characters to reflect real men either (and it doesn't seem like the show is trying to.)

Also - Can we really have a feminist discussion of this show without letting out a squeal of joy over seeing the Celibacy Club get served? That alone made me love Rachel. Finally, abstinence-only education is getting the bad rap it deserves in mainstream pop culture.

Give it a chance...

There have only been two episodes! Of course the first two episodes are going to focus heavily on the main characters. The other members of glee club will probably become more developed later on in the show. Additionally, I know that there are supposed to be entire episodes about Artie, Kurt, and Mercedes that will probably portray these characters as more than just stereotypes.
And I agree with the above comment about Rachel's awesome speech at the Celibacy Club. Later on in the series, one of the characters comes out and is embraced by his family (something we don't really see on TV too much).
I think the series is incredibly promising (even from a feminist level) and features an incredibly talented cast. Sure, no show is perfect and I do have my issues with it, but I can't wait to see the rest of the episodes!

I agree...I tend to watch

I agree...I tend to watch some things with my critic's eye open, and others just for fun. And, I admit, I watch some pretty stupid things because they happen to be hilarious if you don't overthink them. But I really did like Glee. Yes, the steroptypes are there and sometimes inaccurate (I say sometimes because I had many high school friends in drama, band, and I myself was in orchestra, and well...some stereotypes just turn out to be true for some people), but I think that overall the show points out that no one is perfect, no matter what clique they identify with. The one stereotype I was surprised by was the portrayal of the cheerleaders, because in my high school, there were certainly no cheerleaders proclaiming abstinence or celibacy! Anyway, I think we should keep an open mind and wait for a few more episodes before judging.

love to hate because of the sterotypes

I was very dissapointed that this show turn out like this, because I love musicles and singing and dancing. Unfortunately it put strong emphasis on femail characters (and they are also more in the spotlight) and made them not just so sterotyipical but also so grotesque that they have no touch with real life characters.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for this show??

My comment on the show:

Team Rachel

"The problems of tone play out most violently in the female characters of the show. Rachel is strangely supposed to be both the one we're rooting for - those pipes! - and also desperately clueless, bossy and annoying in the way one guesses the show's writers imagine young ambitious women to be."

My favourite character from the show, Rachel is most definitely the one we are supposed to be rooting for. However, I don't think it is strangely so. Yes, she is self-proclaimed to be a great talent, but isn't her confidence something that young women can and should look up to? She is persistent, not annoying, and yes, very sure of her own talent. She is the underdog when it comes to the hierarchy of popularity within her school.
I think it's distasteful that you presume the show's writers "imagine young ambitious women" to be "bossy and annoying" the way that you claim Rachel is.
I would not call her character bossy and annoying, she is confident, some may argue more so than necessary. She is determined to make Glee a success. She is not afraid of acknowledging aspects of society which often go undiscussed within high school settings, such as the failure of abstinence-only education (See Episode 2) and female sexuality.
I, for one, love Rachel Berry and all that her character has to offer.

Queen's University - Current Student
(Sociology Major & Women's Studies Minor)

Missing the point

You are missing the point of the show. The steriotypes aren't offensive at all. Since when to kids with wheelchairs have no personalty? Secondly, if you were to ever watch the girl who plays Mercedez in real life, you would find that she is very similar to the character herself. Plus her character was created after she tried out for the part. Thirdly, I personally don't know any asians with stutters, but I don't feel like that is a steriotype at all. It sounds like you are the one coming up with your own steriotypes. I feel like you need to watch the show and enjoy it for what it is. There are a lot of good concepts in the show and frankly, a lot of the situations match up with real life (in a more exaggerated way).

Add new comment