Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How to Fix Glee (and Why They Won't)

I’ve probably been watching TV now for more than 30 years, and in that entire time I can think of two pilots I absolutely loved.

The first was “Freaks and Geeks.” You should go buy that show on DVD right now. I will warn you, there was only one season, and when you’re done watching it, you will be angry that there wasn’t a second, and a third, and possibly as many as ten.

But I’ll come back to that.

I was talking about pilots.

The pilot of “Freaks” is so good that if the pilot was all you ever saw, you’d feel pretty content, I think. When it was over, I was not only in love with the show, but I felt that the money I spent on the box set was justified by that episode alone. And the show only got better from there.

So now, let’s talk about “Glee.”

In many ways, “Glee” is “Freaks and Geeks,” but with more musical numbers. (Come to think of it, there’s a surprising number of songs contained in “Freaks”). A bunch of misfits trying to get through life in high school. And then, there was that pilot…

Well, no, actually, there was that musical number. I first stumbled across “Glee” via someone’s bootleg YouTube video of “Don’t Stop Believing,” the big closing number of the “Glee” pilot. It was, in every way, a brilliant mini-pilot for the show. You had your kid heroes. You had the teacher who wanted them to succeed. You had Sue, the boo-hiss villain. It was all there, in three or four minutes.

I had missed the first broadcast of the pilot. But I got a copy, and I watched it with my wife (who I knew would love it) and boom, we were in. We had to see where the show was going next.

The problem with pilots, of course, is that they’re often bug-filled, and maybe 60-70 percent of what a show will actually become. And the creators have forever to craft a pilot, from the script to the filming to the screening, they literally have almost all the time in the world to get it right.

Once they’re actually on the air, though, it’s a race, and sometimes those races clean up problems, and sometimes they increase those problems.

The next few episodes of “Glee” were a bit wobbly, as the show worked to perfect its formula. And then came the last episode of the mid-season. They won sectionals. They sang “My Life Would Suck Without You.” Will finally wooed his lady. Sue was vanquished.

For all intents and purposes the show was over. Fully aware that they might not get more than 13 episodes, the creators and writers crafted a mid-season ending that just as easily could have been an end to the show.

And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Somewhere in an alternate timeline, there’s a version of the universe where “Glee” is as revered as “Freaks and Geeks.” A place where only those first 13 ‘sodes exist, and everyone talks about how the show was cut down in its prime, and isn’t that terrible?

Oh, if only those people knew…

Then, Fox did something brilliant with the show, which up to that point had gotten decent, if not great ratings. They put out the first half of the season on DVD just in time for Christmas. People bought it. People watched it. And then the show came back and the ratings SHOT up.

And the show was renewed for seasons 2 and 3.

And then? Then the show started flailing. The vanquished bad guy came back to do more damage. Will found trouble in a just-established paradise. Someone decided it would be fun to do a theme episode, based around the songs of Madonna, which led to every song in a single ‘sode getting a very special EP release.

And? Gah.

What to say, what to say?

Things started to get bad. And then they got worse. And then they got worse-er.

To start with, let’s talk about Sue.

Sue is, of course, played by the brilliant comedic actress Jane Lynch. By all accounts, she wasn’t part of the original story, either when it was a movie or in its original pilot format. Apparently the problems of high school weren’t enough to deal with in song, and so Sue was born.

When the show got great ratings, Sue got a lot of credit. And when characters were quoted in pop culture, that was usually Sue.

The only problem was, she was a breakout character on a show that wasn’t really about her.

In episode 13, Sue loses. She’s done. She should have been ejected from the show. Who should have taken her place? No one. She didn’t need a replacement. Teenage kids have lots and lots and lots of problems to deal with, without adding an angry coach who quite literally gets away with massive amounts of property destruction without anyone batting an eye.

But when you have a hit formula, you aren’t allowed to change it, ever. And so Sue sits around. And gets a mentally disabled sister, to kind of humanize her. Except that character dies, so Sue runs for office, for in order to help people like her sister. Only that might show character growth, so instead she runs to shut down the arts. And loses.

Which is mostly ridiculous.

I love Jane Lynch with all my heart, and Sue still get a good moment here and there. But her story is done. Please get rid of her.

Or, you know, use her in a way that makes sense. But really? No. Get rid of her.

This leads me into my second major problem with the show: lack of character consistency. Not from season to season, or episode to episode, but sometimes within one show.

For example, the Christmas episode, wherein Rachel keeps asking for things for Christmas. Except she’s Jewish. Which has been a major character point since just about day one. But she totally forgets that, until a voiceover bit at the end where she yells out happy Hanukkah at the very last second.

And in that same ‘sode, for some reason she’s suddenly really interested in bling. Granted, she’s always wanted to be a star, but why is she suddenly do strangely greedy? What was that about?

And speaking of characters who ping-pong from emotion to emotion and through scads of bizarre character choices, what’s up with Will? Why does he have no friends? What kind of teacher asks a student to be best man at his wedding? What kind of idiot doesn’t realize his own wife isn’t pregnant? If he really cares about his girlfriend, which he seems to do, sometimes, why aren’t they in counseling together?

For that matter, what’s driving the guy on a day to day basis? Because back in the beginning, he wanted to keep the glee club together because of how happy it used to make him. And now, he’s… what? He passed up his chance to be on Broadway so he could help his kids win.

Which is kind of cool, I suppose. But also kind of creepy.

As for the rest of the characters? I just dunno, man. We get so little sense of most of them most of the time that when one of them comes to the forefront, it’s hard to work up any enthusiasm for their tiny little arc.

This very season, we had a girl decide she wanted to be a bad girl. For reasons I’m still not clear about. And then she figured she’d try and get her baby back, by making the adoptive mother look unfit, which is just weird, and insane, and would never actually work.

And we didn’t even get some kind of inspirational song to indicate how she thought the plan might work.

Speaking of inspirational songs, how about that time everyone decided to try to convince someone it was okay to be gay by singing at her a lot? And then, she sang a song about being a fake lesbian to celebrate the fact that she was a lesbian? And then she tried to tell her Grandma about it, and her Grandma rejected her which, okay, could be dramatic and work if we had ever seen this super-important Grandma ever before or ever again.

And that slides us into another problem, where stories come and go so quickly that they never really get a chance to have an impact. To take the same example, we had Kurt, who is gay and out and dealing with it, and we could have had someone who was now not dealing with it, and what might have happened with her family, but no, most of that was taken care of offscreen, because her parents weren’t going to sing at her.

But, yeah. The plots. They come. They go. Sue runs for office, and it’s over by November because that’s when the elections are. Except now her one reason for existing on the show is gone again, so they’ll have to come up with something else.

And we have our Asian dancer whose dad doesn’t approve of his choices… except then his dad sees him dance, and as a viewer, it’s really nothing special. He didn’t even get one of his (admittedly awesome) dance solos. But now dad is 100% behind him. And his girlfriend forged his signature and applied to a bunch of schools for him, too. Uh… what?

Heck, the baby thing that I mentioned, that was sort of insane? That’s over.

As are the two glee clubs at one school.

Oh, and a character is back, never mind that he vanished at the beginning of the season, and the actor announced on Twitter that his contract was cancelled.

And in order to make that character’s return make sense, he had to change schools in the middle of the semester and move hundreds of miles away from his family.

What am I getting at?

There’s no logic to the show anymore. No feeling of consistency. No sense that we’re watching actual people who exist beyond the moment the cameras are running.

They aren’t even characters anymore, really. They’re puppets, who say and do the things the people writing the show tell them to do, whether they make sense or not.

And the sad thing is, this broken thing could work, but there’s no way to this season at this point. We’re at the end of January now, and the show is putting together the episodes that will run probably through April. The strings that are there must be played out.


But there’s a fourth season yet.

It hasn’t been announced, but let’s be honest. The show is no longer a huge hit, but it’s still pulling in numbers that are solid enough to give it a fourth year. And after a fourth year, they’ll also have enough episodes to stick the show in syndication, where it will make money forever and ever and ever, and Fox, I’ m sure, both needs and wants that.

They’ve also said that The Glee Project the cast feeder for the show, is getting a second season, and I can’t imagine they’ve started that process if season four isn’t a go.

And now, after almost 1900 words about the problems of the show? Here’s what I think will fix it.

1. Ditch Sue.

I already wrote at length about this, so, yeah, I’ll stop. But for better or worse, the character needs to go, either in a big spectacular way, or you can just have her fade into the shadows. Still working at the school, but no longer a focus of the show. That’s fine. But she needs to be gone.

2. Let the seniors graduate and go. Please.

For a while there, it was a big deal that a lot of seniors were going to be leaving the show, effectively ditching some of the stars who made the show the hit that it was. And you know what? Let them.

Right now, the creator of the show is claiming that they’ll be around in a way “never seen on television before.” Um, dude? Guess what? No matter what you’re thinking of, it’s been done. Unless you plan to stick a short film called “What happened to the seniors” in the center of each episode. That hasn’t been done.

Otherwise? Going to a local university? Getting their own tangential storylines? Making guest appearances? It’s all been done. In fact, all of those were done on Degrassi, which I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with, because you seem to borrow a lot of storylines from them…

But, yeah. Let the people who need to go, go. Build a new cast, and start new stories. You know why? Because you also need to:

3. Make the show WAY less hyperactive.
If you chuck the songs from “Glee,” you’ve got about enough time for a decent 22-minute sitcom. You know what sitcoms have? Two plots per episode. At most. Know how many Glee does? Four. Sometimes, as many as five.

No. No, no, no. That simply doesn’t work, and it turns the emotional core of the show into something with the depth of a Petri dish. The actors are killing themselves trying to make the emotional moments land, and sometimes they almost get there. But it’s getting more and more and more rare, now.

Slow down. Let the plots stretch out as long as they need to. The show is funny, and audiences can follow an idea for more than eight minutes. Let them.

And while you’re at it:

4. Ditch a song or two.

I realize there’s money to be made on iTunes, but man, could the storylines use those three extra minutes.

5. Figure out where your characters are going.

Because if they’re headed somewhere, it seems super-random. And when they get there? It doesn’t go much of anywhere. Remember when they had that big school election? And Rachel got suspended (off camera…). What happened there? What’s the winner doing about their win? How did the loss actually affect Kurt?

I… Okay, credit where credit is due, it’s only been two episodes since then, and they needed to concentrate on making a Christmas episode for some reason… oh, right, iTunes. But that stuff is over now, and it’s time to move those plotlines forward.

The fact is, you’ve got a pretty deep bench, and you’ve already settled down and figured out who is a junior (staying) and who is a senior (leaving) so okay, give your seniors that moment in the sun. Let them play out their plotlines (which could be great… trying to get to New York, trying to get out of a small town, teenage engagement… all good stuff) and let’s…

Eh. It’s not going to happen.

Look, I realize I’m just a guy with a blog, and the people writing the show don’t care what I think. (Though if one of them is willing to offer up an extended rebuttal/explanation, I would love to hear it). But the fact of the matter is, fans are falling out of the bottom of the show.

And there’s that pilot. That really lovely pilot.

I understand, of course, that at any point during the show’s run I’m free to stop watching. And the truth is, I kind of want to.

But then they get something right. Like Rachel and Kurt realizing, for the first time, that while they might rule the school (artistically) they aren’t anything to the rest of the world. That’s genius.

Or the moment when Rachel is suddenly being asked to marry her boyfriend. Oh man. Teenage engagement. Haven’t seen much of that on TV. Could be great.

And that’s just it, really.

I miss the potential I love so much.

Truth be told, the show is borked, and it’ll only get worse from here on out. So I’ll enjoy the handful of numbers I still enjoy (about one song per show, now) and I’ll watch for the good parts, where the flotsam falls away and I get to pretend the show might someday improve.

And when it croaks at the end of season four, I won’t mourn it.

Thanks for the pilot, “Glee.” It almost made the rest of the ride worth it.

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