Is America Ready for Glee?

While I tend to be far more vocal about my love of horror, my first love shall always remain musicals. Combining storytelling with music is a long standing tradition of society and the musical is the most accessible form. I'm just struggling to see how a weekly television series about a Glee club with built in musical fantasy sequences is possibly going to survive.

Let's look at the issues:

1) It's a musical - America has a love/hate affair with musicals in popular culture. The most successful films, for example, tend to be the simplest. There's a reason filmed adaptations of Mamma Mia! and Hairspray are major successes, while more ambitious projects like Once and Across the Universe fail to capture that same ticket-selling magic. The idea of the American musical has grown throughout history to imply a really simple, most likely funny, story of love and opportunity gone awry with flashy dance sequences, catchy tunes, and a happily ever after.

Even on stage, darker or non-traditional shows just don't seem to have the legs of the happier musical tradition. The ability of Chicago, for example, to have a long for the time initial run and be revived for an even longer run is the exception rather than the rule. Chicago gets by on glitz, glamor, and a healthy dose of over the top dark humor and absurdity mixed in to memorable songs. Right now, the safest bet for a Broadway run seems to be a revival or an adaptation of an already popular film. Shows like South Pacific, Hair, and West Side Story are packing the crowds in every night while new shows languish and fade away. As for films, we need look no further than most of the Best Musical winners since 1998 to see how successful they can be: The Lion King, The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hairspray, Monty Python's Spamalot, and Billy Elliott. All of these shows went on to successful runs (The Lion King, interestingly enough, still running even after all the recent film winners except Billy Elliot left) regardless of how strong the material actually was.

Could Glee using popular music in a comedic format actually help the show in the long run? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Does Bust Your Windows by Jazmine Sullivan being used in a music video like dream sequence have any purpose other than to include the full song to get the most out of the licensing fees? I'm kind of doubting it:

Is the show going to stick to feel good moments like Don't Stop Believing to keep viewers coming in? Or is it going to push the camp value so far it fades away like Popular?

2) Star power - The NYC theater scene is abuzz (well, as close as they get to something not connected to Addams Family or Spiderman right now) that Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele are on a major network musical TV show. Yes, those that saw Light in the Piazza or Spring Awakening know how fantastic and talented these two are. Now, imagine walking up to someone on the street and asking what award winning productions Glee cast members were involved with?

Scratch that. Ask them to name two Glee cast members not called Jane Lynch. For those that get past the "Who is Jane Lynch?" issue, I think you'd struggle to find many who could come up with other cast members in the show. Stars don't necessarily sell a TV show, but it sure does help to convince people that musicals might not be a bad thing. Both Hugh Jackman and Doogie How...Neil Patrick Harris did wonders for the Tony Awards' ratings when they hosted. I believe we all know, sadly, what good ratings for the Tony Awards are. I think repeated airings of Real Chance at Love on VH1 average more viewers than the Tony Awards.

3) It's Fox - Hey, remember Firefly? Or Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles? Or when King of the Hill was aired consistently on its time slot instead of Til Death or Family Guy reruns? Or Futurama maintaining that post-Simpsons slot on Sundays? Or the initial run of Family Guy consistently airing on one night of the week? Fox, as a network, consistently picks up these great, interesting, different shows and runs them into the ground. It's like they want to stop other networks from getting a program that has a potential built in audience but don't actually want to air it themselves. It certainly can't be fiscally sound to keep dumping programs so early in the run, especially given the network's propensity to order a ton of episodes and then not air them in order, let alone air them at all.

What chance does Glee have when it's about a bunch of singing and dancing high school students not named Zac Effron or Miley Cyrus?

I'm hoping for the best with this show. Something tells me the hype produced by the solid pilot won't be fulfilled, as I anticipate Fox saying do everything the same but in a completely different way. I suspect we'll be inundated with extraneous song sequences (like Bust Your Windows) in place of actually development of the Glee Club arc to success. Watching the pilot, we already know the club will have a Sister Act II like success, triumphing over all adversity to win the championship and squashing the evildoers trying to abandon funding for the arts in public education.

My biggest concern? Can the show keep putting out strong harmonized versions of popular songs without pushing them too far outside the comfort zone of the average American pop culture consumer? There are some gorgeous, but risky, choices in Don't Stop Believing that clearly paid off. But will the audience respond as well to a rap song like Gold Digger being done the same way? Or songs straight off the charts? I'm thinking even if Glee overcomes the Fox sinkhole of cancellation it will still lose out in the long run to not demonstrating enough "improvement" to make the storyline believable or for going too far into theater territory with the arrangements.

In short, Glee can't possibly win. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm not convinced that success is even a possibility in the long run. It feels like this might get to match Pushing Daisies' stellar success off of one season, then be forgotten enough to result in cancellation during the second.

Review: 9

Sketchy Recs: What to Do This Weekend: 4 - 7 September 2009