I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, critic on the internet to complain about the state of FOX’s “Glee.” Now in its fourth season, and undergoing something of a reboot, the musical comedy has been noticeably uneven-culminating with what might possibly be the nadir of the series, “Dynamic Duets” (to say nothing of the winter finale “Glee, Actually” which was simply awful but in a “High Concept” way) Whether the show can be fixed this season (or next ’cause let’s face it, the chances of its cancellation are pretty slim) remains to be seen, but where did it go so wrong?
Public perception of “Glee”, despite it being a monster hit, has always been a mixed bag. Its fans have always pointed to its (dubiously?) talented cast, its fast pace, its broad comedy and even its strong, relatable characters who deal with actual problems teenagers really go through. They’ve touched on hot button issues (perhaps even made a few issues into hot button) big and small and generally tried to be all things to all people. “Glee” is-at its core- a musical after school special. Yes, it’s highly stylized, and broadly comic but they also try to make a difference. Arguably they have, but is that really what people are looking for in their musical comedies? And, that’s not even to touch the criticism that the show is disingenuous in that it features 30 year olds playing whiny teenagers who warble badly auto tuned pop music book-ended by over dramatic poorly conceived story points. As I said, mixed bag.
All that being said, “Glee” has gone steadily down hill in both dramatic quality and musical quality this season. At the end of last season, nearly half the characters graduated. The decision was made to continue to follow the most popular characters, Rachel and Kurt, on to New York (thereby also keeping Finn in the loop) while shifting the show focus to the remaining main characters, and adding a few more to fill out the numbers (keeping in mind that the show already had 15 series regulars and at least 5 seriously recurring guests. The cast drop left us now with an additional 4 or so recurring- with the graduated actors being dropped to recurring as well-and 3 new series regulars) in the glee club itself. All of these characters need to be served by story. But, when 2/3 of your characters have ongoing stories and relationships that need to continue and evolve, including 2 living several hundred miles from the rest of the cast having their own stories, it’s hard to shoehorn in new people in ways that aren’t either boring or silly. “Glee” took another tact and brought the newbies front and center, back burnering the cast that audiences had grown accustomed to. They also, strangely, stunt casted 2 A- list Hollywood actresses (Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker) and shoved them awkwardly into the burgeoning New York story along with some MORE new characters, and are you dizzy yet? The writers simply do not have enough story to serve all of these old and new characters. And the stories they have done? Mostly just weak willed rehashes of old stories amping up the utter lunacy of some of the more…outlandish elements of the show (ie: Jane Lynch’s entire character anymore).
Musically, the show’s main draw, season 4 has featured very few truly great performances and only 1 that was in any way memorable (Melissa Benoist and Alex Newell’s cover of P!nk’s “(Blow me) One last Kiss”). Instead we’ve had a few weak covers, some standards and classics including the overlong odd choice of “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” sung by newcomer (and non Jewish character) Jake. And, as Rachel and Kurt are in New York now, we have more Broadway deep cuts and “edgy” “indie” “hits” like Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s have a Kiki” performed in crazy production numbers that occur completely in “reality” as opposed to the heightened reality of the auditorium scenes (The Scissor Sisters number in particular was a fully choreographed dragtastic mess that spontaneously occurred at a party apropos of nothing). And, in a moment of bitter irony, the show wasn’t even able to put on an engaging version of “Grease”-one of the most cross-genre popular musicals of all time- and then they basically split it over 2 episodes to drag out the “comedy.” Also, they did “Gangam Style.” They sang a meme, albeit a hit meme, in Korean. Sadly this gave sole remaining Asian character Tina a solo (Perhaps her only one so far) in a move that is both potentially racist completely stupid.
“Glee” could be simply in the middle of the same slump all long running shows go through. Problem being there’s only 2 ways to go after that: glorious renaissance or cancellation. While I fully believe that the show’s popularity-across multiple media as the albums sell well- is more than enough to carry it through to a season 5, when the writers return after the holiday break and start breaking stories on the season 4 back 9, they have some serious course corrections:
- Refocus on older characters and work the newbies in gradually as needed. This means giving original cast member Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina) something useful to do and backing off from the endlessly dumb love quadrangle of Jacob-Marley-Kitty-Ryder.
- The Glee project kids (Rory, Joe, Ryder, Unique) are seriously talented. And, they add to the show…in varying degrees. But if you’re going to put them so front and center, give them proper exits. (No really, where did Rory go?)
- Same goes for the actors who either leave the show or are randomly absent (Vanessa Lengies’ Sugar)
- Rachel and Kurt vs NYADA is deeply boring. And yet the urgency with which things back home effect their lives is still bizarre.
- Don’t use the graduated characters as a crutch. Continuing to weave them in is wonderful and makes sense, but let them have lives offscreen that inform their old lives on screen. And, use them sparingly and usefully.
- Jane Lynch, Kate Hudson, and Becca Tobin are playing cartoons. With Lynch, it’s been an evolution to this ridiculous degree, but Hudson simply appeared on scene as a crazypants dancing supervillain. At least Lynch can handle this level of insanity. I can’t even explain what the hell is up with Becca Tobin’s Kitty. I think her scripts were switched with some old Erica Kane scenes.
- Remember your characters’ history! Quinn was back recently and barely looked at Joe who basically healed her with the power of his love last season. And yet the long dead Quinn vs Santana bitchfest resurfaced in the same episode seemingly out of nowhere.
- Don’t retcon all of this season: For all that it’s done wrong, it has done some right. Kurt and Blaine breaking up, while heartbreaking, has really allowed a lot of growth for both characters. As well the separation of Finn and Rachel has been great for both characters. And the new characters Marley and Jake have good qualities that could do with some exploring. In moderation.
- Lay off Burt Hummel. Mike O’Malley’s poor alter ego simply cannot catch a break.
and that’s just off the top of my head!
“Glee” has arguably hit an insurmountable wall. For everything that I’ve liked about “Glee” over the years, the dexterity of their writing staff has never been one of them. They do however listen to their fans and correct as needed (Remember season 1’s interminable baby story?) in sometimes remarkably silly or sudden ways (Quinn’s paralysis late last season.) If they can’t pull out of this sudden nose dive, even their die hard fans will start to hear the sour notes.