Glee: Season 1 Vol.1 - Road to Sectionals Review
The cynic might say “Nice marketing ploy, Fox. Stagnate the release of Glee’s first season, then put out a full set at the end of the year.” Which is what they’re doing anyway, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Originally envisioned as a feature-length film, Glee debuted in the States on the back of American Idol last May, where it performed to modest viewing figures. Of the thirteen episodes commissioned and filmed by Fox, the pilot would be the only one to stay in the collective minds for the next four months. A director’s cut of the pilot, followed by the rest of the half-season began airing in September, where they maintained a stable viewership, yet during that time the show would evolve into what has now become a modern pop-culture phenomenon, seeing its TV ratings being far outweighed by its impact on the music scene. The U.S. charts went crazy last year with the flurry of Glee covers; no less than 25 hit singles helped to reinvigorate the sales of the bands - old and new - who inspired its set pieces; all of this from just thirteen episodes about a small-time music club trying to make it big.
But then that’s always resonated with the viewer. An underdog tale derivative of any number of high school comedies and dramas whereby the action is pitted within a struggling mid-western town where hope seemingly runs dry, Glee tells the story of a small band of dreamers, each from differing social classes who will find out that life is about making the right choices. Yes, high school. From what television has taught us, a pretty crappy place to be, where popularity is tantamount to survival, and being in the tough crowds gets you a free pass. Glee does nothing to eschew those sensibilities, establishing right off the bat a clear divide between the jocks, geeks and tutors, depicting them each in fairly archetypical fashion and throwing all kinds of obstacles - personal or otherwise - in their general direction.
Set within Lima, Ohio Glee centres on the students of William McKinley High School, home to the State’s finest cheerleader squad, and worst football team. It also happens to house a struggling little Glee club; a place which is looked down upon as being a haven for geeks, and is finding itself on the shortlist of budgetary cuts. But hope is just around the corner in the form of Spanish teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), who has just learned of the club’s director (Stephen Tobolowsky) being fired for indecent behaviour toward his students. After Pleading to Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba) for permission to take over the club and see it take on a new guise, Will is granted total control, but is about to find he has his work cut out.
Visiting the club he discovers just five members: the boisterous Rachel Berry (Lea Michele); Soul diva Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley); wheelchair-bound guitarist Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale); effeminate Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), and the insecure Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz). Taking active leader duties, Rachel tells Will that he must find a male vocalist who can match her unrivalled talents, or else she walks. Easier said than done, but before he can even begin to seek out new members, he must deal with other personal issues. Not only does the coach of the ‘Cheerios’ cheerleading squad, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), vow to end Schuester’s little project and restore her budget back, but his wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) also shows a lack of support and insists he becomes an accountant in order to secure a healthier income. But Will keeps his chin up, and after scouting for male singers at the football team discovers talent in one Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), who he convinces to join the club in a rather unorthodox fashion. Christening the group ‘New Directions’ Will begins making his plans to take them on the road to the Sectionals. Just as things are looking up, however, he receives news from his wife that she’s pregnant. This comes as a blow to guidance counsellor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), who has long had a crush on Will, she herself admired by football coach Ken Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher), but it also leaves Will with some difficult decisions to make. He must either say goodbye to his school and find a new way to provide for his family, or follow his dreams in an attempt to mould the Glee club into the finest that the State has ever seen.
Glee is certainly one of the biggest oddities of last year. Its unusual broadcast run is only outmatched by its uncontrolled ballsiness. Narratively speaking there’s a certain hastiness spread throughout, as if brought on by the knowledge that perhaps this might all be it. It could well be that the uncertainty of the show’s future at the time accounts for the abrupt eagerness in covering as many bases as it possibly can, only by doing so it threatens to destroy itself before it’s had a better chance to open up to audiences. In hindsight it would have made sense for Fox to have left its opening thirteen as season 1, and have the pick-ups go toward season 2 - those nine episodes commencing on U.S. television as of this week. After all, what we have here is an almost self-contained arc; one that doesn’t quite wrap up every loose detail on account of its own over ambition, but does enough to see it through to a satisfactory conclusion.
Commendably, though no less clichéd, Glee brings to the table the kind of social concerns that don’t go by unnoticed these days. In this short run it explores serious themes like teen pregnancy, homosexuality and racial and disabled prejudice, while promoting arts education and providing us with life-affirming messages that adhere to the old adage that anybody, no matter their disposition, can do anything if they put their mind to it. Ya know, all the stuff needed to maintain a pc reputation. At the risk of losing a more rounded identity of its own, however, Glee treads a very fine line between comedy and drama; two elements that can be very tricky to balance, and here we have a series struggling to juggle its satirical edge and relevant personal/family issues. While the satire works from time to time, albeit often finding itself a little too close to the knuckle, any sense of realism is conveyed so bleakly that it simply leaves a bad taste in the mouth. A lot of this is purely down to bad decision making. In order to see that every cast member has his or her own trial to get through the writers have thrown is some nasty little sub-plots, which do more than enough to shake up the tone of the series and prove somewhat detrimental.
Proving that our kids aren’t just going through a momentary phase, our adult line-up consists of both well-intentioned and downright deplorable human beings, who lie and cheat their way through life without giving so much of a second thought toward the consequences of their actions; hell, even in the opening episode Schuester shows his moral bankruptcy by planting weed on Finn - hardly the most desirable of role models you might say. If there’s any kind of point to be made here about the cruelty that life can hand us, then it’s beside itself with ill-judged story devices that do nothing but fill our heads with contempt, rather than sympathy for its often selfish figures. Will and Terri’s relationship gradually spirals out of control with her phantom pregnancy turning into obsession as she strings along her pitiable husband and blackmails doctors, all the while trying to secure Quinn’s as-yet unborn child for her own gain. In what then becomes some twisted double-whammy of a set-up, Quinn - who also happens to be head of the Celibacy Club - hasn’t got the guts the tell Finn that he’s not the father of her baby, thus drawing out another hopeless relationship. These two threads end up dominating far too much of the series and are so horribly painful and misguided that sitting through them becomes frustrating work. Then there’s Emma, who’s attracted to Will, but is being pursued by the less desirable Ken Tanaka in a side-story which eventually takes a similarly sorry path, despite wearing its absurd comic overalls. This kind of thing may well have worked on Murphy’s Nip/Tuck, but any irony is lost in its own sense of assuming cleverness, with the kind of emotional manipulating that does little to separate it from most angst-ridden dramas currently doing the rounds.
Given that the cast is made up of huge numbers, it’s questionable then that more time should be bestowed upon defining the Glee club. Rather than dwell primarily on the obvious lead relationships, the series could do with allowing us to get to know other players a little better. “Other Asian Guy” stops being funny after the first time it’s said, and for a show about promoting team work it would do well to heed to its own advice. The result for now is that we only really get to know about eight of the club members, with few others getting some decent lines. What we do learn though is that’s half of the teen cast is just as conceited, most notably Rachel who is stuck to the belief that only stardom will free her of her undesirable surroundings, and as we soon find out can be just as manipulative, egotistical and shallow as the adults who haven’t quite outgrown their diapers - in a Reece Witherspoon Election kind of way, complete with nutty, fast-talk narration. But at least there’s a constant notion that she and her comrades are on the road to understanding; united by a common interest that will fuel the show’s reputation as one of the most pop-tastic things to emerge from recent U.S. television.
Though the above might suggest that Glee doesn’t have much going for it, it certainly doesn’t skimp on the comical; its humour ranging from jovial nonsense to the blackest black might not always make it the easiest of series to digest, but once it passes the first five episodes or so it begins to show more immediate signs of promise: Will’s marriage problems, for example, are largely sidelined in favour of providing some genuinely and consistently fun episodes, before the series gets back to settling some of its more unfortunate business. When it works it shines brightly, and writers/creators Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy provide their better moments when taking things into more cartoon-ish realms and embracing the absurd. In celebrating the small things in life we watch our gang draw closer together, even if at various points they try to sabotage each other’s goals. It’s sometimes uncomfortable, but it always leans toward a greater good with the discovery of what true friendship amounts to. Where the series proves to work more admirably is in the pitting of Jane Lynch’s maniacal cheerleader coach against the happy-go-lucky Glee club. Remove everything else that the show has forced upon us and we’d have a perfectly entertaining little show that harks back to the old Hanna-Barbera days. Lynch is a constant highlight, often stealing every scene away from the young cast through her comic book villainy, though her character is certainly responsible for some of Glee’s more touchier content, while Iqbal Theba’s straight-faced quirkiness as Principal Figgins paves the way for some delightful back and forth banter involving both she and Schuester.
Above all, like the doughy-eyed mysophobic Emma, the show has an enticing compulsiveness about it. As my opening paragraph suggested it’s all about the music really. For all the corruption it touches upon it can be totally uplifting through the power of song and dance; the hits carefully selected to match the underlying themes of its given episode. From the pilot’s closing moments in which the Glee guys and gals sing a ludicrously catchy pseudo-a capella version of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, the emotional intensity begins to signify something quite special. What follows is a diverse assortment of show-tunes; perfect pop inspired mash-ups; jazz and R&B; rap; rock hits and ballads, all with the cheese factor turned up to 11, and guaranteed to leave you with goosebumps and broad smiles. Some of the songs don’t always work so well; a couple of the solo numbers can feel quite bland and thematically unfitting (Rhianna’s ‘Take a Bow’), in contrast to the huge ensemble pieces like ‘Don’t Stop’ ‘Somebody to Love’ and several mash-ups in which more of an effort is made to separate themselves from the originals and leave behind a unique stamp. Yes it’s all perfectly polished in a pre-recorded musical sense, right down to moments of supposed spontaneity, from which silly moments can occur whereby Schuester will tell his kids that they need to improve on certain areas, when evidently they don’t seem to be doing anything wrong at all. But this is minor pickings and certainly not enough to throw us off the whole spectacle itself which is ultimately Glee’s strongest asset; showcasing an incredibly talented cast who are clearly performing - and passionately so - their own numbers, while proving they also have the capable acting chops to see us through an entertaining enough journey of self-discovery.
The DVDI see they’re now “cooling up” the anti-piracy ads by directing them with all the energy of a music video, replete with hip American voice-over, and Bruce Willis (they’re watching Die Hard 4). If you have to, studios, shove these somewhere in the bonus materials section. Like, I dunno, make them Easter Eggs or something.
Glee is anamorphically presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is flagged for progressive playback. The pilot episode is a little concerning at first glance: skin tones fluctuate a bit in coming across slightly reddish; something which does continue throughout the series, though with some control, while aliasing also proves to be quite an issue with striped garments and the like. Edge enhancement is also a bother and doesn’t help a single bit in pretending that the image is any sharper than it…isn’t. It’s a slightly soft presentation in all, which really does deserve to look better in light of its age and the fact that we’re getting four episodes per DVD-9. Colours fair pretty well, but louder primary ones come dangerously close to bleeding, with reds fairing worse (see grab 1). Contrast could be better, blacks are acceptable, but for the time being it’s all perfectly watchable. With the news of a full season set coming later in the year, it’s with hope that Blu-ray is on the agenda.
Although the packaging states English 5.1 Dolby Digital and English 2.0 DD, we only have the former available from menus. But with a series such as this what do you need 2.0 for? The soundtrack is very impressive, not in any great ambient sense - though the school environment carries over lively enough - but in balancing the dialogue well and counting where it truly matters. The musical showpieces sound particularly lavish; once they kick in the surround system takes on new life in making active use of the sub-woofer with a nice amount of bass, while vocals and instruments feature a good amount of separation across front and rear channels. A nicely encapsulating feeling all round.
A fairly underwhelming selection of bonus material graces disc 4. Of the more notable stuff we have a funny 5 minute introduction to McKinley High, featuring Principal Figgins addressing the camera and reading the autocue terribly; a 12 minute look at the casting sessions in which Fox heads and show creators discuss finding the right actors who possessed what the industry refers to as “Triple Threat” qualities; and 17 minutes worth of video diaries from principal cast members (although they’re not really that interesting, just a lot of celeb mingling and being driven around town).
From there things thin out considerably with what is almost pointless fluff material that range from 40 seconds to 3 minutes in length. We’ve a Glee music video (‘Somebody to Love’); Full Length Audition Pieces (no, not actual actor auditions but two extended outtakes featuring Rachel and Mercedes); Dance Boot Camp; Deconstructing Glee with Ryan Murphy; Meeting Jane Lynch, and finally a bunch of rubbish facts about actors Jayma Mays, Cory Monteith, Amber Riley and Chris Colfer.