I am not entirely surprised by the success of Fox’s celebrated, Golden Globe-winning series Glee, merely rather depressed. For those of you who have been spared it so far, the concept is this (imagine it scribbled on a napkin): a Spanish teacher takes over the school’s Glee Club (that is what Americans call a school choir) which includes a group of misfits who argue, make up and then, to round off each episode, sing.
The same napkin would certainly also have had space for the everso predictable character breakdown – there’s the cool kid who plays football but deep down would rather be singing, and the pretty girl who’s a bit individual so gets picked on by the sporty girls; then there’s the sassy, streetwise girl and the nerdy-boy-who-gets-bullied. And just to make sure a few minorities are covered, there’s disabled boy and Asian girl (“what’s your skill?” asked cool kid at one point; “er…” she stuttered in broken English. “Never mind,” he interrupted with a patronising grin, “we’ll find something!”)
But it isn’t the cynical, school-drama-plus-music-by-numbers formula that depressed me. It is the fact that the series has not one iota of wit or irony. For example, in an early scene we saw the Spanish teacher sit up in bed with a big grin as he had a flash of inspiration for the Glee Club’s new name – “Of course!” he gasped, “New Directions!” – and I laughed out loud because I thought it was a deliberate joke that the character had just uttered a name unfortunately close in sound to “Nude Erections”. I was already imagining the hilarious results that were about to ensue when the hapless teacher announced his Nude Erections to the football team.
But no; having no sense of irony (and in this instance self-awareness), the programme evidently expected us to share the teacher’s eureka moment and gasp in delight at his perfect idea. Gee! New Directions! How… fresh!
In another scene, the newly-reformed and unfortunately-titled Glee Club performed a pretty decent rendition of Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat; as it finished, nerdy kid announced without irony, “we suck”. And instead of leaping in and reassuring them “no way, most schoolkids would kill to be able to sing that well together, in tune and with so much energy on no rehearsal!” the Spanish teacher just nodded with a wry, disappointed smile and said that they would get better.
How were we supposed to know that their runthrough was, within the non-ironic, sugary world of the drama, a disaster? All became clear when, in a totally unforseeable development at the end of the episode, they all sorted out their problems and learned how to sing in a way that didn’t suck. Because then we heard what good singing is meant to sound like: backing harmonies close-miked and compressed to the point that they cease to sound like human voices and undoubtedly supplemented by several professional singers, lead vocals auto-tuned, given an artificial acoustic and mixed as flatteringly as possible with the professional backing group which had miraculously appeared to replace their earlier lone pianist. The kind of sound no school ensemble, however good, would EVER make.
In another context I might have thought it was a deliberate moment of high camp, suspension-of-disbelief silliness and it might have been funny, or at least bearable, but naturally I was meant to be in floods of non-ironic tears and it was all I could do not to choke on my scowl.
No doubt in future weeks the Spanish teacher will find true love, the cool kid will realise there’s more to life than football and get it on with the pretty girl, the nerdy kid will be accepted for who he is, the Asian girl will learn to speak English and the disabled boy will learn to walk. (The sassy girl will stay exactly the same.) I’m going to give it a miss – if I want to watch a genuinely moving people-taught-to-sing drama I’ll watch Young At Heart, and if I want the camp version there’s Sister Act.
And anyone who thinks I’m being snobbish should know that I watched Legally Blonde the Musical last week and loved every second.