It is time. Time to do what you promised you'd never do. Watch Glee.
NO WAIT. DON'T LEAVE.
You must watch it. You know you must.
Last year I watched the first episode, and I hated it. It was garish, pointless, unoriginal and noisy. This year I watched that very same first episode – and I loved it. It was fun, hilarious, meaningful and proved to be my entry drug into a full-blown Glee addiction.
It's very easy to be put off. I mean, it's a high school musical. That's literally the opposite of my favourite genre. And if you see any trailers for Glee, or snippets of episodes, it can be difficult to keep your breakfast down. And, of course, watching TV shows like Glee can feel like a massive waste of time when you should be working, or socialising, or campaigning to keep alive the legacy of Troy Davis. But hush. Glee is about glee. If you have any respect for pleasure, you need to watch it, and you need to watch it properly.
(Oh, and none of this “guilty pleasure” crap. Calling Glee a guilty pleasure is like eating four chocolate cakes a day and calling that a guilty pleasure. You either have to be shameless about it, or don't do it at all.)
Glee is set in a modern American high school, with lockers and pom-poms and everything. It's based around a “Glee Club”, which I learned is a musical group of school kids who compete with other Glee Clubs around America. This of course means that Glee is a musical. There's a lot of singing. From Rocky Horror to Phantom of the Opera, Britney Spears to Michael Jackson, R.E.M. to Snoop Dogg, the cast of Glee pour everything they've got into every number.
I don't like musicals. At all. But I like Glee. A lot.
Everything is colourful and larger than life, but there's sometimes a quiet little nudge to show us that the Glee characters are in fact living in a world full of grimness that they completely ignore. So we've got the melodramatic teenager swanning up the aisle of the train, tears in her eyes as she blurts out her song at the top of her lungs, while the passengers around her are ordinary and grey and could just as well be on the Sunday train to Aberdeen.
Sometimes, among the garish moral messages, there's a two-second sniff of school knife crime or drug abuse or domestic violence completely overlooked (or else swiftly forgotten) by the teenage protagonists; who, after all, live in a world of very, very loud dreams that drown out everything else. All subtlety is completely lost on the characters, as befits them. But it looks like the directors, writers, and indeed some of the actors have time to throw a lil whisper in with the shouts. They're easy to miss, but that doesn't mean they're not there.
Glee's approach to minorities is a good place to contrast the whispers with the shouts. Generally it enjoys the fresh liberalism of featuring diversity without actually putting a spotlight on it. That, I believe, is how mainstream TV should be; the race/sexuality/disability you're born with being so accepted that it doesn't have to be the main feature that defines a character.
However, the whole point in Glee is to – literally – make a song and dance out of everything, and the supposed perpetual challenge of being a minority is a factory of opportunities for that. So there might be kids watching Glee who think, hang on, should I be getting all noisy and emotional about the fact that I'm a minority? And, of course, the fact that Glee is larger than life means that there are stereotypes spilling out all over the place. But those stereotypes are almost always overwhelmed (or even totally eradicated) by unique character traits that build up over the seasons, and, on the whole, Glee is brilliantly straightforward about its pro-inclusion, pro-acceptance, equality-driven messages.
For instance, Glee manages to point out that it's okay to severely dislike someone with Down's Syndrome. The character of Becky – a cheerleader with Down's – is cruel, rude, bullying, bitchy, and self-obsessed.
And is therefore a perfectly normal teenage girl.
The members of the Glee club are famously quite diverse. A small handful of races, an even smaller handful of religions, but a comprehensive range of sexualities (heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), and a complete range of body shapes (underweight, healthy weight, overweight, obese, and morbidly obese).
The club doubles in size and members come and go, but the original five are Rachel, Kurt, Mercedes, Artie and Tina, a mash-up of diversity and stereotypes.
A dim but well-meaning quarterback called Finn becomes the male lead, while the female lead is Rachel. And Rachel is extraordinarily annoying. Straight from the beginning. Sorry, I know I'm trying to persuade you to watch Glee, but I do have to warn you about her. I've actually had to mute some of her songs, because her singing talent seems to be about a) volume and b) being able to hit the right notes. Her voice sounds a lot like this:
Also, Rachel is wildly dramatic, which means there's really nowhere to go with her character. As Artie says, "the more times she storms out of rehearsal, the less impact it has."
Despite the fact that Glee looks like it might be as annoying as a hair gel advert crossed with a Justin Bieber music video, in my opinion Rachel is the only truly annoying thing about Glee. Actually, her voice when added to her melodrama and her doe-eyed pity-me face makes her the most annoying thing about TV in general at the moment.
But that can be forgiven, because she's surrounded by great characters. Mercedes, for instance, who's just as much of a “diva” as Rachel but manages to be extremely likeable while expressing her “additood”. Kurt is another one of my favourite characters; as a singer he's a countertenor, which apparently means having a very high male voice. There are also some minor but excellent characters that step forward into the limelight as the seasons progress, such as Brittany, a cheerleader so stupid that when asked what a misogynist is she says “when I pulled my hamstring I went to a misogynist”.
But my favourite character is Puck, a stereotypical delinquent who sums himself up thus: “I had my first threesome aged seven, and once I beat up a police horse”.
Brilliant. Despite his broad, pouty looks that American 11-year-olds seem to find so adorable.
He goes through clever and extensive character development on a level you'd never expect from the show, he's played by possibly the best actor of the lot, and he has (in my opinion) the best male voice in Glee. Great character, great performer, and one of the many reasons why Glee is so addictive.
Keeping this mish-mash ensemble of kiddies together is a smaller ensemble of adults.
There's the football coach Beiste (pronounced “beast”), whose only real character trait is the juxtaposition of her brawny physique with her incredibly in-your-face vulnerability. She's built like an ox, which apparently makes her teary, effete emotions worthy of constantly being thrown in our faces as some kind of massive surprise. Brawny women know how to cry too! We get it already. It was an interesting one-off contrast, but I don't see why the writers have to keep thrusting perpetual emotional turmoil at her.
Then there's Sue, the evil cheerleader coach (who, inevitably, has a soft, squishy centre). She's probably Glee's biggest source of laughs, and she never – ever – gets boring. “I will no longer be carrying around photo ID”, she says. “Know why? People should know who I am.”
In one episode Sue joins a dating website, and here's a screenshot of what she wrote:
It's impossible not to adore the character of Sue.
Her nemesis is the coach of the Glee club, Will Schuester. She hates him mainly because he has curly hair. (“I don’t trust a man with curly hair. I can’t help picturing small birds laying sulfurous eggs in there, and I find it disgusting.”)
Mr Schuester – known as Mr Schue – doesn't have any contrast going on, because he holds the safe default male protagonist role. In the first season or two of Glee, he has a lot to do, working his way through a handful of love interests and an enjoyably implausible “fake pregnancy” plot.
But after a while he's shunted aside in favour of the students, and his only role is to break up fights (“hey hey hey! What's going on here?!”), or watch the songs from the sidelines while putting his bottom lip between his teeth and bopping his head.
Yes indeedy, Mr Schue treads the excruciatingly line between cool teacher and embarrassing teacher. For one, he raps a lot. He also does a huge amount of sitting on chairs the wrong way round. (Though to be fair, most of the male characters do this at one point or another to compensate for their hip-wiggling and high falsetto.)
And despite being a distinctly nice character by definition, Mr Schue is sort of creepy. For instance, at one point he wakes up his girlfriend in the morning by murmuring the words “guess who woke up just before I did?”. Cue shudder of terror.
But there is a quiet tragedy about Mr Schue that the writers have yet to properly address. And it follows on nicely from my point about him being sort of creepy. All his friends are children. Well, teenagers. He asks a 17-year-old boy to be his best man. Mr Schue doesn't seem to have any adult friends, and everything he does and says hangs on his Glee club, all the members of which have their own lives and futures.
Hopefully the writers will address this more as the show goes on, but I quite like it being there as an unspoken emotional calamity. I sort of imagine that Mr Schue tip-toes back into the auditorium at night, curls up in a foetal position on the stage and whimpers the lyrics to Celine Dion's 'All By Myself'.
Oh, and in a future episode I really want Mr Schue to finally tell his students to please stop using Glee club to serenade or break up with their partners. It's getting silly. The Glee club sing their feelings and opinions so much that I think they've lost the ability to have a conversation.
Glee laughs at itself. Gleefully. It makes fun of itself, but not in an irritating breaking-the-fourth-wall kind of way. For instance, the name of the Glee club is “New Directions”, which is pronounced by every single one of the characters as “Nude Erections”. And because Glee has an 8PM timeslot, the actors do this with a completely straight face.
It's fun. It's mad. It's unblushing and confident. Really, let it happen to you. I DEMAND IT. Watch the first two or three episodes back-to-back (that'd be about film length), and IF YOU BELIEVE IN HAPPINESS the show's playful brilliance will hit you in the face like a water balloon the size of a hippo.