By Tony Buchsbaum
We've all seen the endless news reports about H1N1. But there's another epidemic sweeping the country: Glee.
I caught the Glee bug early on, when I watched the pilot last May. Since then, there was first a groundswell, then real momentum, and now an almost religious devotion to the show that's not only redefined what a sitcom looks and feels like, but also what a sitcom sounds like. Glee, you see, is a musical—and as a rule, musicals don't work on television.
Take five high school losers—an ultra-talented Jewish girl, a chunky black girl, a wheelchair-bound nerd, a not-quite-out homosexual boy, and a confused football player—and put them in a glee club whose only life support is the school's Spanish teacher, a mid-30s hunk who was, himself, in the same school's glee club in its hayday. Add a ton of peer pressure from the football team and the cheerleaders, whose coach is a razor-tongued, nails-tough beeyotch, a kewpie doll of a guidance counselor, and a princippal more interested in funding than extracurricular activities, and you've got a small sense of Glee.
Created by Ryan Murphy, the guy behind Nip/Tuck, Glee doesn't just sound new. It is new. It puts things on primetime network TV that just haven't been there before. Aside from the some of the language and situations, Glee was responsible for one of the most arresting things I've ever seen: Kurt, that homosexual kid I mentioned, comes out to his dad. It's the hardest thing the boy's ever done, and he's terrified his dad will reject him. But instead, the father says, "I know. I've known since you were three and all you wanted was a pair of sensible heels." The dad says he's not thrilled with the idea, but that if that's who Kurt is, he loves him just the same. It's a short scene, never foreshadowed, just sort of stuck in at the end of the fourth episode. But it lifts Glee from an unlikely teen comedy musical to a much more profound look at the lives high school kids are leading today.
But one teen's coming out isn't the only complication Glee so gleefully offers. There's also the pregnant cheerleader (but who's the daddy?). There's the love rectangle between glee club supervisor Will, his devious wife, the guidance counselor who's got a mad crush on Will, and the football coach who knows he's not attractive enough to interest the guidance counselor but loves her anyway. And there's a second love rectangle (triangles are for sissies) between footballer and glee-singer Finn, his cheerleader (and pregnant) girlfriend Quinn, glee club singer Rachel, and Puckerman, the mohawked football player with a serious crush on Quinn but who also secretly lusts after Rachel.
And on top of all this tasty cake is a luscious layer of music. Glee has created such pandemonium that the songs—all covers of big-time hits—are posted on iTunes and downloaded like mad. In the pilot's finale, the kids triumphantly sing "Don't Stop Believin," and I read somewhere soon after that their version had sold more copies than Journey's original.
No matter what song they tackle, from Kanye West's "Gold Digger" to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," from Rihanna's "Take a Bow" to Cabaret's "Maybe this Time," Glee's cast (sometimes the students, sometimes the faculty) brings a freshness to these songs, an innocence that feels real, not cheesy. The music has become so popular that two song CDs are slated for release one in November and another in December. And the first half of season one is due for release on DVD before year's end.
Glee could be the show of the year. It's certainly the most inventive thing on television this season. But more than that, it's a culture-changing phenomenon that has everyone talking. I think it has Emmy written all over it. The cast—including Matthew Morrison as the teacher, scene-stealing powerhouse Jane Lynch as the cheerleaders' coach, Lea Michele as the singing ingenue Rachel, Cory Monteith as Finn, the football player with the voice of gold, and Chris Colfer as now-out Kurt—is nothing less than miraculous every week, delivering lines with both a knowing wink and a sincerity that breaks your heart.
As I said, I'm a fully infected Gleek—and happy to be. If you're late to the party, expose yourself to all the episodes on hulu.com—and catch the bug.