Fox // 2009 // 974 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // September 14th, 2010
"Glee Club. Every time I try to destroy that clutch of scab-eating mouth-breathers it only comes back stronger, like some sexually ambiguous horror movie villain." -- Sue Sylvester
I'm a late arrival to the cultural phenomenon of Glee. To be honest, I had no intention of ever watching the show. You see, in high school, I was a member of the orchestra, and Buffalo Grove's show choir -- "The Expressions" -- were our natural enemies. Forced to share the same rehearsal and performance space, the disdain our groups had for each was palpable. Granted, neither suffered the slushee-drenched indignation of our self-proclaimed A-list peers, but the entire music department was right there at the bottom of the school's well-defined oligarchy. Needless to say, when the pilot for Glee aired in the Spring of 2009 and took both Fox and television audiences by surprise, my Pavlovian repulsion was immediate and intense.
So how did I end up reviewing this highly anticipated release? Well, you can start by thanking Chief Counsel Melissa Hansen, whose Gleek-ness penetrated my formidable battlements. From there, it was the genre-defying magic of co-creators and showrunners Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan (who graduated from and eventually taught show choir at Prospect High School, Buffalo Grove's district rival) that broke down my defenses and infected me with an adoration for these characters and the frenetic world they inhabit.
Thus endeth the history lesson and begineth the review...
Welcome to Lima, OH and William McKinley High School. Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba, Community) runs a tight ship (not really), and is quite proud of his school's national champion cheerleading squad -- "The Cheerios" -- fronted by abrasively manipulative coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, Role Models). One of the road blocks to Sue's perfect world is the Glee Club, whose director Sandy Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky, Groundhog Day) was recently relieved of his duties for inappropriate attention paid to the choir's male students. Enter Will Schuester (Broadway star, Matthew Morrison) -- McKinley graduate, Glee Club alum, and the school's Spanish teacher. Jumping at the chance to recapture the magic of his youth and one-time Glee Club championship glory, Schuester faces an uphill battle consisting of a non-existant budget, ridiculous goals set forth by Figgins, a student body with zero interest in musical theatre, and the force of nature that is Sue Sylvester. Compound those issues with a crazy pregnancy-faking wife (Jessalyn Gilsig, Nip/Tuck), and a growing attraction to the school's OCD-challenged guidance counselor (Jayma Mays, Paul Blart: Mall Cop), and you have the makings of a universe where people overcome their problems through music and dance.
Interestingly enough, one of the ground rules set forth by Ryan Murphy's team was that these characters would not spontaneously break into song. Instead, the music would be used organically as part of the Glee Club's preparations for sectional and regional competition. That edict lasted about half the season. Then again, once the daily world of McKinley's students and faculty had been established -- and quite brilliantly, I might add -- it's only natural to lose the framework and let inspiration take over. And boy, did it ever.
Glee is one of the freshest shows on television. It's a genius reworking of the classic MGM Dream Factory formula, taking all the pieces that worked and infusing them with modern sensibilities and storytelling techniques. Murphy knows his way around successful television, honing his high school caste system on The WB's Popular, and perfecting his unique style with FX's Nip/Tuck. Bringing along fellow writer/director Brad Falchuk and retooling Ian Brennan's languishing screenplay idea for television, the trio banged out a mid-season pilot that caught everyone by surprise. The overwhelming response gave the trio nearly six months to craft a half-season storyline inside a bubble of limitless creative freedom with no audience expectations and little network interference. With a fantastic cast of relatively unknown talent, and a wish list of music from the iPod-like brain of Ryan Murphy, the show caught fire and quickly became must-see (must-DVR) television.
However, no one expected the show's slickly produced musical numbers would draw such demand that singles be released on iTunes the day after the episode aired and subsequently dominate Apple's digital music delivery system. To date, three albums have been released, all of which have gone to #1 on the Billboard charts, and this is not music straight off today's hot 100. The show is single-handedly responsible for getting today's teens to discover and embrace Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade" (from Funny Girl), Burt Bacharach's "One Less Bell to Answer," Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," Lionel Richie's "Hello," Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison," and Young MC's "Bust a Move," among a huge playlist of others. Sure, Beyonce's "Single Ladies" and Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" were dynamic show-stoppers, but it's the mashup of musical styles and eras that truly give Glee its compelling edge. In fact, the music became so big that the second half of the season squeezed even more numbers into the storylines without undermining their structure or effectiveness; a feat unto itself. (They'll be cutting back for Season Two).
But it's more than just the music that makes the show work. Taking a page from the late John Hughes, Glee also uses comedy to illuminate the universal truths of our American upbringing and the strength found in the diversity of our daily lives. Despite surface appearances, these characters aren't one-dimensional stereotypes. Each has their own unique set of triumphs and tragedies, ranging from religious persecution and sexual orientation, to abandonment issues and self-limiting behaviors. Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) may be the golden boy quarterback with a gorgeous girlfriend, but he's a rather dim bulb fronting a football team that can't buy a win, and growing up without a father who died while on deployment in Iraq. Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) is McKinley's head cheerleader, protege of Coach Sylvester, and president of the school's chastity club, but whose life is unraveling after discovering she's pregnant and subsequently tastes the bitter fruit of alienation she used to dish out on a daily basis. Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) is the archetypal big girl with a voice that could give Aretha Franklin pause, but is unable to get anyone to listen to her, least of all the boy she lusts after. Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) is a flamboyant stylist who wears his uniqueness like a sandwich board, but suffers in silence for the music he's not allowed to sing and the feelings he's not allowed to express. Rachel Berry (Leah Michele) is the resident drama queen, Jewish American princess, and daughter to a surrogate mother she's never met; a legend in her own mind, Rachel's often oblivious to disaster her ambitions leave in their wake. Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale) and Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz) represent the true outcasts, a handicapped nerd and a goth minority, who share a common bond and growing attraction; both want to be seen more for their actual talents than their obvious differences. And perhaps the most obvious archetype, Noah Puckerman (Mark Salling), is the resident jock bad boy who torments anyone he feels deserves it, but struggles with chivalrous feelings and a desperate need to grow beyond the limited, Middle America, working class existence he's pre-destined to live. Together this unlikely group struggle to achieve one goal, defeat a common enemy, and in the process unlock something of value within themselves they only vaguely knew existed.
Glee is an ensemble show that's only as strong as its weakest link...and trust me, there are no chinks in this armor. Even the four supporting characters originally brought in to provide vocal background and dance credibility to the club -- Santana (Naya Rivera), Brittany (Heather Morris), Mike (Harry Shum Jr.), and Matt (Dijon Talton) -- have surprised the audience and the writers with how endearing their presence has become. In fact, Naya and Heather become so integral to the Season One storylines that both actors are being bumped up to series regulars for Season Two, and deservedly so. Naya exhibits a magnetic presence in every scene she's a part of, and Heather offers up the show's most killer dead-pan line reads. She is to Glee's short-form comedy what Jane Lynch is to its long-form, and that's saying a lot. Lynch is the cornerstone of the show's enigmatic success. Long considered one of the finest working character actors today, she has now cemented herself among the legendary funny women of all time. Jane's commitment to this character is unparalleled, riffing off golden moments with nearly every actor she shares a two shot with, not the least of which is Matthew Morrison's Will Schuester. You cannot help but be drawn into this legendary battle of good and evil. The amazing thing is that these epic confrontations only serve to fuel the plot, where in less capable hands they would dominate or overshadow it. Credit Ryan Murphy's team for figuring out how to pull it off.
And while we're handing out praise for the cast, let's not overlook the excellent guest stars Glee has drawn into its orbit. Victor Garber (Alias) is a subtle joy as Will's father. Kristin Chenoweth was a revelation on Pushing Daisies and only brightens her star here, as a down-on-her-luck former classmate of Will. Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) won an Emmy for his role as Bryan Ryan, Schue's old glee club rival. Idina Menzel (Rent) knocks each of her scenes clear out of the park as director of McKinley Glee Club's chief competition, Vocal Adrenaline. Olivia Newton John remakes her "Physical" video. Josh Groban neutralizes his most disturbing stalker. And with its success, Broadway and Hollywood veterans are lining up around the block to appear on the show. Season Two already has Carol Burnett, John Stamos, Barry Bostwick, Meat Loaf, and Britney Spears on tap.
Before I bring this gushing to a close, I want to highlight a handful of standout moments from Season One, without spoiling it for anyone who will surely unlock the magic for themselves while scarfing down these 22 episodes on DVD...
* The rehearsal sessions and debut of Acafellas, Will's all-male acapella group. (Episode 03, "Acafellas")
* The McKinley football team's trick play that wins their only game of the season. (Episode 04, "Preggers")
* The reveal of Sue's deepest family secret; one of Glee's most unexpectedly powerful moments. (Episode 09, "Wheels")
* The dual performance of John Lennon's "Imagine" with McKinley's rival Glee Club from the school for the deaf. (Episode 11, "Hairography)
* Coach Sylvester stars in a remake of Madonna's "Vogue" video. (Episode 15, "The Power of Madonna")
* The unbelievable editing job done on "Like a Virgin," in which three separate couples are about to have sex. (Episode 15, "The Power of Madonna")
* The Matthew Morrison and Kristin Chenoweth duet on "One Less Bell to Answer," intercut with Chris Colfer's solo of "A House is Not a Home." (Episode 16, "Home")
* Artie's flash mob dream sequence to "Safety Dance" as conceived and executed by Joss Whedon. (Episode 19, "Dream On")
* Mike O'Malley as Burt Hummell delivers one of the finest monologues ever crafted for television, defending his son against bigotry. (Episode 20, "Theatricality")
* Will overwhelms Sue's defenses by seducing her with the power of Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good." (Episode 21, "Funk")
* The Regionals competition concludes with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" as Quinn gives birth, in yet another flawlessly executed sequence. (Episode 22, "Journey")
Presented in television's new standard, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Glee looks noticeably softer than its broadcast HD presentation, but it's an image no less clean or colorful. You just can't count the pores on character's faces, or blades of grass on McKinley's football field. Where audiophiles are really going to notice the difference is with this less enveloping Dolby 5.1 Surround mix. The Blu-ray's DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio can't be matched for the incredibly impressive musical sequences, although most of the show is dialogue driven and therefore negates the Master Audio upgrade.
I know many fans were incensed by Fox's decision to release the series in a single volume format prior to the mid-season premiere, and then backtracked by offering both a Volume 2 and full season rebate for those who purchased Volume 1. Yes, it was a marketing disaster. Yes, the full season set is the way to go. And yes, you will see many Volume 1 copies on eBay sold by those who no longer hold a receipt for that purchase. C'est la vie. I learned long ago that Fox Home Entertainment is very short-sighted in their approach to the format, and unapologetically so. In the end, no matter which route you go, all of the bonus material is the same. And while there may seem to be quite a bit of it, the substance is sorely lacking. No episode commentaries. No outtakes. No blooper reel. Just a series of web-centric featurettes which most die-hard fans have already consumed many times over.
Extended Scenes: Rachel and Mercedes' full performance auditions for the Glee Club. (4 min)
Video Diaries: Go inside the Flip Video magic with Jane Lynch, Lea Michele, Matthew Morrison, Cory Monteith, Kevin McHale, Amber Riley, Chris Colfer, and Dianna Agron, as they travel to New York for the industry Up-Fronts. (17 min)
Featurette: Making of a Showstopper -- The magic and madness needed to bring the season finale's "Bohemian Rhapsody" to life. (18 min)
Featurette: Fox Movie Channel's Glee Casting Session -- A behind-the-scenes look at how the show and its ensemble came together. (12 min)
Featurette: Unleashing the Power of Madonna -- Go behind-the-scenes with the cast and crew as they prep and film this landmark episode. (11 min)
Featurette: Bite Their Style: Dress Like your Favorite Gleek -- Costume designers Lou Eyrich and Jennifer Eve talk about the influences used to create each character's look. (9 min)
Featurette: Staying in Step with Glee -- Join choreographers Zach Woodlee and Brooke Lipton, as they teach you the steps used for "Rehab" in the pilot episode. (6 min)
Featurette: Welcome to McKinley! -- Principal Figgin's freshman orientation, as produced by the school's A/V Club. (5 min)
Featurette: Deconstructing Glee with Ryan Murphy -- A quick nuts and bolts look at the show with the show's co-creator. (3 min)
Featurette: Dance Boot Camp -- Choreographer Zach Woodlee shows the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into in episode's dance routines. (3 min)
Featurette: Jane Lynch: A to Glee -- Quick web video capturing a moment of Jane in the makeup chair. (1 min)
Featurette: Meet Jane Lynch -- Another quick web moment with Jane explaining Sue's inner She-Beast. (1 min)
Featurette: Five Things You Don't Know About Jayma -- Fox.com offers up quick cast info nuggets to the internet Gleeks. (1 min)
Featurette: Six Things You Don't Know about Amber (1 min)
Featurette: Seven Things You Don't Know About Cory (1 min)
Featurette: Seven Things You Don't Know About Chris (1 min)
Music Video: "Somebody to Love" -- Fox promotional video set to the club's adaptation of the Queen hit. (3 min)
Glee Music Jukebox -- Tweleve musical numbers available to you in individual scenes or one giant mashup. (27 min)
Sing-Along Karaoke -- Four musical numbers to which you can unleash your inner Gleek. (11 min)
We can bitch and moan about Fox's marketing tactics and the lack of fresh bonus material until the cows come home, but the fact of the matter is the strength of the show is in its episodic adventures. That's why you want to own this set. Everything else is gravy. I'd offer some hopeful thoughts about waiting for the complete series release, but we all know that'll be a disappointment too. My final advice for Glee: The Complete First Season -- Buy it, watch it, love it, share it, and look forward to Season Two.
Not Guilty. There's no better argument for keeping music in schools. So endeth the review.
Review content copyright © 2010 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 974 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Scenes
* Video Diaries
* Music Video
* Video Jukebox
* Sing-Along Karaoke
* Wikipedia: Glee
* Daily Herald feature on co-creator Ian Brennan
* Official Site