'Glee's' Problem? The Music

So let's say you're not hip to Glee. Let's say that, for whatever reason, the television phenomenon of the year has managed to slip under your radar completely. But now you've heard so much about its long-awaited return after a cruel hiatus that you'd like to get on board. How can you, what with having missed so much? Luckily, there's a spoiler-free line of dialogue from Tuesday's episode, "Hello," that should efficiently inform you exactly what Glee is. "Mr. Schuester," says socially crippled theater diva Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), "I think I've found a song that sums up my feelings perfectly." And that sums up perfectly what Glee is—a full-on, unabashed musical wherein characters say, "I'm about to sing a song that hammers home the narrative," before doing just that. That is what doesn't work: Glee is a musical that is at its least endearing during the musical numbers.

The show's rabid, geeky fans—the Gleeks, as they call themselves—will take issue with this assertion, of course. They snap up the music from the show on iTunes, which is why a whopping 25 of the performances from Glee released as singles have charted on the Billboard Top 100. I can almost understand how someone could appreciate the show's music out of context. Granted, I'd sooner listen to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " rather than the Glee version, but I'm not in high school. The Glee version of a song is going to be smoother, peppier, and more youthful than the original in every case. It's almost like an older-skewing version of the massively successful Kidz Bop CDs.

It's just a shame that the music has to be the chief spawn of the show, because the show would be so much better without it—or at least with a lot less of it. Co-creator Ryan Murphy said in interviews when Glee began that it was his goal to keep it reality-based. This, he promised, wouldn't be one of those musical shows whose characters spontaneously break into choreographed song-and-dance numbers. The performances would either take place on a stage or as part of a character's fantasy sequence, à la Chicago. He had the right idea, but the show has repeatedly, egregiously broken that rule. In the episode "Mattress", the glee club instantly creates an elaborate take on Van Halen's "Jump" in order to appear in a local mattress commercial. Two weeks earlier, in "Ballad," Finn (Cory Monteith) informs his girlfriend's parents that he's impregnated their daughter by serenading them with Paul Anka's "Havin' My Baby" during dinner. These scenes are a lot of things—funny, giddy, infectious—but reality-based is not one of them.

Murphy is right that many audiences find musicals hard to swallow; they're just distracted by the basic premise of a group of people magically falling into formation and knowing all the words to a song they've never sung before. But only at first. The thing about good storytelling is that the audience will give a lot of latitude so long as the storytellers respect their own rules. When the storyteller's rules are broken, the integrity of the narrative begins to unravel. The folly of Glee lies not in the nature of musicals, but in Murphy's attempting to circumvent the conventions of a musical format only to collide with them head-on again and again.

All that said, it's a high compliment that the music, Glee's raison d'être, can work so unconvincingly without dragging the entire show down with it. The real appeal of Glee is its barbed-wire wit, which is always there to slice through the treacle of the musical numbers. Jane Lynch is phenomenal as the nefarious cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, who delivers stinging insults with the rhythmic panache of a slam poet. It's a shame they aren't available on iTunes.

'Glee's' Problem? The Music | Culture