When it was originally on: 2009-2015
Original network: Fox
Where you can stream it now: Netflix
Had I seen it before: I watched the pilot when it originally aired, and for the most part I kept up with it through Season 1. I also watched other episodes off and on through college depending on whether or not I was hanging out with my friends who like Glee on Wednesday. Or Tuesday. Or whenever the hell Glee aired.
What IMDb says: A group of ambitious misfits try to escape the harsh realities of high school by joining a glee club.
Why I picked it: Glee was a ridiculously popular show in its hey day. I knew many friends who thoroughly enjoyed it. I would even go so far as to say that the 2010s are sprinkled with failed attempts by NBC to get in on the musical tv trend. There’s Smash (2012-2013), Rise (2018), and Perfect Harmony (2019-?). You also have the first Pitch Perfect movie three years after the premiere of Glee, which I don’t think is a coincidence. Glee solidified that High School Musical wasn’t a fluke, and that there was a real market for depictions of music/theater/musical theater in television and movies. Glee helped shape its pop culture moment in a way very few shows do.
All of this is true despite the fact that Glee, at least as I remember it, wasn’t exactly a GOOD show. I mean, it had its moments I guess. But by the end of its run, creating a compelling narrative had taken a back seat to selling iTunes singles; The Glee Project, a reality program where people competed to be on Glee, meant that they were constantly trying to shoehorn new characters into the show just so that they didn’t have to forfeit the ratings of the The Glee Project. I’m curious to reexamine the pilot. Was the show ALWAYS too recklessly commercial? Or did it start out okay and then get too big for its britches?
What I liked: Sue Sylvester is funnier than I remember, and I admire Jane Lynch’s commitment to this part. As a teenager, I don’t think it fully registered that a curmudgeonly cheerleading coach is actually a brilliant idea for a character. She’s a nice foil to Will’s blind optimism.
The show also does a great job of establishing stakes in what could’ve been a rather low stakes premise: Will agrees that if the glee club doesn’t make it to regionals, the principal can cut glee club entirely. Or maybe it’s place at regionals? I honestly don’t remember. This pressure to actually be good is important, since the pilot already seems to establish that the glee club enjoys themselves just fine and in most extracurricular activities, that’s all it takes.
I also enjoy the decision to feature a performance by a rival glee club, Vocal Adrenaline. Everyone in the McKinley High Glee Club can sing. Some of their performances are downright decent. We needed this perspective on what a fantastic glee performance looks like in order for us to understand what kind of mountain our protagonists are trying to climb.
What I didn’t like: Probably my number one complaint here is the same one I had throughout Glee’s original run, and one of the main things that put me off the show. That is to say EVERYONE who auditions for this glee club can sing, yet the show consistently asks us to believe that’s not the case. Are some of the auditions kind of awkward? Sure. But no one is tone deaf, despite the fact the former glee club teacher uses this exact term to describe the students. Hell, the only one that’s close to even being a just okay singer is Finn, and he’s still pretty good.
This messes so many things up.
One of the main things this pilot had to get right was convince us that a) the glee club is not good and b) they have the potential to become good. When it’s so incredibly obvious that the club is full of incredible singers, it’s really hard for me to believe that the glee club is just atrocious and has been for years and years. The show also asks me to assume that Rachel is the most talented member of the club and should just get the lead in every song by default. It takes this for granted, even though any of these people could sing lead. It would perhaps depend on the song and stuff, but they’re all at least as good as Finn, who’s singing lead. This is a paradigm later deconstructed by other episodes, but in the pilot, we just have this rather irritating personality getting everything she asks for despite that fact she’s not noticeably better than her peers.
The show also asks me to believe that Will Schuester is some kind of God’s gift to glee club teaching simply for seeing potential here. But instead, we just see a character acknowledging an obvious fact. Knowing that Amber Riley and Lea Michele can sing doesn’t make you some kind of saint, it makes you a person who’s minimally competent at the job at hand. What if more of the kids were just kinda okay at singing at didn’t know they could until Will encouraged them? The pilot kinda does this with Finn, but even Finn is still a better-than-average singer.
Part of what makes School of Rock work is that you actually have kids that don’t really know what they’re doing at first. In their first jam session, they play fairly basic music and the movie correctly undersells how good the performers actually are. Zach’s bomb ass guitar solo in the final show wouldn’t be impactful if we saw him do it the first time we see him pick up an electric guitar.
I also wish the pilot hadn’t invested so much time in Will’s relationship’s with Emma/his wife. I mean, Emma doesn’t even get to have a personality outside of liking Will, and yet she’s given so much screen time. I really couldn’t give two shits about this love triangle among the adults. All of it comes at the expense of developing your actual glee club members, four of whom don’t even get to have characterization outside of “gay kid,” “goth kid,” “kid in wheelchair,” and “sassy black girl.”
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Not really. My Glee opinions probably aren’t changing anytime soon.