Just how confident is Fox in its new hour-long musical comedy Glee (premiering tonight at 9), from Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy? Not only have they moved the premiere episode of the fall series up to spring, they’re airing it immediately following tonight’s final performance edition of American Idol. Add to that the effusive praise critics have already bestowed upon the series—about the misfits involved with a failing high school glee club—and you’ve got the coming of what could be a genuine phenomenon. Unfortunately, while Glee contains one tremendous star turn and features a ton of likable moving parts, the series on the whole doesn’t meet the hype. If you tune in tonight, we suggest setting your expectations to “temper.”
About that star turn: As Rachel, the overachieving (and hated) glee club queen bee, Lea Michele is fabulous. It goes without saying that she has the musical chops—the 22-year-old Bronx native was the lead in the original cast of Broadway’s Spring Awakening, and her voice has an unmistakable, forged-on-stage power. But what makes this performance so notable are the subtle ways Ms. Michele makes Rachel at turns both empathetic and derisible, sometimes within the same take. Sure, she’s a lot like Election’s Tracy Flick, but in the hands of Ms. Michele, Rachel is more likable, self-reflective and, most important, vulnerable. Plus, she sings! Those looking for the next big teen star can end their search.
Ms. Michele aside, everyone else in the cast is spot-on, too: Broadway star Matthew Morrison, here playing the teacher in charge of the glee club, is the latest in a long line of Ryan Atwood look-alikes on television this spring (joining Ryan Atwood himself, Ben McKenzie on Southland and Jeremy Renner on the now-canceled The Unusuals), but he acquits himself nicely as a man struggling with the internal conflict between his teenage dreams and adult responsibilities; Cory Monteith (Kyle XY), as the jock-cum-love interest, is basically just doing Chris Klein in American Pie (or Election, if you’d prefer), but he has an easy chemistry with Ms. Michele that works; and newcomer Amber Riley, who proudly states that she doesn’t want to be a backup singer because “I’m Beyoncé, I ain’t no Kelly Rowand,” might be the funniest person not named Jane Lynch on the entire show.
Yet with all that good will, the problems with Glee rest squarely at the feet of Mr. Murphy. Truth be told, we’ve never seen his appeal—Nip/Tuck was only moderately entertaining during its first season and has now become unwatchable; his adaptation of Running with Scissors was one of the worst movies from 2006—but here he just seems in over his head as a writer-director. The idea for Glee is great—an underdog story that combines high school, pop music and that feel-good quality that millenials so desire—but Mr. Murphy doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do with all the riches he’s been given. Glee’s pilot feels like a total chop job with disorienting leaps from scene-to-scene and distracting voice-overs to patch over the holes. Cogency is apparently not as important to this equation as choreography (which, it should be noted, is pretty impeccable).
Whether Mr. Murphy can take all the pieces and make Glee into something truly worthy of all the pre-premiere chatter is a question that won’t have an answer until the series gets started in earnest on Wednesdays this fall. However, any show that has the temerity to end with a cast sing-along of “Don’t Stop Believing” is a show we’re at least going to add to our DVR list. What can we say? We’re still suckers for Journey.