Though over-stylized and a bit too slick for its own good - look to your right and imagine Jane Lynch (with the megaphone) screaming, "Franchise!" - glee's (2009-present) attributes win out in the end. Its sweet, funny characters and often unexpected tenderness compensate for its overly aggressive, postmodern musical-fantasy approach, especially in the early episodes. I disliked most of the pilot for reasons described below, but by the third or fourth episode was pretty much hooked.
Fox's excellent Blu-ray, in addition to the expectedly fine high-def transfer and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, is impressively crammed with extra features. Some of these are the usual back-slapping, everyone-is-so-talented-and-wonderful featurettes, but there's also a good deal of creative interactivity that should please glee's fans, especially younger viewers who might enjoy its karaoke and sing-along functions; there's even what amounts to free dance lessons from the show's choreographers.
Set at the fictional William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, glee is largely an ensemble piece, charting the big dreams and little personal triumphs and tragedies of its faculty and students. The pilot opens with kind-hearted Spanish teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) determined to resurrect the school's once great show choir-glee club, and in the process find the kind of validation missing in his empty marriage.
Mr. Schuester's idea is met with little enthusiasm but much opposition, at least from Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, deliciously, unapologetically evil), the McKinley's insensitive, dictatorial cheerleading coach, whose nationally competitive "Cheerios" have made her a minor local celebrity. She becomes Mr. Schuester's arch-nemesis, even enlisting a trio of cheerleaders to infiltrate and sabotage the glee club's efforts.
The club eventually draws a variety of misfits: Rachel (Lea Michele) long ago was bitten by the showbiz bug and has loads of talent, but is also conceited and self-involved; Finn (Cory Monteith) loves to sing but also happens to be McKinley's star quarterback and reconciling his passion for singing with his fellow jocks proves daunting. Androgynous, flamboyant Kurt Hummel's (Chris Colfer) sexual orientation is obvious to all, yet he still struggles to come out to his father and classmates.
Meanwhile, the school's obsessive-compulsive guidance counselor, Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) is in love with Mr. Schuester, but he's already married to selfish, upwardly mobile Terry (Jessalyn Gilsig), who becomes increasingly jealous of her husband's devotion toward his students, and who hides news that the baby they are expecting isn't, that her symptoms are the result of a hysterical pregnancy.
First conceived as a feature film but undoubtedly developed as a series by Fox given the long-running success of their American Idol and Disney's High School Musical, glee works best as a collage of high school life, its painful caste system of jocks, geeks, cheerleaders, etc., and teachers with their own varied personality disorders.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about glee is that it's being made at all. Each episode has its cast performing a half-dozen or so songs, usually iconic show tunes and Top 40 pop standards from the '70s onward. But the cost of licensing music in recent years has skyrocketed beyond all reason. About 10 years ago some friends of this reviewer made an independent feature for around $1 million. They wanted to include a Frank Sinatra tune over the main titles, only to discover the publisher wanted something equal to the entire negative cost of the film. When on his last Tonight Show episode host Conan O'Brien introduced guest Tom Hanks, NBC reportedly had to pony up $500,000 just so the band could play The Beatles' "Lovely Rita" for the 20 seconds it took for Hanks to walk from behind the curtain to O'Brien's sofa. (Other sources have disputed this particular incident while acknowledging the price for use of the song in other media.)
One explanation for glee's seemingly unlimited access to popular music could be the growing multimedia empire that drives it, one that now includes a glee book series, apparel, home video (of course), and soundtrack CDs, with publishers obviously getting a big cut of the latter.
However, this symbiotic arrangement also seems to have impacted the show negatively from a dramatic standpoint, though perhaps this is merely a coincidence. The biggest problem I have with glee is that while the show is about a group of social misfits finding validation and gaining self-esteem by participating in the show choir, from the very first episode everyone sings and dances like hardened Chorus Line veterans, all perfectly polished and professional. Yes, I realize that there's a musical-fantasy element at play here, but it really does hurt the show dramatically: if they're spot-on perfect from the first rehearsal, where's the room for the kids to nurture and develop their talent? Wouldn't watching them evolve from unrefined amateurs to polished performers have more impact? The show's creators and/or Fox seem reluctant to take that chance. Better to dazzle the audience from the get-go with show-stopping numbers every ten minutes, and from the very first episode. (The obvious solution might have been to limit the big numbers to fantasy and dream sequences.)
The wall-to-wall singing and dancing in the pilot episode, combined with the kind of ensemble casts now common to American hour-long comedy/drama also leaves precious little time for character development: two minutes with this character, 90-seconds with that one. Fortunately, the show gets a lot better as it goes along: there's more drama, (slightly) fewer musical set pieces, plus the characters are so fundamentally appealing - and played by uniquely talented newcomers for the most part - they're able to bring off the shorthand writing style of the show.
Video & Audio
Shot in 35mm for 1.78:1 high-def presentation, glee looks great on Blu-ray, and the general visual scheme - lots of bright primary colors - helps with this. The Region "A" encoded set features all 22 first season episodes, including an extended edition of the pilot, across four 50GB discs all packed into a standard-size Blu-ray case. (Total running time: 974 minutes, or 16.2 hours.) My one big complaint is that nowhere is there anything to indicate what episodes are on which disc. There's no insert, nothing printed inside the case; the discs themselves don't even list episode numbers. The result is that viewers will struggle to remember where in the run of the season they left off each time they put discs into their player.
Of course, the English 5.1 DTS-Master Audio is excellent, really coming alive during the musical sequences, though the entire show is mixed and edited beautifully. The packaging lists only English SDH, French, and Spanish titles, but on my Japanese PlayStation 3 at least, this reviewer discovered additional optional subtitles in Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
This disc's special features producer(s) deserves a lot of credit for trying to be innovative and fan-friendly in ways DVDs and Blu-rays of current TV shows rarely are, though Fox's deep pockets for a hit show like this certainly get some of the credit, too. The gobs of extras, most in high-def, start with a "Visual Commentary" by the cast and crew, indeed more than a dozen seated in a compact screening room where with multiple cameras their reactions and comments are recorded on the left side of the frame, while the pilot unfolds on the right. There are the usual behind-the-scenes featurettes (all in high-def) - "Staying in Step with Glee" (mini dance lessons from the show's choreographers), "Bite Their Style: Dress Like Your Favorite Gleek," "Unleashing the Power of Madonna," and "The Making of a Showstopper," running a total of about 42 minutes. "Glee Music Jukebox" is just that, musical highlights from each disc, which includes a "shuffle" option, a neat idea. Also included are songs that viewers can either sing along with or play sans vocals for a karaoke version. I'm certain many high school student-age fans are doing just that.
In standard-definition are various mini-featurettes, EPK-type vignettes presumably aired on Fox and its subsidiaries to promote glee. A few of these, such as "Fox Movie Channel Presents Casting Sessions," are quite interesting, though most are too short to be of much value. They run a total of about 36 minutes. Finally, there's about 17 minutes of video diaries shot by various cast members.
Despite its not-insignificant flaws, glee is a real charmer, especially if you can get past the merely okay pilot film and stick with it long enough to get to know its eminently likeable characters. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.