Music-based television shows are few and far between, but Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan's Glee is about as much a musical as Grey's Anatomy is a medical drama. Our story centers around the Glee Club of fictional William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, and its struggles to succeed in musical competition and everyday high school life. So in addition to worrying about vocals, choreography and remembering song lyrics, these eager young performers must avoid wedgies and Slushies to the face. Their occasionally fearless leader is Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), the school's Spanish teacher who's looking to reclaim his glory days as a former McKinley glee club member in the 1990s. Will's main rivals are his estranged wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) and Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), McKinley's outspoken but highly decorated cheerleading coach. There's obviously something missing in Will's life when we first meet him...so he pours his heart into the struggling Glee Club, whose very existence is often on the chopping block due to the school's shrinking budget.
Naturally, the first season of Glee starts right in the beginning: Will hasn't yet assumed muscial duties and his struggles with Terri only complicate his unfulfilling career as a Spanish teacher. Students gradually wander in after Will posts audition invites, though one interested member of the football team is held back by his macho peers and the school's lackadaisical coach, Ken Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher). Even the school's leader, Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba) does little to help the fledgling group. Still, there's a light at the end of the tunnel for Will: not only does he hope to carry the Glee Club to greater heights through sheer determination, but his affection for the school's guidance counselor, Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) helps to keep him going. From start to finish, the first season of Glee follows our young hopefuls on their road to the regional championships---and, of course, through the drama that comes with everyday high school life (or at least the kind on TV).
A few things bug me about Glee's first season, though, and they're almost all related to the writing. The stories themselves aren't the real problem; these 22 episodes offer a typical mix of drama and comedy set against a specific background (in this case, high school life and extracurricular activities)---and for the most part, they hold our interest just fine. It's the actual characters that could use a bit of work: they're comprised almost entirely of total clichés and "token characters". We've got a diva, a few dumb jocks, shallow cheerleaders, a fashion-obsessed homosexual, a sassy black girl, two quiet Asians and even a kid in a wheelchair, just to name a few. It's as if this motley crew was created over lunch break to pander to the widest possible audience, and it makes one wonder if the creative team actually respects their characters...or is simply laughing behind their backs. Sue Sylvester described the Glee Club perfectly as "the world's worst Benetton ad", although that's a joke Family Guy made almost a decade ago. Of course, these social outcasts are meant to be ridiculed by the high school general public (and yes, they become more three-dimensional as the season unfolds), but this flaw makes the first bites of Glee taste bitter.
A few characters' motives also feel lazy once we realize how shallow they really are. Will's estranged wife Terri is the perfect example of this: she's basically a selfish, possessive nightmare that rarely even attempts to do the right thing---and, along with her sister, spews enough bile to make you wonder how Will managed to stick around for so long. It's implied that they've been a couple since high school---and with very little evidence of her acting like a rational human being, Terri just exists to make our hero look more sympathetic. The same can be said of the manipulative cheerleader Quinn (who shares at least one thing in common with Terri), although she makes attempts to redeem herself as the season progresses. This factor still leaves a sour aftertaste, though: Glee isn't fully misogynistic, but I'm surprised that more people haven't called out its uneven gender dynamics (or age dynamics, as many of the adults here are even less mature than some of the students). In any case, "villains" are only entertaining when they seem to have a reasonable motive or two behind their actions. Otherwise, they're just average, everyday jackasses: we'd have a better time if they simply disappeared.
As mentioned earlier, the stories aren't the real problem...but even for a series still finding its legs, we can't overlook a few glaring missteps. Both halves of this first season ("Pilot" through "Sectionals" and "Hell-O" through "Journey to Regionals") are divided quite naturally, as the first half originally ended before the series' holiday break. But I'd be lying if I said this first half doesn't tie things up a little too neatly: almost all the main story arcs are resolved in quasi-Hollywood fashion, and Will's eventual meeting with Emma is practically a carbon copy of The Office's Season 2 climax. Unforgivably, "Hell-O" promptly hits the reset button, burning nearly all of the bridges that the first half built so quickly. We're back where we started from...and so is the first season's momentum. Although things slowly pick up before the season finale arrives, this is quite a strange way to do business.
One other nitpick is slightly less obvious and, in a sense, more forgivable. The frequent bursts into song are obviously studio-mixed arrangements with hints of electronic manipulation (here's looking at you, Finn)---and since Glee champions music education in our schools, why not use on-set audio instead of glossy, radio-ready mixes? I know they're just trying to sell soundtracks, but let's be honest: the creative team isn't encouraging students to lip sync, so why do these talented performers hide behind digital trickery?
Despite these shortcomings, Glee's first season still manages to stay ahead of the curve. Perhaps we're too distracted by the fantastic music and choreography, or we get too wrapped up in the drama and sharp dialogue to notice. Many of these characters are fleshed out quite naturally by season's end, while the ever-present backdrop of competition creates an admittedly tense and exciting atmosphere. In any case, Glee stands tall as a remarkably confident series and managed to pick up quite an audience during its initial run; enough so that it was renewed for a third season before the second one even aired. For now, fans can enjoy revisiting the first 22 episodes in this seven-disc collection, unless they're going the "Volume 1 and 2" route---but no matter which path you take, this first season comes equipped with a solid technical presentation and a decent platter of bonus features. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
NOTE: Discs 4, 5, 6, and 7 include additional Bonus Features (see below)
Presented in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratios, these 22 episodes look about as good as standard definition DVD will allow. The series' natural color palette has been preserved nicely, image detail is solid and black levels are consistent. Digital eyesores such as edge enhancement and pixellation are nonexistent, rounding out the presentation nicely. Simply put, only those who aren't used to the show's HD broadcasts will be mildly disappointed...but they're probably opting for the Blu-Ray release anyway.
Not surprisingly, this music-driven series also packs a wallop in the audio department. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, the occasionally wide soundstage comes through clean and clear. Surround activity is generally reserved for the show's numerous musical cues, while most of the remaining segments are anchored squarely up front. Dialogue is clear and never fights for attention. Optional English subtitles have been included during the episodes only.
Seen above, the lightly animated menu designs are smooth and simple to navigate. Each episode has been divided into several chapter breaks, though selection sub-menus are not present. This seven-disc set is housed in a multi-hubbed plastic keepcase that's roughly the width of two standard cases. Both the cover art and the matching slipcover are colorful, but they definitely don't describe the actual show very well: not only does Will Schuester look like one of the students, but Rachel's not dressed like someone who most guys would throw a Slushie at. Episode titles are printed on the case's interior, while an assortment of promotional inserts is also tucked inside.
A fair mixture of bonus features is included in the middle and end of this collection, in exactly the same manner that the individual volumes have been presented. Disc 4 kicks things off with "Welcome to McKinley!" (5:08, below left), a tongue-in-cheek "welcome" video for prospective students hosted by Principal Figgins. A Glee Music Video is up next (2:43); set to "Find Me Someone to Love", this short segment covers standard ground for show-based montages. A pair of Audition Pieces is also here (4:11)---but instead of actors auditioning for their roles, these are simply clips of Rachel and Mercedes auditioning for the Glee Club. Fox Movie Channel's Casting Session (12:05, below right) discusses some of the main players and their special talents in music, dancing and acting---and I've got to give the show credit, as these kids and adults often do their jobs quite well in all three categories.
"Deconstructing Glee with Ryan Murphy" (2:48) features a short promotional interview with one of the show's creators, while "Jane Lynch: A to Glee" and "Meet Jane Lynch" (1:56 total) are two clip-heavy chats with everyone's favorite cheerleading coach. A short look at several actors participating in Dance Boot Camp (3:11) is also included, as well as "Things You Didn't Know About..." Jayma Mays (0:38), Amber Riley ("Mercedes", 0:58), Chris Colfer ("Kurt", 0:42) and Cory Monteith ("Finn", 1:01). Disc 4's bonus features conclude with an assortment of video diaries shot by Jane Lynch, Lea Michele ("Rachel"), Matthew Morrison, Cory Monteith, Kevin McHale ("Artie"), Amber Riley, Chris Colfer, and Dianna Agron ("Quinn").
Disc 7 features most of the remaining extras, leading off with "Staying in Step with Glee" (6:15), a brief dance lesson hosted by the show's choreographer, Zach Woodlee. "Bite Their Style: Dress Like Your Favorite Gleek" (8:51) treads similar ground, but this time we're addressed by the show's costume designer, Lou Eyrich. "Unleashing the Power of Madonna" (10:37) focuses on the episode in question (which, oddly enough, I wasn't that impressed with, aside from the fantastic "Vogue" parody featuring Sue Sylvester), while "The Making of a Showstopper" (17:25) explores the adaptation of Queen's seminal hit "Bohemian Rhapsody" for the season finale. Also on this disc, as well as discs 5 and 6, is a Glee Sing Along Karaoke feature, in which young hopefuls can sing along with a quartet of hits from the season's second half.
Overall, this is certainly a diverse selection of extras, though most of this content is promotional in nature and rarely breaks new ground. All bonus features are presented in 16x9 widescreen when appropriate, though none of these extras include optional Closed Captions or subtitles. How are those poor Glee Clubbers from the School for the Deaf supposed to follow along?
Although not without its fair share of flaws, Glee remains a likable series loaded with great vocal performances and plenty of high school drama. Despite the glaring problems noted above, this first season has given Glee a comfortable head start; at least enough so that we know these characters have room to grow. The vocals and choreography are terrific by TV standards, while a fairly diverse mix of musical selections should appeal to several different age groups...even those well beyond their high school years. Fox Home Entertainment's DVD treatment is above average: no matter if you choose this all-inclusive seven-disc package or the separate volume releases, you'll get a near-perfect technical presentation and a mixed bag of decent bonus features. New fans might want to catch an episode or two on TV first, but seasoned fans of Glee should have already picked up The Complete First Season by now. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.