At the 2010 Emmys, the 20th Century Fox TV show "Glee" was prominently featured in the opening sketch, and why not? The hit musical-comedy had received 20 nominations for its first season--just two shy of the record set by "30 Rock" the previous year.
But as the evening wore on, you got the feeling that the "Glee" crowd was starting to feel a little like those high school glee clubbers they play in the popular sitcom: just a little marginalized.
Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory") beat out "Glee"'s Matthew Morrison for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Edie Falco ("Nurse Jackie") beat Lea Michele in the Outstanding Lead Actress category. Betty White ("Saturday Night Live") crushed the competition for Outstanding Guest Actress, including "Glee's" "Kristin Chenoweth. Eric Stonestreet ("Modern Family") topped Chris Colfer in the Outstanding Supporting Actor category. And "Modern Family" came out on top in the Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series and Outstanding Comedy Series categories.
In the end, "Glee" won for Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Guest Actor (Neil Patrick Harris) Outstanding Sound Mixing, and Outstanding Supporting Actress (Jane Lynch). And that still gave them enough awards to be considered one of the evening's big winners--along with "Modern Family," which bested them by two.
Now I'm curious to see "Modern Family," because you know what? "Glee" is flat-out fantastic! And it did win a Golden Globe for Best TV Series (Comedy or Musical).
Think "Fame" meets "The Office" and you'll have a pretty good sense of how this musical sitcom plays out. The "Fame" part comes from the kids who try out for glee club, which is in the "sub-basement" of the high school social strata. A generous amount of "Fame"-style songs and performances are inserted, a number of which are pretty big-production. Some of these kids dream of making it big; some of them just dream of not being picked-on or ridiculed. After all, this is high school. Meanwhile, "The Office" part comes from the teachers, as we watch them in the teacher's lounge, talking to each other, to the principal, and in flashbacks and fantasy flashes. There's a lot of hand-held camerawork and "Office" humor, like a sign on a piece of equipment that reads "You must be trained by Ken Tanaka to use this shredder."
The series is the brainchild of Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck"), and as high-school sitcoms go it's mostly familiar in that the students look to be in their twenties. Otherwise, this comedy is far more irreverent than what we've seen before. All of the cliques from the typical American high school get cheerfully lambasted--including the "it's what we do" attitudes that seem to drive each group's behavior, from the jocks who routinely (and mechanically) toss a geek genius into the trash bin each day to the ones who toss different color Slurpees on a girl who hasn't managed to fall into a social group that demands more respect.
In a clever dig at "branding," cheerleaders wear their uniforms constantly in this show, and are coached by a woman (Lynch) who's a composite of every female gym teacher you've ever had. I'll probably catch some flak for saying so, but "Glee" gleefully has fun at the expense of all stereotypes. The show also has a little fun with funding priorities, low teacher pay, miniscule small-town dating pools, and those high school crushes that can resurface years later, as one teacher who falls for a married colleague learns. There's a nice sense of symmetry in "Glee" that pays off big in irony and life-lessons. The parallels between the students and the teachers all but encourage viewers to draw essential conclusions. Like, you can see where one group is headed, and where the other group has been.
Matthew Morrison plays Will Schuester, a high school Spanish teacher who grabs the chance to be the faculty coach of the Glee Club. So why would a fairly cool-looking teacher want to align himself with the bottom-feeders in the social pool? Because when he went to that very same high school, Glee Club "ruled the school" and it pains him to see the glee clubbers being such social outcasts. He thinks he can bring them back to their former glory, but the reality of their position is made immediately clear to him by Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba): no money. When Glee Club starts to bring in as much money and draw as much interest as the cheerleaders who compete every year, then they'll get funded. Sympathetic to Mr. Schuester is school counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), who also wishes that he wasn't married. And the more that he feels himself drifting apart from his social-climbing, money-loving wife (Jessalyn Gilsig), the more you suspect he feels the same way. How Schuester negotiates the hallways of the school and such characters as Coach Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher) provides nearly as much interest as the potential love triangle.
On the student side, young Rachel (Lea Michele) is determined to become a star, though right now the only thing she gets from her unadoring public is a daily splash of Slurpee. And when Mr. Schuester uses a pack of medicinal marijuana he got from another teacher to blackmail the star quarterback, Finn (Cory Monteith) into joining Glee Club, a triangle similar to the adults is set up. Rachel likes Finn the way that Emma likes Will Schuester, but as the quarterback it's almost Finn's sworn duty to date the head cheerleader, who in this case is named Quinn (Dianna Agron) who's also a leader in the Chastity Club (whose motto is, "Remember, TEASE, don't please").
The core glee clubbers are a ragtag bunch: a blackmailed football player, a wannabe superstar, a Beyonce wannabe named Mercedes (Amber Riley), an Asian girl (Tina Cohen-Chang), a gay who hasn't come out of the closet (Chris Colfer as Kurt) and a guy in a wheelchair named Artie (Kevin McHale). That's right. A guy in a wheelchair, doing dance numbers. And there are plenty of politically incorrect jokes made here, too.
It's "The Office"-style humor combined with "Fame"-style energy and ambition that makes this show work. That, and, of course, some awfully fine writing and acting. The show also derives energy from a revolving door of characters which has become popular with TV series as of late.
Frankly, I can't imagine watching this in short increments a week at a time with commercials in-between. When you press "Play All" and kick back and enjoy the way Season One unfolds, it has a nice flow to it. Once you press "play all," you really don't want to stop until the disc is exhausted. Perhaps Fox was counting on that, because aside from disc menus there's no list of episodes anywhere to be found.
Twenty-two episodes are included on four Blu-ray discs:
1) "Pilot." Mr. Schuester signs on as coach and faculty sponsor of the Glee Club, driven by fond memories of when the Club went to nationals when he was a member.
2) "Showmance." Step one: change the name to New Directions. Step two: devise ways of recriting new students. But an over-eager Rachel goes about it the wrong way, and makes trouble for the group.
3) "Acafellas." If you can't beat 'em, ask 'em to join you. Will Schuester forms an a cappella group from his fellow teachers, and when a review drives one of them off and another quits, he decides to mix it up with teachers and students.
4) "Preggers." To get Will to work a second job so they can afford a house, Terri fakes a pregnancy; meanwhile, Coach Sue gets three of her cheerleaders to infiltrate the Glee Club, with the intent of wrecking it from within. And one of the Club learns she's pregnant. Meanwhile, Kurt joins the football team.
5) "The Rhodes Not Taken." Mr. Schuester recruits an old glee club alum who never graduated to help them win. But April Rhodes is an alcoholic and she unsettles the group. Kristin Chenoweth guest stars.
6) "Vitamin D." Terri, suspicious of her husband, gets a job as school nurse. Meanwhile, Will gets the brainy idea to shake up New Directions by creating a contest between the boy and girl members.
7) "Throwdown." When Plan A fails, Coach Sue initiates Plan B, which has her taking on the job of Glee Club co-chair and trying to get the clubbers to do some impossibly athletic routines.
8) "Mash-Up." Is it Freaky Friday? The popular kids get a taste of what the lower strata feels like.
9) "Wheels." Schuester asks the gang to take to wheelchairs as a show of support for Artie.
10) "Ballad." Rachel has a change of attitude in this episode about a ballad-singing exercise that becomes more interesting when Mr. Schuester has to fill in for an absent student.
11) "Hairography." Kurt gives Rachel a makeover. Meanwhile, Will learns something about Sue that can work to his and the club's advantage.
12) "Mattress." The Club goes nuts when they learn they might not have a photo in the yearbook due to funding problems.
13) "Sectionals." Performances ratchet up as the Club competes with a bigger goal in mind.
14) "Hell-O." Rachel finally pairs off with Finn the same time that Will and Emma do. And nothing is as anyone dreamed.
15) "The Power of Madonna." Schuester turns to a Madonna songbook to teach the guys a lesson on the treatment of women.
16) "Home." Sue grabs the auditorium, forcing the club to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, April Rhodes (Chenoweth) returns.
17) "Bad Reputation." Everyone's pasts come back to haunt them in this episode about lists and videos surfacing.
18) "Laryngitis." Kurt tries to win his father over; meanwhile, Rachel gets laryngitis and the group has to work around it.
19) "Dream On." One of the season's best episodes features Neil Patrick Harris as Will's old rival who, big surprise, has it in for him and the club.
20) "Theatricality." The club weighs Lady GaGa as an option, while the relationship between Rachel and her mother takes center stage.
21) "Funk." Some people are in one, and others are just in a groove. Mercedes and Quinn scrap over music, and Teri and Will have rival schemes.
22) "Journey." Everything comes to a head this final episode, including Coach Sue's attempts to bring the club down.
While "Glee" looks fine in 1080p, there's also some inconsistency. Sometimes the images look more 3-dimensional than other times, and the same thing holds true with sharpness. Although for the most part "Glee" has a nice amount of detail and the backgrounds look crisp, there are scenes where grain seems to proliferate in the negative space and there's even some noise. What's consistent, though, is the color reproduction and the black levels. "Glee" is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, transferred to 50GB discs using the AVC/MPEG-4 codec (18MBPS). I saw neither artifacts nor any attempts to scrub the picture.
The audio is a robust English DTS-HD MA 5.1, which thankfully comes alive during the songs. I can't say that the rear speakers have much to do otherwise, but at least the musical numbers are dynamic. Bass levels are just right, and the tonal quality is excellent. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
There are some nice extras here, but Fox Blu-rays take so darned long to load that fans are really going to have to be patient (and motivated) to access them. I suspect it's the encoding that takes these Blu-rays over two minutes to load initially and then 23-30 seconds each time you press click or a feature ends before you get a screen. That can get tedious and old in a hurry, and when four of the bonus features ("5 Things You Don't Know about Jayma," "Cory," "Amber," and Chris" run just 33 seconds, you wonder why out of compassion they didn't just combine them rather than have each one separated by a 27-second existential darkness.
Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system, here's a rundown on the bonus features:
The plum is the Blu-ray exclusive, "Behind the Pilot: A visual Commentary with Cast and Crew," the crew being mostly creator-director Ryan Murphy and the cast being everyone but break-out star Lea Michele. The group sits in a screening theater and we watch them in real time on the left side of a split screen while on the right the episode plays (which they're watching together). Murphy does most of the talking, but others take turns and occasionally fun things pop up, as when Jane points out that the "Glee" lady from the McKinley High School trophy cabinet is a living Chicago casting director who's apparently quite mean. In another sequence, Murphy quips, "This is our pedophilia song."
Every one of the four discs features a "Glee Music Jukebox," which is essentially all of the songs isolated from the episodes. You can press "play all," but fans might be annoyed that whoever did the editing cut it tight. Often we get silence and a freeze-frame before that final note has a chance to die out.
The rest of the bonus features are on Disc 4, and there are a bunch of them. A sing-along karaoke offers (surprisingly) just four options: "Don't Stop Believing," "Alone," "Somebody to Love," and "Keep Holding On." A "Staying in Step with Glee") six-minute feature offers the choreographers demonstrating some of the moves from "Rehab" using two dance couples and themselves, with a split screen later showcasing one couple from the top (left) and bottom (right). A feature that young viewers might enjoy is "Bite Their Style: Dress Like Your Favorite Gleek," which you can do if your favorite is Rachel, Kurt, Mercedes, or Quinn. The costume designers rummage through a wardrobe "store" and talk about the fashion philosophy behind each of those four character's dress.
"Unleashing the Power of Madonna" is a more standard clips and talking heads presentation of 10:36 minutes that shows just how exuberant the cast was to make the Madonna episode, and "Making of a Showstopper" (17:22) follows the same format in exploring behind the scenes of a big production number.
If you liked the Dharma tapes from "Lost" you might get a kick out of the principal's in-character tour of the high school, aimed at eighth graders who are going to start in the fall "to help ensure your two to six years at McKinley" are fruitful. It runs five minutes long, and includes a few irreverent jokes.
The rest of the bonus features are shorter. There's a "Glee" music video, full-length versions of Rachel and Mercedes' audition songs from the pilot, a "Fox Movie Channel Presents Casting Session" that runs 12 minutes, Ryan Murphy "Deconstructing Glee" for just under three minutes, a three-minute "Dance Boot Camp" that finds the choreographer joking that the best dancer had to be confined to a wheelchair," Jane Lynch appearing in two segments that run under two minutes, and those four "5 Things You Don't Know" blips on the screen that run 33 seconds each. There are also video diaries, but I can't tell you much about them because by this time I got fed up with the slow load-time and the idiot who thought it a good idea to make it look like more bonus features instead of combining those four 33-second tidbits.
From beginning to end, the first season of "Glee" is consistently funny and full of musical energy and occasional pathos. What's more, these are characters you care about. In short, "Glee" is deserving of the fanfare it's received so far.