Call it the “Susan Boyle Principal,” the naive yet endearing (and occasionally true) idea that, once in a great while, a dark horse, ugly ducking, underdog dreamer will be given a turn in the spotlight and seize it. In that one moment, they’ll shine, dazzling onlookers and naysayers with their incontrovertible talent, and it will be a victory for all those who weren’t fortunate enough to be born with money or looks or instant popularity. It’s a concept that speaks to the nerdy teenager buried in just about all of us.
FOX’s semi-uncategorizable new sitcom “Glee” is perhaps the first show to fully understand and exploit what it is that makes today’s reality show competitions so popular. The series is, at its heart, a high-school-set dramedy about a bent but unbroken teacher who decides to revive his school’s long-dead glee club. Peppered with countless impressive musical numbers, though, the show feels more like the “anything can happen” early episodes of an “American Idol” season. You don’t watch this show so much as root for it.
“Glee” manages to tap into a number of major pop cultural trends. It’s not quite a musical along the lines of High School Musical, but it’s got plenty of bring-down-the-house song-and-dance numbers. It’s certainly not a reality show, although it’s got the same “who will succeed and who will fail?” tension. And rather than exploit that tired ’80s cliché of unpopular nerds who transform themselves, “Glee” happily embraces the post-“Ugly Betty” idea that badly dressed, glasses-wearing dorks are cool just the way they are.
Our main man here is Will Schuester (Broadway baby Matthew Morrison), a goodhearted teacher with an unsatisfied wife and a crappy job just looking for some way to give his disenfranchised students (and himself) a reason for being. In short order, a rainbow connection of geeks, fat kids, handicapped kids, gay kids (and one atypical jock) are gathered together with the goal of singing their little hearts out. Opposing this plan is the school’s resource-gobbling cheer squad, led by magnificently evil Jane Lynch (whose scene-stealing comedy skills have dominated films like Role Models and Best in Show). Yes, “Glee” runs the gamut of character clichés, but it does so boldly and proudly. If this were a documentary, our main characters might feel rather cardboard. But in this boisterous, over-the-top, winkingly self-aware world, the stereotypes feel just right. It’s no surprise to find some of the creators behind the short-lived, highly underrated high school series “Popular” employed here.
“Glee” displays a special sort of genius. The creators have crafted a near-perfect storm of ideas. I have my doubts whether the show can sustain itself over the long haul. There’s a clear story arc at work that feels more like a clever indie film than a weekly sitcom. But as the kids of the McKinley High Glee Club say (or rather sing), “Don’t Stop Believing.”