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 V.20 No.27 | July 7 - 13, 2011 
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Idiot Box

Gleek Out

“The Glee Project” on Oxygen

There are several categories of TV shows that just aren’t worth talking about. There’s the docureality show about people who make cakes. There’s the docureality show about people who buy storage lockers. There’s the docureality show about rich people who get drunk and behave deplorably in front of the camera, hoping to capture a fleeting moment of tabloid infamy as a buttress against their total lack of talent, skill or purpose in life. And there is, of course, the venerable musical talent competition. The reason these shows aren’t worth discussing is because—with virtually no exceptions—they’re exact carbon copies of one another. Wanna discuss the subtle variations between “Storage Hunters” and “Auction Hunters”? Knock yourself out.

The one tiny bright spot that’s emerged recently is Oxygen Network’s “The Glee Project.” On the surface, it looks like yet another reality competition in which vocalists are voted off each week. The ultimate winner gets a guest spot on FOX’s “Glee.” It kinda sounds like a desperate attempt to drum up interest in the show—which, as I’ve said many times, has been floundering in the story department in only its second season. Surprisingly, though, the new series is proving better than the average televised talent show.

Like the BBC’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?,” which awarded a lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s London revival of The Sound of Music, “The Glee Project” isn’t looking for any random pop star. It’s on the hunt for something specific. “Glee,” to give it some credit, has a distinct look and feel. Not just any singer, no matter how talented, could walk on the set and fit in. Series creator Ryan Murphy has created a world of nerdy, oppressed underdogs. He’s not merely looking for a singer here. He’s searching for a character, and in the end, he won’t even have to write one, because these young actors will have done all the legwork for him.

Contenders are judged on their musical ability. But they’re also scrutinized on their looks, their acting ability and their skill at working with a group. Most of the folks vying for the final spots are quite young—in their teens and twenties. As a result, there’s a bit more vulnerability to the contestants. Murphy and company put these kids through the wringer, asking them to dredge up all sorts of childhood trauma to see if they’re really “Glee” material. Clearly, the producers aren’t looking for happy, well-adjusted cheerleader types. Like “Glee” itself, the talent search is staffed with a few basic archetypes: the flamboyant gay kid (Alex), the overweight girl (Hannah), the annoyingly overconfident pretty chick (Lindsay), the sensitive hipster (Cameron), the bad boy in dreadlocks (Samuel), the sassy Hispanic gal (Emily), the ... uh, really really short guy (Matheus). Each week, the kids are given “homework assignments,” work on a group music video and sing for their life during callback auditions.

There are definitely some talented folks here, and the behind-the-scenes drama is more affecting than most shows of this ilk. If you’re not already a “Gleek,” you probably won’t tune in. Fans eagerly awaiting the next season on FOX, however, can get their fill of teen angst and Lady Gaga tunes right here.

“The Glee Project” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Oxygen.

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