Watching Glee Until It Gets Bad: S1E1: Pilot

by thethreepennyguignol

I have a really, really stupid idea.

I’ve been thinking about this series for a couple of months now, and everyone I’ve mentioned it to has discouraged me. They’re probably right: this is a really daft thing to do, with no particular timeline, delightfully vague and probably annoyingly out-of-date.

Because I just can’t get enough of writing about Glee. It’s bad, it’s great, it’s funny, it’s cringey, it made me fall in love with musical theatre, I hate it, I love it more than anything else in the world. I’ve been writing about it for literally ten years now (which it is illegal to make me think about, actually), but I had an idea I just couldn’t turn down.

There’s no doubt that Glee started better than it ended. In fact, I think even big fans of the show like me can mark a rough point where it really starts to take a downturn out of what we happen to enjoy most. I’m sure there are people out there who truly love the whole show, but I haven’t met them.

But what exactly is that point, at least as far as I’m concerned? It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for a long time now, and I have decided to put it to bed once and for all, with this series: Watching Glee Until It Gets Bad.

What does that entail, you may ask? Well, I’m going into these recaps with no idea where that turning point comes – where is the episode that really solidifies the end of the good in Glee? I’m going to recap every episode of the series until I hit the first one that outright sucks, and then, I’m out. The recaps end there. Could be three episodes in, could be three seasons, I genuinely don’t have a clue.

Now, for the judging criteria on what makes Glee “good”, since I need to have something beyond just my nebulous feelings towards each episode. Glee is a drama-comedy-musical, if you had to distill it into three factors, and that’s what I’m looking for each week. Not every aspect has to be firing on highest cylinders every week, but there does need to be a passable example of it in each episode. Does that make sense? No? Good. It shouldn’t. Let’s get into the pilot episode.

Okay, there is something I need to address here, and that’s Mark Salling, who plays Puck in Glee. Salling pled guilty to possession of child pornography and then killed himself a few years ago, and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to celebrate or uplift him in this series, because I in no way intend or want to. I won’t be referring to him as an actor at all, I’ll just mention his character where it’s relevant, and I’ve also made a donation to RAINN (Rape & Incest National Network) as of the start of this series. I’ll be linking the donation page in every article after this, and I encourage you to do the same if you’re able.

The first episode of Glee broadcast right after the end of the eighth season of American Idol in May 2009, and I genuinely still remember it. I pretended not to like the show for a while, because I was a teenager and trying to cling to the last hopeless vestiges of my rapidly eroding coolness before I gave up entirely when I turned eighteen, but I almost instantly found myself falling in love with it. I never really got to know musical theatre well before this – beyond the non-singing roles I got in our school musicals, simply because I sound like an anti-mating call when I sing – and it was some of the earliest explicitly queer representation I saw as a closeted teen myself.

But, out of the rosy lens of my nostalgia, is this actually a good episode? Because, fuck, this is going to be a short series if it isn’t.

But when this episode opens on Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester (wife, mother, feminist icon) screaming about waterboarding through a loudspeaker, you just know it isn’t going to go wrong. The comedy quota of this show could be entirely filled by just whatever they give Jane Lynch every week, honestly, and even in the very brief screentime she has in this first episode, it’s so clear she walked into this show fully-realised and utterly perfect.

Luckily, though, Glee in it’s first season is just a really funny show as a whole. Jessalyn Gilsig as the insufferable wife of Will (we’ll get there, don’t worry) has such an earnest, awful entitlement to her, and sprinkles of pitch-black comedy (Rachel outing an inappropriate music teacher to get a better chance at achieving her musical dreams) ensure this is the aspect Glee instantly hits hardest on. A lot of shows have tried to pull off that brutally saccharine style of comedy since this, but for me, this is by far the best it’s ever worked. Probably because of Jane Lynch. Yeah, it’s because of Jane Lynch.

But what about the drama? Of the three, this is going to be the hardest one for the show to pull off, because of how famously cheesy and insincere it can get – as the plotlines start piling up, trailing off, and tripping over each other, the drama holds less and less water because it feels so inconsistent there’s no point getting invested all. This early on, though, I actually think it’s handled pretty well, especially as it pertains to Will (Matthew Morrison).

Will is a character with so much potential that is just infamously thrown away completely over the course of the show, but we’ll get to that. For now, I really love Will, and Matthew Morrison’s performance; it’s very funny, pretty incisive, and sometimes really sad, too. As he looks down the barrel of the rest of his life, he turns back to his high school glory days in the Glee club and decides to start it up again. I really wish the show had stuck with this arc, because I think Matthew Morrison could have really turned Will into a great, layered, interesting character – there’s this moment after he finds out his wife is pregnant (“pregnant”, of course, since this fake baby plot is still somehow not the craziest thing to happen this season), and they hug, and there’s a long, long silence as he realises what this means for the rest of his life. It’s a surprisingly deft moment, and one I wish the show had more of as it went on.

And what of the music? In terms of the main Glee club, this is mostly just a chance for us to get acquainted with everyone and their different styles and performance personality – Amber Riley is the instant standout for me here, even though I am doomed in knowing how badly the show underuses her for literally the rest of it’s entire run – apart from a performance by Vocal Adrenaline.

Honestly, even now, I love their performance of Rehab. It’s a chance for Glee to show off it’s fun song-and-dance numbers, and this a really great example of it: it’s fundamentally just really talented people being very good at singing and dancing and generally putting on a show, and it’s really hard not to like it. It’s from watching stuff like this that I went down the rabbithole of stage musical theatre, and I have a lot to thank it for as a result. Have you seen Sutton Foster do Anything Goes? That’s gotten me through some pretty dark times.

Rachel (Lea Michele) also has a great solo from Les Mis, and it’s a lovely introduction to her as this classic Broadway-wannabe performer; she’s the switched-up version of the best singer from your worst high school musical, from the obnoxious laser-focus on stardom to the genuine talent, and it acts as the lead-in to her duet with Indina Menzel later in the season that I truly love.

It’s one two performances that will get a call-back later in the season, with the episode closing out on the show’s iconic rendition of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. I have to admit, this is one of the few covers in the whole show I would choose never to hear again – it was so overplayed when it came out, I feel as though the first few autotuned harmonies make my palms start to sweat. It’s a nice pick in terms of thematic relevance, and this performance does at least show a decent amount of chemistry between the main Glee club, but I still instantly regretted my choice to even look in the direction of this show again the moment it started. Like I said: I need criteria, otherwise I am going to allow my bullshit nonsense biases to make this into the most annoying thing I’ve ever written. And trust me, there’s competition.

So, yeah, this is a really great start to the season. It’s firing on all cylinders at a very high standard for something so early into it’s run. Glee really came out swinging, with a very confident and specific vision for what it wanted to be – whether they can hold it up for long, though, remains to be seen.

I hope you’ll be checking back in on this series soon! If you’d like to support my blog and get access to exclusive content, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or if you’re interested in my fiction work, check out my books!

(header image via IMDB)