Monday, March 14, 2011

How to watch Glee: Two Parts Camp, One Part Reality

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This past year as I've made connections with the TV critical community and have read a lot of TV criticism (as a byproduct of being considered for the AV Club's TV Club), I've found it very amusing to watch critics try to make sense of something like Glee. Co-produced by Ryan Murphy, known for his past successes with Nip/Tuck and the cult hit Popular, Glee is a show that's impossible to ignore. The show has high ratings, accolades, and drives water cooler talk among both the young and the not-so-young.

The show is, at times, undeniably original, bold, entertaining, and capable of being brilliant. At the same time, it's a melodramatic mess. There are great problems with continuity with characters blatantly changing to fit whatever the episode's theme of the week is.

To an extent, I watch Glee the same way I watched the 1960's Batman TV series. The show was universally defined by anyone writing about it as "Camp." "Camp" has always been one of those words that is difficult to define and it's equally puzzling to understand why I like watching it.

Let me take a shot at it:
I might have been laughing at the over-the-top nature of the content but that doesn't mean I'd classify the show as a comedy. Laughing at an awful movie like the robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 doesn't make me want to applaud the filmmakers. The humor was unintentional because neither I nor the filmmakers intended for the film turn out so badly.

Batman fails completely as a crime drama, but it's creators also know that the show fails towards that end. But the key is that Batman isn't aimed at us. It's aimed at kids and as my 8-year-old self can attest, it succeeds at convincing kids that it is a convincing drama. Because the show's standards of good/bad aren't specifically aligned towards me, there's no point in judging the work and I am free to watch with detached amusement.

Likewise, Glee invites the more educated viewers to detach themselves from the inconsistencies of the show as well. This isn't uncommon. It's just like how we're supposed to ignore how entirely unlikely it is for so many murders to occur in a small seaside town of 8,000 in "Murder She Wrote" (let alone how the town could avoid not becoming hollowed out by plummeting property values) or how Adrian and friends are always finding themselves bumping into murderers outside of their line of work (i.e. Randy's dentist is a murder, Julie's class speaker is a murderer, Adrian goes to his college reunion and finds his good friend married a murderer, etc.) on "Monk."

Glee's lack of consistency falls somewhere between camp and parody. It's creators are certainly aware that these characters have flaws, so we should detach ourselves from the exercise of complaining every week of how inconsistent the characters are. That would be like complaining about "Friends" upon discovering that Joey Tribbiani is really an actor named Matt LeBlanc.

Glee also has one other element that we're supposed to realize is not to be taken at face value: The reasons that characters on Glee break out into song are thinly plausible at best. But when you think about it, since the musical genre evolved past the backstage dramas of the 1930's (i.e. 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933), characters have never had any valid reason to spontaneously break out into song. Audiences have just been conditioned to accept that as a convention of MGM musicals (I previously wrote a very good blog post about this). Glee is just not shy about exposing these same conventions. Much like Austin Powers overpiles the dry witticisms after he kills someone and makes the audience more aware of the convention's ridiculousness, Glee has fun with the conventions of musicals. It's half-parody. It's also a good excuse for some musical numbers.

So, to watch Glee take the continuity and the song transitions with a grain of salt. The rest is legitimately good, wholesome narrative. It might be confusing to sort out at first but try it.

1 comment:

Eleanor said...

I like your interpretation. I've been taking the inconsistencies too seriously; you write that an educated viewer can push those aside. And maybe I haven't been giving Glee enough credit, because it can be occasionally brilliant. I'm certainly ready to suspend my disbelief when it comes to the song and dance numbers; anyone who loves musicals, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is well practiced in that suspension. It's the stuff they leave trailing that gets to me. Take a look at my post about Glee today, there are some neat links in there, like TVw/oPity's list of dropped Glee storylines. Thanks for writing, I like your analysis.