“Glee” Fails to Hit the Right Notes

Photo Courtesy of Fox Television

Something is rotten in Lima, Ohio, but it has nothing to do with the Midwest city itself.

Less than 10 episodes into its sophomore season, “Glee” remains one of network television’s most talked about series. “Glee” premiered to high praise and many accolades, including 19 Emmy nominations, with four wins, and four Golden Globe nominations, with one win (Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy).

It’s undeniable: “Glee” is a phenomenon. Since its premiere, the franchise has profited from DVD and soundtrack sales and a live concert tour.  Fans of the show call themselves “Gleeks,” and “Glee” has been recorded as one of the most tweeted about television shows.

Coming off of a successful 22-episode first season, fans and critics had high expectations for the second season. When Gleeks last left their favorite high school glee club, the club came in last place at Regionals and was facing disbandment; pregnant ex-cheerleader, Quinn (Dianna Agron), gave birth to a baby girl and glee club director Will (Matthew Morrison) professed his love for Emma (Jayma Mays), the school’s guidance counselor. Despite losing at Regionals, the glee club is given one more year to prove themselves.

Season two premiered this past September with a new school year at the fictional Ohio high school. The premiere reminded Gleeks why they fell in love with the quirky musical show in the first place. The introduction of new characters looked promising and the song selections, from Jay-Z to Travie McCoy, kept the hour young and fun.

But over the course of the following few episodes, “Glee” fell into a familiar trap: the show has become all gimmicks, little substance. In its second season, the show seems to rest on their first-season popularity because they know they don’t have to work overtime to keep devoted Gleeks around; the fans will keep watching because they’re already invested in the characters and stories from the first season. “Why do we need new members?” the glee club kids ask Will in the season premiere when he encourages recruitment. The characters’ reluctance to be excited about welcoming new kids to their group is reflective of the show as a whole. Even well into its second season, “Glee” is still repeating old jokes (put the slushies to rest, please!) and relying on old tricks to keep up the laughs.

So far, season two has felt as awkward and uncomfortable as those high school teenage years. The show appears to be focusing more on the music than plot. The season’s second episode, “Britney/Brittany,” is a prime example of the gimmicks “Glee” has come to rely on: the show was more about the Britney parodies and mimicking the pop star — granted, Heather Morris, who plays spacey cheerleader Brittany Pierce, was finally given her chance to shine as she showed off her dancing skills.

“Britney/Brittany” echoed the previous season’s tribute episodes to Madonna and Lady Gaga — two episodes that foreshadowed season two’s lack of forward-moving plots and stories (see also: season two’s tribute episode “The Rocky Horror Glee Show,” which garnered mixed reactions from Gleeks and horrified rants from diehard “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fans).

Back in July, “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy did an interview with “People” magazine and stated his intentions to scale back and “[let] the episodes be more about the characters.” Unfortunately, that hasn’t been true in most cases. Leading man and lady, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) and Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), have remained static for most of season two so far. Finn still wavered between his role as quarterback or “glee guy,” and Rachel was still the spotlight hog of the club. Though supporting characters Brittany (Morris), Santana (Naya Rivera) and Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.) were given more prominent roles, existing lead characters were pushed aside as well.

“Glee” could take a lesson from its disowned and abandoned Fox cousin “Arrested Development,” a show that never took itself too seriously. The most endearing thing about “Arrested Development” was its morally questionable characters, who were unapologetic for their absurd and unethical antics. The characters on “Glee,” however, are constantly trying to send a message — not that there’s anything wrong with a positive message — but the characters seem to forget these lessons themselves the minute a new episode begins. Though it’s a cycle much like the one many fickle teenagers go through, it makes for exhausting and trite television.

“Glee” has never been realistic, which was what made it charming. Its series premiere was filled with ridiculous plots and laughable scenes. Yet, that formula made the show addicting for millions. However, the show has now reached new levels of absurdity, pushing it far past the point where its unrealistic nature made the show unique and fun. While Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, who won one of the show’s four Emmys) has stuck to her bullying roots while still giving way for a few “aww”-inspiring moments, her talent has been wasted on unnecessary and bizarre storylines, such as her marriage to herself.

The exception to this is the outstanding performance so far by Chris Colfer. As Kurt Hummel, McKinley High’s only openly gay student, Colfer shines particularly in this season’s third episode, when his character’s father suffers a heart attack. Despite his young age, Colfer is in control of his emotions on screen, demonstrating restraint by holding in Kurt’s tears and pushing forward in an emotional rendition of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Colfer is also strong during moments when a member of the football team bullies Kurt for being gay. Fear is visible in his eyes and the slight, yet noticeable, waver in his voice conveys the repressed anguish his character is suffering. While that storyline itself was met with criticism for the show’s approach to the anti-bullying message, it’s hard to criticize Colfer for using his diminishing screen time to showcase his acting chops.

Among some of the other positive things about season two include less drawn-out drama between Will and Emma; more touching scenes between Sue and her older sister Jean, who has Down Syndrome; the addition of Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley), Kurt’s father, as a series regular; the additions of tough female football coach Shannon Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) and new kid on the block Sam Evans (Chord Overstreet) — all who have transitioned smoothly into McKinley High and provide something new and fun to the show, rather than adding deadweight (which new characters often are in danger of doing — “Grey’s Anatomy,” anyone?). The adorable wedding between Burt and Finn’s mother Carole (Romy Rosemont) in which the glee club sang and danced the couple down the aisle, providing a light moment to the emotionally-heavy episode, was also commendable.

The bad: the “Singin’ in the Rain/Umbrella” mash-up between Will and substitute teacher Holly Holliday (guest star Gwyneth Paltrow); the reappearance of Will’s ex-wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who has long overstayed her welcome past her initial storyline in season one; a shortage of screen time and solos for diva-in-training Mercedes (Amber Riley) and former stutterer Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz); and a lack of depth and development to bad boy Puck’s (Mark Salling) character, which was done to give room for a romance between his baby mama Quinn and new kid Sam.

This season, “Glee” has been hit-or-miss with its stories and songs, but that hasn’t kept fans away. The show averages over 10 million viewers every week, which doesn’t include the number of people who stream it from Hulu and Fox.com. Gleeks are dedicated and will continue to have faith in Murphy and the show for the rest of the season. New viewers hoping to jump into the “Glee” craze though? Your best bet is to rent season one from Netflix and enjoy what made the show unique from the beginning, because there’s a good chance that starting with season two will make you never want to tune in again.