When Glee first premiered, the show-tunes nerd inside me was thrilled. I've always been an avid fan of special musical episodes, so the prospect of having a weekly series that was a musical each outing made my heart grow three sizes.
For most of the first season, Glee lived up to all my expectations. The songs were fun, the dancing was great and the characters were just campy enough to suspend my disbelief at the show's more unrealistic aspects (for a club with no budget they sure have access to a lot of nice costumes). Unfortunately, by Season 2 Glee had lost its edge. Enter Oxygen's reality casting show The Glee Project. Premiering only a matter of weeks after the finale of Glee's second season, The Glee Project accomplished all Glee originally set out to do.
Here's an examination of what should have been two of Glee's greatest strengths, but unfortunately became its downfall... and how The Glee Project stepped in to become the true star of the feel-good underdog musical TV genre:
Assignment No. 1: Subverting Stereotypes
How Glee Failed the Test: The series began focusing so much on how eclectic the characters were in an effort to promote diversity, that instead of subverting stereotypes, it achieved the opposite. Glee soon became overly preachy, with the quirky outcasts that once butted heads now sentimentally embracing each other's differences, promoting a magical, clique-free world where the evil cheerleading coach reforms, bad boys sing Bob Marley for community service and a jock becomes stepbrothers with a flamboyant theater boy. Case in point in is how the show fails in its depiction of paraplegics. Wheelchair-bound A/V nerd Artie (Kevin McHale) never truly accepts his disability, despite Glee's repeated message to embrace everyone's individual differences. Instead, Season 1's episode "Dream On" chronicles his dream to become a dancer... but he doesn't achieve it by learning new ways to dance with his chair and accept his condition. No, instead we get a dream sequence in which shy, disabled Artie regains use of his legs and becomes a much more stereotypically masculine dance leader of a flash mob.
How The Glee Project Made the Grade: The contestants featured on the reality competition show are real-life versions of the underdogs that Glee attempts — and fails — to celebrate. The current season features a transgender male, a blind performer and contestants of various body types. Because these aren't successful actors pretending to outcasts, The Glee Project is able to actually inspire its audience to accept their cast's individual differences instead of making them simply groan with clichés. In contrast to Glee's Artie, Glee Project's wheelchair-confined Ali doesn't display any desire to conform to the traditional notion of what makes a dancer and while she seeks to be more than just "that girl in the wheelchair," she never shows any bitterness towards her disability. Her inclusion on the reality show teaches paraplegics and viewers alike that, unlike on Glee, you don't need a dream sequence to dance or be a star. If you're talented and work hard, you can be just as tough a competitor as everyone else.
Assignment No. 2: Competition! Drama!
How Glee Failed the Test: The emotional drama and competitive attitude that once drove the plot of Glee (Sue and Will's rivalry, Terri's fake pregnancy, love triangles galore) began slowly disappearing on the Fox hit until the show has become more of a cheesy afterschool special than a prime-time musical dramedy. The members of New Directions have taken their beliefs in acceptance and inclusion too far. In the Season 3 episode "Nationals," Vocal Adrenaline's star drag performer Unique (played by Glee Project winner Alex Newell) questions why Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Mercedes (Amber Riley) would want to help her, since though they're "supposed to be enemies." Mercedes replies simply, "Yeah, but that's now how we roll in the New Directions." Her answer, however good-natured and respectable, demonstrates how Glee's preachy message of acceptance has since dulled the drama of the once cutting-edge series. Heck — even Glee club nemesis Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) has joined the cause of Mr. Schue (Matthew Morrison) and the gang! Where's the passion? The backstabbing?
How The Glee Project Made the Grade: As with any other self-respecting reality show, The Glee Project, on the other hand, is dripping with drama. From real life love triangles — this season driven mainly by the brazen flirtation of Aylin — to the contestants' snarky comments, the show is first and foremost a fierce competition with occasional musical interludes. And fortunately, it is not lacking for villains. The show's choreographer Zach Woodlee makes Sue look like a marshmallow. His catty honesty, along with the stern critiques of vocal coach Nikki Anders, push the contestants to their limits, whereas Mr. Schue prefers the "We're all winners if we try" method of coaching. While the latter's approach might be better for his fictional students' self-esteem, it sure doesn't make for entertaining television.
All of this is not to say that Glee has no redeeming qualities. The bond between Kurt and his dad Burt (Mike O'Malley) always brings tears to my eyes while the complexity of Santana (Naya Rivera) and Brittany's (Heather Morris) relationship is a refreshing change of pace from most television depictions of sexuality.
To summarize, Glee is not the worst show in the world. The Glee Project is just better.
Catch The Glee Project Glee Tuesdays on Oxygen at 10/9c. Glee returns to Fox beginning Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 9/8c.
Do you think Glee comes up short? Are you on board with The Glee Project?