Call yourself a gleek yet?
A musical series with a twist is set to rock our TV screens, writes Ed Power
Forget X Factor, Hannah Montana and -- if only we could -- The All Ireland Talent Show. Tonight a hit new musical series arrives on Irish TV fresh from the US, where it has stormed the ratings and charmed audiences with its zeitgiesty mix of slushy singalongs and snarky dialogue.
Chronicling an idealistic teacher's bid to shape a group of teenage misfits into a classroom choir, Glee has surprised everyone, not least its creators, by becoming the season's break-out TV sensation.
Some eight million viewers (hardcore devotees call themselves 'gleeks') have tuned in to the show each week in America. After only a few months on the air, it's spawned a raft of hit singles and two bestselling albums, featuring cast versions of standards by Amy Winehouse, Madonna and John Lennon.
Critics have been swooning too -- Entertainment Weekly hailed it best new series of the year and it's been nominated for four Golden Globes.
Created by Nip/Tuck writer Ryan Murphy, Glee is winning fans beyond the usual teen drama demographic by cleverly mashing up two very distinct genres: the black comedy and the Disney-style tween musical.
In proper High School Musical fashion, each episode features several show-stopping music numbers -- one of the most memorable has an American football team miming along to Beyonce's 'Single Ladies' while the opposing side gawps in shock.
But there's nothing cheesy or predictable about the plot or the dialogue, which owe more to modern snarkfests like The Simpsons and 30 Rock than to earlier television musicals like Fame.
Characters such as hard-bitten cheerleader coach Sue (Jane Lynch) and fame-hungry nerd Rachel (Lea Michele) are knowing twists on teen soap stereotypes ("You think this is hard? Try being water-boarded -- that's hard," quips coach Sue at one point). Only the quietly heroic music teacher Will seems to come direct from rom-com central casting -- and he's burdened with a neurotic, baby-craving wife (Jessalyn Gilsig) who complains about having to work four hours a day.
"I wanted to do a sort of postmodern musical," says Murphy, who claims never to have seen High School Musical. "I wasn't interested in doing a show where people burst into song. People do sing, of course, but there are rules: the singers will have to be onstage rehearsing or performing, or a song will come in the form of a fantasy in a character's head."
The series was inspired by Murphy's own stint in a high school glee club. Having to stand up on stage in front of an audience changed his entire outlook on life for the better, he says.
"When you do get the lead in something or you're performing, you sort of feel that the world is suddenly available to you, and you have so much optimism about what you can become," he said.
Glee has also thrown a life-rope to the beleaguered music industry. In a marketing hook-up so canny it surely has Simon Cowell drooling with envy, two of the songs performed each week on the show are later released as digital downloads.
To date, cast versions of Beyonce's aforementioned 'Single Ladies' and Journey's epic power-ballad 'Don't Stop Believin' have sold over three million copies -- while two tie-in albums have broken the US top five. Now there are plans for a Glee arena tour and, if Murphy is to be believed, even a 'Glee On Ice'.
Nobody, it is fair to say, is more taken aback by the success than its creator. Looking to build on the success of Nip/Tuck, Murphy pitched a one-hour musical comedy to the Fox network, best known on this side of the Atlantic as the home of The Simpsons.
When it was decided to develop the idea as a one-hour weekly drama, he feared it would be cancelled before anybody even noticed it was on the air. Fox, however, had the foresight to screen Glee directly after American Idol, delivering a ready-made audience of music-hungry teenagers.
Will Ireland fall for Glee? Considering our enthusiasm for big-lunged Americans with great hair -- a brace of Miley Cyrus shows at Dublin's O2 last month felt like the tweenager equivalent of a Papal visit -- it seems a safe bet. And for those of you who think there's quite enough over-emotive pop out there as things stand, can we recommend a pair of ear-plugs and a subscription to Humbug Monthly? The national airwaves are about to get a whole lot slushier.
Glee starts tonight at 8pm on TV3
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