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Green Bay Press-Gazette

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Glee" earns an encore

I warned my wife before we watched Fox's "tweet-peat" of the "Glee" pilot this weekend that it might be a complete waste of our time.

Admittedly, I was trying to retain some credibility in case the quirky show choir comedy turned out to be more "High School Musical" than "Freaks & Geeks," but honestly, I really didn't know what to expect.

After a much-ballyhooed premiere following "American Idol" in May, Fox saved the second episode for fall's big bang (8 p.m., Wednesday to be exact), creating some heavy buzz on Twitter and other social networking sites. I wanted to watch the pilot when it originally aired, but conveniently forgot ... so that led me to avoid critical write-ups, and more or less hope that I'd be given the opportunity to find the show on my own.

Set in an Ohio high school, "Glee" follows a dysfunctional show choir led by the talented but Tracy Flick-ish Rachel Berry (Lea Michele in a star turning role). Spanish teacher and Neil Patrick Harris-lookalike Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) plays your typical wide-eyed teacher trying to change the world, and when given the opportunity to take over the slumping show choir -- thanks to a particularly amusing plot twist and teacher dismissal -- he begins to dream big.

Only problem? Five misfits, including Berry, comprise the glee club, or a group about as far down on the social totem pole as the acne-ridden geeks who used to convene in the cafeteria at my high school so they could play "Magic: The Gathering." (Sorry for piling on, guys. I hope you've adjusted to the real world by now.)

When Berry threatens to quit because she can't take the ridicule from peers any longer, Schuester faces a near-impossible task -- transforming the glee club into something cool on campus. In a twist of fate, he overhears star quarterback/'80s monster ballad enthusiast Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) singing REO Speedwagon in the locker room shower, and thanks to the power of some pot-fueled blackmail, finds a studly male counterpart who can hang with Berry's impressive vocals.

Without giving anything else away, the "Glee" pilot succeeds by sticking with archetypes that everyone who has survived high school can relate to. One one side of the hallway stands the uber popular crew of jocks and cheerleaders ("Cheerios" headed by the awesomely evil Jane Lynch.) On the other, social outcasts that live face down in the toilet bowl.

While parts of the pilot come across as heavy-handed and all-too familiar, the inner workings of the high school caste system can breed comedy gold. Already, Lynch's Sue Sylvester is a standout, a heartless taskmaster who is used to winning trophies and monopolizing the market of popular bubbly blondes. She couldn't even being to comprehend life with a competing social entity like a well-rounded glee club. However, you can see the gears turning in Will's head. He plans to push her at every turn.

Those monumental face-offs -- others include Will and his controlling wife; Finn and teammate/school bully, Puck; Rachel and Finn's celibate girlfriend -- should be enough to carry the show through one season. Ultimately, they'll have to work around some of the cheesier, cliche-ridden components and really dig deep into the dark humor that I found so inviting. Subtlety could also go a long way.

Having Alexander Payne's "Election" as an early reference point is a great start. So far, "Glee" has made use of the movie's inner monologues, quick-cut backstories (Finn's is particularly memorable) and quirky background instrumentals. "Glee" also steals liberally from "Freaks" -- McKinley High for the school name, the Mathlete-like wordplay of Cheerios -- but doesn't (and probably won't) feature the soul-crushing realism of Paul Feig's masterpiece.

So while every critic has seemingly chimed in with an opinion, the hype here is that "Glee" has a chance to bring the high school dramedy to a new level thanks to its bold musical numbers. They're ready made for big ratings and if done right as over the top parodies, big laughs.

That could be a huge turnoff to those who like their teenage angst a little less glitzy, but for most, it'll be a nice ray of sunshine in what plays out like a relatively gloomy high school existence. We'll see if Wednesday's second episode picks up where the entertaining pilot left off.

To watch the "Glee" pilot online visit

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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