“Glee”
Premiered May 19, 2009
Series returns fall 2009
FOX

2.5 out of 5 stars

Like death, taxes and wisdom teeth removal, high school is one of life’s few universal experiences. Everyone can relate to the experience of having to slog through four years of primary education, which makes it especially apt for pop-culture appropriation — see everything from the cheerfulness of “High School Musical” to the cynicism of movies like “Heathers” and “Election.” That being said, FOX’s “Glee” falls into an unfortunate place on this scale. The show takes the best from both ends of the spectrum, but it struggles to make those parts come together into a coherent package.

“Glee” follows Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison, “As the World Turns”), McKinley High School’s Spanish teacher who volunteers to run the school’s glee club. Schuester was a member during the club’s heyday. But the glee club he inherits is in considerably worse shape — the club can’t even afford to keep its stools. At the same time, he has to manage a gifted group of performers, but they’re a dysfunctional team.

Aethestically, “Glee” falls somewhere between “High School Musical” and “Freaks and Geeks” if it existed on basic cable. Much of the show revolves around its saccharine musical numbers including a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” as an upbeat song-and-dance number and a (mostly) a cappella rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” The musical numbers aren’t too overbearing, as they’re largely used to complement the main story, and the talented cast pulls them off especially well.

Additionally, the show unabashedly depicts high school life through especially well-worn archetypes. The glee club includes reluctant football player Finn (Cory Monteith, “Final Destination 3”), who has a voice of gold, and overly competitive drama-fanatic Rachel (Lea Michele, Broadway’s “Spring Awakening”). Overall, “Glee” has a sardonic streak that keeps things from feeling too atypical.

As in “Freaks and Geeks,” there’s never really a sense that the members of the glee club are anything but social pariahs. But the show gets a lot of mileage out of their underdog status. The pilot gives time to develop Finn and Rachel as believable characters — Finn comes from a single-parent home and Rachel knows that her academic prowess makes her hated by her peers — which makes relating to the glee team a little easier.

Unfortunately, problems arise when the show tries to mash happy-go-lucky optimism with wry sarcasm. The show works fine enough as a dramedy or a musical, but too often it favors camp over coherence. The show paints everything in swatches broad enough to seem dated in a John Hughes (“Sixteen Candles”) movie. Aside from the members of the club, the supporting characters are all shallowly written. The show does try and pick apart these broad characterizations for easy laughs, but the writing rarely manages to reach the satirical heights the show aspires for.

Still, there’s an intrinsic gusto behind “Glee” that’s hard to deny. Considering the show’s creative pedigree (it was created by Ryan Murphy, “Nip/Tuck”), the musical-dramedy roots of “Glee” definitely have the potential to bring something interesting to the table. It’s a shame, then, that the execution can’t support its premise. There’s a lot of interesting ideas at work, but none of them really come together coherently.

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