September 22, 2010


The Student Becomes the Teacher

Alexandra Wyman
Alexandra Wyman

There are many remarkable things about Glee, the pop-happy series that returned to TV Tuesday night. Only in its second season, the dramedy has emphasized diversity, stoked iTunes sales, and courted a young, desirable demographic. Most remarkably, it has made viable the ever-elusive Television Musical genre—once pioneered by Fame—plagued by the absurdity of Cop Rock and the lesser-remembered That's Life. (Until recently, it seemed your best bet was to fleetingly dip your feet into the genre, a là Buffy the Vampire Slayer's “Once More With Feeling” episode or How I Met Your Mother’s musical number in the “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit” installment.)

What made Glee succeed? It was an improved-upon American Idol. Like the music competition, Glee airs on the Fox network and was paired with airings of the singer contest. It made sense: Glee mimicked American Idol by essentially becoming a tricked-out exercise in karaoke, formulated to boost ratings and as a side effect, boost singles sales. It proffered already popular tunes delivered by attractive young'uns with a relatively wholesome image that'd appeal to everyone from jaded city folk to the corn-reared population. And ultimately, it did it better than Idol.

Ironically Glee has profited off of Idol’s model as the music competition, eight years in, has waned in ratings, grappled with the exits of its judges (Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneres, and Kara DioGuardi, arguably the most legit of them all), and witnessed the diminishing effects of a notable-enough chunk of its past finalists (Clay Aiken, Katharine McPhee, Kimberley Locke) as well as its cross-country summer tour. Now as it recharges with new judges, maybe there are some lessons Idol can in turn learn from its burgeoning pop-culture acolyte, Glee.

Amp Up the Drama

It’s ridiculous to break out into musical numbers on prime-time TV, yet it’s awesome when said tunes are underscoring a backdrop of angst and campiness. This is what made Paula Abdul’s meltdowns so mesmerizing, so appealing — and what made her forced exit so curious.

Did we want to see her self-implode? No way, but a mea culpa as she attempts sobriety — something the audience can root for alongside their favorite contestant — would've made for some compelling TV. We understand the surprise casting of Ellen DeGeneres; but c'mon, she was no Paula. (Sidebar: Are producers re-creating some of that appeal via recent ex-rehabber Steven Tyler, who's nabbed a judge spot?) There's a reason why people stare at train wrecks, you know.

Keep the Plot Moving

One could argue that Glee’s extreme storylines tend to wrap up a little too cleanly at a feverish pace. But in contrast to Idol's protracted countdown to...[dramatic pause] a commercial break, maybe hastening the payoff is not a bad thing. (I mean, don't we get enough product placement in the actual show anyhow?) After all, I could change the channel and just catch the highlight reel any given blog later. In the interests of short attention spans, Idol producers should tighten the results episode — treat it like less of a game show and more of a dramatic twist.

Re-Think Your Guest Stars

Glee has distinguished itself as being spot-on with bonus talent like Kristen Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris, and Olivia Newton-John. The producers over there generally understand that they need freelance talent who'll augment their show (Eve notwithstanding).

Whereas Idol... well, do you really want professional advice from “mentors” like Jamie Foxx and even Adam Lambert? With the genuinely puzzling exception Quentin Tarantino (who approached his task as Idol music director a year back with the amusing non sequitur-ness of Charo on any given episode of The Love Boat), their contributions merely feel like self-aggrandizing infomercials built around shilling their own wares. Imagine if a real power-producer such as Rick Rubin, Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco — someone who successfully sonically groomed artists for, like, a living — weighed in. Now that would be some indisputable, valuable advice.

Get Superficial

Glee trumps Idol both in talent and looks. Idol would make for a much more legit competition by choosing a talent pool by way of a discriminating screening process, rather than a kooky public-access audition. (Consider how Top Chef cherry-picks its chefs for a truly heated match, and you've got the idea.) Thus far, Idol has been big and glossy and loud. As is Glee. But like its cleverly pitched disciple, it’s time American Idol operates more on wit than gimmicks.