Defying Gravity - The Success of Glee and Other Series
What makes a show a hit?
“Modern Family,” “Sopranos,” “Rescue Me,” “Law and Order (all versions),” “L.A. Law,” “West Wing,” “Friends” - what do all these shows have in common - besides being legendary hits for their respective networks?
Let’s use the example of a new hit - “Glee” to walk through some common factors.
“Glee,” the show about the ebb and flow of high school set against a glee club, is in the middle of its 2nd season. I’m late to the party so I’m just four eps into Season 2 but if Season 1 is any indication this show could last a long time before it loses its relevance
“Glee” started as a feature that was shopped around Hollywood for a few years. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, various circumstances transformed it into a weekly series pilot. It’s now a solid hit with the cast doing stage shows and iTunes and YouTube overrun with its imaginative covers of songs that range from the classic to the bizarre.
How? Why does something go from promise to the nirvana of TV hit? Let's examine some of the elements that in general make all successful shows the hits they become.
The Big Metaphor - "Glee" like most great series is a microcosmic reflection of society. Set in little Lima, Ohio it shows how so-called "winners" and "losers" interact. It tells of the stratification of the have's and have nots - except that the have nots have real value, depth and strength and haves aren't always in the exalted positions we perceive them to be. The glee club is run by a nice-guy "failure" who is teaching glee rather than living his dream of being a Broadway performer. His enemy? The uber successful, hard-nosed teacher of the cheerleaders. Their personalities, styles and just about everything else clash to great metaphoric effect. Metaphors of this type abound. Television, even more than movies, reflect our world. The solid hit series understand and take advantage of this.
The “Conceit” - All series have what I call the conceit - in other words, what is the world that this series presents, and the one thing this show does that others don’t? What will this show ask you to accept? That there’s a psychopathic mobster in New Jersey who is in therapy, or that crimes are solved by cutting edge forensic science in 44 minutes each and every week?
The conceit, the “high concept” is in a word - musical performance, both song and dance. If you like musical theater or anything similar you have to love “Glee” which features at least 4-5 performances per episode. These are always meticulously and creatively arranged and choreographed numbers that might skew from 40's pop to 2k hits like “Telephone” by Lady Gaga.
An article I read said that an episode might take between 3-4 weeks to finish depending on the amount of musical production - that’s unheard of and part of the reason “Glee” works so well. The cast is asked not only to do compelling drama and hilarious comedy but also to knock us flat musically. And all of that happens each and every week. Quite an accomplishment and the one thing that separates this series from all others which is what any successful series has to do.
Terrific Writing - This is a bit like the old Steve Martin routine "How To Be A Millionaire. 1st, get a million dollars." Great writing. Sure - just do that. But in the case of “Glee” the creators drew both on personal experience and solid writing chops from other work to create a compelling hour of fun. None of the three is a beginner and all have worked hard over many years honing their craft. So yeah - great writing. It's not accidental.
The pilot they wrote sold in record time after it was adapted from its feature-length incarnation. Fox saw great potential in the unique perspective the concept presented but the sly and clever writing also had a lot to do with the sale. "Glee" like all great series, is filled with memorable lines and moments. But it's filtered through a unique perspective.
“Freaks and Geeks” and others had similar polarized camps of high schoolers but I don’t remember any scene where the football players gathered outside the dumpster to play toss the geek into the trash. And before they do, the jocks accede to his wishes to take off his coat which is part of the new “Marc Jacobs collection" before they make him part of the morning garbage. Funny and sorta scary at the same time.
The characters fall into comfortable types but they have nuances and internal pain that elevate them to other than just stereotypes. They become almost archetypal in their quest for relevance. The football player who loves to sing (Cory Monteith); the talented and driven diva (Lea Michele) with two gay dads; the BBW songstress (Amber Riley) who hates taking a secondary role in the performances because she’s not rail-thin; the wheelchair-bound gleester (Kevin McHale) who wants nothing but to be able to dance. Nothing startling, perhaps, but all handled well and soundly with the more-than-occasional flash of brilliance.
Great Villains - All great productions, film or TV have great villains. "Glee" has them in droves. From the angry and lovestruck football coach to the insanely well-written and unique Sue Slyvester, the superstar coach of the "Cheerios" (the cheer squad who send their uniforms to Europe to be dry cleaned.) Plenty of student villains too - in fact, they oft-times toss big gulp slushies on the gleek's faces and then also on the football players and cheerleaders who go over to the glee club. Then there's Vocal Adrenalin, the supremely talented and snarky glee club from another school and of course, the internal demons that all the characters posses and the various students themselves who cause a never-ending supply of fear-driven angst.
This preponderance of villains and villainy creates some of the most delicious conflict you've ever been exposed to. Check out "Rescue Me" if you want anything close to what these writers squeeze out of every episode.
What really astounds me about this show is the ability of the creators to continually shift our allegiance from one villain to another. From one set of emotions about those villains to something totally different. How in the world do you end up liking someone as conniving and evil as Sue Sylvester played brilliantly by comedic actress Jane Lynch? How does the blatantly horrible and seemingly shallow head cheerleader (the gorgeous and talented Dianna Agron ) make us ultimately feel sorry for her? The tap dance (pun intended) that the writers do with these characters and the plot dynamics is truly remarkable.
Freshness - Probably the one thing I most admire about this series is the settings of the production numbers. Understanding that as terrific as the music and dancing can be, people will tune you out eventually if you don’t push the settings into different areas.
Besides the glee classroom, where there are instruments and a seemingly always ready band, and the school theater, the nature habitat of any performing group, the producers have set numbers in a wedding dress shop, a mall (with a real flash mob,) a football field during a game, the high school’s open-air quad (a really great season 2 opening number,) walking in the hallways, montages that shift from locale to locale with different verses and different people singing, various rooms in various homes, and dozens of other unique set pieces that keep the material fresh. This is an essential part of any successful piece of television or film writing since these mediums are visual mediums. Talking is important but seeing is essential.
Theme - without getting all ABC After School Special on us, “Glee” manages to deal with teen sex, teen pregnancy, betrayal, peer pressure, fear of failure, being gay and being geek, and so on. Each episode, while funny and at times poignant, is also teaching valuable lessons that no matter your age can hit you with relevance. The adults in the show have at least as many issues as the kids which shows us that pain and inadequacy don’t go away just because we graduate. And joy is indeed universal as we celebrate vicariously each of these characters’ successes.
The songs are teamed to the theme but not in a such a way that you’d be put off by it. For example, an episode called Redemption featured a song by artist Vanilla Ice ( “Ice, Ice, Baby.”) One student quips that the song should be arrested for the crime of sucking. Another says “it’s whack.” The glee teacher, Will Shuester character ( Matthew Morrison) proves them wrong by performing it and getting them all involved in the number, and then tells them that the song got a “bad rap” for various reasons but it’s really a good song. Agree or disagree you’ve got to admire the courage of the writers to try. The entire episode was about getting street cred, good or bad, and surely Vanilla’s song would have never gotten the good kind - until Mr. Shue danced it out for them and the song was redeemed. All right, so the song still kinda sucks but you get the idea.
A Willingness To Fail - All commercial success share a common thread - they suck at times too. Not that “Glee” fails much but when it does, it does greatly. And when it succeeds it does so because of the failures not despite them.
The song “The Thong Song” put into an episode about mashups wasn’t a high point. And although a subsequent number set in the dress shop was fine most of the time, there was some truly unfortunate camera work that was cringe-worthy. Likewise, a number between Mr Shue and guest-gleek Neil Patrick Harris featured the song “Dream On” done like a vocal challenge - and yuck.
But listen to “Defying Gravity” or the cool little bathroom version of “Telephone” featuring glee star Rachael and the massively talented young and coming star Charice in a guest appearance and all is forgiven. Even the weird Britney Spears ep, which took some large chances, worked. Not so much the Olivia Newton John guest shot. But hey, at least they’re not recycling the same crap week after week. They try, they succeed and they fail. But the producers never stop trying to push the boundaries of their world and that’s a really good thing for any series.
Other factors -
1) Great series make stars of the cast. "Glee" features some supremely talented Broadway performers and has created stars out of others like Chris Colfer and Amber Riley. Newcomers like Brittany Pierce who was a side member (and a incredible professional dancer) have raised their "Q" status (she was made a regular in Season 2 because of her amazing deadpan delivery of funny one-liners.) Until this show, a lot of the cast was unknown - no more. They will all benefit from the exposure of the show.
2) Sex and sexiness sell. It works here in great measure. There are gorgeous men and women running around, some with very short skirts on (the fabulous cheerleaders) and others with bodies that won't quit. It ain't bad to be pleased by the eye-candy while you're watching.
3) Drama in the humor and humor in the drama. Yep, you get the gamut of emotions in almost every ep of this show. The best shows are fun and serious in equal measure. The show creators know this and do it well.
All television shows (if they last long enough) seem to eventually “jump the shark” - i.e. outlive their relevance. Some of them do stop before that happens, some go on a bit longer than they should, and some overstay their welcome by years.
“Glee” is a joyful, fabulously entertaining hour of fun. The 1st season was nominated for nineteen Emmy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, six Satellite Awards and fifty-seven other awards, with wins including the 2010 Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy with Emmy awards for Jane Lynch, guest-star Neil Patrick Harris and Ryan Murphy's direction of the pilot episode.
The second season has currently been nominated for five Golden Globes including Best Television Series in a Comedy and as well as nominations for Matthew Morrison, Jane Lynch, Lea Michele and Chris Colfer.)
There are clubs, "gleeks," live performances, MP3's of the songs and so on.
Like all truly unique and ground-breaking series, there are many factors that go into its success. Some of which are easy to define and some which are not. There’s a magic to something that works this well - a cast/creators/crew melange of secret spices that produce a dish that you can’t get enough of at times. But, like all series, as mentioned, I do expect it to fail; for the creative energy to peter out. It’s inevitable - look at “West Wing,” “Sopranos,” “Friends,” etc.
Hopefully before then we’ll have enough seasons to be able to visit them fondly when they are no longer making them. “Glee” is already a wild success - anything beyond this is just gravy.