In a fall lineup heavy on remakes, safe formulas and well-worn conceits, "Glee" is a strange mixture of earnest sweetness and slashing irony. And there's singing too! That combination would be unusual at any time, but it's an especially welcome confection in an otherwise safe TV season.
"Glee" is not, technically speaking, a new fall show. The pilot aired last May, and Fox has been ratcheting up the buzz for the show all summer (and whether that creative marketing campaign will result in solid ratings is one of the most interesting questions of the fall).
The musical comedy- drama stars the instantly endearing Matthew Morrison as Will Schuester, a former show-choir star, who's attempting to turn the McKinley High School glee club into something other than the school joke. Each of his students has baggage; diva Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) knows she's better than all the other singers, but her headstrong attitude puts many people off, and football star Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) has to endure the taunts of his teammates, who think the choir is lame.
But, in true "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" style, Finn, Rachel and the other choir types try to pull together -- after all, the survival of the choir depends on it attracting more members and doing well at an upcoming competition. The amusingly droll McKinley principal, Mr. Figgins (Iqbal Theba), is looking for any excuse to shut down the club, and Machiavellian cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester (the consistently funny Jane Lynch), despises any student group that could draw attention and money from her "Cheerios."
There are no weak links among the youthful members of "Glee's" cast; in particular Chris Colfer is a delight as the flamboyant Kurt and Lea Michele's voice will knock your socks off.
And that's really the main appeal of "Glee" -- the musical numbers are an enormous amount of fun. If the ending of the fourth episode, in particular, doesn't leave you with a smile on your face, this just isn't the show for you.
But there's one big flaw in "Glee," and it may be a harbinger of bad things to come. Will's wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), manages to drain all the fun out of "Glee" every time she appears. Not only is this shrill character intensely annoying, she makes you wonder whether Will has brain damage. What other explanation could there be for him ending up with this materialistic harpy? The fact that Will's other potential love interest, germ-phobic teacher Emma (Jayma Mays) is similarly high-maintenance isn't encouraging.
Terri is an example of "satire" turned sour and unlikable, and that same kind of sourness caused the creative downfall of "Nip/Tuck," "Glee" co-creator Ryan Murphy's signature show.
Will "Glee," which does go for obvious and predictably snarky humor at times, indulge in shrieky sarcasm at the expense of human emotion, as "Nip/Tuck" did? Will this strange combination of starry-eyed optimism and manicured irony eventually combust?
Possibly. But until then, there's a lot to like about this weird and frequently winning hybrid.
My Tribune colleague Colleen Mastony talked to co-creator Ian Brennan, who based the show, in part, on his show choir experiences at a suburban Chicago high school. And if you missed "Glee's" May premiere, the entire episode can be found below or on Hulu.