The new FOX musical-comedy "Glee," getting a special one-night airing after "American Idol" on Tuesday (May 19) and then returning to the shelf until the fall, is a show that's all about definition. Most high school shows inevitably tend to be. They're about how characters define themselves and how they're defined by a dense caste system of students, teachers and administrators.

"By its very definition, glee is about opening yourself up to joy," the show informs us. The title refers to both the moribund, but once-great, glee club at McKinley High, but also to a certain state of delight, pleasure or euphoria. The word "glee" isn't passive or or casual. It doesn't just mean casual happiness or satiety. It isn't about general wellness, a meek grin or relaxed enjoyment. It's irrational exuberance, a toothy rictus smile, a shout to the rafters.

In that sense, FOX's "Glee" is appropriately titled. It's like being taken down a dark alley and mugged by positive feelings and hopes and dreams. It's a relentless storm-attack of pep and energy. And for more than a few viewers, the sensation will prove utterly irresistible, which is why I don't hesitate to recommend the show. That recommendation comes with the not-so-tiny caveat that personally, I felt beaten into submission by "Glee" and was left wearied rather than entertained.

[Full review after the break...]

Matthew Morrison plays Spanish teacher Will Schuester, whose school is dominated by the football team (coached by Patrick Gallagher's Ken Tanaka) and the Cheerios (coached by Jane Lynch's ultra-competitive Sue Sylvester). Those two squads dominate McKinley High's popularity and also its budget, leaving no money for formally championship-level glee club. When Will takes over the glee club, he discovers a rag-tag group of misfits, an assortment of individuals in an organization which is supposed to be about teamwork. Is Will going to be able to bring them together to realize that there's no "I" in "glee"? He's sure as heckfire going to try.

Written and directed by the normally arch Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck"), "Glee" is an irony-free look at high school which is simultaneously glutted with one-dimensional cliches, but also delivered with a clear-eyed pizzazz that seems to be willfully pretending that everything in the genre is fresh and unexplored territory. The kids in Will's glee club include Type-A overachiever Rachel (Lea Michele), diva Mercedes (Amber Riley), rocker chick Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), the presumably gay Kurt (Chris Colfer) and wheel-chair-bound Artie (Kevin McHale). We also meet Finn (Cory Monteith), the quarterback-with-a-secret, and his cheerleader girlfriend Quinn (Dianna Agron). [And yes, that means that they're Finn-n-Quinn, which ought to tell you something about the show right there.] 

In addition to Will, Ken and Sue, the show's adults include Jessalyn Gilsig, as Will's ice queen wife, and Jayma Mays as Emma, an OCD-prone fellow teach with an obvious crush on Will.

In a 45-plus minute pilot, there isn't room for deep characterization or nuance, so "Glee" settles for straight-forward, clear-eyed, universalizing "engagement," for want of a better word. Forgive the analogy, but during the Jewish holiday of Passover, one of principles of the Seder is that in recounting the story, every attendee should feel as if they were slaves in the land of Egypt and every one one of us was party to the Exodus. In "Glee," the story  has been so universalized that with the exception of viewers who were once snotty cheerleading captains or nerd-hating jocks, every nearly every person will look on the screen and say, "Wow! I was an outsider just like that in high school." And if the shackles of high school loser-dom are like a form of slavery, then Morrison's Will is Moses and every full-scale musical number is a "Let my people go [to prom]!" plea.

The musical numbers are the backbone of the show, with the pilot featuring standout performances of "Rehab" and "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" and "Don't Stop Believin'" among others. In those moments, as the young voices blend and the choreography ensues, nobody is likely to be able to resist opening themselves up to joy. This isn't a break-into-song musical, mind you. The kids are performing and rehearsing and if it just happens that nearly everything they sing has a direct thematic tie to the messages of the show, where that must just be a coincidence, right? 

No. Duh. Of course not. Murphy and company don't want to leave any doubt that they're making a show that's about characters who are rocking the boat and that no lesson they're learning can more essential than that you should never stop believing. 

"Don't pretend that any of them are something they're not," the menacing Sue warns Will of his glee charges, but other characters are constantly making more encouraging or unifying statements.

"The only life worth living is the one you're really passionate about," one character declares.

"Don't you get it, man. We're all losers. Everyone in this school. Everyone in this town," announces another.

But as another puts it, "Being a part of something special makes you special!"

At times, "Glee" feels like the "Hang In There" Cat poster of TV shows, it's so full of happy energy. As Rachel says, "There's nothing ironic about show choir!"

Indeed, "Glee" doesn't have the ironic soapiness of a "Gossip Girl," the earnest soapiness of a "One Tree Hill," the meta-soapiness of a "Dawson's Creek" or even the viciously satirical soapiness of Murphy's "Popular." It has a peppy soapiness that's all its own and every actor has been well-coached at delivering Murphy's tart-but-sweet one-liners, which leaves inspirational sloganeering and barbed insults sounding identical. Actually, it leaves everything sounding identical. With it comes to monotony (in the most literal meaning of the word), I still prefer the monotony of "Glee" to the monotony of something like CBS' "Criminal Minds," but that doesn't mean that the show's rhythms don't become first familiar and then stale in no time.

There are no clear weak links in the cast, though the writing in the pilot has made Gilsig's character so annoying that she'll be difficult to recover, pushing brittleness on an actress who tends toward that direction anyway. Because Mays is so instantly sympathetic and relatable, there's a problematic love triangle where we're rooting for the homewrecker, a woman so meek she may not be rooting for herself.

Morrison and Michele are both stage veterans and they share a tendency to play even small moments so that the people in the back row can see them, but they're both likable and when Michele sings, any mugging is forgiven. I'm not quite as convinced as the characters onscreen seem to be that Monteith's voice is breathtakingly awesome, but he properly conveys a many trapped between two very different social strati. The rest of the glee club kids only come to life when they're singing, but that's because they're barely written into the pilot. 

Oh and in my review of "Party Down," I mentioned a law of diminishing returns when it comes to Jane Lynch. In the "Glee" pilot, she's used exactly the right amount, but I hope Murphy can resist the urge to abuse this resource.

In no time, "Glee" has attained a devoted cult in the online circles I inhabit, a level of cultishness that scares me a tiny bit, especially since I've already be accused of being heartless on multiple occasions for not falling instantly under its sway. I respect its aspirations and its ideology and have no objections to breaking out in song periodically myself. It was, for me at least, two much of a good thing. It didn't leave me wishing for another episode, but yearning for a nap, for a cold shower, for a sedative. It exhausted me with its glee. 

 

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