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{What {lsquo}Glee.' Choir kids rule.} {Fox readies a series (with music) in which artsy students buck stereotypes. The show itself will face some challenging preconceptions.}

April 26, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez

The scene was a car wash fundraiser, replete with cheerleaders, jocks and a few nerds, the kind of thing you might see on high school dramas such as "90210" or "Friday Night Lights."

But then, Mercedes (Amber Riley) threw a rock through a car's windshield, and the music began. Lithe cheerleaders stopped soaping tires and started dancing. Kurt's (Chris Colfer) mouth hung open in a freeze-frame as he stared at the hole in the glass while Mercedes belted out a passionate rendition of Jazmine Sullivan's "Bust Your Windows" in response to him having rejected her.

It was a powerful and funny moment in "Glee," a new genre-defying Fox series by creator Ryan Murphy(writer) ("Nip/Tuck" and "Popular ") about social misfits who are part of a high school show choir. The one-hour musical comedy is a lighthearted satire but has a deep emotional center that is often reflected in its wide-ranging songbook, qualities that have drawn early praise from critics as well as concern over its ability to overcome the fate of the short-lived TV musical series "Cop Rock" and "Viva Laughlin."

Another comparison "Glee" will doubtless draw is to Disney's "High School Musical" movies, despite differences in tone, style, music and the fact that it is episodic and not a distinct film.

But "Glee" sets itself apart from the sunnier, more traditional Disney works. For one thing, Murphy has his characters sing and dance only in the context of rehearsals and performances, even though their songs sometimes reflect their thoughts and feelings. The car wash scene, part of the third episode, turns out to be a figment of Mercedes' imagination, as she stands alone, rehearsing a number, feeling the impact of unrequited adolescent love.

If "Glee" can succeed on any network, the home of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance" is probably the best fit. The show won't be launched until fall, but Fox will preview it on May 19 after the "American Idol" finale, hoping to capture the attention of music lovers on what is expected to be one of the most-watched nights of the television season.

Although Murphy made cable history with his hit "Nip/Tuck," this is his first attempt to strike gold with a mass appeal show. Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, who developed "Nip/Tuck" when he oversaw programming at FX, said the network bought the show from Murphy's first pitch because, he said, "Ryan himself was in the glee club -- he saw it as a metaphor for life."

Fox will sell the episode on iTunes all summer and a different version of the pilot will air as the series premiere in the fall. If it sounds as if the Fox promotional machine is in overdrive, consider that each episode costs at least $3 million to produce. "From Day One, I've had so much support from the studio and network," Murphy said. "I think they are all wanting to break out of the box: What is network television? What can it be? Every once in a while, something comes along that's just different. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I think we're all on the same page that it's great to attempt it. The scripts are written as though the kids are underdogs and I tell the actors all the time, this show feels like an underdog."

Murphy and the two other writer-producers of the show, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, pick themes, develop story lines and write the scripts. But Murphy, who loves music, selects all of the songs. The pilot, for example, uses portions of 14 songs, including Broadway show tunes "On My Own" and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat"; Top 40 hits "Rehab" and "I Kissed a Girl"; and oldies "Don't Stop Believin' " and "Respect."

"I spend hours and hours listening to songs and picking songs that I like or that I think will be great," Murphy said. "I want there to be something for everybody in every episode. That's a tricky mix, but that's very important -- the balancing of that."

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The struggle for identity

Reilly said he especially responded to the notion of the glee club as a way to show the struggle for identity. It will be a mixture of the "uplifting and positive" and "the biting and sarcastic," said Reilly, and will put a "Fox sensibility," meaning satirical and offbeat, on "familiar archetypes."

Indeed in Murphy's McKinley High School, the pretty, popular high school cheerleader, Quinn (Dianna Agron), is also the president of the celibacy club; the cheerleading coach (Jane Lynch) rules by (hilarious) humiliation; the wife (Jessalyn Gilsig) of the glee club director whines about working four hours a day, three days a week; Rachel (Lea Michele), the goody-two-shoes lead singer, is being raised by two dads; and Finn (http://MonteithCory Monteith) is the football jock-singer who claims foolishly that his mother is ill with an enlarged prostate to avoid practice.

"This show has Ryan's paw prints all over it," Lynch said. "It's so his offbeat sense of humor and his style, which I just love."

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