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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Glee' on Fox

The musical set at a high school has its dark side, but these students with a song in their hearts are fun to watch.

May 19, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

The only real problem with "Glee," Fox's new musical comedy, which premieres tonight, is that viewers will have to wait four whole months for the next episode.

That's a long time but wait we will because wait we must: "Glee" is the first show in a long time that's just plain full-throttle, no-guilty-pleasure-rationalizations-necessary fun.

Heaven knows why it took a network so long to cash in on the "High School Musical"-generated frenzy. Nickelodeon took its shot earlier this year with "Spectacular!" and "Glee" unabashedly holds the best of both shows up to the dark mirror that is the mind of creator Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck," "Popular").

His McKinley High is real high school, a place where moments of shining exultation are surrounded by pits of despair, tripwires of petty rivalries and pathetic hierarchies -- a place that leaves such a permanent imprint on the collective psyche that "high school" has become an adjective and its own genre.

All of which is duly noted in "Glee," which gleefully (sorry) pokes fun at the very form it follows. The story revolves around Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), a callow young Spanish teacher with an ambitious, crafts-addicted wife (Jessalyn Gilsig) and a dream: to revive and run the Glee Club. "What, you want to captain the Titanic too?" is the principal's reaction.

This being television and all, McKinley High's Got Talent -- although of a square pegs variety. Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) is the Tracy-Flickian star soprano with two dads, surrounded by the requisite rainbow coalition of the disenfranchised: Kurt (Chris Colfer), wearing the world-weary humor known to gay boys everywhere and a look reminiscent of early k.d. lang; Mercedes (Amber Riley), determined to be Beyonce (though Jennifer Hudson comes more easily to mind); Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), a skater-punk Asian girl with a stutter; and Artie (Kevin McHale), the geeky wheelchair-bound jazz guitarist.

Together they occupy, in the words of cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the subbasement of the school's caste system.

Lynch alone makes "Glee" worth watching. All by her lonesome, Sue summons up what is most feared, loathed and secretly admired in a high school teacher-coach, running the Cheerios, a high-pressure, high-performing cheerleading squad, like an East German gymnastic team. "Get the agony out of your eyes," she shouts at one practice. "You think this is hard? I'm living with hepatitis. That's hard."

Providing gentle, but steely contrast is Emma (Jayma Mays), the limpid-eyed, germaphobic teacher who clearly hearts Will. Following her advice, Will "recruits" quarterback and general stud Finn (Cory Monteith), a young man with a passion for excellence and, it turns out, Journey.

Together the nascent group faces many trials, including peer pressure and the Amy Winehouse-rockin' local competition, all while Will struggles to figure out if his desire to lead the group comes from a true calling to teach or the need to relive his own high school glory days.

Oh, yes, they do all this with the aid of musical numbers.

It's been a long time since we've seen singin' and dancin' on a network series, and there's a reason.

Musicals are hard to do, especially in these jaded times -- one misstep and you're bogged down in camp. (See please "Viva Laughlin.")

But Murphy and his team wisely keep the performances to actual performances -- in the pilot anyway, no one goes operatic, revealing secret thoughts through song. (After tonight's preview, the quirky musical comedy program will begin airing after the "So You Think You Can Dance" results show on Wednesdays.)

"Glee" also has a gorgeous sense of pacing, with oddball visuals -- a steel drum band, the gum on Emma's shoe -- breaking up what can so often become a predictable pattern of dialogue, dialogue, action, song.

The music, though by no means edgy, is energetic with a wide audience appeal, like the show itself. The themes, like the songs, are adult without being too "mature" (i.e. sexual and/or profane).

Which isn't to say "Glee" is tame. McKinley is no East High -- kids are mean, their jokes are crude, there are sexual situations and with Murphy running things, anything could happen.

But this version of the roiling crucible that is high school feels real enough to be insightful, but inspired enough to be joyful. Which is, as Will points out, the very definition of Glee.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Glee'

Where: Fox

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG-DLS (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sexual situations)

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