In TV writing, the trick is to make each episode seem different using the same characters and story elements in different combinations. It’s Sudoku with words, and it’s the most time consuming part of your job (it also makes you age in dog years, but that’s a story for another day).
You spend so much time on the mechanics of storytelling, you end up watching TV as I imagine a magician watches magic: knowing the trick, but judging the execution. In my case, out loud: giving away plots, scoffing at hackneyed stories, jumping punch lines and otherwise enhancing the viewing experience for everyone involved. Making Remarks, as my mother used to say: “Why can’t you just let me enjoy this, Mike? Why do you always have to make a remark?”
My wife and daughter are also not fans of Making Remarks. I pass through the family room like a pariah while they’re watching TV; they freeze like lizards caught in the open and watch me out of the corners of their eyes, praying that I won’t engage. It’s like being single all over again. Ironically, those awkward silences helped suck me into the vortex of “Glee.” (For those of you who have been off planet, “Glee” is a rainbow coalition of twenty-somethings masquerading as teen-somethings, all jazz hands and happy feet – or wheels – experiencing the awkwardness of adolescence, as we all did, through a series of elaborate production numbers.)
Most episodes are homogenized for a mass audience at the expense of everything that would make them interesting, the 2011 equivalent of Pat Boone singing Little Richard, but with dialog.
For instance, the gay countertenor deliberately misses the money note of “Defying Gravity” during an aggressively antiseptic sing-off with the Streisand-worshipping diva (natch) to protect his father, unnecessarily (also natch), from harassment. The same kid joins the football team to prove he’s a real man to this same father then, counter intuitively, teaches his teammates the “All the Single Ladies” dance, which they use to distract the opposition as he kicks the winning field goal. Because that happens, right?
I know what you’re thinking: it’s crazy my wife doesn’t want to watch TV with me. But you know what? Being insufferable doesn’t make you wrong.
However. Just when I’m convinced “Glee” proves H. L. Mencken’s maxim that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, it taunts me with something wonderful. Jane Lynch’s Snidely Whiplash villain reads “Good Night, Moon” to her Down syndrome older sister while snuggling on the sister’s bed, comfortable as two old shoes. The understated performance and the mislead of burying it in an episode-closing montage makes it hit you like a rabbit punch instead of the usual club over the head. It’s a magnificent moment, real live art. Lynch builds on this in a flashier way in a later episode when she goes mad with grief when her sister dies and goes right to the brink of destroying her carefully constructed life.
The most transcendent moments come from Kristin Chenoweth, who recurs as an alcoholic ex-glee club star. She saves one episode by making “Home,” the anthem from “The Wiz,” a better song than the authors could have dreamed, with an incandescent vocal performance. I was transported, and I don’t even like the song. She and Matthew Morrison (who plays Will Schuester, the Hellman’s mayonnaise of glee club directors) are in a scene that is at once the best and worst of “Glee.” He is newly separated. She shows up on his doorstep, shakily sober, frightened after leaving her decades-older sugar daddy. He lets her sleep over, celibately. She wants Schuester; Schuester wants his wife. “Glee” is a musical. They sing.
Their mash-up, “One Less Bell to Answer” and “A House is Not a Home,” hits the bull’s eye every musical aims at: creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Burt Bacharach’s melodies are perfectly matched to Hal David’s heartbroken and heartbreaking lyrics. Chenoweth’s flawless voice and acting elevate both. Morrison’s usually inoffensive-but-undistinguished voice echoes her heartache. The camera floats above, around and between them, following them in and out of rooms, making us privileged witnesses to their ordeals. If it’s possible for anything in television to be breathtaking, this is it. And so it is the best of “Glee,” but it also highlights what the show could be and all too often isn’t.
Drug addicts endure endless misery, chasing the memory of that one perfect high. The dragon I chase with “Glee” is the dragon I chase with all television: the feeling of those rare moments of transcendence.
I could talk about this for hours, but I need to get going. It’s Aerosmith Night at my favorite karaoke bar.
If only I were joking.
And to answer your question, yes, if I had been in glee club with Kristen Chenoweth, I would have handcuffed myself to her until she loved me.
Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.