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An hour-long drama that is as character-centered as "Glee" needs to develop its characters, and let them learn something, or at least expose more of themselves. How long can Finn stay so stupid about Quinn's pregnancy?
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/13/2009 3:44:36 PM ET 2009-10-13T19:44:36

Fox's “Glee” has only aired a half-dozen episodes, but it has already established a rabid fan base. Because creativity and frivolity is so rare on network television, those fans have latched on to the over-the-top satire of high school life told through a glee club.

“Glee” is a fantastic show. It's also getting worse.

The five new fall episodes have offered more of what “Glee” first introduced last spring, starting with fantastically over-the-top musical numbers with their obvious lip-syncing and amusing choreography, never mind the dramatic lighting and staging that appears from nowhere.

Episodes have also been full of quick, witty dialogue; ridiculously absurd moments; and obvious but still cutting satire, like the high school's celibacy club president getting pregnant. It's also tackled some touchy subjects, from performance-enhancing drugs to teenage premature ejaculation, and found its way into some emotional and rich moments.

The best example of that so far was Kurt's coming out to his friends and then his father, which was a great moment. It worked so well because an actually dramatic moment was paired with the series' brand of ridiculous fun, in this case the football team's choreographed performance of Beyonce's “Single Ladies” during a game, which ended with Kurt dancing his way to kicking the winning field goal.

Balancing out “Glee's” disparate elements — the insane and the emotionally resonant — works quite well, but it's not happening consistently. The characters, though, are too consistent.

Video: ‘Glee’ star takes quiz With a few exceptions, the actors deliver strong performances, but none is better than Jane Lynch, who could read a greeting card and make it sound cynical and jaded. As Sue Sylvester, Cheerios coach and the series' villain, Lynch is completely self-absorbed and relentless in pursuit of her goals, all while being endlessly, viciously sarcastic. Her matter-of-factness is hilarious: “Me? Never wanted kids. Don't have the time, don't have the uterus.”

As much fun as it is to watch Lynch do her shtick, she hasn't had anything other than that to do since episode one, and that's the show's major problem: “Glee” hasn't changed much from its first episode, and what was once truly gleeful is rapidly becoming repetitive.

Stereotypical characters need depth
In some ways, the series is like a procedural drama such as “CSI.” Those work for a season or two without their characters going through much growth or change because there's a mystery of the week to solve. When that formula gets tired, procedural dramas focus more on their characters' personalities, which often alienates fans.

Video: Behind the scenes “Glee” doesn't have a mystery of the week, but with its rich characters, has an opportunity those shows do not. Instead of letting its characters become more vivid and real, it's chosen to splash around in the shallow end of the pool of stereotypes.

While Sue Sylvester doesn't necessarily need to grow or change who she is, she does need to become more complicated, or at least more understandable.

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Many of the characters are, at their cores, stereotypes: Finn, the popular but dumb jock; Mercedes, the African-American diva; Kurt, the flamboyant gay kid; Artie, the nerd in the wheelchair; and so on. Those are OK starting points for a show that's trying to mock high school archetypes by embracing them, but it should be that: a starting point, not what we see every week.

But many of the characters have quickly become one-note, and some are downright offensive in their pandering to stereotypes. For example, glee club adviser Will's wife, Terri, as played by Jessalyn Gilsig, speaks in an excruciating baby voice as she embodies negative stereotypes of women with her desperate, manipulative, insane behavior (drugging students, lying to her husband about her pregnancy).

Stephen Tobolowsky's character, Sandy, however, is simply inexcusable: a pedophile played for laughs who confirms bigoted audience members' fears about men who are more feminine than masculine. It's incomprehensible that a show that is so progressive with its stories about a gay character, Kurt, would include another who embodies such a false stereotype, never mind making light of that.

An hour-long drama that is as character-centered as “Glee” needs to develop its characters, and let them learn something, or at least expose more of themselves. Is Rachel really going to quit glee club and come back every time the writers need something to happen during an episode? And how long can Finn stay so stupid about Quinn's pregnancy?

Probably as long as Will, who is as self-centered and clueless as he was in episode one, can remain ignorant about his wife's fake pregnancy. Last week, he snapped, unwilling to tolerate her manipulation any longer, telling her she is “oblivious to consequences.” That's “Glee” moving in the right direction, letting its characters respond and shift rather than simply react.

That kind of forward momentum is what the show desperately needs, not just another musical number. Mild quirkiness alone won't keep it moving. Instead of purposeful routines like “Single Ladies,” there are an increasing number of musical numbers that dance by without any emotional hook. On the Oct. 7 episode, two pseudoephedrine-fueled mash-up numbers were fun, but didn't contribute much beyond exposing Terri's drug-pushing.

“Glee” is a series that often sacrifices realism for fun, but it can't keep using one-note characters to act out recycled plot lines (teenage pregnancy, jealous wife, unrequited love) and expect that its wit or musical numbers will save it.

Ultimately, “Glee” feels like it's fighting hard not to be “Popular,” creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy's first television series. The 1999 WB network show combined drama and comedy and was also set in a high school, and also featured battles between the popular cheerleaders and outcasts, and one episode even featured a musical number.

But while “Popular” took satire and absurdity to ever-increasing levels throughout its two seasons, from its characters' names (Cherry Cherry, Poppy Fresh, Sugar Daddy) to its plot lines, "Glee" is trying too hard to be a mainstream show that happens to be quirky.

Trying to merge the sensibilities of “Popular” and “High School Musical” isn't working for “Glee.” As a result, it's drowning in stereotypes and digging itself into a rut that will be more and more difficult to get out of.

The real problem is that “Glee” is holding back, which is ironic considering that its central premise is about being true to yourself. “Glee” knows what it is, and just needs to really embrace its inner gleek.

Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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Video: Cast of 'Glee' tells their secrets


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