Successful TV writer and self-confessed “Gleek” Lisa Holdsworth on why she can’t get enough of a show about singing American teenagers.
There is not much that I envy the Americans.
I don’t want their obesity problems, ridiculous politics and love of guns. There is one thing that I do covet though; the schmaltz. Now, I love our cynical, sarcastic, hard-as-nails British attitude to all things emotional. However, sometimes I do long for a bit of misty-eyed, open hearted sentiment, especially at this festive time of year. And that is why I love Glee.
Glee is the smash hit, multi-award-winning US series about a misfit group of students who form a ‘show choir’ or glee club. If you haven’t seen the show it is an engaging mix of high school romance, edgy dialogue and outrageous characters all punctuated with eye-popping musical numbers. The Glee cast have released their second Christmas album and it is everything that you could want from a Christmas album. The opening track, a belting version of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas (Is You), is a statement of intent.
By the time I got to the last track I was merry, bright and had salty tears dripping down my face. This is a shameless album of impeccable harmonies and evocative song choices. There are also spot-on versions of Santa Baby, Little Drummer Boy and Blue Christmas all sung with verve.
There are also some more off-the-wall choices such as a great cover of The Go-Gos’ Christmas Wrapping and a truly heart-swelling, note-perfect take on Joni Mitchell’s River. But then I didn’t expect anything else.
From the moment E4 broadcast the first episode of the show back in 2009, I was a fully paid-up Glee fan or ‘Gleek’. I’d heard mixed reviews for the show as it aired in the US. Some thought it was a cynical cash-in on the High School Musical-watching, Bieber-worshipping tweeniebopper market whilst others saw something much more subversive. After all, it was developed and written by Ryan Murphy, the creator of the distinctly adult plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck. I watched with interest that turned into joy and then enduring loyalty.
There was something in this show that spoke to the lonely teenager that still lurks inside all of us. This Gleek is in her late thirties but an hour a week I am sixteen again. It is Fame, a show I also worshipped, for the 21st century. It is also the latest edition to the list of great American teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Those shows that look so slick next to the UK’s Grange Hill and Waterloo Road, a show I have written for. It is often said that American dramas portray teenagers how they see themselves; profound, emotionally mature and misunderstood. Meanwhile, British screenwriters show teenagers how adults see them; sulky, unreasonable and childish.
Glee’s recurring theme is social exclusion. The members of the Glee club are not the cool kids with the best legwarmers. They are the fat girl, the inarticulate boy, the wheelchair user and the pregnant cheerleader. They are a mixed-ability, multicultural choir that has a veritable rainbow of straight, gay, lesbian and bisexual members. And every week they come together to make beautiful music.
It is the music that has been the key to Glee’s success. Previous TV series such as Fame or the horrendous British takes on the genre such as Britannia High and Rock Rivals had original songs written for them. Glee’s masterstroke has been to use popular songs that the audience can already sing along with. And the song choices are inspired although they often sound like they come from ‘a drag queen’s iPod’.
The mix of Broadway belters, eighties classics and power ballads has meant that in 2009 the cast had 25 singles in the US Billboard charts, the most since the Beatles set the record in 1964 with 31 singles and they’ve covered a couple of Lennon-McCartney tunes too. In the age of the instant digital download, the show also has a positive effect on the original version of the songs which often chart after being on the show. All seven of the Glee cast albums are in my car’s CD changer. While in my protective Peugeot bubble I am a truly great singer who hits every note. When passing Pontefract, I often consider going professional.
My love of this show came to a crescendo this summer when I crossed the Pennines to see Glee Live in Manchester. My long-suffering sister-in-law drew the short straw and sat there open-mouthed as she watched me scream, sing and cry with the sheer excitement of being within chucking distance of those all-singing, all-dancing teens. I think she lost all respect for me that evening.
In my heart of hearts, I know that those ‘quirky’ teenagers are well-groomed, auto-tuned twenty-five year olds with years of stage school experience. I know that McKinley High doesn’t exist. And as a TV professional, I know that those ‘impromptu’ musical numbers take a week of rehearsal, two days in the recording studio and three days to shoot. I know that I am being emotionally manipulated by the nostalgic song selections and stories about standing up to bullies and ‘being your own person’. And I don’t care.
The only negative emotion I feel when I watch the show is jealousy because I know we’ll never produce anything as joyful and unashamedly schmaltzy on television in this country. All the things that can make British TV great – its edge, cynicism and emotional truth – are exactly the things that prevent us from making our own Glee. But that’s fine, the Yanks are doing it so that we don’t have to. So, don’t to rain on my parade and let me enjoy my schmaltz this Christmas.
The power of the Glee effect
Celebrity Gleeks include Richard Eyre, Gordon Brown, Wayne Rooney and Barack Obama, who invited the cast to the White House.
In 2010 Glee won a Golden Globe for Best TV Show – the same year it had more songs in the Billboard Charts than any act since The Beatles.
The show has featured episodes dedicated to the music of Lady Gaga and Madonna.
Creator Ryan Murphy, who wrote the show from personal experence, said: “It’s like High School Musical written by evil people.”