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Monday, May 25, 2009

We watched the GLEE pilot. I was surprised at how rough it was. There were a lot of what seemed to me like beginner's mistakes, which may account for the plunging ratings over the course of the airing. (According to Entertainment Weekly,"it held on to less than half of its tailor-made Idol lead-in and, more worrisome, dropped 3.5 million viewers over the course of the 60 minutes.")

SPOILERS...

1. It's a show about a high school glee club and the teacher who supervises it. Yet, weirdly, the teaser showed cheerleaders going through their paces, and ended with the cheerleading coach telling them, "You think this is hard? Waterboarding is hard." What? No glee club. No glee club teacher. The teaser for a pilot for a series wants to be the series in microcosm. It either shows you who it's about -- Meredith Grey waking up from her one-night stand and then discovering he's a doctor at her new hospital -- or it shows you what it's about -- the clever BUFFY pilot teaser which shows you that vampires are alive and well, uh, or at least well, in Sunnydale's high school.

2. Then you want to quickly set up the driving question for the episode, so we know what we're rooting for. The episode ends with the glee club teacher deciding to coach glee club after doubting whether he should, because his wife wants him to be an accountant, not a teacher. Therefore Screenwriting 101 tells you that the episode needs to start with that question: can he / should he / dare he coach glee club? Because we want to be rooting for the eventual ending.

Instead, it starts with glee club auditions. And then the hero volunteers to coach glee club. Even offers to pay $60 a month to do it. (Huh?) It doesn't become clear that coaching glee club will be a problem for him until act 3 or 4 or so. So we're not rooting for him to coach, because he already is coaching. Instead, we're rooting for the club to win a regional competition, because we're told that the club will be canceled otherwise. That's different jeopardy.

Meanwhile, the audition sequence belonged to a pilot where there was no glee club to begin with. Tragically, though, we didn't get to hear anyone sing except the kids who were chosen. It's always fun to watch people audition badly. That's one of those Sequences that Always Work. But if the pilot is supposed to be about whether this teacher will get up the gumption to coach glee club, then you don't have auditions because there already is a glee club. If there isn't a glee club already, then we don't really need to worry about glee club being shut down because there wasn't one to begin with!

If you are going to end with the glee club teacher braving his wife's displeasure (!) to coach glee club after all, then you'd think the story would be something like this: previous glee club teacher is fired for feeling up a student. Principal says "we're going to have to shut down glee club unless we can find someone qualified to coach it." Hero teacher says, "I can't afford to do this permanently but I'll do it until someone qualified comes along." And then he comes to love the kids and when they finally say, "we can't find anyone permanent, we're going to shut it down" he finally decides to do it.

Oh, and you have to throw in some better obstacles to his saying yes. Not "we can't find a space to sing in." The club is a mess. The kids hate each other. They fight over parts. They're singing the wrong parts for their voices. They sound like crap. They're all on the verge of quitting.

3. Be brave. The show is supposedly about what misfits glee club kids are. And they've got a bunch of misfits: geek in a wheelchair, sassy fat black chick, Asian lesbian, suspiciously high-voiced effeminate boy. And we all love misfits who succeed, because most of us have felt like misfits at one point or another. But what happens is that the teacher blackmails a handsome football player into joining glee club because he heard the guy sing in the shower, and no one will support the glee club unless the "popular kids" are in it. So now the fantasy is ruined. The moral stops being "you can sing your way out of being a loser" and now it's "only handsome jocks need apply." It doesn't help that the handsome jock can't actually sing anywhere near as well as the effeminate boy. Meanwhile, the sassy fat black girl (! what is this, the 80's?) with the killer voice gets relegated to backing vocals because, um, she's a fat black girl.

What if the lead guy is more like Adam Lambert? Instead of a handsome jock, he's a pudgy red-headed bisexual kid who gets the crap beaten out of him? But onstage he becomes a star. And the sassy fat black girl is the lead girl?

That show I'd watch.

I know, America voted for Kris Allen. But I don't think Kris Allen can carry a show. He's nice enough, but no one tunes in every week for "nice enough." And there were 32 million votes for Adam Lambert. Who knows how many actual voters there were (those 12 year old girls are pretty handy with their text messaging), but there ought to be enough to carry a show.

4. You sure you want this show to be about a teacher? Is that some kind of weird co-viewing deal because it's a 9 pm show? the show seemed confused about this, too. The two cute white singers got a backstory sequence each, complete with voice over. The teacher didn't. The fat sassy black chick, the Asian lesbian, the effeminate kid and the cripple don't get any introduction at all. We spend a lot of time with the teacher and his wife, whom we're supposed to hate; could we spend some of that time getting to know the students in the glee club, and in particular, setting up a love triangle or two in there?

It's theoretically a show about a glee club, but the kids spend almost no time interacting with each other. So it comes across as a show about a mopey high school teacher who's trying to relive his glory days as a high school glee club star. Which, let's face it, is a bit pathetic.

If you're chasing the tween and teen audiences, especially the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL audience, why on Earth would you make it about the teacher instead of the kids?

5. Tone. Was this show trying to be a realistic drama? Or a campy send-up? The teachers seemed cartoonishly fun. But we're actually supposed to take the handsome jock's angst seriously. But the jock bullies are outlandishly vicious. (Seriously, picking on kid in a wheelchair?) But we're supposed to believe they're real. I remember watching ROBIN HOOD PRINCE OF THIEVES and thinking that I'd like to watch the movie Alan Rickman was in, but I wasn't very interested in the movie Kevin Costner was in. The characters didn't seem like they were in the same TV show.

6. Period. Relegating all the minorities to supporting characters? What is this, the 90's? Myspace pages? Isn't that, like, so fifteen minutes ago?


I don't think this show will be on the air long. But it was certainly instructive to watch. It's often easier to learn from a show's mistakes than from its successes, because the mistakes show where the seams are.

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18 Comments:

I watched it the other day and was amazed by all these things, too.

But more than anything I was surpised by how frenetic it was. I felt like I was watching E.R. in 1996. It's high school glee club for christsake.

By Blogger Dan, at 12:21 PM  

Boy! Been reading the blog for about six months. I can't recall reading a post even half this good. This was like a sizzling, juicy steak! Thanks, and well done (re: the writing, not the steak)!

By OpenID waiternotes, at 1:17 PM  

Not having seen the pilot myself ...

Your criticisms sound entirely valid, but I'm not sure I like your solutions. What you propose sounds like any number of sports movies (big green, bad news bears, etc), except that the sport is glee club and its a TV show. If they did what you suggested, then it would be a well done execution of an overused concept. I would probably watch it, but only because there isn't enough quality original programming out there.

That said, I can see two reasons why you chose to go with the stereotypical solution. One, if you were to provide them with more original solutions, you would want to get paid, and rightfully so. Two, the point here seems to be to teach those of us without much experience the basics, and comparing the flawed execution with the standard model we are already familiar with helps us to understand why things are typically done the way they are more so than providing a third solution.

I appreciate the lessons you provided here, and yes, I would probably watch the show you described. But I'm still looking for something more original.

By Blogger Richard, at 1:22 PM  

@Richard: thanks for being understanding. Yes, the examples are for illustration purposes only. If I had actually written the pilot, I'd have come up with cleverer stuff. I'd probably have chucked out the whole Bad News Bear trope entirely. Do we need to see another band of misfits win?

And are the cheerleaders really, truly on top of the social hierarchy? Is there even a social hierarchy in real high schools outside of Texas?

But then I'd spend months on the script, not half an hour.

On the other hand, there's a difference between formula and structure. When we know how the setup's going to be paid off, that's formula. But simply paying off the setup is just "delivering the goods." Don't be embarrassed about delivering the goods. The details with which you do it is what separates smart writing from dull writing.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:03 PM  

first off, love the site alex!


you are right about glee...but, i am going to give ryan murphy and company the benefit of the doubt and assume that this pilot was just to introduce us to everyone that will be in the glee universe....

i mean, he gave us POPULAR and that was such a very piercing, and underrated (and underseen) show about high school politics and hierarchy.

and high schools outside of texas: no, cheerleaders aren't at the top of the social hierarchy....

at least at the high school i went to, it was the really rich kids who ran the school...everyone else came afterwards...but, i didnt know..i was too busy enjoying outcastdom and dropping sarcasm and wit bombs on everyone else around me! :)

but, its a definitely change in tone from what we do see in tv these days....

By Blogger Ryan Canty, at 3:37 PM  

oh yea and your comment on minority characters? DEAD ON...

then again, this IS network tv i mean, how often are minority characters (or, i prefer to say, characters of color, since i'm of color and i'm not minor in any way...ooh, way to go on the positive affirmations tip! wee! :))

a. three dimensional
b. well written
c. written period

i felt that Mercedes (aka sassy fat black girl) had A LOT more going on than meets the eye...she makes clothes? why is she making clothes? something going on at home, etc.

and yes the jock and the lead girl got backstories and no one else did...

its pretty clear WHO will be carrying this series, its just sad because they aren't EVEN the most interesting characters in the cast...

im hoping its on for at least a season...though you may be right. it may not last...

By Blogger Ryan Canty, at 3:45 PM  

I'm glad I wasn't off in thinking that it was a big mistake to open with the cheerleaders. Not only did I think it misrepresented the show overall, I felt like they stayed on the cheer for way too long. I'd have changed the station if I hadn't known what the show was really about.

However, it's interesting to me that the uncut version of the pilot actually started in the past with the teacher singing at a championship with his high school glee club. We see how much he enjoyed it and the teacher who supervised it then when we zoom to the future he's looking at their old trophy and a picture memorial of the old glee club teacher. Within the first few minutes of that pilot, I understood why this teacher would volunteer to run Glee Club and why I might care to see him do it.

I don't know why they chose to change it and cut that entire scene but I think it worked much better the other way.

That uncut version also contained longer intros to all of the glee club kids. I think they should have kept those and trimmed some of the teacher/wife and other teacher interactions.

By Blogger Rae, at 4:56 PM  

Well, that's interesting, Rae. Where'd you see the original pilot?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:10 PM  

you know i was at a message board where a few people had seen the original version of Glee and said it addressed much of what Rae said and like someone else said in this post, gave longer intros on the kids...

i wonder why FOX didnt go with this version...

By Blogger Ryan Canty, at 5:18 PM  

You know, I THOUGHT it all felt like stuff had been chopped out of it. I just couldn't figure out how there had been a longer version.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:56 PM  

This is a really helpful analysis, especially for those of us who are writing pilots (it actually made me realized I have almost nothing at stake in my pilot - ouch).

I think there's a lot of potential here, especially if they go for the full-on campy-meets-screwball let's-put-on-a-show vibe. However, the thing that really irked me during the pilot was how so many of the characterizations felt directly lifted from other movies and TV shows about high school. And not with a wink (like Bring It On, Mean Girls or Better Off Dead), but a thud. The cruelty of the jocks, for instance, was overplayed but in a way-too-serious way that made me feel like the producers were just ticking off a "mean jocks" box.

I also wonder if Fox is the best network for this show. It seems more suited to ABC Family, which seems to specialize in kooky-yet-family-friendly light dramas.

I do have to say, though, that I was totally inspired by the rendition of "Don't Stop Believing" at the end, and that will probably ensure that I will watch again.

By Blogger Raz, at 12:09 AM  

the pilot Fox aired is really more of a chopped up version of the actual pilot which is a lot more cohesive and much much better. (several scenes were cut and the whole first act has practically been re-edited) it's floating around online if you wanna see it. The most probable reasons this was done was due to timing issues, especially coming after the bloated American Idol finale

By Blogger Joseph, at 12:28 AM  

The director's cut will air on Fox just before the season will start. That's what they say on gleetv (the tweet feed from the producers/writers).

I can't say I disagree with you on all the points you've made. They're dead on but at the same time, I want to see what the teacher will do and what jayma mays will do and if jessalyn gilsig will die a horrible death in the second episode.
Also, I watched the pilot and smiled all the way. I'd rather see that any time than some other teen show; plus it's musical an i love those and it's Ryan Murphy and he gave us Popular. His pilot for popular wasn't that good either but it worked. Let's hope you're wrong on its future.
And everyone who saw the pilot liked it to some extent. Not obsessively like on ew.com but still liked it. So it's working.

By Blogger Skyfleur, at 9:44 AM  

There are actually three versions of the pilot that I know of. The original unedited version, the one Fox sent out for screening, and the one that aired.

I know about the unedited version, though, because it was in the version of the pilot script that I read. The screener that I saw from Fox still started with the cheerleaders but included other scenes that got cut from the aired version, most notably Matthew Morrison - the teacher - singing


One of the EP's, Dante Di Loreto (twitter.com/gleetv), says they plan to air a director's cut of the pilot before the next new episode in the Fall. I'm not sure which of the longer versions that would be but I'm guessing it's probably the same as the screener Fox sent out.

By Blogger Rae, at 10:14 AM  

WTF is a Glee Club anyway?

By Blogger Rob, at 11:07 AM  

I was reading your post, my eyebrows going up in a 'wooooooah, what?' kind of way after your criticisms, wondering why it felt like you didn't get the pilot at all...

...and then I read the comments, where I learned that the pre-air pilot I'd seen was a thousand times better than the one that aired, apparently. I doubt all of your issues with it are 'fixed' (the tonal issues, for example), but a lot of them are:

* The original opened with the flashback to Will's being in Glee Club as a kind and loving it, including a Glee perfomance of "That's the Way I Like It" only minutes into the episode.
* I don't believe anything happened with the cheerleaders until later on after Glee Club had a terrible practice
* The auditions were an odd floating point in the original, too, but I believe it was implied that the club had to completely restart after Ryerson was dumped, and these three were the only ones who showed
* As for the jock worship, I got a completely different sense of it. Though him becoming the perfect male lead was problematic, it felt as if the show was equating in = out; either way, you're in a box and you don't have many options unless you choose to fight it. I do wish the female lead were someone like Mercedes, but Michele Lea is so amazing I'm not making too big a stink. Since this is a TV show and not a movie, I expect we'll get material for the whole cast later on.
* The teacher was both an obvious and a sympathetic lead. It sounds like both his big flashback and his solo musical number were cut from this version, which sucks big time.

I'm tempted to see what aired, just to see how they could've butchered it so badly from the wonderful pilot I'd watched.

By Blogger The Alden, at 10:20 AM  

It's quite simple really... Had you been in Glee Club/Choir you'd understand the show perfectly. Those who were a part of it can't explain it and those who were not can't understand it. So feel free to criticize all you want, but this show touch people deeply and you just can't change that.

By Blogger Zack, at 12:45 PM  

@Zack: if a TV show depends on viewers having had that particular experience in order to appreciate the show, it's going to fail. I like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and I have never played football or lived in a small Texas town. It's the job of the creators to open up their fictional world to the mainstream audience.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:32 PM  

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