'Glee' and 'The Choir': How Reality Ruined Me
Any scripted TV show or movie requires suspension of disbelief -- that delicate equilibrium in which the viewer consents to accept what's on the screen as the reality of the fictional universe, whether or not it bears any resemblance to the actual universe.
Therefore, starships travel faster than light in "Star Trek," smoke monsters eat people in "Lost," and round, schlubby men always get hot wives in any of several primetime sitcoms.
But, once the suspension of disbelief has been disrupted, it's hard to recapture, especially when the fictional universe winds up coming in a distant second to the real thing.
Here's the first time it happened to me.
I started out as an avid "ER" watcher but bailed on the medical melodrama as soon as George Clooney left in 1999. Truthfully, I started to drift away emotionally a couple of years before that, and Clooney was the only thing keeping me around.
Why, you may ask?
In 1997, TLC premiered "Trauma: Life in the E.R.," a riveting, high-quality reality-documentary series set in various Level One trauma centers and high-profile emergency rooms around the country (you can still see it on cablenet Discovery Health). It came on the air as a real-world answer to "ER," but in the end, it just killed "ER" for me.
The show's depiction of trauma and big-city emergency rooms was just as dramatic as the fictional one, but the real doctors and nurses were vastly more interesting, dynamic, varied and surprising. Fictional characters have to live within constructs, but real people have no such limitations.
It quickly became evident to me that most of the medical professionals who populate this world love the challenge and the rush of what they do -- as horrible and tragic as it can be -- and if they didn't love it anymore, they'd probably transfer to another part of the hospital.
I just utterly lost patience with the angst and personal travails of the "ER" characters (especially when they discussed them over the top of a patient). All the soap-opera aspects that drew me into the show in the first place now seemed trivial, boring and silly in comparison with what I saw of the real thing.
So, when Clooney bid adieu, so did I.
Obviously, the vast majority of the show's fans didn't feel this way, since "ER" continued to live on for many, many successful seasons. But, TLC's show had minuscule ratings compared to network shows, and I wonder what would have happened if all of "ER's" viewers had also watched "Trauma." Who knows?
Now it's happened again.
In May of 2009, I, like millions of others, fell in love with the plucky Ohio teens of Fox's musical-dramedy "Glee," as they came together under a dedicated music teacher (Matthew Morrison) to revive McKinley High School's show-choir program.
When it returned in the fall of 2009, I loved it just as much, becoming an enthusiastic and dedicated "Gleek." Then the show took a break and resumed in the spring, but something was missing.
Several of the episodes seemed to have lost the energy, spark and charm of those that came before. It felt less fresh, more contrived (not that all musicals aren't contrived, but the best ones somehow don't feel that way), less dramatically compelling.
But the show had a strong first-season finale, and I was hopeful for the fall of 2010, but then came "The Choir." There have been three brief seasons of this documentary series in the U.K., and lucky U.S. viewers got them all at once.
In early July, BBC America premiered the British series about choirmaster Gareth Malone -- who is cute as a button but has a spine of steel -- coming into a rough school with no music program and trying to create a choir. Over four episodes, the goal was to get Northolt Phoenix Choir to the World Choir Games in China.
In the five-episode second season, "Boys Don't Sing," Malone headed to the all-boys Lancaster School to revive its lost musical tradition and eventually take his lads to perform at the Royal Albert Hall.
(Click here for a video of the boys singing Sting's "Fields of Gold" for their friends and family.)
Then in the final four episodes, Malone came to the blue-collar suburb of South Oxhey, determined to create a community choir, a children's choir and, eventually, a singing group of young men led by boxer and local hero, Matty Leonard.
The "Glee" season premiere arrived from Fox on DVD during this last run of "Choir" episodes, and I dutifully popped it in. After a summer of watching Malone struggle with real amateurs and outcasts (including kids with significant emotional and social problems), cajoling them, occasionally chastising them, inspiring them, changing their lives and turning them into a cohesive, joyful unit -- well, "Glee" had lost its sparkle.
The characters seemed less real and more caricature, and the musical numbers, while well-performed, didn't hit me at an emotional place.
I found myself yearning for a little Malone in the mix.
Since that episode, I haven't been back (and frankly, the Britney Spears episode, added to previous Madonna and Lady Gaga ones, was no inducement).
Malone and "The Choir" showed me the true transformative power of singing, especially on the lives of those who have little exposure to music training or the arts in general.
That's what "Glee" had at the beginning of its first season, but I don't see that anymore. Again, fictional characters have to follow trajectories that real ones don't, and a 20-plus-episode season of a scripted show is a very different animal than a short-run documentary series. But I just don't buy into the fictional reality of "Glee" anymore.
And, the first "Glee" of the new season gave me no joy, and the joy is what I loved about it in the first place.
I haven't entirely given up; I may come back. But the show doesn't make me smile anymore -- not in the way that "The Choir" did (or, interestingly enough, "Dancing With the Stars" still does, at its best).
On Oct. 26, "Glee" is doing songs from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and I might tune in for that.
If that's a bust, though, I may have to bid "Glee" goodbye for good.
But again, the audience doesn't seem to have a problem, as the show continues going great guns. Also, however it compares to the real thing, it may be sparking just the interest in singing among kids out in the real world that Malone did -- and if that's true, Godspeed "Glee."