up and down the bou-le-vard-

10/11/09

Here’s my experiment – I’d like to make each Monday on the blog into Writer Mondays, where the subject matter will be scripts, novels, TV shows, plays and other stuff what’s written down. Since I can so rarely talk about the business I’m in, this’ll be a way I can do it without getting into trouble. Don’t worry, accountants and podiatrists, even if you haven’t been watching the show (or read the novel, etc.) we’re talking about, it will still be interesting in general, dammit.

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I’ve meant to do this for a while, but my brother Sean wrote a blog today about the show “Glee” that was awesome, and also needed responding to at from in. (See kids? You’re already learning how to write!)

You should read it first, once you have, let me respond to it point by point:

1. Sean claims that the football team being the “popular kids” in Glee’s high school rings utterly false, noting that in real life, the truly popular were “rich kids who got good grades and didn’t fucking care about *ANYTHING*, let alone football.” Fair enough – in fact, the poster child for that kind of popular would be James Spader in “Pretty in Pink”, who would never have played any sport not occurring on the north slopes of Chamonix and Megève.

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In my own high school, I’d have to say that the “popular” kids in my grade were both football players and rich and didn’t care about anything, even football. Same goes for the cheerleaders, except the ones selling nabs between classes. But I’m willing to give “Glee” a break here, as they have to keep a lot of balls in the air, and it’s just easier on both audience (and producer) if you go with the old cliché.

In fact, given that many high schools do actually drop-kick their music and art departments but have no problem buying whirlpools and new uniforms for the sports teams, it doesn’t seem like it’s too far off the mark, at least in terms of priorities.

2. Sean also has a problem with calling it “Glee Club” when it’s actually a “show choir”. This is absolutely true – as my mom says, “glee clubs” were already dated when my mom was in college, and had already changed their names to “Men’s Choir” by 1950. When I think of “glee clubs”, I think of dandies in double-breasted suits singing about the Harvard-Yale game of ’21.

However, you can’t deny that “Glee” isn’t a great name for a show, and the ad campaign with the “loser ‘L'” is pretty awesome. “Show Choir” is okay as a name, but when presented a choice between okay and great, you go with great every time and let the details slide. Which brings us to…

4. Sean says that “Glee” lets almost all the details slide – the sexual politics, the confusing skill set of the kid in the wheelchair, the relevance of the music… but where I agree with him most is what’s known as “sound design”.

Every time they launch into a song, unnamed high school kids magically appear playing cornets, sax, violins, drums, glockenspiels and whatever else the song needs. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for that, as it’s a hyper-realized, somewhat magical musical theater motif a la “Grease”, when John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John start singing at the carnival.

But the computerized vocal correction and super-compressed post-processing – in other words, the stuff that makes it sound like they’re in a recording studio rather than the lunchroom – is cringe-worthy. In fact, it’s embarrassing, given that some of the actors here have Broadway training (others were professional singers/dancers) and all could have easily hit their notes.

Sure, it wouldn’t sound technically as good if they sang it as they were acting, but the obvious chasm between their speaking parts and their singing parts robs the audience of a true connection. It wouldn’t have been that hard – sing it for real, then make a few corrections in post-production if anything stands out. The stunt itself would create major buzz and bring millions of viewers who are currently avoiding the show because they’re afraid it’s irredeemably cheesy.

5. Sean’s major point is along the same lines: “Glee” makes it all look too easy. Musicians work for decades to hone their craft, pull eight-hour days until their calluses start to bleed or their larynx begins shredding, and still end up sounding like shit. In fact, I’ll let him speak for himself:

So, when this show makes the execrable claim that music can simply be handed out and sight-read, performance ready, that somehow the biggest hurdles to artistic success are the stock personality conflicts between show choir and *CHEERLEADERS*, that all you have to do is *want* it, and it will happen for you (regardless of putting in absolutely no work), this is an utter insult to all of us who sweat blood trying to make a show actually happen… This isn’t a celebration of what we do, because they never show what we do.

Is it possible to say “I totally agree, and it also doesn’t bother me”? Sean himself doesn’t want to watch a show about the drudgery of rehearsal, but I think there’s something that needs to be said about this, and actually, ANYTHING IN LIFE THAT IS REMOTELY ARTISTIC:

Put simply, the public at large has zero tolerance for “art” that isn’t finished. Sure, they may SAY they want to see the painting in progress, but if they do, they’ll be HORRIFIED. We’ve dealt with this for years – people will say they “want to read a rough draft” of a script, but don’t you fucking let them do it, because when they do, they will BE EMBARRASSED FOR YOU and THINK THAT YOU’RE TOTALLY FULL OF SHIT, but too chagrined to say anything about it.

Why is that? Because artists aren’t artists because they’re good at art. They are artists because they can see what something will look like, will sound like even when the rest of the world sees blobs and hears scrapes. It is this persistence of vision that allows artists to do what they do for years on end, only allowing the public to see their craft once they can do so without disclaimers.

When you’re working on a script or a song or a painting or a book, the brilliance curve is steep. Here’s what the “art” generally looks like as it’s being made:

a) stupid idea

b) really stupid idea

c) stupid ideas strung together

d) stupid ideas strung together with shitty connective tissue

e) embarrassing and obvious theme evolves

f) cliché and hackery used to patch holes

g) confusing

h) moronic

i) utter shit

j) shows promise

k) oh my god, breathtaking!

For an easy example, try listening to the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, take 2 and then compare it with final version a few takes later. The pieces of art that were brilliant in their infancy – like Michaelangelo’s unfinished slaves or Dali’s sketches for his “Crucifix” are the exceptions, not the rule.

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But back to “Glee”… my point is that the process of making art is necessarily ugly, untransformative and disgusting to everyone but the artist involved, and would definitely be toxic to a prime-time television show. That leaves us with a choice: either we get “Glee” in all its unrealistic, ultra-glossed, toddler-simplified (and yet oddly inspiring) perfection, or we get “CSI: Green Bay, Wisconsin”. Give me the former ten times out of ten.

Besides, I really like the show. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s when Jane Lynch gets on the local news and says “Caning WORKS!” Maybe it’s the Journey songs. Maybe I like the redhead. Maybe I got a little teary-eyed when the gay kid came out to his dad. Perhaps if one student in some high school in Arkansas decides he’d rather sing than beat the shit out of the learning disabled kid on the bus, then I’m willing to put up with the groaners.

Let me leave you folks with a quote from the poet Marge Piercy:

“A new idea is rarely born like Venus attended by graces. More commonly it’s modeled of baling wire and acne.”

15 thoughts on “up and down the bou-le-vard-

  1. jen

    I cheated. I read your post first. Fascinating to hear from someone in the biz, even if you can’t talk in specifics. I liked that list. True for most things, I think. Now, I’m off to discover your bro.

    Reply
  2. Cathie

    ‘glee’ is the best show I have seen in ages! And I say this as a former (perhaps current) geek and a show choir/drama club queen! And as a writer.

    Reply
  3. jason savage

    Glee is good fun. I work in advertising, and take no offense at the glib simplicity with which Don Draper comes up with campaigns on “Mad Men”. i mean, it’s *TV* show.
    yes, i just compared making ads to being an artist. 3/4-ironically.

    Reply
  4. Salem's Little Sister

    I love GLEE and I have also downloaded several songs from I-Tunes and listen to them at ear splitting volumes in my car. It’s a musical tv show. People are supposed to burst into song and it’s always supposed to sound good. It’s escapism and I love it. It’s how high school was in my imagination. And I was a *CHEERLEADER* By the way, when did cheerleaders become the anti-christ? I just had a lot of school spirit and loved “performing”(hours upon hours of practicing routines, pyramids, cheers, blood, sweat and tears. Sound familiar?)

    Reply
  5. Annie H.

    I just have to let everyone know that at MY high school, it WAS called the Glee Club. And I was in it. All four years, baby. (Plus a small quasi-a capella group called “Spirit”)

    Reply
  6. josie

    I have often been in awe at what Directors do. How they can “see” a story out of a script, and offer their vision to guide actors in performance. The fact that it happens, for all of them, in a nonlinear fashion, sometimes months apart, but it still manages to look continuous to us in the audience just dumbfounds me. Thanks to your post, I can exactly see how this applies to every other form of art, including the writing of scripts. That’s pretty strong stuff.
    P.S. Can’t wait until you decide to talk about Mad Men. It’s the only TV I have time to watch any more, and even that’s by iTunes, on my schedule (and too often while I should be working).

    Reply
  7. Neva

    I like Glee, but I also like all musicals and part of the appeal is that they are totally unrealistic. Sound of Music is awesome even though I know music doesn’t usually start playing when you walk up into the Alps and spin around. Sometimes entertainment isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s a little hard to get used to though when it’s based on your own reality.
    I understand how Sean feels since I have similar reactions to medical shows. I can’t stand most of them because it is cringe inducing to watch one doctor in the ER doing everything from psychotherapy to surgical procedures or watch House go out and investigate crimes on his patients, or the doctor so the high risk C section then take care of the baby in the NICU. I don’t like my own personal reality suspended. (I did like Scrubs though because despite being way out there they got a lot of the personality types right, which I think Glee does too).

    Reply
  8. Sean

    The fact is, one should express an opinion and then butt out… if you’ve got a rejoinder to a rebuttal, then you didn’t write the original thing well enough.
    But let me say, I love musicals. I love them. I write them, I’m transported by them, I’ve starred in them, produced them, written the book and the music for them and, God help the world, I’ve even directed them. This show isn’t a musical.
    In a musical, there are rules about when and where you can break out into songs. There isn’t A rule for musicals, you set up your rules at the beginning and then you obey them. If the show is sung-through, like Les Miz, then fine, that’s what you’re doing. If you have a book and then songs, then cool, you’re doing that.
    The movie “Once” is brilliant, because it’s a musical masquerading as a straight film. They’ve set up the rules, people only sing in the movie when they would normally sing in real life.
    So, you tell me, what’s the rule for “Glee”? Do they sing in rehearsal? And in performance? And also whenever they want? But not always? This isn’t a musical, it isn’t even as good as High School Musical. It’s a goddam mess.
    The one thing I feel like I need to say is that I didn’t go in to this wanting to hate it. I want to love it. I want to love it so much, and I just can’t. I just hate it.

    Reply
  9. Randy

    Glee is a great fun show. Jane Lynch’s Cheerio Coach unfiltered is brilliant. And it just sucks you in to cheering for these underdog kids. I’m with Ian, I don’t care if it is unrealistic at points, it is good escapist fun and I think the best new show to hit the tube this season.

    Reply
  10. Sean

    And Ian, there you go. People like to eat shit, even when you tell them the ingredient is “shit”, they’ll just go, “Yeah, I know… I know it’s shit, but… it’s warm! And I like eating things! And shit is a thing!”

    Reply
  11. oliver

    I like your point about our patience for art in-process. Yet these days “procedurals” and “behind-the-scenes” shows seem to be the most prevalent TV shows there are. Given that these are nothing like real law or real medicine or real police work, I’d say we’ve got no patience for any kind of process. Maybe the dramatization industry is partly to blame–more subtly than by shortening of our attention spans, but making us disappointed with processes that don’t look heroic or romantic or otherwise like a creation myth. Marie Curie was not a supermodel.

    Reply

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