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Fall TV 2009: 'Glee' looks to break the musical-TV-show curse

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Glee
9PM — FOX — New Comedy — Debuted Sept. 9

It’s a warm April afternoon in West Hollywood…and that’s good news, because the roof of Glee‘s soundstage is about to be blown off. The cast and crew of Fox’s musical comedy are shooting a performance scene inside McKinley High School’s choir room. Behind the camera is co-creator Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck), taking over directing reins for this episode. Murphy drily addresses his cast before cameras roll: ”Lots of looks. Lots of laughter. Try not to bore me.” No problem. The playback starts up and Amber Riley, who plays the opinionated choir member Mercedes, launches into a wall-rattling, melisma-fueled cover of Jill Scott’s ”Hate on Me.” (Sample lyrics: ”Hate on me, hater/Now or later/’Cause I’m gonna do me/You’ll be mad, baby!”) As castmates literally jump out of their chairs, popping and locking around Riley, the energy in the room pulses. Costar Lea Michele, who plays the arrogant but talented diva Rachel, stands off camera by a monitor, bouncing to the performance. After the song is done, her review is succinct: ”Amazing. Amazing.” The glee is contagious.

Now all Fox has to do is spread that feeling to the rest of America. On the surface, though, Glee has a lot going against it: Musical television has been a notoriously difficult genre to crack (Cop Rock or Viva Laughlin, anyone? Anyone?), and Glee — which follows the lives, loves, and loserdom of a high school glee club and their teachers in Lima, Ohio — plans on featuring between three and five musical numbers per episode. In addition, though Murphy co-created the short-lived but beloved high school dramedy Popular a decade ago, lately he’s been focusing on, let’s call it, more adult fare, including Nip/Tuck and the big-screen adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors. ”In the past three or four years, I’ve been doing very dark material,” explains Murphy, who’s currently directing Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts. He adds with a laugh, ”I was interested in expressing something other than depravity.” And then there was the whole ”preview” episode last May, when Fox made the risky decision to air the pilot after the American Idol performance finale. Though the network hyped it to death, the results were inconclusive: It nabbed 9.6 million viewers — a drop of more than 50 percent from its Idol lead-in — albeit against stiff competition, including the finale of Dancing With the Stars.

But then something miraculous happened, as though God himself were a musical-theater geek. The cast’s cover of Journey’s ”Don’t Stop Believin”’ became a huge hit on iTunes, reaching No. 1 on the download charts the day after the premiere aired. The pilot started to gain some traction online during the summer, and Fox estimates that by now more than 25 million people have seen Glee. ”It doesn’t fit neatly into a box,” says Fox Broadcasting president Kevin Reilly. ”It’s comedic but it’s not a comedy. It’s got music but it’s not a musical. And it’s definitely got a little offbeat and subversive element to it, like Ryan Murphy shows do. So we thought, ‘Okay, this is gonna need some word of mouth.”’ To that end, the network started singing the show’s praises from the rafters — again. They sent the young, telegenic cast to Comic-Con and Outfest, and even on a Saved by the Bell-esque mall tour. They also strategically released additional performance clips, including ”On My Own” from Les Misérables and Jazmine Sullivan’s ”Bust Your Windows,” to make sure fans didn’t forget about the Glee gang during the long lull before the fall premiere.

Okay, so we know the music’s extremely addictive — how about the actual show? The story lines for the first season center on the glee club’s underdog battle against the conniving members of the football team and cheerleading squad (led by the brilliant, scene-stealing Jane Lynch). Teacher and glee-club coach Will (Matthew Morrison) will continue to crush on clean-freak colleague Emma (Jayma Mays), even though he thinks his spoiled wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), is expecting their first child. (In the season premiere, Terri discovers she’s not actually pregnant, but won’t reveal the truth to Will for fear of losing him.) Finn (Cory Monteith), the jock who moonlights as a chorus boy — or is it the other way around? — continues to be torn between his loyalty to cheerleader girlfriend Quinn (Dianna Agron), who joins the glee club as a spy in episode 2, and his growing attraction to Rachel. ”He’s serving two masters: trying to be the popular guy with the cheerleader girlfriend and trying to follow his dreams and be with the girl he actually likes,” says Monteith. The love triangle will get even more tangled when Quinn reveals a major secret (hint: Episode 4 is titled ”Preggers”).

Speaking of surprises, flamboyantly fabulous glee clubber Kurt (Chris Colfer) will join the football team (he becomes the kicker thanks to his excellent dancing abilities) and confess a truth about his sexuality to his ubermasculine father, played by Yes, Dear‘s Mike O’Malley. (Please let him do it in song! ”I feel pretty! And witty! And gaaaaaay!”) And best of all, Sue Sylvester, Lynch’s tracksuit-loving cheerleading coach, continues her attempts to bring down the choir so it won’t draw focus from her cheerleading squad. Says Lynch, ”She sees the glee club as a threat to her own supremacy, and so she’s literally out to destroy them.” But not before the club belts out Avril Lavigne’s ”Keep Holding On,” a Rachel/Finn duet of Jordin Sparks/Chris Brown’s ”No Air,” and a Will solo performance of Sisquó’s ”Thong Song.” Also look for some famous (and musically inclined) guest stars, including Pushing Daisies‘ Kristin Chenoweth as a glee-club alum, rapper Eve (whose role was originally offered to Whitney Houston, but the diva declined) as a reform-school glee-club coach, and Victor Garber as Will’s supportive father.

While everyone involved wants Glee to be a ratings blockbuster, it doesn’t need to achieve American Idol status — or even Ghost Whisperer status, for that matter — to be considered a success for Fox. Few TV shows have such natural moneymaking tie-ins: Glee producers have amassed 70 to 80 songs in this first batch of 13 episodes, which means fans can expect at least one new iTunes download available the morning after each episode, as well as two soundtracks this season. (The first, Glee: The Music, Volume 1, hits stores Nov. 3.) And if the show really takes off, don’t be surprised to see Glee: The Live Tour. ”We’ve had a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from our music partners,” says Fox’s Reilly. ”Certainly if these kids become stars in their own right, who knows? Live appearances. Albums. There’s lots of things that could happen.” For Murphy, though, Glee‘s success simply lies in giving audiences entertainment they can enjoy as an entire family — unlike Nip/Tuck, there’ll be no hardcore sex or graphic plastic surgeries here. Or as Murphy puts it, ”I really enjoy working on a show where, like, I can’t use the word ‘cervix’ because I don’t wanna offend the 40-year-old mom watching with her 8-year-old daughter.” That’s something we can all be gleeful about.

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