Here’s a curious paradox: I stopped watching Glee some time in the middle of last season—it felt tedious and repetitive, not to mention insufferably impressed with itself—whereas I never miss a single episode of The Glee Project. And yet, The Glee Project wouldn’t exist without Glee. (It’s a talent competition where the prize is a recurring role on the Fox hit). It’s a case of the farm team being a lot better than the big league club it feeds into.
So what makes The Glee Project so great? Well, in many ways (with one major caveat, that I’ll get to later), it cleaves to the very values that once made Glee itself so easy to root for. The young cast don’t look like any other cast on TV: The show is all-inclusive. Last year, the show featured both a body-builder boy who was under 5 feet tall and a cross-dressing black boy. This year, we’ve had a blind boy, a boy with Aspergers, a transgendered boy, a sexually confused Asian kid, a flirty girl from a strict Muslim family, an overweight (but fierce) girl, and a girl in a wheelchair. That has to be the most diverse cast on TV. These kids are all remarkably talented, but a lot of them wouldn’t have the chance to strut their stuff on a more traditionally-minded show.
The other thing that distinguishes the show is the group of grownup mentors, all actual members of the Glee creative team, who seem to genuinely care about their young charges. In particular, sweetie-pie choreographer Zach Woodlee manages to tear up whenever the kids do well (and the camera loves him for it). Casting director and host Robert Urich announces the news of the weekly cuts as if delivering a eulogy. Vocal coach Nikki Anders is probably the toughest of the bunch—I’d vote her Most Likely to Make One of the Glee Kids Cry—but hers is definitely a form of tough love. Then there’s Glee creator Ryan Murphy, who emerges at the end of the show to declare his verdict on the so-called Last Chance performances. He give us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a showrunner, talking about who he can visualize on the show and who he can’t, who he’s inspired to write for and who leaves him cold, and who he thinks the audience at home will root for. We’ve rarely gotten such an intimate look at the casting process.
The format for each episode is exactly the same and I find it weirdly comforting. First, Urich comes out and tells the kids what this week’s topic is—tenacity, sexuality, vulnerability etc.—and then gives them a song that corresponds with the topic. The kids split up the vocal parts, come up with some makeshift choreography, and perform for a surprise mentor from the cast of Glee. (In a sign that the show got bigger this year—Lea Michele was one of this season’s mentors.)
Then a new song is assigned, followed by choreography with Zach and vocals with Nikki, all leading up to a video shoot. Then, the bottom 3 are called back for Last Chance Performances. And finally, someone is cut.
The final scene is always the bottom 3 walking somberly to the call-back sheet—then it’s a bit of a guessing game for the viewers at home to read their faces and try to figure out who got the boot. (Off topic: An interesting human tic on display: Every single contestant looks down first before reading the call-back sheet.) The whole process is strangely addictive.
What makes the show soar is certainly the talent on display—last week, big girl Lila Mae gave a balls-to-the-wall performance of “I’m the Greatest Star” from Funny Girl—and if you’re not rooting for the spunky Ali, who has been in a wheelchair since she was 2, you have no heart. (It’s worth noting that Artie, the New Directions member in a wheelchair, is played by actor Kevin McHale, who has no physical challenges.) But I also like the fact that the show plays a bit like the “It Gets Better” campaign come to life (even more so than Glee itself). Two weeks ago, Abraham, who was raised by two lesbians and considers himself straight, struggled with being called androgynous and all that it implies. Muslim Aylin worries that her parents will see her kiss boys. Charlie, who has mild Aspergers, is a major talent with a tendency to lose focus. These kids are struggling with real issues of identity, their place in the world, and self, all while competing on a nationally televised talent search.
There is one big “but” that I must add: Last year, despite an eclectic crew, the winners were two handsome white males.
This year, many of the aforementioned non-cookie-cutter contestants have already been axed—first we lost the transgendered boy, then the blind boy, then the kid with Aspergers and, last week, Abraham was jettisoned.
Among the remaining cast, we still have a “crack baby” (her name is Shanna and man can she belt it out), plus Lila Mae, Aylin and Ali.
We also have two very handsome boys, one, in particular, named Blake, who looks like he just stepped off the set of any CW show. Blake is a real talent, but not, I think, in keeping with the spirit of The Glee Project (or even the show Glee).
If Blake—or the studly Michael, whose claim to uniqueness is that he likes math—wins the show, I call bullshit. Last year, they played lip service to true diversity. Let’s see if this year they have the strength of their much ballyhooed convictions.
The Glee Project airs on the Oxygen network, Tuesdays at 10 pm.