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September 2, 2015

'The Glee Project': A Reality Success or Failure?

by Stephanie Earp, posted Jun 20th 2011 4:00PM

Critics have been predicting the demise of 'American Idol' and the singing competition for years now, despite all evidence to the contrary. The departure of Simon Cowell didn't kill 'Idol' after all, and our appetite for amateur vocalists being thrust into the sudden -- and often short-lived -- glare of the spotlight doesn't seem to have cooled. And then two seasons ago, fact was turned into fiction with the arrival of 'Glee.'

Now, the high school musical has created a reality spin-off that may nod its head to the competitive series than made room in our imaginations for a show like 'Glee,' but moves at a very different pace from the 'Idols' and 'Got Talents', which are essentially just modern variants on the variety show. 'The Glee Project' debuted in the US two weeks ago on Oxygen and starts up on Sunday June 26 on Slice in Canada.

And much to my surprise, I really like it. I'm surprised because I don't much like 'Glee.' I admit I'm sometimes moved by the musical performances, and as I don't have a heart of coal, I do love Chris Colfer, but overall, it bugs me. My complaints are with the writing, which I find haphazard and badly-planned. I feel like the characters are based more on props and witty one-liners than any real development, and as a result, I don't really understand them. Just when I think I'm getting a bead on Rachel or Shue and even Sue, a musical number breaks out and I'm left scratching my head.

The same issues are present in 'The Glee Project,' the summer reality series that sees 12 contestants vying for a 7-episode role on the series, but here some of the quick-cuts that make 'Glee' hard to follow really work. For one thing, after a quickie audition special, the show gets right to the point and immediately introduces us to the twelve finalists. And when I say immediately, I mean immediately. One minute, their names flash up on screen, and the next they're performing in their first challenge. There's none of that monotonous introductory sob story stuff we've come to expect from 'Idol,' or as I like to call it, time wasted on people we never see again.

If anything, the show reminds me more of 'Project Runway' and 'Top Chef' than other music shows. For one thing, the contestants are expected to have a certain level of experience and expertise. There isn't a lot of hoo-hah about their background and experience. It's clear from the way 'Glee' casting director Robert Ulrich (who functions as a host and judge on this show) talks to them that he's aware of their tastes and strengths, but the editing doesn't bog down the audience with this info. The goal is to identify a singer-dancer-actor who can handle a role on 'Glee' and as such, the vast majority of the runtime is dedicated to singing, dancing and acting rather than catty remarks, judging panels, and expository voiceovers. I mean, that stuff is there, but it's just a tiny fraction of the whole.

The other thing 'The Glee Project' has in common with 'Runway' is the elimination process. It's not decided by votes and there is no live results show. It's Ryan Murphy, the creator of 'Glee,' along with Ulrich and choreographer Zach Woodlee, who decide who goes home. For 'Glee' fans, this dynamic is probably the most interesting element of the show. Murphy's comments on how he writes the show are illuminating, as he muses about whether he can write to a given contestant's look and voice, revealing just how much he makes it all up as he goes along -- or to put it more kindly, how much he is inspired by the performers in creating the roles.

Woodlee doesn't endear himself to viewers -- he's not exactly easygoing -- but it's clear his priority is finding someone who will learn fast and not ask too many questions. Repeatedly, Ulrich emphasizes that the winner doesn't have to be the best singer or dancer, but the best fit for 'Glee.' In other words, competition or no, Murphy and his creative team still have final say on who gets hired, and to me, that makes perfect sense.

The show does have its weaknesses. I was sorry to see the same old excuse for an early elimination you might expect from Tyra Banks: Basically, one of the kids doesn't seem quite as thrilled about the process as the others. I hate it when someone is sent home just for having the temerity to wonder if this is really right for them. Another 'ANTM' hallmark shows up in the opener -- the kid who gets advice from the judges, takes it too seriously, and ends up in the bottom three for trying to answer those criticisms.

I do also wish the purse was a little richer. Since I don't watch 'Glee' regularly, chances are I'll miss this guest arc -- and what's the deal? Do they get paid for this work? It would be nice to picture the winner driving off in a fancy car, getting a photo shoot in a glossy magazine, and maybe depositing a nice fat check in the bank, so they can move to New York and give Broadway a try.

'The Glee Project' airs Sundays at 9 PM ET on Slice in Canada and Oxygen in the US.

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