(Ryan) Murphy's Law

I don't know much about Ryan Murphy, co-creator of supershow phenomenon Glee. What I haven't missed is the runaway success of his program. It shows that intelligent, clever teen programming is rare and hard to produce, but possible. Arguably, lightening has struck twice for Murphy. Glee's forerunner, the two season cult hit Popular, was another Murphy creation, and it bears striking similarities to Glee.

Just some similarities between the two shows:

* Outcasts and Popular kids co-mingling and growing to understand each other despite continued conflict on both sides. Check.

* Eccentric, sexually ambiguous, fascist, cruel teacher, prone to making outrageous and hilarious statements. Check.

* Single parents of two high school rivals fall in love and get married, forcing two otherwise hateful enemies to confront their differences. Check.

One huge difference is, of course, that Glee is a musical, and a pretty good one, as TV musicals go.

Television programs like Glee aren't aimed at adults, but its few adult roles weave enough soapy tales of divorce, affairs and baby drama to keep the parents in the household hooked while the kids sit transfixed.

Murphy has a handle on what viewers want, and a knack for appealing to all age groups, but he falls into some familiar and arguably unavoidable traps. Glee and Popular emphasize the ongoing symbiotic relationship between bully and victim. Murphy's stock in trade is the way he blurs the line between these two groups until they are almost indistinguishable. The up-side to this is, we get to see that bullies are peoples too, and that their victims are just as capable of malice and imperfection. The down-side is, some critics of Glee may see it as a vapid, entertaining stew of interchangeable vaguely defined stereotypes whose main common ground is their preoccupation with status.

The intolerance occasionally on display in Glee - particularly intolerance from bullies - and the stock Fascist teacher role that Murphy has done twice to great effect - is not a reflection of the writers' beliefs but rather an attempt to treat intolerance realistically. The fact is, in the real world, intolerance is tolerated. In many cases, intolerance of homosexuality, or race, or religion is given vigorous, convincing defense in the media or elsewhere, whereas cases for the underrepresented, underprivileged can be frustratingly few. Witness our treatment of Muslim Americans, or our handling of the gay marriage issue, or our society's scorn for people struggling with their weight.

It is not Glee's intention to say 'intolerance is good' but by humanizing it, it shows us where intolerance comes from. Most often, that source is insecurity and fear. Many of Glee's gleefully insouciant comments toward the handicapped, overweight, gay, or non-white are very wrong, and the show makes that abundantly clear, but they are nevertheless comments meant to make people laugh in spite of themselves. It's just clear that the writers adore the outrageous characters, love making them rant and rave, and in the process, it starts getting tough to distinguish whether we are supposed to be taking these bullies and victimizers seriously or not. Some might say it should be obvious to a viewer that their behavior is clearly wrong, and that may be so. But it is a credit to the writing that the most vigorous, articulate and clever writing on the show come from characters who are defending indefensible positions. Murphy's shows clearly don't advocate intolerance - quite the opposite - but any writer or performer will tell you that evil is more fun.

I've probably already gone way too far in my analysis of a show that is clearly intended as pop entertainment.  It's utterly absurd to put a dramedy like 'Glee' in the same category of expectations as something staged by, let's say, Mike Leigh (a director who arguably does some of the most convincingly realistic and consistent dramedic character work in the business). But a show like Glee, arguably light on substance but still rife with somber moments and heavy, topical subjects, needs to lead out from topics like bullying and intolerance on a less ambiguous note. I think Murphy and the others who work at making Glee such an entertaining show would argue that they're doing the best they can, considering how messy imperfect the pre-college, post adolescent birth canal can be.


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