The first season of Glee came to an end last week, and a great sadness chilled our hearts. The show’s delicious mix of theatrical camp and outsider sentimentality will be sorely missed on this sofa over the summer months.
There has never been a show quite like Glee, and it could easily have bombed, so it’s a relief to see a show about gays and divas and boys who dance has become a hit – and more than that, a minor cultural phenomenon. It’s also a delight to see Jane Lynch finally getting her long-deserved superstar turn.
Glee has a lot of faults, some of which I would normally find unforgiveable – the characterisation has been especially horribly sloppy at times – but if you buy in to the conceit that this is a musical, with bigger emotions and crazier people than you’re used to seeing on TV, then it’s much easier to bite in to the sweet, sweet Glee confectionery.
It’s also much easier to forgive flaws in a show that gives you fantastically staged foot-tapping musical numbers every week. The very point of musicals is that they’re the best kind of escapism. People who don’t get them tend to complain that they can’t get to grips with the idea of people breaking into song and dance all the time. It’s too unrealistic. People who love musicals might argue that ‘unrealistic’ is the point. Musicals are impressionistic. They capture the intensity of a moment in emotional full bloom. Sometimes with a shuffle ball change.
The music has its faults as well. For example, there have been way too many numbers centred on Rachel and Finn. As the show’s central couple, their spotlight is inevitable, but it draws too much attention away from a splendid ensemble, and puts too much weight on actor Cory Monteith’s still developing vocals. There has also been a horrible tendency to get Broadway star Matthew Morrison to sing (and dance to) hip-hop and R&B. Gold Digger was fine. Bust A Move was too much. The Thong Song was unforgivable.
Then there’s the show’s biggest problem: Auto-Tune. The pitch correction was egregious in the first half of the season. It seemed to settle down slightly in the second half.
But when the show is good, it’s great. These – in my opinion – were the fifteen best performances in season one. Sometimes it’s the vocals, sometimes it’s the dancing, sometimes it’s the story, and ideally it’s all three. (I’ve included videos and audio links, but these may be taken down at any time.)
15. Four Minutes – Mercedes & Kurt (Ep 15: The Power of Madonna)
There were a lot of highlights to the Madonna episode – most famously the Sue Sylvester version of Vogue, and the cheerleader stilt dance to Ray of Light. Four Minutes is not usually one of my favourite Madonna numbers, but it was my favourite here, thanks in no small part to the presence of a full marching band.
14. Lean On Me – Artie, Mercedes & New Directions (Ep 10: Ballad)
Glee’s song choices are eclectic, ranging from little know contemporary pop numbers to 80s classics to show tunes. Of course, there’s always room for a hoary inspirational standard like Lean On Me, but Glee has a pretty good track record of finding something new to do with them. In this instance, they turned it into hand-clapping gospel roof-raiser and gave the song a much needed spark.
13. Keep Holding On – Finn, Rachel & New Directions (Ep 7: Throwdown)
Who knew that an Avril Lavigne song could have so much pathos? This one is a favourite despite some particularly obvious Auto-Tune and some weirdly mangled vowel sounds. Sung by the choir in support of Quinn when she was thrown out of her parents’ home for being pregnant, it was one of the show’s best acted and most affecting numbers.
12. Somebody To Love – Finn, Rachel & New Directions (Ep 5: The Rhodes Not Taken)
Queen has cropped up in three episodes of Glee. As one of the most theatrical acts of all time, it’s a good fit. This show-stopper was perhaps the first time that the show got the vocal layering right. It’s still dominated by Finn and Rachel, but the other voices all came through – most notably Amber Riley’s incredible wail.
11. Dream A Little Dream of Me – Artie (Ep 19: Dream On)
Kevin McHale’s vocal on this was beautifully emotive and felt utterly sincere, but what made this a performance was the tap routine by Jenna Ushkowitz and the incomparable Harry Shum Jr. Shum rarely gets a showcase, but his dancing always catches my eye. He’s one of the show’s most magnetic performers, and hopefully more will be made of him in season two.
10. Sweet Caroline – Puck (Ep 8: Mash-Up)
Cory Monteith as Finn is meant to be the show’s schoolboy heartthrob, but bad boys are always so much more interesting. Mark Salling as Puck has been one of the big TV crush objects of the past year, and it helps that the actor has a surprisingly lovely voice when given the chance to show it. The only thing better than a bad boy is a bad boy who can make you swoon.
9. To Sir With Love – New Directions (Ep 22: Journey)
The season finale was packed with great performances, but this one was the emotional core. It’s not the Lulu number I’d have expected to hear on Glee, but of course it makes perfect sense, and it gave us the most satisfying coda we could have asked for to the characters’ first season journeys.
8. Poker Face – Rachel/Shelby (Ep 20: Theatricality)
The immediate consensus on this number came in two parts. First of all, why in the world did they choose this ‘bluffin’ with my muffin’ number for a mother-daughter duet? Second, who cares – it was amazing! This is a completely unexpected Barbra Streisand-meets-Cyndi Lauper reinterpretation that’s absolutely blissful. It’s a pleasure to hear Idina Menzel and Lea Michele having so much fun.
7. My Life Would Suck Without You – Rachel & New Directions (Ep 13: Sectionals)
This was the closer to the first half-season, but it was as good a season-ender as you’re ever likely to get; a tremendous feel-good performance. What really sells it, and makes it a favourite, is the dance routine, which recaps dance moves from throughout the first twelve episodes.
6. The Lady Is A Tramp – Puck/Mercedes (Ep 18: Laryngitis)
This is Puck letting his mask slip again, this time to show us his best Rat Pack slide. That alone would make this a wonderful number, but then Amber Riley unleashes an even more splendid surprise – she’s not just a great R&B wailer; she can also do an impressive Ella Fitzgerald.
5. Run Joey Run – Rachel, with Finn, Jesse and Puck (Ep 17: Bad Reputation)
This is one of the most delightfully cheesy things I’ve ever seen on television. I didn’t know the song, but the execution is witty and exuberant enough to make it an easy sell. Rachel as a winking angel? Sandy as a shotgun-toting father? Puck in an undershirt? Bravo!
4. Hate On Me – Mercedes (Ep 7: Throwdown)
Amber Riley is a powerhouse vocalist who, as the show’s own joke goes, is brought in to deliver the killer note at the end of every big number. But sometimes she gets a whole song to herself, and it’s always amazing. This was her best – a triumphant R&B ball-buster with plenty of brass (literal and metaphorical).
3. One Less Bell To Answer/A House Is Not a Home – April & Will (Ep 16: Home)
Here was the purest musical theatre moment in the show - two stage pros performing a pair of amazing Bacharach numbers as they expose their inner turmoil through song. Endlessly re-watchable.
2. The Safety Dance – Artie (Ep 19: Dream On)
The show’s most entertaining dance number is a bit unexpected, both because it’s an unlikely song, and because presenting it as a flashmob should have felt stale and predictable. Director Joss Whedon did a terrific job with his episode of Glee, and this fantasy sequence –Artie getting out of his wheelchair and setting off a dance routine in the mall – is the highlight of the episode. Energetic choreography, superbly directed.
1. Maybe This Time – April/Rachel (Ep 5: The Rhodes Not Taken)
Kristen Chenoweth is Glee’s secret weapon, and while it’s tempting to wish that she could be in every episode, perhaps it’s better that we keep her as a special treat. This number pitted two of the show’s best voices head-to-head on a wrenching Cabaret classic. Cheno is an amazing vocal actor, and this number breaks my heart every time.