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Glee: from instant cult-classic to Canadian reality

This hit musical-comedy TV show returns from a two month hiatus this February 6th for its third season. Fresh off Golden Globe awards for “best television series – comedy or musical,” best male (Chris Colfer) and best female (Jane Lynch) performances in supporting roles, as well as two other nominations, Glee promises to prove once again why it’s the subject of critical acclaim, international appeal, a cult-like following and even the inspiration for a new Canadian reality show. But does Glee really deserve all the hype?

With its season premiere boasting production costs estimated somewhere between $3 to $5 million, creator and head writer Ryan Murphy’s big-budget production is something of a growing force in the primetime demographic, and a giant in the pop culture landscape. Millions of viewers of all ages tune in with equal anticipation for the plot-twisting (if hackneyed) storylines and over-the-top musical numbers ranging from John Denver to Katy Perry and just about everything in between.

Undoubtedly cashing in on the Glee phenomenon in the ‘everybody is a star’ spirit of musical self-indulgence, Global TV (Glee’s broadscaster in Canada) is currently producing Canada Sings!, a new reality show set to air this spring in which co-workers from across the country (though almost all from the Toronto area) form teams of singers, get some help from professional voice coaches and choreographers and battle it out for bragging rights and a donation to a charity of their choice.

Global’s jump onto the glee-club and do-it-yourself reality show bandwagons certainly draws inspiration, if not most of its pitch, from the Idol/Next Top/So You Think You Can/With The Stars variety of endless reality competition shows. This homegrown spin-off demonstrates, for better or worse, what makes Glee so appealing to those who love it, while at the same time proving why it’s nearly unbearable to watch for those who don’t.

Unlike the reality appeal of its Canadian counterpart, what makes Glee such a bizarre phenomenon is the almost total suspension of disbelief it demands of viewers to get past the absurdity of such scenes as football players breaking into flamboyant Beyoncé dance numbers mid-game. It’s exactly this sort of cable-access camp and family style feel-good kitsch that makes Glee such a force to be reckoned with …and so off-putting to its opponents.

What’s more, Glee takes on a ‘look how daring we are’ approach to tackling such serious issues as sexual orientation, physical disability and teen pregnancy through dramatic plot lines and heartfelt dialogue drawn from writers' and actors' personal lives. The show’s dramatic backbone is meant to speak to teenage viewers currently living through such problems and adults who can still remember the trials and tribulations of high school drama, while the choreographed dance and song numbers accompanying these issues serve to keep things light and accessible. But does the show’s musical focus trivialize and fictionalize the issues at hand? Detractors from the show’s popularity would certainly say so, even as it continues to garner acclaim for its progressive approach, particularly from gay-rights spokespeople.

Such an unlikely competition as Canada Sings! certainly proves what a cultural force Glee really is. And however much it may expose the ridiculousness of Glee’s attempts to establish itself as a harbinger for the redefining of gender, disability or whatever other issues it seems to endlessly tackle, it demonstrates that Glee is really a show about show tunes and pop idolization. And that’s why it’s so compelling for fans – it’s catchy.