A reviewer once foolishly called “Jaws” “a thriller at sea and a bore ashore.” The description proves more apt for “Glee,” the new Fox series from “Nip/Tuck” producer Ryan Murphy, which can be ungainly at times with its drama but soars gracefully when it bursts into song. The dramatic tone is uneven, but the show gets by on talent and energy with its look at high school’s caste system among teachers and students. Fox is showing its love with a post-“American Idol” push, meaning the true test comes when the series returns; still, this grades out as a promising prologue.
The setting and style will doubtless evoke comparisons to “High School Musical,” but the premise actually hews closer to Nickelodeon’s recent me-too effort “Spectacular!,” which also looked at show choirs, where kids stage elaborate musical numbers in grand competitions. The jaunty style is exemplified by a cappella riffs that provide accompaniment to the action.
Beyond that, “Glee” hits a lot of familiar notes, but at least with the kids, mostly does so in an appealing way. A likable teacher, Will (Matthew Morrison), takes over stewardship of the glee club, but there’s no budget, little support from administrators, and a collection of misfits who try out, led by Rachel (Lea Michele of “Spring Awakening”), who is talented but roundly hated by the cool kids.
Needing to beef up his team, Will approaches the jocks and the cheerleaders, and discovers that the school’s quarterback (Cory Monteith) has not only a smooth vocal style but a passion to perform. The only problem is that doing so means risking ostracism by his knuckle-dragging peers.
So far, so good. It’s among the adults, alas — who are mostly over-the-top buffoons — where “Glee” nearly sails off the rails, from Jane Lynch’s tyrannical cheer matron to the salivating football coach, a bit like the Rydell High gang in “Grease.”
Modest redemption comes from the stammering Emma (“Heroes'” Jayma Mays), who has a clear crush on Will, even though he’s married to his high-school sweetheart. Perhaps to foster a rooting interest (or at least sympathy) for a Will-Emma pairing, said wife (Jessalyn Gilsig) is initially presented as a ditsy shrew.
The discordant character notes, however, stand in stark contrast with the infectious musical numbers, including a rousing choir-style rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin'” (take that, Sopranos). Wisely drawing upon Broadway talent, these sequences represent the program’s saving grace, but also it’s most formidable challenge, inasmuch as producing a weekly musical — see “Cop Rock” (failed but good) or “Viva, Laughlin” (not) — can be a logistical nightmare.
Such concerns notwith standing, the curtain-raiser has done its job — leaving you eager to see, with a little polishing of its rough edges, exactly what “Glee” can do for an encore.