With a concert tour, upcoming 3D movie and record-breaking music sales, the “Glee” freight train shows no signs of stopping. Now the pop-culture phenom that proved a musical can work on weekly television enters the far less distinctive arena of reality competitions. Oxygen’s “The Glee Project” — designed to give an unknown performer a seven-episode arc on the Fox series — debuts amid a glut of music-related TV contests, including “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent” and “Platinum Hit.” Still, undeniable Gleek appeal should be enough to make the fun if formulaic show a basic-cable breakout.
“The Glee Project” serves a dual purpose of introducing fans to a potential new McKinley High student and providing a reality TV-friendly glimpse into the mothership series’ star-making process. “Glee” casting director Robert Ulrich and his team narrowed a field of 40,000 entries to the top 12 finalists, who face weekly challenges in the “Glee” boot camp. Choreographer Zach Woodlee, music producer Nikki Anders, musicvideo director Erik White and various special guests from the “Glee” cast work with the contestants to bring out their full potential.
Each week, three at-risk contenders are assigned a song for a “last chance performance” in front of Ulrich, Woodlee and exec producer Ryan Murphy, who makes the final call on which wannabe gets cut. More than a talent competition, “Project” positions itself as a charisma contest. Instead of simply wowing with singing, dancing or acting ability, Murphy makes it clear he’s looking for a performer who will inspire a unique character for the show.
Intentionally or not, the format puts extra pressure on the 18-22-year-old contestants to “authentically” endear themselves to reality TV viewers while also proving they can handle the demands of a scripted series. Those who auditioned with dreams of fame on their own terms will surely regret the rigid roles they receive in the reality realm: the bitchy one, the whiny one, the emotional basket case, etc.
The show serves as more than just an entree into the reality format. According to Murphy, “Kids who started with the show will be graduating very soon, so we need new blood.”
Of course, simply landing a recurring role on the overcrowded series isn’t a guarantee of substantial screentime (just ask John Stamos). So the creatives have an out if their “Project” winner doesn’t blossom into the next Darren Criss or Naya Rivera.