My relationship with Glee is a complex one. On one hand, its knowing cheesiness and overt campness generated an early appeal and getting to know the wonderful Sue Sylvester, with her creative sniping and expertly effective name calling was a real joy. Whilst the programme relies on a collection of clichés with stereotypical characters such as ‘the dumb jock’, ‘the bitchy cheer leader’, ‘the Jewish princess’ and ‘the gay guy into fashion and interior design’, these character types do end up alongside some truly unconventional representations – both Sue’s sister and Becky (Sue’s most loyal cheerleader) have Down’s syndrome and were played by actresses with the same condition; Kurt’s blue collar father provides a realistic and touching representation of a father in the way he thwarted expectations by whole heartedly accepting his son’s sexuality and supporting and defending his offspring from homophobia (both casual and less so) at every turn. It has to be said that story lines about teen-pregnancy, surrogacy and repressed homosexuality are not the usual US teen-show fare. But, the wheelchair bound Arnie (played by an able bodied actor) dreams of being cured so he can be ‘normal’; Asian-guy (un-named in the first season) has to deal with stereotypically pushy Asian parents and Tina (an Asian-girl with a name) spends most of her on-screen time complaining about being overlooked and marginalised. That’s when she gets a storyline – most of the time her character is overlooked and marginalised. Lesbianism has been treated with a pretty heavy hand and then there’s the fallen cheer-leader storyline. The blonde and beautiful Quinn, having (take a deep breath)…
… cheated on our male hero with the ‘bad-boy’ of the group has a baby, gives up said baby for adoption, turns postpartum evil, colours her hair red, attempts to get her baby back, learns her lesson, goes back to being blonde and takes her place back in the chorus joining ‘the fat black girl’, the anonymous Asian girl and a bunch of pretty but musically interchangeable boys…
…a soapy delight perhaps but not exactly new and radical territory.
Glee’s USP is, of course, the music and the music is bad. Autotuned bad. Showtunes bad. Pappy pop, meaning devoid, cringe-worthily bad. Cynically exploitatively ‘don’t forget to download from i-tunes bad’ and, however hilarious Sue’s one-liners are, imaginative put-downs don’t make up for having to see Will Schuester rap. After one enjoyable season, a second where hope won over experience and a third where each episode went one grimace too far I called time on Glee. It began as the definition of ‘guilty pleasure’ but pleasure was an ever decreasing part of the experience.
Imagine then my surprise when I discovered that Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, is also responsible for American Horror Story one of the best new TV shows in the past couple of years. Currently in its second season and being broadcast on FX in the UK, American Horror Story is an adult take on TV horror and about as far from Glee, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf etc. as you can get. It makes Supernatural feel tame and conventional (and I love Supernatural). In season 1, American Horror Story updated the haunted house setting and provided a unconventional take on the story of a family being terrorised by ghosts. Past tragedies kept a collection of ghoulish characters connected to the house and he programme interweaves stories from America’s real-life violent past with fantastical horrors as well as more mundane ones based on a family in meltdown. Not for the faint-hearted – it is gruesome, sexually explicit and full of dark, dark comedy. It makes a truly interesting addition to the horror genre and its second season has relocated to that most carnivalesque of locations, the asylum.
Fans often create something akin to a ‘cult of the auteur’ around programme creators – especially where the creator also writes for and directs. As any Chris Carter (The X Files), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Eric Kripke (Supernatural), Vincent Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) fan will tell you, some TV show creators become stars in their own rights. Tapping into cult audience gratification needs star-creators provide a focal point for hero worship that goes beyond the surface of the action and actors on screen. Gene Rodenberry’s vision for Star Trek has been seen by many fans as something close to the word of God and there are religious overtones to fan behaviour that can be seen when these creators appear at comic-con type conferences. As a signed and sealed Whedon fan I’d be remiss not to link to this recent spoof Mitt Romney campaign advert to show just a little of the man’s genius. I’m not yet ready to put Murphy into the pantheon with some of the other auteurs named here but American Horror Story could almost make me consider forgiving Murphy for Glee. Almost!
Come back here later this month for more discussion on American Horror Story.
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