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New Shows, 1: Melrose Place, Vampire Diaries, & Glee

September 15th, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

While living in New York City, I enjoyed attending the Paley Center’s new show sneak peaks each September. That’s not so possible now, in Madison, but instead I’ll be reviewing the new shows as I get around to watching them off my DVR.

Let’s start with The CW’s Melrose Place and The Vampire Diaries, and FOX’s Glee, after the fold…

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Melrose Place

Back during Upfronts, I said the clips made the show look “completely bad,” so I’ll admit to expecting next to nothing from this show. And yet it seems designed to be a guilty pleasure, so one might hope it would at least be like Gossip Girl – tawdry and cheesy, but in a fun, glossy way. No such luck. The premier offers us numerous instances of characters wrestling with the idea that they’re cheap sell-outs, and it doesn’t take very deep psychoanalysis to suggest that the writers are working through their feelings about doing this show. Because, well, it’s really bad, and they should feel cheap writing it.

Mind you, there’s a good clue about its quality early on. One of the characters is an aspiring filmmaker, and we’re meant to believe that he’s excellent, yet when we see the film he made for the woman he proposes to – a piece of junk full of trite symbols and with all the visual style of an untalented second-grader’s newspaper collage – I was at that moment warned that my idea of what constitutes “good” sure wasn’t shared by the production team. (I also understood why the woman to whom he proposes can’t bring herself to say yes).

Throughout the show, I had an internal debate raging about whether the writing or acting was worse. I also wondered if anyone involved with the show had a parent, or if they were all foundlings, since the dialogue and acting of scenes between parents and their kids was particularly atrocious, not even laughably unrealistic in a campy way – just bad. Pilots need to get a lot of information out, but Melrose Place did this with such stunning lack of artistry or ability.

I can like shows with archetypes not true characters, I can like camp, and I can like gloss. I can’t like Melrose Place, though.

The Vampire Diaries

During the Upfronts, I was similarly unimpressed with this show’s clips. At that time, I wrote:

who knew vampires could be so utterly boring? The clips are entirely yawn-worthy, proving why the nets should spring for real trailers, not just crappy scenes seemingly picked at random

Well, it turns out that The CW, showing poor marketing skills, decided to show the worst bits back then. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by the actual show. Right from the beginning, it’s filmed well, quite artfully at times. It creates mood well. I like how the town, Mystic Falls (really? Could you be more obvious? Why not just call it Spooky Bloodlettingville if you’re being that inelegant?), has a definite character, and history. And I found the two leads interesting.

I particularly liked how Paul Wesley inhabited the role of Stefan, an old vampire in a young body. I was a Buffy fan, but always found it a bit creepy that what amounted to two 100+ year-old guys (Spike and Angel) had crushes on a teenager. Same deal here, except now our vampire shows bemusement at the affections of others – when he overhears someone say he has “romance novel eyes,” he smiles with a “oh, those silly kids” kind of smile, and he quite effortlessly tells a drunk girl coming on to him that nothing will ever happen. It’d be nice if he was a plant through which older viewers could watch, yet bemusedly reject, some of the trappings of teen TV (and towards this end, I did find an offhand reference, by another character, to eighties band Air Supply a sign that the show’s talking not just to teens).

Yet I can’t get too hopeful, since it’s very teen angst-ridden on every level. The pilot is full of people looking at each other and being aware of being looked at, and the diary-writing scenes that populated the Upfront clips are horribly wooden. Admittedly, many such elements are there for teen viewers, not for me, and fair enough, though I do hope for the show’s sake that the producers cut down on the diaries – just as the Gossip Girl voiceover was a tie to the books yet an awful device for the show that necessitated that it be toned down, so too are these diaries.

Alas, too, while the main couple are interesting, the rest of the cast is weak. I’ve never been much of an Ian Somerhalder fan, and am no closer to being one now. His character’s entirely one-note (though perhaps that will change?). And thus there are notable clunks when the action moves from the two leads to other characters. Indeed, while I liked how the show created with mood, it also had some odd tonal shifts and struggled to transition between moods (even offering some icky ones, as when Elena continually seems to get most turned on by Stefan immediately following her talking or thinking about her dead parents. Are we really to believe that thinking of dead parents puts her in the mood for smoochies?).

I can’t see myself recording this, or planning to watch it, but if it’s on and I’m in front of the television, I might watch it again now and then.

Glee

Back when I watched the sneak premier of it on television in Spring, I was not a fan. It seemed not to know if it was satirical, pace Election, or a straight-up singing and dancing feelgood bit of schmultz, pace High School Musical. But my DVR recorded the second episode, not the first, and thus I ended up giving it another chance.

It rewarded me, and by the end I was laughing and enjoying it quite a lot.

I still think that the show’s conflicted. The song numbers are kind of stupid, often looking like little more than the part of Ellen Degeneres’ talk show where she plays music and everyone shimmies around. The satiric tone drops, gone is the edge, and the too-obviously (and distractingly) pre- (or post-) recorded numbers just bored me. And they also struck me as being a little old: ironically, the episode I saw focused on the Glee Club’s director wanting everyone to do an old number that wasn’t hip, and yet the show was doing the same thing. Meanwhile, it tries too hard to be seen as risqué in those numbers, by selecting “Gold Digger” (sans rhyme for “digger”) and having the kids pelvic thrust around in other numbers.

But after the music’s over, the show does the edge quite well. First, let’s acknowledge that Jane Lynch is one of the funniest women alive. A lot of her lines would be groaners with anyone else, but her delivery is brilliant, and I’m so glad to see her get a regular gig on television. She single-handedly makes the show about twice as good as it would be otherwise. Yet she’s not alone, as there’s some really funny edge to the show, dark at times, and all the more funny given that the songs make the show seem like that which it’s satirizing. Certainly, it’s an odd mix, as though the writing process went like this: Group A writes song numbers, then Group B (who hates Group A) comes in and gets to work on undercutting Group A with a dry and witty script.

I’ll be intrigued to see how this mix works. It could result in abject failure, as the snark offends those who just want a nice little song and dance, while the pat dance numbers make viewers like me reach for the remote. But it might also prove successful at addressing a wide audience. After all, there’s something vaguely American Idol-ish to it, with all the singing and pep, yet also the Simon Cowell misanthropy thrown in for good measure. And oodles of hormones, more than almost any other show I can think of (yes, even more than the two CW shows I just watched).

After being turned off by the pilot, I’ve been won back by the second episode. I may always be bored and/or bothered by half of the show, but at least I can forward wind through that half to more Jane Lynch.

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  1. September 15th, 2009 at 16:46 | #1

    I feel very similarly about the *Vampire Diaries* episode — bad, bad acting on the part of most, but an interesting milieu…let’s just see if it turns into Gossip Girl interesting or 90210 unbearable. I also find the actors all just this side of good looking — they’re trying for derivative Gossip Girl meets Twilight looks (well, okay, no Chuck Bass) but there’s something off about all of them, and the recent female victim in particular. (Going for the square jawed look?)

    As for Glee, I wholeheartedly agree on the musical numbers — all but the power ballad at the end made me wince. But the acting — including Lynch — is above and beyond both *Vampire Diaries* and especially *Melrose Place,* which might stem from the fact that most of these actors have been Broadway fixtures for years. [Side note: Very interesting interview with the show runner on Fresh Air this week.] I think the snark will win over: it’ the anti-high school musical (most of its fans probably haven’t seen Election, alas) but the humor is appealing and doesn’t, at least from talking with my students, seem to alienate.

  2. Jonathan Gray
    September 15th, 2009 at 18:32 | #2

    you mean “GG interesting,” “90210 unbearable,” or MP must-pluck-my-eyes-from-my-head-horrific ;-)

    I hope you’re right that the snark wins the day with Glee: snark beats singing any day in my book

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