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‘Glee’ holds its notes, unlike most other musical TV shows

“Glee” is not the same old song and dance. The freshman Fox series is thus far succeeding where previous attempts by a weekly series to add music to the mix fell flat.

Many popular series have gone the musical route in stand-alone episodes with mixed results. “The Alan Brady Show Presents” on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” is one of the series’ most beloved. “Once More, With Feeling” from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has taken on cult classic status. But if you want to know when “Happy Days” really jumped the shark, check out the episode “American Musical.”

It may be instructive that all of these episodes did not occur until at least the series’ third season, setting the stage for audiences to become familiar with the characters and make that leap of faith when, say, the crew of “The Love Boat” started dancing around the Fiesta deck in the Season 5 episode, “The Love Boat Follies.”

But from the get-go, “Glee” has captivated viewers like no other musical series that wasn’t a variety show. All of the others, except for one, did not last a full season. The 1982 series “Fame,” tellingly set in a school for the performing arts, was canceled after 1 1/2 seasons on NBC, but was so popular overseas that it was produced in syndication for an additional four. Contrast this with “Hull High,” NBC’s grittier 1990 series that flunked out after eight episodes. That series was set in a Los Angeles high school where students spontaneously broke into song and dance (with choreography by Kenny Ortega).

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“Glee,” while not a ratings smash, has nevertheless acquired a rabid following in its first season, earning a Peabody Award and a Golden Globe, a White House visit, a concert tour and, most importantly, already has been renewed for a second season. After a four-month hiatus, it returns to the air Tuesday.

What can we learn from this? On “Glee,” as with “Fame,” “there is a logical reason for the cast to burst into song: The kids are in a singing group,” said Arthur Smith, a curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “I think the conventions of musical theater are not sufficiently familiar to contemporary audiences to be able to just accept, say, [a show in which] police detectives suddenly begin to sing in the midst of an interrogation.”

That show was “Hill Street Blues” co-creator Steven Bochco’s daring “Cop Rock,” a musical police show in which cops, corrupt city officials, juries and down-and-out street denizens broke into song. “Cop Rock” couldn’t get arrested and was canceled after 11 episodes in 1990.

“ ‘Cop Rock’ required a serious investment on the part of the audience to care about the characters and the plot lines to make the leap to take in the original music,” Smith said. “I think it was just too difficult a burden. The actors were not even necessarily musicians or musical veterans but dramatic actors who could sing. They were fine performers but I don’t think people were [compelled] to see what Ronny Cox or Barbara Bosson were going to do with a Randy Newman song that was dependent on a story line in a particular episode.”

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This was not the case with “That’s Life,” the 1968 ABC series that charted a couple’s courtship and marriage through sketches, monologues and song-and-dance numbers. Broadway veteran Robert Morse headlined the cast with E.J. Peaker, and guest stars included an eclectic mix of then-contemporary and veteran entertainers, including the Turtles, George Burns, Tony Randall, the Muppets and Louis Armstrong. In a 1981 interview with Emmy Magazine, Martin Starger called the show’s failure the biggest disappointment of his tenure as ABC programming chief from 1969-74. Network research found that “the audience liked the characters and the story but wanted to know why they kept being interrupted by singing,” he recalled. “Since that was the basic concept of the show, it was a little discouraging to hear that.”

But the biggest bust was the 2007 series “Viva Laughlin,” about an entrepreneur who dreams of opening his own casino. It lasted only two episodes before it was canceled. Executive-produced by Hugh Jackman and adapted from the British series “Blackpool,” “Viva” featured cast members singing over recordings of recognizable rock songs. Jackman kicked things off by strutting through the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

So why is “Glee” making the grade? The fundamental things apply: a talented cast, sharp writing that puts an original spin on archetypal characters, and the sheer joy and exuberance of the showstopping production numbers. Beyond that is the setting.

“ ‘Glee’s’ high school setting is a natural for drama,” said Walter Podrazik, a consulting curator at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications and co-author of “Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television.” “High school works better than college. . . . In high school, for example, someone can stop you from performing because you didn’t follow the rules set by adults. It is also a time when you’re still discovering things, a time of firsts. ‘Glee’ has that authentic sense of, ‘This really matters to me.’ ”

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Another factor, said Ellen Seiter, professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, is “youth-oriented Broadway musicals such as ‘Rent,’ ‘Wicked’ and ‘Spring Awakening’ [which featured Lea Michele, who portrays high-maintenance diva Rachel on “Glee”], which have inspired a new generation of avid musical fans. YouTube has helped to reinforce and fuel enthusiasm among the musical theater subculture. ‘Glee’ is so spot-on in capturing the kinds of kids who make up that subculture that it is absolutely must-see TV for anyone of any age who has been or wants to be a part of that.”

Then there’s the familiarity of the music. Rather than use original tunes, “Glee’s” soundtrack is composed of well-known songs and standards from popular music and Broadway, including Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl.” The songs, Seiter said, express the characters’ feelings or underscore the episode’s theme.

Though the surprise success of “High School Musical” certainly raised the curtain for “Glee,” extra credit goes to “American Idol,” Podrazik said. “Taking the ‘American Idol’ concept of competition and making it into a fiction series” is one of the show’s most inspired conceits, he said.

One more element in understanding “Glee’s” popularity is that it has cross-generational appeal. Unlike the youth-oriented “Hull High” or the adult-oriented “Cop Rock,” it “cannily focuses equally on the adult characters as it does the students and makes their story lines equally compelling,” Smith said. “Adults enjoy it without feeling like they’re slumming, teenagers relate to it, and younger kids have aspirational interest in it. It’s a candy-colored fantasy of what high school might be like.”

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