“Glee” Faces a Fight to Stay on Top

The campy songfest and underdog ode needs to keep it real – at least once in a while – to succeed in Season Two. Otherwise, it could be headed down a “Rocky” road…

One of the many great things about the classic movie "Rocky" is that the title character loses the title fight at the end. But that's not what matters most to him – or us.

If the movie were being made now, some moronic studio chief, no doubt, would insist on the traditional Hollywood ending, and cut the bittersweet finish that still packs an emotional punch all these years later.

“Rocky” reminds us of our current favorite underdog story – "Glee," whose first season ended on a high note, even though the New Directions singing group lost the big contest at the end. In the second season, which begins Tuesday night on Fox, the challenge for creator Ryan Murphy and his team will be to keep their eye on the real prize: stressing character over camp.

It almost seems like we’re about to embark on Season Three of “Glee,” between how much material filled each Season One episode, and the four-month break between the first and second halves of the show’s freshman run. The gap felt a little frustrating at the time, but in retrospect, offered a much-need chance to catch our collective breath.

We appear to be in for another wild ride this season: Britney Spears will guest star. John Stamos joins the cast as a dentist dating OCD-plagued guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury. Carol Burnett turns up as Sue Sylvester’s Nazi-hunting mother in what could be this season’s Betty White-style beloved-comedian comeback.

The show, though, needs to be careful about overdoing the stunt casting. Sure, Neil Patrick Harris was well cast last season as glee club leader Will Schuester’s old rival. Josh Groban and Olivia Newton John obviously had fun playing exaggerated versions of themselves, letting viewers in on the joke.

But too many winks and nods to the audience can quickly lead to a twitch and a sore neck.

“The Brady Bunch” was filled with unlikely cameos by stars of the time – Davy Jones, Desi Arnaz Jr., Don Drysdale, Joe Namath – who showed up under manufactured circumstances. The show still holds a place in the popular culture, if only for camp value these days.

But “Glee” is better than that – and needs to stay above mere camp to thrive in Season Two and beyond. While “Glee” plays on a heightened level much of the time, with outrageous characters and musical numbers often woven into odd spots, the show’s greatest strength rests in the truths it hits about how hard it is to be a teen and perhaps even more difficult to be an adult.

We're not focused this season on whether New Directions will win the finals as much as whether Kurt's dad and Finn's mom find the happiness they deserve, if Quinn can move on from giving her baby up for adoption and how the various relationship dramas play out, with Rachel and Finn's courtship atop the list.

While “Glee” quickly became a cultural phenomenon, perhaps its greatest achievement has been making us care about characters who, at times, border on caricatures. Only a couple times – Will’s cruel wooing of Sue, and blonde cheerleader Quinn's dead-serious equating the stigma of teen pregnancy to racism – did the show strike sour notes.

We’ve noted our concerns that “Glee,” like “Twin Peaks” – another quirky, if far darker take on high school and small town life – won’t be able to maintain its high level of quality and live up the expectations built in Season One.

We’re also fretting, perhaps needlessly, over what we’ll call the Sylvester Syndrome (named for Sue and Stallone). The “Rocky” sequels got progressively worse and more contrived as the flicks turned from the small, yet meaningful relationships (Rocky and Adrian, Rocky and Mickey, Rocky and Paulie) to comically outsized battles (Rocky fights communism).

We’re hopeful “Glee” will keep surprising us, making us laugh, care and sing along, while winning the long-term fight “Rocky” ultimately lost.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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