The Glee Project-Dux: First Episode, First Review

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Does it make sense for the most artificial scripted series on TV to spin off a reality show?

Ryan Murphy, the executive producer of Fox’s “Glee,” the musical farce that has doubtless inspired millions of wannabe pop stars to pick up a brush and sing into the mirror, has now created “The Glee Project,” in which 12 young performers compete for a seven-episode-long guest-starring role on the original series.

Although the series, premiering on Oxygen this Sunday, June 12, at 9 p.m., has all the too familiar features of reality-competition TV, the fact that the auditions are actually auditions makes the exercise seem less false and forced than usual. Both the performers and the producers — who would have to create a role for the winner — have a serious stake in the outcome. Viewers looking for a spin on “American Idol” and “The Voice” should enjoy themselves.

Like the young cast members of “Glee,” the 12 contestants on this series are a mixed bag, with only a few matching the classic teen hottie or heartthrob stereotypes. Matheus, 20, is only four feet nine inches tall; his press materials say that he first came to America from his native Brazil in order to consult with doctors about his height.

Ellis, 19, is defensive about the fact that she looks 10 years old. And Alex, 18, says that people who hear him sing often mistake him for a woman.

The kids are coached and rehearsed by three “Glee” staffers: the casting director Robert Ulrich, the choreographer Zach Woodlee and the vocal arranger Nikki Anders. The “mentors” are generally encouraging to the contestants’ faces but frankly discuss their shortcomings among themselves.

The process is less complicated than the show makes it sound. Each of the 10 episodes will have a theme. The premiere’s is “individuality,” so the contestants are told to show that in their performances, as if they might have been planning to do the opposite.

Because “Glee” is set in a high school, the kids are given “homework,” which simply means that they have to rehearse a group number; this week’s is Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered. The contestant who’s judged the best in that performance will get a “featured moment” in the next number and will be coached individually by a “Glee” cast member, in this case Darren Criss, who plays the secondary role of Blaine Anderson.

The next number is actually a video set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” with the contestants lip-synching their own recorded vocals. Judging those performances, the three coaches select a bottom three, all of whom have to perform a solo number in front of Murphy, who finally selects the week’s eliminee.

The advantage to winning the first group performance turns out to be minimal. Criss doesn’t have much to teach the winner, who has only a few seconds of extra face time in the completed video.

Since the two songs are divided among 12 contestants, they don’t give anyone a real chance to shine, and it’s hard to pick out the best singers. But the show does highlight some personalities. Emily, 22, flirts shamelessly with Criss and the coaches. Pointing to her breasts, she says, “These are my strength.”

Bryce, 22, irritates the coaches by asking for too much direction on the video. Lindsay, 20, is set up as the annoying Miss Perfect. “I’m a classically trained soprano,” she tells the camera. “That’s why I’m one of the best singers here.”

We get a better idea of the singing skills of the unfortunates in the bottom three, whose solo numbers are intended to get them out of their comfort zones. What’s more interesting than their performances is Murphy’s reaction: He says he’s looking for someone he can “write to.”

Both on “Glee” and in the video in this episode, many of the vocals seem to have been tweaked using Auto-Tune or some other digital enhancer. Since engineers have a harder time tweaking personalities and looks digitally, it’s unlikely that singing ability will be the biggest factor in determining the winner of “The Glee Project.” Maybe it isn’t so different from “American Idol” and “The Voice.”

My reaction:

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