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Last night Oxygen debuted The Glee Project, the reality arm of Glee's multi-faceted media takeover where 12 kids compete for a role on the show. It had all the same problems that its parent show has, and was also leagues better.
The funny thing about this show is that it is structured almost exactly like an episode of the Fox drama-and-jazz-hands numbers that we all loved to love until we started to love to hate it. Anyway, TGP starts off with a bland but lovable mentor, in this case the show's casting director Robert Ulrich, giving the cast a weekly assignment. They all do one little challenge (like the initial numbers on Glee) and then all get together to learn one big group number (like the final number on nearly every episode). Then, the three worst in the group number have to perform for their careers in front of the show creator Ryan Murphy (a fate that has befallen many a chorus boy over the years). The worst one is eliminated, which doesn't happen on Glee, but given the number of times I wish I could boot someone off that show, it is strangely satisfying.
And so is The Glee Project, whose Benetton ad of a cast is as entertaining as it diverse. The great thing about the rag tag group of talented performers is that they're a bit like the characters on the show. You can immediately identify the sexy bad boy (Samuel), the babygay (Alex), the slut (Emily), and the diva (Lindsay) and all the other wacky types—the fat girl (!), the Irish kid (!), the old soul that looks like a teen (!), a little person with braces and six pack abs (!!!)—that Glee employs to show the losers of the world that they can be talented and fabulous too.
And that is what is great about this show. Every teenager can see him or herself in one of these contestants, which is rare in this world of buff and preened teens with magic powers that glut the shows on MTV and The CW. These are real kids that are obsessed with Glee. They're the ones that download all the songs, learn the dialog obsessively, and wait overnight to get the best seats to the live show when it finally comes to the biggest little city near their hometown. These are the real show choir misfits that populate this great nation of ours, and getting to know them and their giant personalities is gold for a reality show lover.
That's not to say TGP doesn't have problems, and interestingly enough, they are the same problem that spring from its fictionalized big brother. The episodes seem a little rushed, trying to squeeze character development in among the songs. The adults—casting director Ulright playing the Mr. Schuester role, good-natured music producer Nikki Anders filling in for Emma Pillsbury, and slightly surly choreographer Zach Woodlee as the Sue Motherfucking Sylvester of the bunch—are boring and we don't really care about their drama. And, worst of all, everyone is subject to the whims of Ryan Murphy. In his brief appearance (apparently dressed as Gunther from Friends), it seemed clear that he didn't have a real vision for the show, and that he just casts actors he thinks he can write stories for rather than coming up with well-plotted stories and finding actors to fill those roles. Maybe that's why Glee has lacked a certain cohesion since its initial season. Or maybe that's just a flaw in this design. When any of these kids could win a seven-episode gig on the show, how can they plan in advance just what the role is going to be?
But in the end, Murphy made the right decision, sending pretty boy Bryce packing (spoiler alert) and keeping my personal favorite Ellis, who is like Elaine Stritch in the body of Vicki from Small Wonder. And even the bad parts of the show will draw fans of Glee into this televised casting session in an interesting way. We can continue to love to hate Glee by rooting out the source of its problems here. But what about all those teens that love to love this show, come hell, high water, or another awful theme episode built around a celebrity guest? For them, and everyone else learning to do the step-ball-change while singing Beatles songs in their high school choir room, they are going to love to love the quirky outcasts on the show just like they still love to love the original show. Why? Because, it's the only place they can see themselves—their real selves—on television. And that's a project worth supporting.