At various points, it seemed as if Saturday night’s “Glee” Paley Festival panel perhaps should have been entitled “Ryan Murphy and Friends” for as often as the co-creator spoke in answer to questions (occasionally directed at other panel members), but no one there much seemed to care. It was the most attended panel in Paley Festival history, as most of the cast (no Lea Michele, sadly) and several producers spoke to a sold-out crowd about the show’s genesis and the casting process but mostly just talked about where the show is going in its next nine episodes. “Glee” is very much one of the two or three shows of the moment, and, naturally, curiosity about what’s going to happen in the final nine episodes of the season is high. Since so much of the panel was about that, if you’re aiming to remain unspoiled, you should probably abandon all hope right about now. (Or go read something else.)
The show screened a director’s cut of the 14th episode that will air in early April. Directed by series co-creator Brad Falchuk and written by co-creator Ian Brennan, the episode is a solid return back for the show, continuing the creative upswing it was on before the break. Centering on the fact that so many of the relationships on the show have changed since the show began, the episode took as its theme reintroduction, as the characters attempt to take some time for themselves and the show attempts to remind its fans of just why they love it. (The crowd at Paley needed no reminders, as they cheered long and loud for any number of things.) Packed with songs and just as many uses of the word “reintroduce,” the episode has its clumsy moments — what episode of “Glee” doesn’t? — but for the most part, it’s a vastly enjoyable hour of television, reintroducing (tee hee) a show that’s starting to realize just how far it can go. (And, indeed, some of the one-liners in the episode are either meaner or stupider than the show seemed comfortable dishing out in its early running, and nearly every one of them works.)
But the real reason fans were there – other than to collect autographs, which they did in a stampede the likes of which the Paley Festival has likely never seen at session’s end – was to hear what everyone on the panel had to say about the show and where it was going. Much of the news dished out was old — hey, did you know Joss Whedon’s directing an episode that Neil Patrick Harris will star in? — but the panelists, perhaps realizing that “Glee” is not a show that’s terribly ruined by huge plot spoilers, offered up everything from the tidbit that Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester will star in what sounds like a shot-for-shot remake of the music video for Madonna’s “Vogue” to the fact that Kurt (Chris Colfer) will “Parent Trap” his single dad and Finn’s (Cory Monteith) single mom to be closer to the object of his affection.
The second episode back after the hiatus will be the much discussed Madonna episode. Though Murphy knows Madonna somewhat (though not that well — “Madonna does not call you; you call Madonna,” he said), it sounds as though he was awed by the very fact that his show would be doing a tribute episode for the woman’s music.
“She, in many ways, has been the soundtrack of my life,” he said.
The series has had a couple of problems getting songs that it has wanted to use, usually from artists that aren’t ready for the songs to be covered by other artists just yet. (Coldplay, understandably, falls into this camp, but, weirdly, so does Bryan Adams, of all people.) For the most part, though, the show has been able to talk a surprising number of big names – including the Rolling Stones and the Beatles (who make their “Glee” debut in the first episode back) – into tossing their songs into the show’s pop cultural blender. The first episode back features tunes from The Doors, Lionel Richie and Neil Diamond.
Where does the show come up with these ideas for songs? Murphy said it’s a collaborative process, though the show rarely writes to songs it wants to use (exceptions included the use of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in the midseason finale, “Sectionals,” which all involved apparently just really wanted to see Michele sing). In some cases, he’ll ask cast members what they’d most love to sing, and this has resulted in a number of selections, including an upcoming performance of “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” by Colfer. Other songs will include duets between series star Matthew Morrison and guest Harris on tunes by Aerosmith and Billy Joel. (Though Murphy wouldn’t say what those songs were, Entertainment Weekly reported earlier this week that at least one is “Dream On.”) Also, there will be an episode about the “value of theatricality,” which will feature at least one song by one Lady Gaga.
Why have the artists become so much more amenable to having their music appear on the show? Well, it’s largely because the show’s status as a legitimate cultural phenomenon makes monetary sense for the artists as much as it does for the show.
“When we do a song on the show, the original always recharts,” Murphy said.
For a show where the cast is so beloved, the actors did a surprisingly little amount of talking. There were just too many of them for moderator Marc Malkin to reliably manage, and though each got a question designed to get them talking about their role in the show’s universe, that ended up being it for a lot of them. (The two cast members who spoke the least were probably Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays faux-stutterer Tina, and, weirdly, surefire Emmy nominee Lynch, who’s become the show’s closest thing to a breakout character.)
Naturally, the cast members were charming on an individual level. Jayma Mays, who plays OCD guidance counselor Emma, proved to be somehow even more charming in real life than she is on the show, proving to be somehow ridiculously funny and quick on her feet (at one point suggesting a baby signed by a cast member would go for a lot on eBay). She’s even got the slightest hint of a Southern accent. (Do I seem a little crush-y? Because I am.) Hell, Dianna Agron acquitted herself as funny, somehow, something she rarely is on the show, when she answered a question about whether she wanted a kid now after playing a pregnant woman with “I mean, I do have a puppy now.”
There was very little talk of Jessalyn Gilsig’s Terri Schuster, one of the show’s more problematic characters in the early going, which was perhaps surprising because she had a good scene in the episode that was screened, where she put a speed bump in the way of the Will and Emma pairing that the show has been building to for quite a while. Murphy allowed that it’s often hard for a character like Sue or Terri to work on the show, though the writers try more and more to give a reason for why the characters are such hard-edged ones.
“It’s hard to be on a show that’s so optimistic and be a dark force,” he said.
There was also plenty of discussion of Kurt, another of the show’s more popular characters. Murphy said the character is directly based on him, and the scenes between him and his dad (played by Mike O’Malley) are very similar to conversations he had with his dad as a teenager. He also said that growing up as an out and proud teenager in the ’70s, he only had Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly to look up to, and he hopes that Kurt can be a role model for a new generation of gay teenagers.
“I’m not interested in that kid being gay-bashed,” he said. “I’m not interested in seeing him be picked on.”
Will the show ever do an episode with all original music? Murphy said one is in the works for season two, but he thought that doing the show entirely with original music in every episode would be impossible under the series’ production constraints.
“I don’t think you could do a musical that’s all original music unless you had a year off,” he said.
And in a week that’s seen praise for the FOX network censors from weird places (Seth McFarlane and his pals, mostly), the “Glee” producers offered even more.
“They’re actually trying to protect you from the groups that will boycott you. They’re not the bad guys,” Brennan said with a laugh. “It’s like America’s the bad guys.”
All in all, though, it was a panel to celebrate a show that so, so many people have clearly taken to heart. The fans of the series have a name – “Gleeks” – and nearly everyone involved with the evening’s entertainment said it at least once. And nearly every time, the fans cheered. This kind of fan/show relationship often ends poorly, but for now, “Glee” and its fans are flying high.
Some other thoughts:
*** Harris will be playing Will’s high school rival, the one who got all the solos and all the girls. He’ll now be a school board member trying to — what else — shut down the glee club. (And, yeah, the show knows. Even Morrison joked about how often this plot has come up.)
*** DId you know Amber Riley (who plays Mercedes) was booted from “American Idol” before she even got on TV? Because I did not. Still, she says, “It was the best no I’ve ever gotten in my life, because it made me work harder.”
*** More Mays adorableness: Fans will come up to her and try to talk to her about their own obsessive-compulsive disorders, and when they want to take pictures with her, they will often ask if she can look as if she doesn’t want to touch them. Big laughs. (Maybe you had to be there. Or be smitten with Mays.)
*** Matthew Morrison has placed a porcelain weiner dog on the choir room set as a tribute to a teacher who inspired him. Look for it!
Murphy wears very, very shiny shoes.
*** That Web site to audition to play a character on the show will be up sometime in the next few weeks. Start getting those singing voices ready.
*** Colfer botched a question about whether he’d take Candace McMillan to prom by obviously not knowing who the embattled teenager was.
*** And, finally, thanks for following the Paley Festival coverage here at Hitfix.com. It’s been a pleasure. And now I don’t have to see that damnable, “The Paley Fest is so great!” clips package they play before every session for another year.
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