Crosscut Tout: 'The Glee Project'

Forget "American Idol." This reality show about teenage kids trying out for the top-rated "Glee" series is as good as it gets.

Crosscut archive image.

The Glee Project makes outcasts into good guys.

Forget "American Idol." This reality show about teenage kids trying out for the top-rated "Glee" series is as good as it gets.

After watching two episodes of the new summer series, “The Glee Project,” I’m convinced it’s one of the best reality shows ever produced.  Forget “The Voice.”  Forget “American Idol.”  This is the real stuff.

If you’re familiar with the regular “Glee” series, the high school glee club series now about to enter its third season on FOX TV, you know how it’s a pastiche of pop music, music video-style performance, teen angst, and a continuing paean to a philosophy of tolerance.

“Glee” makes the outcasts the good guys and the rest of the pretty people just so-so. Virtually every stereotype — fat kids, handicapped kids, gay boys, Asians, Latinos, gay girls, bullies, nasty teachers, loving parents, you name it — is turned on its head. Idealistic? You bet.  Believable? Within the show’s context, absolutely. 

If you ever wonder whether the “Glee” gang are just playing themselves, look no further than this groundbreaking boot camp for the regular series.  At some point. the regular cast will "graduate" from high school; some of these kids could be their replacements.

Some 40,000 young people tried out for inclusion in this series; only 12 were chosen.  One of them will be featured as a new character in a seven-episode arc during the upcoming “Glee” season. 

(How the show came to be is in itself fascinating: a Hollywood-style deal over syndication rights for the off-network showing of the regular season.)

The kids are given an opportunity to show their talents before Glee’s casting director, music video director, music coach, choreographer and other production staff from the regular series.  The three worst performers each week get a last-chance showcase in front of Glee producer Ryan Murphy; one will be eliminated.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about the formula; “Top Chef,” “The Apprentice,” and “Project Runway” among other have it down pat.  But in this case, these could be our kids.  Who they are is still raw, and the show captures that naturalness seemingly without exploitation. The producing staff (as much mentors as coaches) really seem to care about them becoming the best they can be. The stakes are high: a "Glee" spot could mean a lifetime career (and don't forget what it's done for fading stars including Gwyneth Paltrow.)

Especially telling is the glimpses we have of producer Ryan Murphy.  You get an unfettered close-up, however brief, of what a top Hollywood producer brings to his job. 

Near the end of episode 2, a white boy and a girl, both well under 5 feet, and a young black girl all perform on stage to save their spots in the show.  Murphy and his producers sit well back in the empty theater, watching.  (Ballet impresario Boris Lermentov of “The Red Shoes”  immediately comes to mind.) 

But here a paradigm shift occurs.  Murphy has an uncanny ability to see past “black,” “white,” “short” as he looks for some essence in each of them that will inspire him and his staff to write a “Glee” character around them.  He’s less interested in a great performance than seeing that inner quality outed and seamlessly integrated with their showmanship.

Matheus, all 4-foot-9-inches of him, mouthful of braces, bursting with talent, performs “Gives You Hell” by the All-American Rejects, delivering a killer performance, then apologizes to Murphy for getting a little carried away.  Murphy stops him: “You are what Glee is about: someone you would not think a performer or a star would be.”

The boy responds, “I never thought I would get this opportunity, you know.”

Murphy again interrupts, “Why not?”

Matheus: “Because here I am, this ugly little dude…”

Murphy: “Well, I don’t really believe you think you’re ugly.”

Matheus: “Well, I’m not the best looking…but…”

The producer then brusquely asks Matheus if he thinks he’s sexy, then, when Matheus demurs, tells him he could be written as a 4-foot 9-inch ladykiller with inordinate self-confidence who walks into a room and says, “I can get any woman in this room — and I will.”

You see Matheus’ life change in that moment.  It’s writ very large on his face.

Your heart breaks for the kid. And, truth be told, there is also that echo from your own life as you wonder why someone did not see this in you when you were that age, what you might have become.

If you’ve missed the earlier episodes, they’re available on line for free on Hulu along with interviews with the kids and their mentors.


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