What Writers Can Learn From 'Glee'

On the week of the weakest episode in the short history of the TV phenomenon "Glee" -- where the work of Lady GaGa sounded a little like Lady CaCa -- one lesson for writers to remember is that great shows ("The Sopranos," "True Blood") at their worst are way better than the typical show at its best.

I'm totally out of the closet on this one kids: an unabashed groupie of the gayest show in the history of network television, and I mean that as the best praise I can offer. Its creator, Ryan Murphy has become one of television's hottest writers and directors. He gave birth to the recently concluded "Nip/Tuck" and, thanks be, turned his bizarro attention from a plastic surgery clinic to that other microcosm of American angst, the suburban high school.

For the uninitiated, "Glee" tells the story of a small group of incredibly talented kids who form a ragtag show choir at McKinley High School in Ohio. The school has a principal from India who likes to use words like "bamboozle"; a PE teacher and cheerleader coach from hell; and a student body comprising every type of alienated adolescent known to man.

Here's my take on what works:

The power of mixing

Shakespeare was harshly criticized in the 18th century for his violations of the classical unities of time, place and action. Unity of action, for example, would never have permitted the comic Porter to play the bawdy fool immediately after the assassination of the king in "Macbeth." The Bard's ability to mix theatrical modes is one hallmark of Shakespeare's greatness. In the same spirit, the creator of "Glee" teaches us the power of mode mixing.

Murphy has done something with "Glee" that may be unprecedented in the history of television: blending the best aspects of comedy, drama and musical expression without making the audience experience the show as a cacophony.

"I Love Lucy" often mixed comedy with music into a joyful foreshadowing of the true potential for television entertainment. "M*A*S*H" mixed the horrors of war with the manic misadventures of doctors and nurses. Perhaps the work of Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," sets the closest precedent. (Whedon, not surprisingly, directed a recent episode of "Glee.")

Diversity of cultural expression

Gayness is treated not just as an orientation but as a cultural expression. Fashion, attitude, random humor and, of course, as many show tunes as you can squeeze into an hour -- all create a plausible world in which kids who are mocked or marginalized struggle to find their place.

Authentic diversity can never be expressed through tokenism. The stereotypes in the show, out of context, would constitute, at best, a guilty pleasure for the audience. What makes "Glee" work is that no single character bears the burden of representing a whole group. Gayness comes in different forms, and cheerleaders come in lots of shapes, sizes and IQ levels, from the ditzy blonde who thinks dolphins are gay sharks to the substantial African-American diva who comes to realize that her desire for popularity cannot be weighed on someone else's scale.

Finally, I wonder if there's ever been a show in which disability had such a strong presence: from Artie, one of the best dancers in the glee club (who happens to be in a wheel chair), to a quadriplegic singer, to two actors with Down Syndrome, one of whom makes the cheerleading squad.

Depth of characters

Every significant character has something at stake, some defining issue that gives the writers an opportunity to explore character. Artie (Kevin McHale) dreams of dancing, but is in a wheelchair. Quinn (Dianna Agron) is president of the Christian crusaders for chastity, but, of course, winds up pregnant.

Kurt worries that his father cannot love him completely because he likes show tunes and interior decoration and not football. Rachel (Lea Michele) has a world of talent and an unquenchable need for stardom, but an empty place in her heart caused by a mother she has never known.

Expect the unexpected

Each time you think you understand a character fully, the writers throws you a curve. The scheming, vicious PE teacher and cheerleader coach (talk about stereotypes) seems like a villainous cartoon character until we see her gentle love of her sister with Down Syndrome.

The glee club director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) seems to be the perfect teacher, full of energy and idealism -- who happens to be married to a woman who fakes a pregnancy to keep him -- and is hot for an obsessive/compulsive, anal retentive, bugged-eye school counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), who is sweet and probably incapable of sexual contact.

So what are the enduring lessons to be drawn for writers from "Glee"?

  1. Make stories represent the diversity (and sub-diversity) of human life.
  2. Do not be afraid to mix modes: comedy and drama; music and satire; social commentary and escapism.
  3. Cast your stories as you would a movie. Highlight the characters who have the most at stake.
  4. Establish a predictable pattern, then shake things up.
  5. Take a predictable genre, then blow it up.
  6. Find within any group you write about the needy, the ugly, the despised, the misunderstood, the excluded and the lost. Then find out what they think about you.
  7. Trust the audience to suspend disbelief. They know the kids didn't choreograph that dance in 13 seconds and that three-piece band can't sound like a full orchestra. Just go with it.

Finally, as Poynter Writing Fellow Tom French reminded me at lunch this week, every story needs a good villain, and Sylvester chews up the scenery in scene after scene. Shakespeare understood that the best villain gets the best lines. Here's Lady Macbeth after her hubby shows a hesitancy to kill the king:

"I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless bums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this."

And here's Sylvester to that mouse of a guidance counselor, Emma Pillsbury:

" You don't deserve the power of Madonna ... Simply put, you have all the sexuality of all those pandas down at the zoo who refuse to mate."

Who knew that Lady Macbeth could serve as the pre-incarnation of a sexually ambiguous gym teacher.

[Question: Are you a "Gleek"? What do you see in the show's storytelling or narrative structure that can be applied to other forms of writing?]

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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