The Great “Glee” Divide May Help More Than Hurt

“Glee’s” co-creator Ryan Murphy told reporters he believed the Oct. 5 episode, “Grilled Cheesus,” would stir up chatter based on the provocative theme of religion.

He was right, but not for the reason he thought. The exploration of the subject began after Finn thinks he sees an image of Jesus in his grilled cheese sandwich, and continued in a heart-tugger when Kurt’s atheism springs to the fore after his father suffers a massive heart attack and his classmates turn to their spiritual beliefs for comfort.

Instead of focusing on the episode's religious aspects, the conversation centered on the plot-heavy episode. Some of the audience was bored, while others praised the writers for not sacrificing plot for musical numbers.

Never mind the professional critics, who generally gave high marks to the religious experience. A quick look at Facebook and other social networking sites revealed a split for Gleeks.

Fans on Facebook moaned about how the one-hour show seemed like two hours because so much was going on in the episode. One went so far as to say she had to leave the room after the drawn-out “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” number with Finn and Rachel, wishing the writers had used the time on more story and fewer songs. But another was disappointed to learn that it wasn't a Beatles-themed episode after hearing Kurt’s moving rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” 

Story vs. music
The “Glee” audience can be divided into two sets of viewers: those who love the musical theme but limited-plot episodes, and those who want more story mixed in with the snappy tunes. For every person who disliked the weakly plotted “Britney/Brittany” episode with mental amoeba Brittany getting high at the dentist office and going Spears, there were many more who tuned in just to get Britney to hit them, baby, one more time.

Not since “Lost,” which split its audience between those who were fully engaged in the show’s mythology and those who cared more about the evolution of Jack and friends than how the island ticked, has there been such a precedent for viewers tuning in for such different reasons.

"Lost" suffered big consequences when viewers became divided: The show began hemorrhaging fans who became confused by the time shifting and other prominent sci-fi elements.

But despite the dichotomy in "Glee," fans keep tuning in — so far — with the recent “Rocky Horror Picture Show” episode send-up giving “Glee” another ratings bump.

Positive response
Perhaps it’s exactly because of the split opinion that the show draws a wider audience. Like ratings behemoth “American Idol,” the show has tapped into the audience’s love of both pop tunes and emotional journeys.

“I think we are making the storytelling and the music go together in a more organic way,” Murphy said. “When we started, none of us had done a musical before so it was a real learning curve.”

Three main writers — Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan — control “Glee,” each with a different take on the show. Falchuk’s “Grilled Cheesus” embodied what the immensely popular show does best: blend well-known tunes with solid stories exploring themes that resonate with the viewers.

But it was Brennan’s first-season episode “Funk” that sparked the first wave of criticism about the show going off the tracks when it came to story-driven episodes. (It probably tempted fate to include "Loser" in the soundtrack.)

Though Murphy's Britney episode seemed like little more than an excuse to trot out both Brit and her music, with the slightest of plot premise linking the songs, fans responded positively.

“Britney/Brittany” snagged the most viewers with 13.51 million, followed by “Rocky Horror Glee Club” with 11.76 million and “Grilled Cheesus” with 11.20 million. 

So while it would seem “Glee” fans favor the music-driven episodes, at least so far this season, it’s a mixed bag that appeals to a wide range of viewers. The "Rocky Horror" take-off increased by 4 percent in viewers over the previous new episode and won the night. And even “Grilled Cheesus,” which was weaker in the ratings, won the show's time slot. (The show's ratings have ranged from 6.10 million to 13.66 million.)

“We listen very closely to what fans say. Fans like certain things, don’t like certain things, and I am somebody who listens very closely to what fans say,” Murphy said.

Now that he’s heard from fans who loved the Madonna, Lady Gaga and Britney episodes, would that mean a shift to more high profile artist-centric episodes?

“We like to do those, but we’ll only do two this year — Britney and one after the Super Bowl,” Murphy said. “But I don’t want to do too many of those.”

Just enough to spark some chatter — and boost the ratings.

Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.

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