The Fall of Glee and the Adequecy of Galavant

When Glee aired its first episode in the spring of 2009, it was a jolt of sincerity, earnestness, and hope. It was the adorable, precocious toddler of musical TV, singing songs we knew and remembered and really FEELING them. We bought into the cloying sweetness of it wholeheartedly. As an audience, we were rewarded for a few seasons with great, and then good, and then mediocre TV. Glee peaked with its second season, when 12.45 million people tuned in to the premiere and 11.8 million to the finale. Every season since then, the show has shed 2 to 3 million viewers. Now entering its sixth and final season, the premiere only managed to scare up 2.3 million viewers – down 64% from season five’s premiere.

What went wrong?

The two biggest things that went wrong with Glee had nothing to do with character, performance, or music selection. It wasn’t anything about the execution of the show – rather, the structure of the show made it impossible for the audience to remain committed to it. The ground shifted under the feet of the audience first as the show tried to introduce new characters and deal with the challenges of a 4-year high school, and then again when it shifted from songs-only-for-performance to ballads sung to an empty auditorium because: feelings!

High School: With the show initially set in a high school, the clock had been ticking since day one. And since the climaxes of the first few seasons focused on competitions, there was no way to slow the progress of time. The show tried to connect the audience with new cast members to smooth the transition as people graduated, but the audience didn’t bite. An attempt to follow the original cast as it scattered around the country highlighted not the strength of these characters, but the failure of the show to commit to an idea and make it work. Trying to split the difference is never a good idea.

Musical world: When Glee first debuted, the songs only existed in rehearsals, performances and daydreams (see also: Nashville). This set the audience up to understand that this wasn’t Disneyland. People aren’t going to start singing to cartoon birds in the middle of the hallways.

The cartoon birds never showed up but the song-break-to-share-character-emotion became a staple of the show. This may seem like a subtle shift, but that difference is crucial to the world development. It’s as basic as zombie rules: Do the characters sing and dance as a part of their day or only during performances? Is this a universe where zombies can run or only stumble? These rules should be stable – they set audience expectations and frame the world in which these characters exist. When they slip and slide, it affects the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. It’s certainly not as jarring for Rachel Barry to start singing to herself as it is for a zombie to suddenly be able to remember his past, but it can be just as damaging long term.

But the slow, painful downfall of Glee did not sour TV execs on infusing their shows with music. Nashville debuted in October 2012 to solid ratings (8.9 million viewers) and continues to do fairly well (7 million average viewers in 2013). Nashville, by relegating singing strictly to the stage and the rehearsal booth, keeps the show grounded in some sort of reality.

The most jarringly different addition to this genre is ABC’s Galavant. A 4-week miniseries, now halfway complete, Galavant does not, in any way whatsoever, take itself seriously. The show is silly and self-referential. It works because it knows it’s silly; the characters themselves roll their eyes ahead of upcoming musical numbers.

Galavant debuted to 9.4 million people. While the second week only brought in 4.1 million eyeballs, it was up against the Golden Globes (19.8 million) and the NFL lead-in to 60 Minutes, then Madam Secretary on CBS. That 4.1 million is 30% better than the same timeslot last year.

Galavant doesn’t have to contend with the sustainability challenges that bogged down Glee in later years. But it is clear from the first note of the first song: the characters sing, they know they sing, and they know it’s silly.

And knowing the characters know that means the audience can laugh with them, instead of cringe at them.

Galavant airs Sundays at 8:00pm on ABC through January 25th 

Glee airs Fridays at 9:00pm on Fox through March 20th