Glee Project’s acting problem not solved by having cast play themselves

The Glee Project found its final three three last night after putting them through a baffling group challenge: testing their acting by letting them play themselves.

The show has produced music videos that qualify as art, and it’s produced shit like last night’s faux movie trailer set to “Perfect,” which made me laugh the entire time. The finalists are undoubtedly talented, but actors they are not–even when they are playing themselves.

By the way, it’s amazing how the show can go from an absolutely dumb, melodramatic music video to a scene with such genuine emotion, when the mentors tearfully talked about the final five–before revealing that instead of giving some of them immunity, they were all up for elimination, which they hilariously framed as an opportunity. Even Nikki Anders broke from her usual “I hate you for wasting my time” face (she smiles but has angry eyes: it’s fascinating) to say that she’d like her kids to grow up to be like the finalists, which was awesome.

Earlier, when Dianna Agron assigned their roles, she could have just said, “You will all play yourselves.” In fairness, they were assigned a tiny bit of fictional narrative, but it was like some lettuce on a veggie burger: barely noticeable. Asking the contestants to be themselves cannot be the best way to filter a group of people to avoid a Damian McGinty wallpaper problem.

I actually asked casting director Robert Ulrich about this recently, because acting seems to be The Glee Project‘s weak spot. Robert told me that acting isn’t ignored: “You are acting when you are singing, you are acting when you are dancing, you are are acting in those music videos, so we are watching and judging their acting at all times.” But he admitted that acting “was a question last year, so we address it this year,” and promised that “this year, unlike last year, when the season is over, you do have a good sense of who can act and who has a little bit more to learn.”

The way it was addressed, though–having a challenge based on “actability” that really just had them be themselves–seems to be a problem that’s larger than The Glee Project itself, one that’s connected to Ryan Murphy’s baffling insistence on finding someone he can “write for.” As the mentors and Glee writing staff prepared to make a decision, Ryan said they needed to figure out “how many of these people are we inspired to write seven episodes for.”

Um, how about writing seven episodes with plot and character development and then letting actors play that? After all, actors are supposed to be people who can inhabit different characters, not just play themselves (unless they are Tom Cruise). I understand that writers of fiction can certainly be inspired by reality, and by people they work with, and it also makes sense to use an actor’s strengths; that’s why you cast one person and not another, after all.

But this approach seems absurd, especially when specific examples come up. For instance, when they were discussing Aylin, it appeared as though it never occurred to them to tell a story like hers–i.e. about a woman who comes from a conservative, religious background–until they saw Aylin. Really? Stories are that limited based on who the cast members are? What happened to creativity and imagination?

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter: I gave up Glee long ago (its treatment of plot and characters maddened me even in season one) and although I like the contenders, I don’t care who wins. That’s the funny part about The Glee Project: it’s an incredible reality competition with a prize that may impact its winner’s life, but doesn’t really matter to us.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.