Glee Project debut bombs, but it’s a pretty strong competition series

A year and a half after Fox first announced a Glee reality series and about a year after it was cancelled, The Glee Project debuted on Oxygen Sunday night. It bombed.

Of its 455,000 viewers, just 80,000 were women 18 to 34, Oxygen’s target demographic, and only 219,000 were people ages 18-49, according to according to the Hollywood Reporter. The paper reports that Oxygen president Jason Klarman wrote in memo to his staff that this “was not the start that we had hoped for” but also wrote, “We couldn’t be more proud of this critically acclaimed, first of its kind series that I — and this company — believe in 200 percent.” His memo also said that critics “agree unanimously using adjectives like ‘Mesmerizing,’ ‘Captivating,’ and lauding it as the ‘Best Talent Competition Show Ever. Period.’”

I’m not sure critics unanimously agree on anything, and a Google search for “Best Talent Competition Show Ever. Period,” reveals absolutely nothing except references to The Hollywood Reporter’s article, and that’s also a ridiculous comment anyway. The paper says that “In a subsequent staff meeting, Klarman said that the show would get more cross-promotional help from corporate siblings within NBC Universal.”

My guess is that, besides being on a cable network and debuting in the summer, the numbers reflect Glee fatigue. The Fox series was quickly overhyped and underdelivered (especially on plot, character development, narrative coherence, and everything else a TV show needs except musical numbers and disconnected emotional moments). Had the reality show debuted last summer, it might have gotten more interest.

After one episode, I like The Glee Project a lot better than Glee. The first episode (watch it on Hulu) started strong, emulating Glee’s opening sequence and mimicking its visual and audio cues, but also quickly establishing itself as its own thing.

Like so many other competition series, it struggles finding compelling TV personalities out of people who have off-camera talent, like Glee’s casting director and coaches. But both the creation of the production number and the bottom three performances were handled well and the coaches gave good notes, both directly to the contestants and in their deliberations. The criteria are still a bit ambiguous—they say they’re not looking for someone who can just sing, or just dance, or just act, and Ryan Murphy wants someone he can write to—but it’s a solid, if familiar, format. And the diverse cast do their part by being relatable and bringing some drama and conflict.

Best of all is the show’s new way of eliminating contestants. Instead of standing in front of the judges, each of the bottom three had to look at the callback sheet by themselves to see if they’d been eliminated or not. That was surprisingly powerful and effective, because we learned from their faces, not the callback sheet itself, whether they’d made it or not. If The Glee Project can keep this up, its audience should grow after this weak start.

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