the unabashed ‘glee’ of POPULAR

I have a confession to make – right here in front of the world. I have a bizarre crush on Mary Cherry from the WB’s 1999-2001 television show POPULAR. And I have no excuse for myself…

wb-popular-ep2x07-1…save to say that Leslie Grossman’s insanely ostentatious performance needs to be locked in a time capsule and placed on the next Voyager mission into space so extraterrestrials can be made aware of humanity’s capacity for comedic ingenuity. Hours after watching this teen melodrama when it was first airing (mostly over my ex-girlfriend’s shoulder on Thursday nights), I’d still find myself laughing uncontrollably at Grossman’s perceptive – and still cunningly silly – send-up of cheerleader stereotypes.

An open note to recent Golden Globe Award winning television show GLEE and its Executive Producer Ryan Murphy – the man responsible for the short-lived but winning POPULAR:

the newest effort’s “jazz hands” and musical earnestness (if I have to hear “DON’T STOP BELIEVING” in the key of glee club one more time…) could use a little of the razor-sharp lunacy that made the previous endeavor so watchable without losing the panache of its musical trappings.


POPULAR’s first season finale – a very sharp, satirical spoof of televised melodrama’s ongoing love-affair with season finale stunts – actually clutters itself with such stunts. Weddings. And revelations. And musical numbers. The high school students break into a fantasia of musical set pieces (VERY thinly veiled spoofs of EVITA – specifically “A NEW ARGENTINA” – complete with military garb and huge banners waving) that are so patently absurd AND thrillingly vibrant AND knowingly intelligent that…

…well…come to think of it…it’s no wonder it only survived two seasons.

It was a thinking teen’s television show. It used the teen drama genre as a format to explore wider themes of social alienation, struggles with maturation, and the sometimes desperate need for acceptance. On a recent re-watch – I was struck at how complex it allowed its human relationships to be. And I was struck how little has changed in the last ten years since this show was running on the air. If anything – the search for notoriety has become even more intense. AMERICAN IDOL and YouTube et al.

POPULAR was the broader, somewhat flashier cousin of FREAKS AND GEEKS – another engaging study of teen angst that met an untimely demise.

Perhaps these shows were too smart for their own good. Perhaps teen audiences don’t want to think while watching their escapist entertainment.

I was in my mid-twenties at the time and I dug the hell out of POPULAR. Sara Rue – in particular – gave a real pathos and generosity to an archetypal role that could have ended up being little more than “the token heavy girl.” She’s not always the virtuous victim and not always just the girl dealing with her alleged heft. Leslie Bibb and Carly Pope also have some great turns as the leaders of their respective cliques.

And any show that hires Delta Burke and casts her as a sassy Texan matriarch named Cherry Cherry – Mary Cherry’s domineering mother – is a goldmine as far as I’m concerned. And the episode where a Sadie Hawkins dance sends all of our characters into body dysmorphic fits could have easily ended up being schlocky and unrealistic – however this show attacks the issues for both men and women with an honesty and directness that proves genuinely touching.

popularBut the show’s true secret weapon – Mary Cherry. With her gold mane of hair, heavy make-up, and wide Texas twang – she became a reason to hurry home from work so I could catch the show with the ex. Inspired!

GLEE’s mid-season finale – an episode involving our rag-tag gang of singers scrambling to win the coveted Sectionals in order to go on competing closer to the top in Regionals – had some of that satirical spunk that had made POPULAR such a treat. Let’s hope this trend continues. Right now – Jane Lynch’s performance is enough to keep me watching.

But I want to be thrilled and inspired. Perhaps it’s the awkward way that GLEE seems to shoe-horn its musical numbers into real life contexts that keeps it from feeling truly great. If there was ever a genre that never needed to explain its characters refusal to be fourth-walled in – it was the MUSICAL.

Sometimes – GLEE gives us balls-to-the-wall musical numbers. It’s unforgiving in the way it ignores reality. But sometimes – it tries to justify its absurdity in a real world context.

POPULAR went for broke! It owned its insanity and it owned its melodrama. It existed in another universe entirely. And yet – it was a universe so recognizable. Perhaps none of us had a Dirt Eater in our class – but I’m sure we had somebody equally weird – and equally misunderstood.

I say this, GLEE. Less talking about musical numbers…more musical numbers. Embrace the absurdity. Ryan Murphy; You’ve done it before. And it was a blast!


~ by saturdaysinthedark on January 28, 2010.

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