If Ryan Murphy hadn't given us Nip/Tuck, My Life, Made Possible by Pop Culture may be inclined to believe he never left high school. At least in his mentality and sensibility. After all, he had two good years with Popular, a dramaedy about the haves and have nots of high school being unfortunately thrust together, and now he is on his second year of glee, a musical dramaedy that brings the haves and have nots of high school together through song. Every writer has that one story that they won't be satisfied until they tell, and since the similarities between these two are so great, we have no doubt that it's Murphy's. It didn't work out exactly how he planned a decade ago, so he has tried again. And this time he is succeeding. It's just a wonder more people aren't calling him out on the repetition.
You can say that the reason glee reminds me so much of Popular is the same reason it reminded me so much of Saved by the Bell: the characters are still outlines, versions of people but not yet fully fleshed-out, let alone well-rounded. The shows rely on stereotypes (like the popular blonde cheerleader, the heavier girl with weight issues, the cute teacher, and even the asexual teacher), much the way high school kids rely on stereotypes to pick their own friends. But above and beyond the same character types, glee and Popular also featured many of the same plot points.
First and perhaps most notable is the marriage of the popular kid's parent with the outcast's. In Popular it was Brooke (Leslie Bibb), the surprisingly insecure blonde cheerleader's father coming together with Sam (Carly Pope), the alternative writer's mother. It happened right off the bat at the end of the pilot, providing much of the season's conflict as these two girls from very different social worlds were forced upon each other in their home lives as well as more and more in the classroom. In glee it took a bit longer for Finn (Cory Monteith)'s mom and Kurt (Chris Colfer)'s dad to start dating, let alone get engaged and married. But though it was not the catalyst for conflict and drama, the sentiment was still the same. Finn was the all-American kid: a jock (football and basketball player), a stud (dating the head cheerleader), while Kurt, an openly gay choir musician, got beaten up daily by not only Finn's teammates but Finn himself. In Popular, Sam had moments where she actually seemed to want to be around Brooke; she didn't so much admire her, but she was in a kind of awe. She had to hide it from her friends who considered the Glamazons as vapid as they come, though, while, in glee Kurt flat-out had a crush on Finn and had to keep it to himself because not everyone was accepting of his sexuality.
But more than that, there was also the fact that a football star wanted to sing and dance and perform in his spare time. Popular's Josh (Bryce Johnson) didn't have the supportive parental figure that Finn did when making the announcement, but his journey was the same. He even auditioned in his football uniform and was given the same sit-down between the coach and the arts teacher and asked what it was that he wanted to do. Finn and Josh's bright eyes and baby faces were interchangeable in that moment in which they said "I want to do both." They showed so much promise; offering any high school kid with diverse interests a chance to believe they really could do a little bit of everything, even if on a small scale.
Of course there are also the obligatory weight issue PSA moments, sex story lines, and inter-social-circle-dating issues. Popular hinted at dieting and eating disorder issues with Brooke but really dove in with Carmen (Sara Rue), while on glee the only storyline with any weight (no pun intended) that Mercedes (Amber Riley) has been given thus far has been about obsessing over tater tots and trying to slim down to be a Cheerio. Brooke's pregnancy scare on Popular certainly felt like the precursor that allowed glee's Quinn (Dianna Agron) to actually get pregnant (well, that and a hot tub). And the Sam/Josh attraction was an exact blueprint to build the Rachel (Lea Michelle)/Finn one. Exact.
Popular also paved the way for socially conscious story lines, such as sex change operations, animal rights, sexual harassment, and the unfortunate truth about high schools' intramural sports budgets. Unfortunately many of those stories fell flat back then, feeling instead like the old-fashioned "very special episodes" of the nineties, forcing teaching moments, instead of being real moments in these characters lives that flowed nicely from fluff into substance back into fluff again. But that is the Ryan Murphy way, and he is continuing the efforts now with glee, in part by touching on the handicapable, and even briefly with religion, but mostly by dealing with varying degrees of homophobia. Though the more serious episodes of glee have been received pretty well by critics and general viewers alike, they still feel unbalanced and inconsistent when compared with the dark comedy fare and musical elements of the rest of the season. Though it is years later, and Murphy's style has matured slightly, he has in no way created a perfect formula.
But who knows? If glee never quite gets there (and recent episodes have shown it still needs a lot of work), in ten years' time, when Murphy inevitably tries a new incarnation of the same old story, maybe the third time really will be the charm.