Reality TV is designed to be emotionally manipulative: Just look at Tyra Banks digging for past traumas on America’s Next Top Model, or American Idol giving us the tragic backstory of each flawed contestant. But it’s not hard to see how deliberately crafted these arcs are—how obviously they’re designed to make us feel for the people on screen. That’s why, more often than not, I’m able to brush it off.
Here’s the thing: I cried twice at The Glee Project’s Season 2 premiere. Twice. This show has barely begun, and I’m already invested in its personalities. I want everyone to succeed. I don’t want to suffer through weekly eliminations. And I’m kind of stunned that a reality show can get under my skin in a way that Glee almost never does.
If I’m going to cry at a reality show at all—and I swear to you, it’s rare—it will be late in the season, once I’ve developed an unhealthy attachment to a contestant that gets booted. But there is something so vulnerable and, yes, relatable about the contestants on The Glee Project. For me, it’s impossible not to get hooked right away, and to find a personal stake in all of their journeys toward the grand prize, or (more likely) a melancholy parting monologue.
First instance of tears: Lea Michele tells full-figured contestant Lily that she’s “strikingly beautiful.” Cut to Lily, crying, because it means so much to hear such kind words from someone she admires. As a person who has rarely felt comfortable in his own skin, I truly connect to moments like these. And they’re tough to come by: On shows like Top Model, the “ugly duckling” girls have blossomed into beautiful women. I’m not all that moved by what it took to get there. Even on shows like The Voice, which is designed to showcase the less conventionally attractive, the focus is on singing, and the hard-luck stories feel like background noise.
The Glee Project is a show about awkward people finding their voice, and there really isn’t anything else like it. Last season, I said this competition reflected something problematic about Glee—the overemphasis on adversity, and the idea that Ryan Murphy will shoehorn in any character with a sad-enough backstory. Maybe that’s still the case, but whether or not it works on Glee, it makes The Glee Project a uniquely moving experience. I believed Lily’s tears more than I believe the tears on any other reality competition—and that’s why my eyes welled up, too.
Second instance of tears: Maxfield’s elimination. I barely got to know this kid, but there was something about him—and you could say that about all of the contestants. The Glee Project is so adept at giving us competitors to cling to that it’s impossible not to feel something when they leave. I’ll be honest, there’s some sadistic part of me that occasionally enjoys reality show eliminations, especially when they involve throwing someone under the bus. But I can tell I’m going to be dreading The Glee Project’s goodbyes on a weekly basis. Or at least crying a lot more than I should probably admit.
Yes, but Louis, how were the performances? Better than last season’s, I’d say. “Born This Way” was a little rough, of course, but the group seems to be working together fairly well so early in the competition. And I really dug the “Here I Go Again” music video, which felt a lot less schlocky than much of what we saw in Season 1. Not that I have any delusions about The Glee Project dumping the cornball factor entirely. It is, after all, still a reality show on Oxygen.
As for the contestants to watch, I’m pulling for Dani, who admittedly does look a little like Justin Bieber; Tyler, who isn’t the strongest singer but is learning how to work with his body as a transgender man; and Charlie, who reminds me a bit of Cory Monteith, in that he’s got that perfect mix of charm and awkwardness. Really, though, I found something to like about almost everyone. While I’m sure I’ll pick up on flaws in upcoming episodes, I’m a little taken aback by how much I’m enjoying these contestants from the get-go.
Will the Season 2 winner of The Glee Project prove a great addition to Glee Season 4? I kind of doubt it. But let’s put that aside for now: Taken on its own, this is a reality competition at the top of its game. It’s about the journey, not the destination.