In September 2009, I received the entire series of Popular on DVD for my birthday. I immediately consumed all the episodes and noticed how this show didn’t fit into the late 90’s line up for the WB because of how queer it was. I initially planned on updating with some more observations, but PhD research got in the way and I didn’t rewatch the series for over a year. Tonight, I had the sudden urge–no a craving–for some Mary Cherry so I popped in the DVD, and look what I found!
Let’s start with some background on the series, it was created by Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews in 1999. Yes, THAT Ryan Murphy of Glee and Nip/Tuck fame. Like many out there, I, too, find Glee to be problematic, and although I still watch it, I have become disenchanted after this season. However, after watching Popular tonight (nd I’m only into the 4th episode of season 1), I realized why I’m so bummed about Glee–it’s not Popular, but it wishes it was!
Let’s start with the first episode of Populr (and I believe you can find it on youtube). You’re introduced to two different social spheres of the female leads: Sam (Carly Pope) and Brooke (Leslie Bibb). Sam’s “unpopular,” a wannabe journalist, a bit of a bitch, and will step on her friends for her own selfish reasons (not putting in a good word for Carmen, because then she won’t be invited to Brooke’s party, which means she won’t get the story her ‘hot’ teacher wants her to get). Her gang includes Carmen (Sara Rue): who doesn’t make the cheerleading squad because she’s ‘fat’, even though she’s the best dancer; Lily (Tamara Mello): a student activist who protests frog disection; and Harrison (Christopher Gorham): the token sensitive guy of the group, he was once friends with Brooke but she ditched him because he wasn’t popular.
Brooke is cheerleader, who’s so-called perfect life isn’t that perfect after all (her mom left and she’s a recovering anorexic). Her posse consists of Nicole (Tammy Lynn Michaels): a major bitch only concerned with her popularity and making others feel bad; Josh (Bryce Johnson): the quarterback boyfriend who has to date the head cheerleader, though he secretly auditions for the musical and gets the lead (he comes with a ‘best friend’ Sugar played by Ron Lester who’s main purpose is to be the fat comedic relief–he’s a wannabe gangster) and Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman): who’s well… as I’ve said, she’s basically a drag queen with some major Single White Female moments.
If you haven’t noticed, these are popular tropes who show up in every high school based TV series, but especially so in Glee. Let’s see: Sam is the non-singing Rachel, Brooke is clearly Quinn (exchanging anorexia for pregnancy), Josh is Finn (the singing quarterback and who’s popularity is at risk? Zac Efron, you owe your career to this show!), Carmen definitely shares some similarities with Mercedes sans the sassy “black-itude,” Harrison bares some similarities to Artie (though I don’t find Artie as sympathetic or empathetic as Murphy would like, Harrison is quite sweet), but instead of being in a wheelchair, Harrison gets cancer, Santana is the softer version of Nicole, and Mary Cherry is clearly related to Kurt (though Murphy sees himself in Kurt and thus Kurt has become an actual character and not a cartoon). Oh, and let’s not forget Popular‘s cheerleaders! Who do you think would win in a fight: the Glamazons or the Cheerios?
Teenage characters aside, in the first few episodes you have the skeezy Theatre teacher (aka Sandy the former glee club teacher–although Will is getting there) who is subsequently fired and disappears; Sam and Brooke’s parents, who spontaneously get married in the second episode, making Sam and Brooke Kurt and Finn (Sam’s mother even gives a near exact version of Carole’s speech to Finn about living after her husband’s death); and Bobbie Glass (Diane Delano) is the missing link between Sue and Coach Beiste. However, I believe she is deserving of her own post.
There is nothing wrong with Ryan Murphy recycling characters or plot points from one show to another, as none of this was original back in 1999. However, it is a shame that Glee isn’t living up to the Popular-esque potential demonstrated in the pilot. At the same time, many of the complaints about Glee‘s second season ring true for Popular, which also suffered in the second season, so it really isn’t surprising how many “very special” episodes have already occurred this season.
And one last thing: check out the sweeps stunt at 2:30.