When Glee’s first season ended last month, we prepared ourselves for months of sad, song-free television. Then last night we watched the premiere of BBC America’s new reality series, The Choir, and it was as if a gray, tuneless cloud had lifted. We were inspired! We heard music, and none of it was “Don’t Stop Believing” (or any Journey, for that matter)! We laughed, we cried, we believed in unicorns again! Well, maybe not that last bit, but The Choir has, to say the least, wholly restored our faith in reality television, and it also set an example that Glee might want to take notes on.
Calling The Choir reality TV is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more like an especially animated 60 Minutes segment. The central subject is Gareth Malone, an adorably rumpled, earnest, 30-year old (who looks 18) graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra’s community choir, and vehement believer in the power of group singing. Malone is sent to Northolt High School in Middlesex — an area of “relative social deprivation,” according to its head of school — to start a choir that can compete in that year’s world choir Olympics. Trouble is, the school has no arts programs to speak of. But don’t call it a Glee clone; The Choir was filmed in 2006 and is only now reaching our shores. Also, Mr. Malone thankfully does not rap.
Early on, favorite characters have emerged: spunky Taylor Swift–lookalike Rhonda; sweet little 12-year old Enoch, who, with his mother and sister Melody, hopefully awaits his Kenyan father’s receiving a visa to come to England after a year’s absence; and Gareth himself, who’s full of frank bon mots from the minute he drives into Northolt (“Not terribly beautiful so far … Oh, it’s one of those buildings”). There’s immediate dramatic tension: Will the kids’ sample CD get them into the Olympics running? Will problem child Chloe drop out? Will they learn to sing in tune in the first place? But above all, The Choir accomplishes a rare task in reality TV: capturing genuine, unbridled emotion (the tears of the kids who don’t get into the choir; how Gareth deals with Chloe, a discipline problem in the group; every frustrating minute of rehearsals). It also seemingly portrays events as they actually happen — the kids, and, notably their parents, are refreshingly honest with the cameras.
Just as the kids learn from Gareth, so should Glee take some lessons from The Choir. Last night alone, we saw several “plot” points that could transfer well to the fictional show: the trouble of dealing with changing male voices (plenty of options for hilarity and drama there!); the utter lack of confidence that bubbles under the surface bravado of middle- and high-school boys; the actual musical difficulties involved in singing R&B, the one genre all the kids gravitate toward (and which the Glee kids, magically, seem to have no trouble with). We get that Glee is fantasy, which is a big part of its allure, and seeing real kids struggle is certainly a more tense experience than watching actors who will certainly “improve” by a season’s close. In the end, Glee and The Choir share the same goal: to stress the importance of music education, to demonstrate the very tangible ways it improves the lives of kids who participate, and to show how a singing group inspires a very unique kind of camaraderie. For the moment, The Choir just rings a little truer and is especially endearing — take a look at this week’s most “aw!”-inspiring moment from the girls’ auditions.