31 March 2011

Le Glee

L pour Lyrique? Something is bound to be lost in translation.

The American series Glee has at last made its debut on commercial French TV, but due to technical difficulties beyond my control, I was unable to watch last night’s three-episode dose and therefore can’t report to you on what the show sounds like when it’s dubbed. (Musical numbers are preserved in the version originale.)

Ultimately, however, my opinion of the show is of less interest than the opinion of French viewers. And it will be a challenge for me to find out. While the show has gotten a little press (stars Amber Riley and Chris Colfer flew to Paris on a promotional tour), Glee-mania doesn’t seem to be sweeping the country as of yet. Will the French grow as enthusiastic about the show as the Americans are? Stay tuned.

American Westerns inspired Lucky Luke,
beloved hero of French comic books.

But consider that a great deal of Glee is very, very remote from anything that most French people have ever experienced, whereas the cultural imports that have fared best here are either those that closely reflect elements of French life (rap seems to speak directly to the banlieues and to fly white boys, and it’s been co-opted and adapted by the French) or those that project an appealing fantasy that’s completely removed from everyday life here (cowboy movies). Glee may not quite meet either standard.

The success here of Disney’s High School Musical franchise presents an instructive model. HSM targets a younger audience than Glee’s, and it’s backed by Disney’s formidable worldwide marketing strength.* Moreover, HSM requires less background knowledge from French viewers: its jocks play basketball, which is also a popular sport among kids here, and HSM features original songs, not covers.

Un sportif typique: Cory Monteith as Finn

Glee’s repurposed pop standards are (mostly) well-known here, but its Broadway tunes aren’t. The memorable sing-off between Kurt and Rachel is liable to sail over most people’s heads, because “Defying Gravity” — like Wicked, the musical it comes from — is unknown in France, and the lyrics are in English. Since most of Glee’s musical numbers find their cues in a word or phrase in the song’s text, viewers will encounter additional obstacles to comprehension, in every episode.

American culture so saturates France that the trappings of American football are recognizable — even if the French consider it a slow, fat, and pointlessly violent variation on le vrai foot, i.e., the noble art of soccer. But there are jocks (sportifs) in French high schools (lycées), and audiences here should be able to grasp Finn’s character, though they won’t understand the rules of the game.

Why is this girl dressed so oddly,
and why is she wasting that strange beverage?
Dianna Agron as Quinn

Thanks to movies and TV, most of my neighbors probably are familiar with the concept of a senior prom, and they have an idea what une cheer-leader and her privileged status in American society are. But there’s no exact equivalent in this country, so that the nuances of one of Glee’s central themes — that the participation of three of Sue Sylvester’s Cheerios in New Directions is borderline revolutionary — are likely to be lost. Quinn’s abstinence club may puzzle French viewers, as well: it’s predicated on a notion that the French consider puritanical, and therefore alien.

Mercedes’ beloved Tater Tots look a little like pommes de terre dauphine (if you don’t look too closely), and while France doesn’t have Olive Garden chain restaurants, there are places here that more or less resemble the hallowed Breadstix. If there’s any purveyor of Slushies in France, I’m unaware of it, but the French should be able to make out that they are some sort of beverage or supersize granita. They may wonder, however, why McKinley High School’s bullies are so wasteful.

One in ten of these French schoolkids has been bullied.

But the French will recognize the bullies. In a remarkable bit of timing, the start of Glee coincides with the release this week of a UNICEF-sponsored survey that found more than 10 percent of French schoolchildren admitted to being bullied — “victims of repeated physical or verbal violence.” This came as a shock to many adults, not least since very few of the children had told parents or teachers about their problems; and the Education Minister, Luc Chatel, promptly set up a “scientific committee” to combat discrimination in schools. So Glee’s recurring theme of bullying is likely to strike a resonant chord here.

Will that be enough for French audiences to overlook the many cultural barriers and permit them to embrace a show that, to their eyes, looks as if it ought to be pronounced “GLAY”? Is the universe of McKinley High School inviting enough to the fantasies of French viewers? Will broadcasters need to distribute explanatory brochures to every household in the country? I’ll be watching to find out.

*NOTE: One measure of Disney’s marketing prowess: Zac Efron is a star here in France, believe it or not. A life-size poster for one of his movies has been hanging for weeks next to the DVD distributor on the Place St-Martin in Beynes.

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