The Glee Project is an odd little show. In some regards, it’s absolutely just a shallow move to cash in on something once beloved, now milked for cash of every ounce of cred it once had (that would be Glee). But, interestingly, it’s something else too. It’s an interesting idea for a cable reality show, a kind of well-executed mess of emotions that proves to be an engrossing watch for most of the right reasons. This show didn’t have to be good. It could have coasted on the draft provided by the success of the mothership, providing Glee obsessives with a cursory behind-the-scenes glance at the show’s casting process. Instead, it sinks its teeth just deep enough into something problematic and dramatic about wanting to be a star like Rachel Berry. It goes for it just enough to give you a sense that there are stakes here outside of winning a part on Glee and becoming a teen heartthrob. You don’t get that sense from any other singing competition, where everyone is supposed to love everyone else indiscriminately… except for the part where they want to beat each other when the votes come in. We get no insight into those people (the Scotty McCrearys and Jeff Jenkins), except at the moment they want our votes to come in en masse. Not so with this Oxygen upstart.

The Diamonds in the Rough Searching for Their Identities on The Glee Project

There is no public voting with The Glee Project. All that matters is the opinion of one man — Glee creator/weird skullcap-enthusiast Ryan Murphy. What we see on The Glee Project, then is a sort of already formed, unchangeable document, a finished text, about a group of young adults being put through the wringer to win one man’s favor, made all the more interesting by the fact by the fact that the man is en absentia until the moment the axe comes down(Murphy only shows up at the end of the hour, after being brought up to speed by his minions, to remind the cast-off’s that it his golden pen they should be concerned about!) The point of this show isn’t singing. (I’m not reading subtext there; the fact is mentioned repeatedly). It is about a bunch of Millenials showing up for what they think will be a fun singing camp and having those hopes of joyful dream-fulfilling dashed. They get a lot of grief and a lot stress from the moment they are walked into the studio. They are not coddled even in the slightest. Some of them take the stress of the Glee process pretty hard. (I will always have one positive thing to say about Glee. Glee can be really bad, but even when it’s bad, those actors must have to put in so much sweat and so many tears into creating what we eventually see — this glossy dance marathon we see every Tuesday night. It’s Murphy’s writing that betrays them honestly.) Without really setting us up for it, the show offers a pretty heart-breaking picture of struggling and failing when your chance finally comes and your dreams are right there. Rather than do the Idol thing and reduce that struggle to a two-minute clip about perseverance that you show before the big performance where everything finally goes right, this show kind of wallows in that sadness. It wallows really effectively.

What surprised me is how emotionally raw this show is. This is less Idol and more Real World: Aspiring Actors, except a bit color-by-numbers. Look at this show and The Voice. On The Voice, we hear a whole lot of powerful singing and identity-flaunting, but the show skirts identity-forming completely and relishes one sentence descriptors. “Hi my name’s Jeff Jenkins, my mother’s dead.” “Hi my name’s Frenchie, I’m sassy and am getting a second chance.” Repeat ad nauseum.

A Young Man The Voice Would Like to Have Us Belive is a Finished Project

Fact is, The Voice is downright phobic when it comes to growing and cultivating identities. It likes to run with what everyone brought to the table in the blind auditions, almost unchallenged, and if it doesn’t work, well goodbye, your coach is crying because you were so awesome and contributed so much to the team, but America’s decided. I know I’ve praised NBC’s new hit for showing more coaching then the norm, but this coaching largely still offers little in the way of offering some compelling statement on the struggle of forming a public identity fit for consumption. (And I’m not saying anyone’s asking it to.) The show is really good without that aspect, and it got better last week, with less V-Robot Allison Haislip (thank goodness!) and three exceptionally strong performances from front-runners Vicci, Nakia and can-we-just-give-him-the-crown-already Javier Colon. Yes, the Thompson Sisters were really painful (girls… breath support! There’s two of you, shouldn’t you have twice the ability to breathe?!?) and Xenia really didn’t deserve to stay, but I don’t think you can deny that NBC’s really hit is on to something here — it’s a show with charming people behind the mics, which pushes artists as complete concert-ready, Twitter-trending packages with more than just a good voice (ironic, I know). All that being said, this show is as guilty as Idol of hoping its viewers will process its contestants quickly as easily-digestible little morsels with simple, one-word identities and big voices. (This model makes sense, because these shows make their bank on people, while the competition is going on and episodes are airing, lining up behind the finished products by calling in,  and buying the music on iTunes.)

This is reading against the grain (an interpretation I got from the review on the AV Club), but The Glee Project seems to be deconstructing these ready-made identities in an interesting ways, and in doing so, the show puts forth an interesting business model we’ve seen used on niche cable a lot (Top Chef, Project Runway), but not so much with succesful singing competitions. The point of this style of show is to be as darn compelling as possible. The philosophy is simple: get a bunch of distinct personalities together, display that these are some talented but kooky people, and wait for fireworks! This show does that, and it adds in the wrinkle of the angst of youth. It follows Glee’s secret hypothesis (the one it doesn’t want to admit it has) that says that, when we’re eighteen, we’re just practicing to be as lonely and unsure of our true identity as we will be when we’re thirty (like Will) or fifty (like Sue), but that we can work through that angst with others. If you look at it that way, it would be antithetical for this show to advertise these kids as joyful, untroubled little ingenues who know exactly who they are and who they want to be.

So the show pushes the opposite angle. These kids can sang, yes (some way better than others, though ultimately this will not matter), but they by no means are comfortable in their own skins! Put them in a room with a critical jerk producer or a really bitchy dance teacher (hey, this show has both of those things!) and ask them, while dangling the reward of making all their dreams come right in front of their noses, to project that confidence on command or be considered a failure, and bam! You have the sort of compelling, who’ll-crack-next sensation you get from really good documentary-style (read: this already happened and you have no effect on the outcome viewer, a la The Real World) reality television.

So sure, they ask the contestants to describe themselves in one sentence almost immediately, meaning this show cares about those constructions, but what the camera really tells us by following these kids back to their pad and watching them fall apart is that the pressure of those constructions (and they way they can be torn down so easily) says far more than the on-the-spot decision to be, say, “Most Likely to be a Personal Trainer!” This show, from its first episode, seems to secretly care a lot more about the toll of the competition then the competition itself, which is a really interesting angle. Because of this, you see very little finished-product identity-flaunting. There’s almost no “Look what I did, I succeeded!” on this show. Almost nothing gels with those off-the-cuff pre-determined identities (“Most Likely to Start a Charity”?!?), but, in the end, that’s appropriate because the documentary narrative being put forth here seems to be arguing that these young folk’s identities are too fluid to simply flaunt unproblematically right now.

Ellis’s identity struggles formed the crutch of the show’s first hour. She both hates that she looks ten, but uses it to get ahead. She uses it too much, and is put at risk (I would have put her at risk because her singing was atrocious in the recording studio, but they made it an identity thing), and so they make her sing a very adult, sexy-lady song. She plays that up and gets castigated for trying to hard to prove she’s not a child. I threw my hands up in frustration! They made her choose an identity right? Then they made her choose another? Don’t ask if you don’t want. I’m not alone on this one. Many of the kid’s bristled at having to choose an identity so soon. Two guys said their identities with question marks at the end, and both ended up in the bottom three with Ellis. Deep-voiced dude Bryce, who chose to be the heartbreaker, had his heart crushed in the end. Damian, the Euro charmer, was accused of being a charm vacuum. We wallowed with these three extrememly emotional people as they tried to figure out their place in Murphy’s world. In doing this, we cared less about them ultimately ending up on Glee and more about, well, them. Were they okay, I wondered. Is this doing damaged? It is extremely telling that this episode spent ten times more effort on showing us the kid’s who are struggling then the one’s who are doing just fine. Those kids who are doing just fine right now don’t need our votes, so leave them on the periphery until they crack too.

Most tellingly, there was one moment where one contestant, otherwise completely likeable throughout the entire episode, was asked by his fellow contestants (classmates?) to pick the weakest link, I guess as some sort of self-enforced torture exercise. When pressed, he accused another’s class clown act of becoming tiring because you can’t be funny all the time. This sort of group drama is the sort of thing you would practically never see on a vote-based singing show like The Voice, where everyone has to like eachother or they won’t trend enough on Twitter. The Glee Project feeds off a very different energy. The promo for the next episode promises more of the same. It seems like, in coming weeks, the drama of finding one’s identity, the tears shed and accusations made, will continue to form the crux of this show, taking precedence over talent, singing rehearsals and recording sessions. (As the — judges?… casting people?… coaches? It’s all very confusing — judges keep saying, the point isn’t to be the most talented at any giving thing on this show, it’s to be Glee-ready enough to inspire Ryan Murphy to write a character for you based on your all-around… you-ness. You can tell already Murphy doesn’t understand the identity crisis appeal of his own show.) This is, precisely like Glee itself, a show that cashes in on the raw emotion that goes with growing up uncomfortable in your own shoes, and also on finished, auto-tuned products, and not so much on the gritty realism of perfecting a song. I always love good song-craft, and for that I will continue to watch The Voice and worship the incredible gift of Javier Colon. But when I want to find a more subtle competition show that reflects my own struggles to make it in this world and convince other people of my worth when I’m not even sure of my worth, I’ll check back in the very overwhelemed contestants on The Glee Project.