The return of “Glee” is something we’ve been wary about for months. After last year’s tumultuous and often off-point episodes and more Very Special Episodes than musical standouts, it was hard to stay excited about “Glee” by May, or to wish for more. But “Glee,” we just can’t quit you.
Sure, we all spend the better part of the Spring pulling our hair out in frustration over its failings, but then we get a few months off and suddenly we’re hopeful — nostalgic for Terri’s crazy fake pregnancy and humming “Don’t Stop Believing” when no one else is around. We just have to know that Kurt and Blaine will be okay, and what New York will do to Rachel, and if they can still capture that lightning in a bottle of the perfect pop cover. And so we vow to put the past behind us and start afresh with “Glee,” cautious but hopeful, as Season 4 begins.
We open in NYC, where the colors are darker and the Kate Hudsons are meaner. Hudson plays Rachel’s dance instructor, Cassandra July, who after belittling Rachel in front of the whole class, even goes as far to crouch down next to a fallen Rachel and tell her explicitly that she sucks, followed immediately by the “Glee” title card. This is not Sue Sylvester’s absurdist and generally inconsequential bantering — this is real life. If that’s not a way to tell you this is supposed to be a very different “Glee,” we don’t know what is.
Except then we’re suddenly back at McKinley and it’s like nothing has changed stylistically from the first season, with Jacob Ben Israel’s roving camera set up playing catch-up on the summer’s developments — Sam is a stud with the ladies, glee club is popular and Tina has broken off her romance with Mike over the summer (this is also the second year someone’s come back from the summer with a regrettable tattoo — should we be predicting Tina’s tragic car accident now?)
The big question on everyone’s mind, now that Rachel Berry is gone, is, “Who is the new Rachel?” Everyone wants a shot, and since the club is the “most popular” in school even outsiders are angling for their chance.
Our first new recruit is not so new — Vocal Adrenaline star Wade “Unique” Adams has transferred and immediately the glee club bristles at having another powerhouse voice in the midst. Blaine, who is wearing his sassy pants, challenges Wade and the other New Rachel contenders to a sing off, thunderdome style. The serious field has narrowed to four — Tina, Britt, Wade and Blaine — and they perform “Call Me Maybe” for Artie to judge. Now, there’s no possible way “Glee” could have ignored “Call Me Maybe” but we really wish they had — covering that song is a meme, but the original is simply so iconic that such a straightforward cover has no chance to break out and shine. Everyone tries to show each other up, but we also get flashes of the fun they’re having with each other that’s the essence of a “Glee” group numbers. Artie holds back on his decision making as a the group holds open auditions for new performers.
We get a cameo from Stoner Brett (“You smell homeless, Brett. Homeless” is one of the best Kurt Hummel lines ever) who is a secret rapper. A girl performs a Skirllex EDM style interpretive dance number. We wish the club would adopt these two and use them in every number. We finally get actual talent in the form of “Jake,” a great singer with an attitude problem. When Schue cuts short his performance of The Fray’s “Never Say Never,” he takes it as an offense and throws a music stand before storming out. We later learn that he’s Jake Puckerman, the younger half-brother graduated Noah Puckerman doesn’t know he has. When Mr. Schue offers a place in the club despite his outburst, Jake turns him down, so we’re going to have to wait to see what ultimately gets him involved in the group (our guess is a heartfelt monologue from Puck during their inevitable meeting). Our final newbie singer is Marley Rose, a quiet sophomore that doesn’t have any friends and just wants to sing. She auditions with Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” which the show unfortunately displays as a shared duet with Rachel in New York, singing the same song to her first class with Whoopi Goldberg, who has just mercilessly cut another girl — not from the class, but from all of NYADA. Yikes. This is not to say that new girl Marley isn’t a great singer, but it’s hard to put anyone up against Rachel Berry, especially another girl, and expect your attention to be on them instead of on Rachel. Maybe the big lesson of The New Rachel is there can be no new Rachel?
The Old Rachel is singing her heart out because New York City isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be just yet. Her harsh session with Cassandra is followed up by another rough moment where she confronts an obviously drunk Cassandra in class (she drinks, we can assume, because her TA just quit for a Broadway show and Cassandra is a failed Broadway actress — those who can’t do, teach. It’s Schue all over again.) To prove her star power, Cassandra rips off her skirt and performs Lady Gaga’s “Americano” mashed up with J. Lo’s “Dance Again.”
The gods of “Glee” must be excited that performance school in NYC means they can really let loose with more complex dance numbers for their background cast. Cassandra twirling while being dragged across the floor is a real highlight and something we can’t imagine someone like Emma getting to do back in Lima. Distraught Rachel ends up sad in Washington Square park, where she shows Brody, the dreamy straight boy she met singing in the college dorm bathroom (the third boy on “Glee” to be revealed as a singer in this way) pictures of Finn, who hasn’t called her in two months. Ouch, this New York thing is pretty harsh for our girl Rachel, but Brody is there to remind her to embrace the moment and build new, good memories in NYC. When in doubt, “Glee” will always fall back on a romantic triangle. Welcome to Season 4.
Mean isn’t restricted to New York in the new “Glee.” First, when Wade shows up in full Unique drag to a normal school day, the echos of season 1’s warning to Kurt to not dress so out there return, only ratcheted up because this is full on drag we’re talking about. They try to compromise on supporting Wade as Unique for performances only, but thankfully Unique doesn’t budge and comes in full on female attire the next day.
But that’s not the extent of the cruelty in glee — the kids in the club are ruling the school, seated at the popular table with a new trio of representative jocks lead by Kitty, Sue’s new head bitch in charge (who’s now on baby duty since Sue’s kid was born over the summer — remember that plotline?). Their current target: the lunch lady. The fat jokes abound, with the popular kids egging on the glee kids to join in on the teasing. They’re all uncomfortable, but too nervous to shake the boat of their new-found status, and so Artie is the one to pull out a joke or two. But when Marley joins the group and sees this happen she can’t keep up her self-defense pretense of pretending she doesn’t know her mother (the aforementioned lunch lady) at school and lashes out at the group. Sam runs to comfort her in a way that screams, “fans, ship this because it’s coming” since they have similar poor-kid backgrounds (let’s hope Marley doesn’t turn to stripping) and then the whole club shows up to apologize. However, the missteps of protecting a lunch lady and letting a boy dress in drag is enough to erase all popularity the Glee club earned with a Nationals win. The new jocks slushie Marley and Unique and order is restored at McKinley.
In between all of this New York vs Lima positioning is Kurt Hummel, who is stuck in a sort of post-high school purgatory. He starts the episode lurking the McKinley halls, where Sue calls him out for breaking the stereotype that only jocks linger pathetically around high school post graduation. Kurt has signed up for community college, and is working at the Lima Bean. It’s pretty heartbreaking for any Kurt fan who’s had to watch him keep getting beaten down for the last three years. Finally Blaine gives him the push he needs to stop hanging on to Ohio waiting for NYADA, and urges him to just go embrace New York regardless. This is, of course, done through song, with Blaine singing Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” in the McKinley courtyard complete with singing while jumping rope, stepping and a round of The Cup Game because you know Blaine Anderson went to musically-inclined summer camp a lot as a kid.
Kurt sells his car, buys a plane ticket, and after a touching scene where Burt pushes his baby bird out of the nest (“You can always come back…. but you won’t,” if you didn’t tear up at that you might not have a heart), Kurt arrives in New York to surprise Rachel. We close as the club gathers for their first group number of the year, Adele’s “Chasing Pavements,” fronted by Marley. It’s good, but not great like most of their other attempts at Adele. The scene does have great parallels to the pilot with Jake taking Puck’s place spying in the auditorium, but doesn’t push it too far with a Kitty-as-Quinn cameo as well.
There was a lot of talk and marketing of this season as “revolutionary,” but after the first episode it’s hard to see anything that warrants it as such. It’s good. It might even be great, if it can keep the tone that it’s fighting hard to win back since the doldrums of last season. It was enjoyable “Glee,” it has a contained plotline that didn’t feel overly rushed and tendrils of plot that could define a full season if allowed. There’s promise in new conflicts like romance across distance, the definition of one’s self around new relationships and the conflict of ambition and the constraints of a post-high school world. But it’s less of a revolution and more of a return to what “Glee” was to begin with — underdogs who find friendship through the power of song and dance.
Oh, and Blaine is crowned The New Rachel. Whether or not we return to this plot point next week will determine if this is really new “Glee” or business-as-usual. Here’s hoping.