Maybe it was because the last few weeks summer television has winded down, leaving a deafening lull schedule, or maybe it was due to the idea that this season could be a reboot and therefore of higher quality, or maybe it was sheer morbid curiosity, but today I screened the glee season four premiere, and I walked away from it…exhilarated. I even clapped a few times. Admittedly, I very publicly quit covering the show mid-way through season two because it was just all over the place, and perhaps coming back in now, skipping viewing so much that had changed them (though of course being in this business I have kept up with the story details) kept some of these characters fresh for me. I can’t fully explain it, but all I can say is that if glee continues down the path that “The New Rachel“ started, I will once again be a Gleek.
“The New Rachel” is not just about the New Directions, now the most popular club at McKinley, thanks to their Regionals win last year, finding its new star, but it is also about its old star finding her way among the hundreds of other kids competing for roles in productions in New York City. And in following Rachel’s (Lea Michele) escapades around the city that never sleeps, we are introduced to the new Sue Sylvester in dance teacher Cassandra (Kate Hudson), who wins us over immediately by nicknaming her students things along the likes of “Muffin Top” and “David Schwimmer.” She has her own abrasive style at motivation, but she has the talent and knowledge to prove she can back up what she barks at her students. Teacher does know best, perhaps for the first time in Glee history, and this is one piece of stunt casting that pays off in spades.
We also get to meet the new Finn (Cory Monteith) in a shower singing, straight musical theater major at NYADA who has a Rachel Berry-sized moisturizing ritual. Brody (Dean Geyer) is confident, talented, and sexy– all of the things that should have a girl swooning– but Rachel is still pining for Finn, who she hasn’t talked to in two months. Um, in the age of the internet, where all teenagers do all day is text, this is quite worrisome– not Finn has a new love worrisome, but more like Finn could be dead worrisome.
Of course Finn isn’t actually dead. But it’s a detail that does bother us a lot about this season premiere, clearly set up to show conflict between the former super couple.
Brody may be hot, but he’s also very smart, and seeing that Rachel is not his direct competition (they’ll never go out for the same roles, after all), he starts to take her under his wing in delicate, subtle ways, providing advice and guidance that inspires a big brother type relationship that we’re sure can grow into something filled with more sparks as time goes on. The romantic chemistry isn’t quite there yet, nor am I entirely convinced I want it to be, but it has the makings of a perfect platonic friendship and peerdom, not unlike Rachel and Kurt (Chris Colfer). Whether or not she is just filling voids with this new guy may remain to be seen, though.
And speaking of Kurt, back in Lima, he isn’t doing quite as well as Rachel (and that’s saying something) when the show returns. He uses his time before his own college classes start to revisit McKinley (even having the gall to sit in on New Directions auditions), where Sue (Jane Lynch) and her new minion cut him down for being “the only underachieving gay.” Things aren’t going the way he expected, let alone hoped– but neither are they for his boyfriend Blaine (Darren Criss), who expected to automatically fall into the position of star of New Directions. In fact, I admit I expected that for him, too, as did much of the audience, I assume. After all, he was practically the star of seasons past, even when he was a Warbler. It’s nice to see that things aren’t being automatically handed to him, but now there is new competition at McKinley, which creates an unfortunate divide amongst the group.
Thankfully, Kurt and Blaine still have each other to pull themselves out of their self-absorbed funks, though. They are one of the cutest couples on television, and in the case of this premiere, they may be one of the most selfless couples on television. Blaine’s pride may protect his burgeoning star, but he shows his maturity once again within his relationship.
If New Directions is no longer made up of outcasts, though, then Glee really isn’t solely about the underdogs anymore, is it? Sure, those who were underdogs (Rachel and Kurt, to be exact) still are, as at least she tries to fight their way through being little fishes in a big pond for a change. But the rest of the New Directions have that kind of teenage arrogance usually reserved for jocks and straight-A students. It’s potentially a false bravado, but most importantly, I have to hope it’s fleeting because it’s annoying.
UPDATE: I realize such themes are difficult, even controversial, to discuss in the abstract, but I do think it’s an interesting statement the Glee tries to make with the moments of immaturity some of its key characters experience. No one, least of all them, is perfect. They’re just kids. Besides, if they want to go into the arts professionally and someday experience real fame, there’s an even more important, humbling message for them to learn here, now, with this minor victory.
Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) is prancing around like a diva-in-training, even sporting sassy Rachel Berry bangs; Artie (Kevin Mchale) takes it upon himself to act as director and Mr. Schue substitute to “audition” the new Rachel; and they’re all kind of rude to the underclassmen who want to join them. One little taste of popularity, even if it’s not true, lasting popularity (and they all acknowledge it: “Winter is coming,” referencing Game of Thrones), and they spin out of control. Even Will himself (Matthew Morrison) has become a bit more like Simon Cowell than the “pump the kids up” Paula Abdul of seasons past. Only Unique (Alex Newell) manages to endear us during this crusade, but perhaps that is because he is the only one still embodying that outcast/underdog spirit. He knows who he is; he is confident in who he is; and he isn’t willing to quiet himself or conform to what others think he should be just to stay popular for another few days. He is the new role model of Glee.
“The New Rachel” is not perfect– it starts strong but there are rough spots in the middle– but I can’t deny the positive sense of nostalgia, and well, glee, it invoked during– especially its audition sequence. The bad ones screamed for memories of my own high school theater days, when I, too, sat in the audience like Artie as a director. The good ones made me remember why this show is so unique in the first place: the musical talent it cultivates and celebrates. The new Puck, aka “Jake” (Jacob Artist), an angry kid who turns sweetly soulful when he sings along to a piano for his audition immediately makes you want to get to know more about him the minute he opens his mouth. Meanwhile, Marley (Melissa Benoist) makes you want to root for her before she even steps on stage to audition because we’ve already seen some of her back story. The new blood, so to speak, certainly breathes new life into Glee (so much so I didn’t even miss the cast members missing, though there were quite a few) and hopefully will inspire some of its older, more jaded characters the way it has this older, jaded reviewer.
But in case you were wondering: Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley) is still the coolest, greatest dad ever.
Glee returns to FOX on September 13th 2012 at 9 p.m. Songs taken on in the premiere include Carly Rae Jepsen’s “song of the summer” (of course), as well as another Lady Gaga and Adele tune (“Americano” and “Chasing Pavements”), Fray’s “Never Say Never,” Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time,” and the too-on-the-nose “New York State of Mind.” Which will YOU download?
Want more Glee news and previews? Stay tuned; LA TV Insider Examiner may once again have that for you!