I was a vocal fan of Glee when it first started, but the show started to drift in season 2 and large swathes of the third season were unwatchable for me, so I came to this fourth season premiere with low expectations of a masterful turnaround. I was right to keep my hopes low, but "The New Rachel" was certainly much better than it had any right to be, given the upheaval the show faces trying to replace old characters and maintain a parallel story set in New York. Glee definitely has a chance to repair some damage this year, although it's hard to see how they'll avoid falling back into a rut once the juice from these fresh characters and situations have been squeezed a few times.
"The New Rachel" had a double meaning. The glee club of McKinley High were looking for someone to replace their "star" Rachel Berry, so were holding auditions to find new blood—in the likes of Marley (Summer Glau-alike Melissa Benoist), sensitive black boy Wade "Unique" Adams (Glee Project runner-up Alex Newell), and irritable bad boy Jake (Jacob Artist). We were also introduced to "new Quinn" in bitchy cheerleader Kitty (Becca Tobin) and semi-recurring character Sugar (Vanessa Lengies) appears to have been promoted to regular. Oh, and Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) is now the mother of a baby called Robin. What a delightfully well-adjusted child she'll become...
Over in the Big Apple, the real Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) was struggling at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts because of tyrannical teacher Cassandra July (Kate Hudson), who stalks around in leggy fishnets making sour quips and belittling Rachel's talents. She's lying to best-friend Kurt (Chris Colfer) about her horrible experience, but there's relief from the torment with hunky classmate Jacob (Josh Sussman) and the grudging approval of singing teacher Carmen Tibideaux (Whoopi Goldbery), who admitted Rachel's startling rendition of Barbara Streisand's "New York State Of Mind" was "nice".
The whole episode had a bullying theme to it, actually. Rachel was obviously a target of that over on the East Coast and away from home, but the remaining members of the glee club had also let their egos get the better of them, and spent large parts of the premiere being rude to non-gleeks. In particular, Marley's mother is the obese lunch lady of the school, and consequently the target of various "fat jokes" behind her back. Marley and her mom (Trisha Rae Stahl) are also from a poor background and have conspired to keep their relationship a secret from everyone, which made it particularly tough whenever Marley was privy to the mean comments.
Maybe it's because a good 30% of the show was dealing with brand new people and locations (they even filmed in the actual New York), or that the show's been off-air long enough for me to recharge my tolerances, but I found "The New Rachel" surprisingly enjoyable. Glee still has problems and is grossly sentimental and stupid at times, but there are also moments that work very well. The song-and-dance numbers were good this week (especially the club's take on "Call Me Maybe", Rachel's aforementioned Streisand moment, and the closing song with Marley singing Adele's "Chasing Pavements"), and at least this premiere appears to be moving things along. The glee club are actually popular at school (although there are still haters ready to give any newcomers a slushie baptism), we had a brace of new faces who seem fairly promising (already love Marley), and it seems we'll be continuing Rachel's story with Kurt in tow. I'm a little worried Glee's attempt to broaden its horizon is losing focus on what the show is really about, but if Kurt and Rachel's New York adventure is ultimate this season's "Dalton Academy", it could work.
A promising enough premiere, for a show that's showing its age and has been struggling with the demands of its own format for a good few years. I don't know if these changes are enough to make me a committed fan again, but I'll be happy if I can just get through episodes without feeling irritable about the repetition and backpedalling nonsense that ruined it last year. I just want them to tell good stories using upbeat pop songs, while telling us something about the teenage experience in a light-hearted and amusing way. I'm sure there will be cloying, insulting, and ridiculous moments to come (perhaps as early as next week!), but if they can just keep some kind of baseline quality I can let the misfires breeze past.
Glee still has the power to be inspiring, emotive, hilarious, charming, and clever, but too often it drowns in its own self-importance, or starts swimming in circles when the narrative dries up and the writers have to recycle or lean on the songs too heavily. I just hope this refresh of the show gives us a decent run before problems resurface.
written by Ryan Murphy / directed by Brad Falchuk / 13 September 2012 / Fox