A few years back, when Glee was in its triumphant first season, I had a conversation with a friend who really, really loved the series. Wouldn’t it be great, he jokingly asked, if the show could follow these characters for decades and decades and decades? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to keep expanding the series’ universe, to see what Kurt Hummel was up to 20, 30, 40 years from now? TV doesn’t really work that way, of course, and Chris Colfer would probably be so sick of playing Kurt by the start of season 37. But I had to admit that even if I didn’t want this show to be the one to last forever, the idea of a primetime series that just kept going and going was oddly tempting.
Television is terrible about time. It’s often inextricably tied to the time it’s made in, even if it’s set in the past. Because actors age naturally and good old-age makeup is too expensive to employ on a weekly basis, TV shows have natural lifespans, like organisms or human beings. A novel can cover centuries if it wants. A film can tell the story of a man’s life, from birth to death. But a TV show is restricted to a narrow slice of time. The Doctor may send his TARDIS all the way through time and space, but when he gets there, he has a limited amount of time to get things back on track. Mad Men may take place in the 1960s, but it can’t really break out of that decade to trace Don Draper’s caveman ancestors or the life of Bobby Draper’s disappointment of a son in the year 2012. And even if Glee could run until the end of time, who would want it to? Would you really want to see Rachel Berry’s full rise to stardom, then the gradual decline, parceled out on a weekly basis until the year 2059? Probably not.
But I can understand the appeal, and understand why it’s tied to this show in particular, as well. Glee is a show—imperfectly, I’ll admit—about growing up, a show about seizing hold of your dreams and hoping you can hang on long enough to get out of your shit-ass little town and off into the life you really want. And it’s also about the people who let go too soon and ended up back on their ass, hoping to encourage the future generations. And it’s about the people who didn’t have those huge dreams and were content to have perfectly normal, reasonable lives in Lima, Ohio, lives where they owned a little garage and got married and had some kids, then supported those kids’ dreams. At its best, Glee uses singing and dancing as a microscope under which it can examine the life and death of the residents of a small town.
The temptation, then, is to just keep expanding, until the show is filmed on all seven continents, two different planets, and three separate moons; until the cast has something like 500 people in it; until Glee is the Island on Lost, and you can never, ever leave; until the show encompasses all of human experience. Can you imagine that 37th season premiére? Can you imagine if it opened with, like, the symphonic strains of Wagner’s “Vorspiel” from Das Rheingold? If, like, we saw the sun rising above a pristine wheat field on the outskirts of Lima and a small child racing through, hands running along the heads of the individual stalks? And then Kurt’s voice saying, “The sun”? And then we cut to Antarctica, where Finn Hudson, now old and alone, is sitting in a little shack, watching the Earth’s temperature slowly rise? And then he turns to the camera and slowly intones “La,” and the camera takes us through all of the 497 other regulars, as they join him, their voices coming together in symphonic grandeur, into an a cappella rendition of “Vorspiel” itself? “We are all alive. Always alive,” says Kurt. And then, like, there’s a velociraptor puppet, who became a regular in season 18, and it’s doing some sort of shit through the bombed-out ruins of the original McKinley High (season 22)? “We stretch. We run. We are one million things, and yet we are one,” says Kurt. And maybe Iron Man is there?! And Rachel is standing there, holding hands with her second husband James Cromwell, watching as her and Finn’s daughter gives birth to her own daughter, whose father is Kurt and Blaine’s son, and Will Schuester is there, and he says, “Gleeeee!”? And then immediately, that baby is slushied in the face? (And, of course, then, everybody would determine who the “new cyborg Rachel” was by performing the hot song of the summer of 2045.) And then I would say, “God, that was unfocused,” and you would say, “Oh, shut up! Glee is all about moment-to-moment pleasures!” and then some guy would say, “Who cares? I’ve never watched Glee because I knew it was bad,” like that somehow preserved his cool-guy credentials by saying that on the 2045 equivalent of the Internet, and then the world would end. I mean, wouldn’t you want to see that?
“The New Rachel” isn’t really quite that, but it’s enough of an evolutionary step past what the show has been that you can sort of see how it would become that if Ryan Murphy had an absolute monopoly on his cast and was left unchecked. The series is now being filmed in two separate cities, with the promise of stops along the way to visit all of the other New Directions cast members as the season rolls on. (The season’s promotional artwork promises we’ll visit “Los Angeles”—where Mercedes is based—and “Louisville”—where Santana is based—along the way, and it also prominently features Puck, Mike Chang, and Finn. At this point, it seems like Quinn is the only person who won’t feature prominently, and Murphy has promised to bring her back as well.) I don’t really see a way this doesn’t eventually become untenable, but I actually thought “The New Rachel” did a fine job of balancing two locations against each other and smartly pared down the cast to tell this particular story. Whether it will eventually overload on too much stuff is an open question—okay, it’s Glee, so it’s not—but for one episode, at least, I am sort of intrigued to see how this all works out.
The episode splits its time between Lima, where New Directions is having to deal with its newfound popularity, and New York, where Rachel is trying to get used to going to NYADA. Now, NYADA is about as accurate a depiction of going to a hard-hitting drama school as Lima is an accurate depiction of a small-town high school, but in the opposite direction. Where Lima is a place where the New Directions kids have created an oasis of positivity, a place where, as my friend Matt Zoller Seitz says, the kids can sling intolerant insults at each other, then sing about how much they love tolerance, the show’s New York is basically the hard-bitten city of every backstage musical of the 1930s. This isn’t really a bad thing. The show’s always made use of broad storytelling stereotypes that people more or less understand, and throwing Rachel into the middle of a standard “a star is born” scenario isn’t the worst idea in the world.
What is the worst idea in the world is tossing Kate Hudson into the mix as Rachel’s dance teacher, the improbably named Cassandra July (of the New Bedford Julys, one supposes). Cassandra’s one of those “You totally suck, but I’m going to inspire you!” figures that stories like this always feature, and you just know that Rachel’s going to learn so much from her, and Cassandra’s going to say, “You done good, kid,” or its drama school equivalent, by the time all of this is over. The problem is that Hudson is just sort of a lifeless presence, and the script does her no favors. She’s just meant to stand in for the idea of the hard-case mentor who’s got a heart of gold, and Hudson’s not a strong enough actress to compensate. Her musical number is the episode’s low point, and the conflict between her and Rachel is meant to be one of the things that prompts Rachel’s late episode breakdown, even though there’s no real weight to it. Murphy shows only work with strong actors who can embody the archetypes they’re meant to stand in for. Suffice to say that Hudson’s not that sort of actress. She’s only as good as her material.
That said, plenty of the Rachel material is solid stuff. It does capture that feeling of going off to college, far away from everyone and everything you know, and the moment when she turns by the fountain and sees Kurt wave at her is genuinely heartfelt. I’m not a huge fan of her new love interest, who’s mostly notable for appearing shirtless in a frantic attempt to make us all find him interesting and for being the super-boring love interest on last season’s Terra Nova (which, admittedly, made it very hard for me to take him seriously, so your mileage may vary). But I liked the material about uncertainty, about heading out into the big world and realizing just how little you know and just how unprepared you are. Cassandra’s supposed to fit into that storyline as well, but she’s not nearly as terrifying in that regard as the Whoopi Goldberg character, who conveys all of those fears in just a handful of lines. It’s not a bad start for the New York material, but there’s a part of me that almost wishes the series really had split into two, that we were watching the original parent show and a spinoff about the adventures of Kurt and Rachel in New York. Ah, well.
The reason for this is because the McKinley stuff isn’t as strong as the New York stuff, though it doesn’t have anything as weak as Hudson’s performance. What it does have is a bunch of new characters, the unceremonious return of Jacob Ben Israel, Sue Sylvester snarking about the show’s implausibility, and Kurt hanging out around the high school like he’s auditioning for a role in a Richard Linklater film. I’m largely undecided on the new characters, who are all entirely defined by their relationships to other characters, either known or unknown. New Rachel Marley Rose is mostly defined as “poor daughter of a lunch lady” (admittedly, for a new character on Glee, this is a lot of definition), while Jake Puckerman is defined as “angry brother of Puck.” (Puck doesn’t know he exists.) Then there’s Kitty, who’s basically “Quinn 2.0,” as well as a handful of extras and background players, who may or may not become the next Brittany and Santana or the next that-guy-Mercedes-was-dating-at-the-start-of-next-season.
Of these characters, the show chooses to focus on Marley, played by Melissa Benoist, who really shows off her “singing while walking” skills here. Benoist isn’t bad, but the script doesn’t give Marley much to do, beyond defend her mom when the popular kids make fun of her, which immediately restores the New Directions kids to unpopularity. (Hey, it makes more sense than most stuff on this show.) It’s not exactly a story arc, but at least the show is taking a look at the class war in Lima, and if the show finds a way to build Marley out into something more than just what a one-percenter might call “a poor,” I’m hopeful Benoist will be up to the challenge, as Lea Michele was.
The smartest choice the episode makes is to keep its “last year’s graduates” focus entirely on Rachel and Kurt, the latter of whom spends the episode having other people tell him he should move to New York and finally acquiesces. It’s not the most dramatic arc, but the show plays it out with the same semi-veracity it managed in the “Rachel goes off to NYADA” storyline. It’s easy to see how Kurt would get trapped in the rhythms of his own life, how his father and Blaine would have to give him the shove needed to send him to the big city to live with Rachel. I also like that the episode only directly comments on it a few times. Other than that, Kurt’s just hanging out at the edges of scenes, and it’s always weirdly clear how little he belongs, thanks entirely to camera angles and Colfer’s performance. Again, the show might expand so much that all of this becomes untenable, but for now, this is mostly working.
Unfortunately, Glee is unlikely to last 37 seasons. We’re not going to see what happens when Kurt and Blaine’s son meets Rachel and Finn’s daughter, nor are we going to see when that velociraptor and Iron Man duet on “Starlight Express.” The show’s ratings fell off dramatically last season, and it’s now been shifted to an even tougher timeslot. It’ll have a better lead-in, thanks to The X Factor and American Idol, but it will also have to prove itself up against much bigger shows than it had to before, particularly the still strong (and weirdly surging) Grey’s Anatomy, which competes for a very similar demographic. A few years back, I posited that this series would follow the “four year” pattern, in which a series has a huge, much-hyped first season, a second season that shows all the cracks in the foundation that were always there, a muddled third season that causes lots of people to tune out, and a fourth season that regains what made the show good in the first place and reclaims its legacy right before it’s canceled. So many shows in TV history have followed this pattern (see also: The O.C.) that it would only be fitting for Glee to as well. I’ve been burned enough by this show before to be wary of it somehow reclaiming its legacy, but now that it’s begun its inevitable evolution into that weird Murphy/Terrence Malick hybrid described above, I’m surprised to find how sad I’ll be to not be covering it anymore. The promise of Glee always exceeded what it was capable of, but that promise—even in this episode—is rich indeed.
What I realized as I watched this episode is that that promise comes less from the characters than it does from McKinley itself. Unlike most other high school shows, this one seems dedicated to making sure we keep following the school, even when the original protagonists leave it. Characters leave, but the institution stands. The building—or at least what it stands for—will outlive all of these people, and once all of these people are gone, there will still be a high school for new characters to filter through, even when we are no longer watching, after four seasons or 40. You go back to the places you lived in or worked in or went to school in, and they’re still there. You’ve changed, but they haven’t, not really. Our lives are rivers, carrying us other places, but the worlds we pass through on the way are islands where we get stuck for a while. We pause. We meander. We look out over the current. And we move on.
- Yes, it’s true. I’ve stepped down from covering this show, not because I no longer want to, but because I need a night off, and it just seems like it’s time for a fresh pair of eyes to look at the series. This has already been interpreted as me “giving up” on the show, but I’ll keep watching, and I’ll be spelling my replacement, Brandon Nowalk, from time to time. But Brandon’s going to do a great job, and I think you’re all going to like him.
- Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: I hated, hated, hated “Call Me Maybe,” and I say that as someone who likes that song. I liked the idea of “New York State Of Mind” more than the execution. (If the series had cut more freely between Rachel and Marley, it might have worked better.) Blaine’s number was just kind of weird, with the cups and stuff. But I did really like “Chasing Pavements”!
- Straight women, talkin’ ’bout Glee: I am reliably informed that this Dean Geyer fellow who plays Rachel’s new love interest is an attractive young man. My panel is split on the attractiveness of Jacob Artist, as Puck’s brother.
- Weird moment: Kurt says goodbye to his dad, who says he can always come back, then says “But you won’t” after Kurt has exited. Except, the window is open, and Kurt is going into the backseat to get his bags. I almost wanted to see Kurt say, “Who are you talking to?”
- Stoner guy is my new favorite character, and I hope there’s a whole spin-off dedicated to him.
- Brittany’s line about scissoring a webcam is obviously meant to be the, “Hey, this show’s on at 9 now!” marker, but I just found it really improbable to think about. I mean, how would you even do that? (I get that the joke is about how hard that is to do, but c’mon!)
- I’m really glad Unique is now a regular and a member of the glee club somehow. (I’m just going to guess that the school districts were changed, or Will invited her to come live with him, or… you know what? Let’s just accept this and move on.) But the whole thing about the other members being upset about her presence, then upset about wearing makeup at lunch, is seriously undercooked. In general, the “competing to be the next Rachel” thing is such a throwaway plot that the episode seems to forget about it, halfheartedly wrapping it up with Artie telling Blaine that he is the new Rachel. He totally should have then given Tina courage, Brittany a brain, and Sugar a heart and told them to believe in themselves.
- Isn’t it great how the show seems to have forgotten that Artie and Tina were once a thing?
- I liked Sue pointing out that Quinn had been “in and out of a wheelchair.” However, if the show had just decided to forget she had been pregnant, I wouldn’t have minded.
- You’re all going to be super sad when Will has to have Marley put down in the season finale. Just saying… that’s coming up, and you’re going to cry. (Sorry. I had to make that joke.)
- And with that, I’m out! We’ll see you all on Twitter or whenever Nowalk deigns to let me take the reins again.