Birthed in phlegm to the wails of a jilted fanbase in exchange for a thousand romances, the new Glee is finally here. But why does it look so much like the old Glee? Everything takes place at McKinley again now that nothing but history ties New Directions to its expatriates, for this episode anyway. Sue’s a Gorgon again, spending as much time tossing off platinum barbs as trying to hold together her established characterization. And Mercedes and Mike return to reenact the good old days where they sit quietly in the back while the real leads sing all the songs.
Even the stories are old, at least at McKinley. Students are auditioning for the fall show, this time Grease, pretty much whenever they feel like it, because Glee will always pick commercial necessities like an hour of evenly spaced treats over any in-universe demands like a comprehensible audition process. Finn spots a new kid, Ryder Lynn, possibly recognizing him from The Glee Project, and encourages him to try out. Suddenly, Ryder finds himself playing the fourth vertex in a love rhombus that threatens to topple auditions or at least bore people who already sat through several other renditions of that on this show. And at the end, Finn, who by the power vested in Artie becomes director, posts the cast list. Dreams are made and used and wasted, and then Sue shows up because she has it out for Finn. It's like alcoholic Glee dumped its liquor and then went out and bought off-brand replacements.
Backward is only the way forward for dying political parties. DeGrassi didn’t get to 134 seasons by repeating the same teen pregnancies and comings-oot. Isn’t there any other dimension to teen romance than emotional fidelity? Is there a reason Grease is the big show other than Finn and Fox Marketing think it’s “the greatest achievement in human history”? Sue even acknowledges the consistency pickle she’s in now that she’s been drafted to drop her play-nice attitude and provide some external threat to transgender Unique. Since she brought it up, this is a woman who punched out the lieutenant governor's wife on stage, yet resigned the principalcy over an insufficient response to bullying, yet physically bullies kids all the time, yet sympathized so sincerely with Santana’s coming-out, yet now refuses to feed into Unique’s “gender confusion,” yet has a 1,000th cheerleading victory to prepare for, yet has time for this non-scandal in between amateur taxidermy and murdering hitchhikers. I’ve seen this one before, and it sucks.
Eventually, Glee will have to figure out how to keep its new cast from slotting into the old roles, but for now, at least all the old characters have some mercifully—forgive me—new directions. Has Darren Criss ever been funnier? He’s so broken up about breaking up with Kurt that he doesn’t think he can play the truth of Danny Zuko. “I don’t even gel on weekends.” Ever since the season began, Blaine has been trying to figure out how he fits into McKinley without Kurt. He’s so lost he walks down the line of scrimmage singing “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” Now he’ll really get to find out who he is. Apart from the honesty and the comedy, it’s nice of Glee to provide at least the thinnest of reasons that a senior wouldn’t automatically get the lead. Meanwhile Sam prefers the part of Kenickie (“‘Greased Lightning’ is my cell phone ringtone, and I’ve been knocked out by a car door before, so I was really looking forward to recreating the reality of that moment on stage”), and Brittany just gets assigned the part of Cha-Cha. Someday I want an episode about the torture of being the best dancer in a singing group.
Emma and Will are still having the same tiff as before, only they finally communicate like adults, resolving to show everyone how a long-distance relationship is done. Whether they do or not, it’s refreshing to see them trying to be mature. Remember when Emma was conflicted about dating John Stamos? Or when Will was going to “fix” her O.C.D. with Coldplay? Well, Emma’s finally taking a page from the Tami Taylor book. The wedding will wait.
At long last, after several episodes of Rachel, the main character is now Finn, who narrates “The Break Up” and formally steps into Will’s schues by taking over glee club while he’s away for three months. There’s a putrid class note to Finn’s opening scene, where he complains about having a steady mechanic’s job in a town with a bunch of friends, but if “The Break Up” earns anything, it’s that monolithic self-pity. Finn truly cannot see past what he’s lost to what he still has. But Artie tells him how inspiring he is, and Finn gets sucked into that role as slowly and surely as Ryder is seduced by the stage. Now he really wants to reech these keeds, to pass on the gift of glee club by offering Unique a girl’s part and selling Ryder on the curricular merits of extracurricular activity. Both instances are seriously moving. When Ryder wakes up from his crowd-surfing audition to an empty stage, he’s another person. Unique thanks Finn by telling him how meaningful a girl’s part is. “I don’t feel right in the men’s locker room, but I can’t go in the girl’s, and I don’t feel right in men’s clothing, but I can’t wear dresses every day.” I don’t see why not—Figgins thinks Unique is hot, which is a whole other ball of wax—but the relief is palpable.
Will tells Finn he’s an adult now, and for the first time, Finn feels like an adult. Physically he’s out of the coveted youth-voter demo, but finally his demeanor, his self-perception is catching up. It’ll be nice to see Finn find himself. Glee is much better at selling the benefits of teaching to the teacher than to the students.
- Sue’s “gender confusion” bullshit is as tiresome as it is old, but I love that she can’t think of any insults for Marley. It’s not only funny to see her wield terms of beauty like weapons. It’s a completely new experience for her character. Fancy that.
- Ryder tells his teacher how hard he’s studying. “I haven’t even seen Dark Knight Rises yet.” “Oh, it was good.” THESE ARE THE PEOPLE TEACHING OUR CHILDREN!
- Artie tells his summoned panel of graduates, “So we cast a brunette as Sandy and a guy as Rizzo. Who’s directing this, Julie Taymor?”
- Sue’s has a point about Grease: “the already oversexualized minstrel show featuring teen pregnancy and the ridiculously unnecessary lubrication of lightning.”
- Jesus, the moment when Finn calls Sue's baby a retard is effective. Sue's eyelid convulses like a flared nostril. Silence means a lot on a show this rat-a-tat. (Remember when Santana slapped Finn?)
- As long as Sue is a vehicle for Glee criticism, I’m all ears. “The glee club is being run by a strange weeping man-child who has lotion in his hair but no adult friends.”