All summer we awaited the return of Glee like the new McKinley High sophomores must have waited for the beginning of their fictional school year: a little nervous and a little psyched to see how our favorite singing friends looked a few months later. And, wow, was the first day back filled with a crazy amount of plot or what? Yet another budget problem for New Directions and the Cheerios to deal with; everyone either demoted or sneaking into new social roles; a mannish lady football coach who (we checked) is definitely a lady; and the Asian/Other Asian relationship we’ve always dreamed of! And that only covers half of it. Though we were slightly distracted by how much prettier everyone seemed to get over the summer — does Mr. Schue not look a little tanner? Yay or nay for Lea Michele’s new bangs and ridiculous amount of mascara? — one thing’s for sure: Glee is very much still bringing the crazy, and we’re still singing along and judging it! (Also, check out Vulture's new obsessive guide to Glee.)
Jay-Z ft. Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”
Thank you, Jacob Ben Israel, for the TMZ-style documentary called “Glee’s Big Gay Summer” — a.k.a. the Most Meta Episode Starter Ever! We get knowing jokes about Lea Michele’s diminutiveness (“When are you due to make your return to the Shire?”) and Mr. Schue’s rapping (“What, kids don’t like it when I rap?”); a wink to constant speculation as to whether the show uses Auto-Tune; and an immediate nod to everyone’s love for Brittany’s non-sequiturs (her first: “People thought I went on vacation, but actually I spent the summer lost in the sewers”). Meanwhile, Will’s strategy for attracting new glee-club members isn’t working (as Sue delightfully notes), and the only solution is a big production number during lunch! We’re tempted to scoff at the idea of wh's not Jay-Z rapping this song, but this ranks as one of the better group numbers. The choreography’s a new high (hooray for no triumphant arms extended skyward!) especially with Heather Morris and Naya Rivera shimmying like the best of the b-girls. And think about it — how many high-school boys pride themselves on knowing every single line of the latest hot rap single? It’s enough to make us find Puck, Finn and Artie’s attempts at rhyming charming.
Lady Gaga ft. Beyoncé, “Telephone”
And so we have it — the long-awaited, much-publicized cameo from tiny Oprah-approved vocal dynamo Charice. Her meeting with Rachel in the bathroom ranks as one of the more smoothly integrated dialogue-to-song moments on Glee; we can totally imagine Sunshine singing to herself, only slightly absentmindedly, as Rachel listens, looking only slightly homicidal. The resulting diva-off isn’t quite as fierce as last season’s "The Boy Is Mine" duet. But we did enjoy Rachel’s admission of her need for “people to stand behind me with wet, moved eyes while I sing solos,” and Sue’s surprise interjection: “Shut up!!!"
Travie McCoy ft. Bruno Mars, “Billionaire”
The arrival of new football Coach Beiste (and her spectacularly strange sense of humor) highlights a number of shifts in McKinley’s social hierarchy. Sue’s got competition in the Gestapo-esque coach department, Will’s tempted to abandon his nice-guy image, and Finn’s suddenly stripped of his golden-boy quarterback position. In a social switcheroo handled especially well, Quinn and Santana find themselves on opposite sides of the fence: Was anyone else completely bowled over by that surprisingly well-acted fight in the hall? Meanwhile, Artie dejectedly watches the blossoming romance of Tina and Mike Chang (now that he officially speaks, we guess we should start calling him by his actual name), the birth of which apparently included a lot of dancing shirtless Mike, small Asian children, and Tina singing “Getting To Know You” in a wonderfully not-over-produced manner. So thank goodness for certain constants, like football players who bashfully sing cheesy power ballads in the shower! The magnificently named Chord Overstreet debuts as Sam, a.k.a. the new Finn, but with a much, much larger mouth (Puck: “How many tennis balls can you fit in that thing?” Sam: “I don’t know — I’ve never had balls in my mouth. Have you?” And here we have the greatest missed "that’s what she said" opportunity EVER). Ever ready with acoustic guitars and Artie’s on-call rapping skills, the boys back up Sam, who turns in a pleasantly inoffensive rendition of this inescapable summer hit.
“Listen” from Dreamgirls (too many writers to name)
Perhaps we’re looking for a strand of literal meaning in an episode packed with all-over-the-place song choices: Rachel doesn’t listen to Kurt and Mercedes’s pleas to leave Sunshine alone, and now she faces expulsion from glee club; Will won’t listen to Sue’s advice — both nasty and otherwise — about how to keep glee club alive, and now he’s about lose a potential new star; Artie wouldn’t listen to Tina, and now he’s competing with fleet-of-foot Mike Chang; Santana wouldn’t listen to Quinn while she was pregnant, and boy is she sorry now. But none of that matters as much as this opportunity for Charice to belt (Rachel rightfully notes that the Broadway show — which didn’t include this song — came first!). Don’t get us wrong; Charice certainly has pipes, is adorable, and we enjoy that her wardrobe signature seems to be knit berets, but, as the episode’s final number showed us, there’s a difference between a power ballad that blows the roof off and one with an deep emotional punch — something we didn’t quite feel here.
Kleban and Hamlisch, “What I Did For Love” from A Chorus Line
If there’s one thing that seems certain, it’s that, on a show so dependent on Lea Michele’s talent, Rachel will probably not get kicked out of glee club. So at first it’s difficult to warm to the show’s use of this ultimate Broadway diva-in-the-spotlight number. But then we remember something Glee keeps trying to remind us of constantly — in Rachel’s world, little tragedies seem like heavy drama, so it’s not a major leap to think she’d confront her fears by singing a number only a few notches down from “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” She nails the hungry desperation in the song, and the closing montage is filmed perfectly, highlighting the loss that underscores all the characters’ seeming gains this week (we especially love the close-up on Quinn’s once-again frozen Cheerio smile as Rachel sings “we did what we had to do”). We’re left to untangle the many nascent plot threads, hoping they’ll not all be abandoned with the arrival of Britney Spears next week. And yeah — Britney Spears next week! Yay!