If you're anything like me, you spent Glee's summer hiatus swearing you'd never watch the show again. The heart of the show was always the struggle of these misfit high school kids to make good; the end of season three resolved that struggle (quite nicely, actually, after an uneven season). They'd made good by winning nationals; they'd (mostly) graduated from high school. The New Directions were moving on to new things. I'd move on to new TV shows.
Then someone played me 30 seconds of the Glee cast version of "Call Me Maybe" and all bets were off.
It's a new Glee this season, as the producers and cast spent all summer warning us — a show that's been spun off into itself. That's clear from the very beginning of the episode, which opens on Rachel in a dance class at NYADA, in a story line and on a set stolen wholesale from the film Center Stage (I'm not complaining; that film is a masterpiece). Her dance teacher Cassandra July, played by Kate Hudson, takes great delight in telling Rachel exactly how much she sucks, which is a nice payoff for those of us who have been irritated with Rachel since 2009.
One of the things people will be talking about after this episode is how Kate Hudson handled herself, and the short answer: Kate Hudson is up for it, even though none of what she does is easy — the choreography for her "Americano"/"Dance Again" mash-up is beyond what 70 percent of the series regulars would be capable of, and she can definitely sing. Plus, her interactions with Rachel are the perfect blend of disengaged and bitter and mean; coupled with Rachel's overall homesickness and her problem roommate and how much she misses Finn (despite Brody, the very, very cute older boy she met in the dorm showers) and her insistence to everyone back home that things are going great, it's a nicely realistic portrait of how it feels to go away to college.
As Rachel struggles to make herself relevant at NYADA, the New Directions kids who are still at McKinley vie to be her replacement. The first new contender is Unique (The Glee Project's Alex Newell, who played the Vocal Adrenaline ace-in-the-hole last season). Unique's presence at McKinley confirms my suspicions that Lima, Ohio, has maybe four parents altogether, tops, and zero school district zoning laws. She, Blaine (who I guess didn't run right back to the Warblers the second Kurt graduated), Tina, and Brittany do a thunderdome sing-off to "Call Me Maybe" to see who should win the top spot. It should be completely tiresome to sit through after this summer's onslaught of lip dubs, but it's not — it's a delightful, imminently downloadable little arrangement that the kids have a lot of fun with.
A side note: In interviews over the summer, some of Glee's producers talked about how they were glad to be in the 9 p.m. time slot this year, because they wanted to be "edgier." We saw some of this in last night's episode, when Jacob Ben Israel refers to Tina as a "see you next Tina" on his video blog and Brittany talks about how it's hard to have Santana in Kentucky because it's too hard to scissor the webcam. What bothers me about that is I think about kids from conservative families who need Glee to feel like they're not alone, and it concerns me that material like this will give their parents (more) reasons not to let them watch the show. Find ways to use the edge for good, Glee!
In a moment of oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-that-story-line-didn't-get-scrapped-entirely, Kurt goes to meet Coach Sylvester's new baby, and Sue congratulates him for breaking barriers, since normally it's just the one-time star athletes who haunt the halls of their high schools post-graduation. Ideally, college counselors nationwide will begin screening this episode as an argument for applying to safety schools, a concept contemporary American television continues to be unfamiliar with. It's Blaine who ultimately nudges Kurt out of the nest with song, telling him he belongs in New York as he sings Imagine Dragons' "It's Time." I'm not sure whether Zach Woodlee's choreography here — based around the rhythms of the Cup Game and full of double dutch jump roping — is an homage to choreography that's been done elsewhere or not, but in terms of dance, it's one of my favorite things I've ever seen on Glee. Blaine, as ever, nails it. Burt Hummel sees Kurt off at the airport, and here's hoping Kurt makes enough trips home this season to finally get Mike O'Malley that Emmy.
Once auditions for the New Directions start and the decoy contenders (including the inimitable Stoner Brett, who I hope is in every episode and gets a web-based spinoff, too) are out of the way, two of the new series regulars are introduced. First up is Jake, Noah Puckerman's secret half-brother (no, really), who gets angry and knocks over a music stand after his audition is cut short. He declines Mr. Shue's offer to join the club, since it was contingent on taking the chip off his shoulder, but he'll clearly be back.
And then there's Marley, who's the daughter of the very overweight school lunch lady, a fact that her mother wants to keep secret for Marley's social standing (they should probably have fewer heart-to-heart conversations in the cafeteria kitchen if they're serious about this). They're very sweet together, even if their interactions have an after-school-special feel to them. What's odd is Marley's visual "thing" is an assortment of newsboy caps that she wears in rotation, which leads me to ask: Is she being dressed that way — like some sort of Dickensian street urchin — so we remember that she's poor?
But more important, Marley can sing. Her audition is juxtaposed with Rachel's first master class at NYADA, and while "New York State of Mind" is just as strange a choice for a high school auditorium as it is for the first day of voice class at an arts conservatory, Marley goes riff for riff and punch for punch with Rachel. And the difference between watching Marley and Rachel perform is that when Marley sings it looks like fun, and when Rachel sings it looks like work.
The episode ends in a blur of the new kids getting slushied, and the Glee kids deciding that they don't mind being unpopular if it means they can stick up for Marley and her mom, and Kurt and Rachel reuniting in New York, and Marley belting out "Chasing Pavements" as the rest of the New Directions perform choreography that's actually realistic for teenagers to learn. Nothing gold can stay, of course. There's no guarantee that Glee won't try to do far too many things with too many actors this season or that the episodes that are all New York or all McKinley will work. But at the very least, for this one episode, it was really nice to see Glee again.