The Role You Were Born to Play
At the beginning of this week’s episode, Artie asks why he feels so at home in a tire shop; almost immediately after, Finn semi-facetiously says he’s so depressed he hopes a car will fall off a lift and crush him. Forty seconds out of the hiatus and we’re already two off-putting paralysis jokes in. Welcome back, Glee. I missed you, too.
Finn’s still reeling from his return to Lima, his breakup with Rachel, and his semi-dishonorable discharge from the Army; Artie suggests that co-directing Grease at McKinley will be just what he needs. I should get this out of the way: I’m a bit disappointed that the Glee kids are doing Grease this year. I’m certain it can’t top last season’s West Side Story episode, one of the series’ best-ever hours, just because it’s so comparatively fluffy. On top of that, I’m not wild about the message Grease sends to high-school students. I’m not talking about the smoking or the sex stuff; my issue is with the message that to get someone to love you, you have to change. That’s basically all the story line there is to Grease, with some automotive repair and a pregnancy scare thrown in there.
Bewilderingly, Finn praises Grease for being about being yourself and having fun with your friends, and he signs on to co-direct after Artie insists that Finn’s his hero and has to do it. (Can we please find Artie a better hero?) To sweeten the deal, Artie brings in Mike and Mercedes to co-co-direct, which is ridiculous, but it gives me occasion to use this GIF, so I’ll allow it, with the caveat that having Mike return without a massive dance solo was sort of a waste. He does get a brief scene with Tina about their breakup, which is nice for continuity.
Meanwhile, Blaine’s too depressed for Grease; he’s still reeling from his breakup with Kurt, and he’s acting out in all the normal ways: pouring over scrapbooks, enumerating his regrets, and slow-motion walking through football practice while singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” It’s all very tragic, especially when Blaine says that he’s lost the will to use hair gel on weekends and that Kurt returned the Gilmore Girls boxed set he’d sent without opening it. He sobbingly turns down Artie and Finn when they offer him the role of Danny at his audition, but agrees to play the Teen Angel instead, and I’m concerned that all this is heading toward a big “Blaine is clinically depressed!” reveal a few episodes from now. Glee doesn’t have the bandwidth for a story line that complex right now.
Before storming off to find a new Danny, Finn fumes, “Why can’t we find one guy in this school to play the lead in the musical?” and I’d allow him his indignation, but he wasn’t in the musical last year either, so that might give him some insight. Plus, you can’t be mad at Sam for turning down the role, when he has the best explanation ever for playing Kenickie instead: “‘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 re-creating the reality of that moment onstage.”
Coach Bieste leads Finn to new kid Ryder, played by Blake Jenner, who won season two of The Glee Project. I’m being completely sincere when I say I’m a huge Glee Project fan (I’m a sucker for any reality television program predicated on wanting its contestants to succeed), so I can vouch for Blake’s talent and charisma, but his presence isn’t going to do anything to diversify Glee. For context, the other two talented finalists were a girl in a wheelchair and a girl who came from an extremely conservative Turkish Muslim family; going with the straight white dude in that situation was an interesting choice.
Finn recruits Ryder, who struggles with school, by telling him that being in glee club helped him get his grades up by “unlocking his brain.” It’s a fair enough pitch, but let’s be clear: Finn didn’t get better grades because he learned to sing and dance. (Yes, I know kids involved in the arts do better in school than their peers on average, but a magical ascension from a C- average to a B+ is pushing it.) Finn did better in school because he had a pushy girlfriend, and pushy girlfriends make you do your homework. Trust me on this. Still, it’s far better as a recruitment than Mr. Schue tricking Finn into joining the club by planting fake weed in his locker all those years ago. They do a quick duet of “Juke Box Musical,” and just like that, Ryder falls in love with the stage.
Sue overhears Marley and Unique in the girls’ bathroom talking about auditions, and when Unique says she wants to try out for the part of Rizzo, Sue has another meltdown, but this just feels … mean. Obviously, recreational cruelty has been Sue’s main function from the beginning, but I’d grown accustomed to her being mean to the original New Directions kids, whom she knew. There was at least a little familiarity in that contempt. When Unique is a stranger to her and when this is the only network television show that I know of with a teenaged transgender character, it’s unfortunate.
Marley and Unique seem less troubled than I do — they flounce off singing “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” which doubles as their audition song. The concern Sue has from an educator’s perspective makes a tiny bit more sense; in Principal Figgins’s office, she points that if Unique plays a female character, there’s potential for bodily harm. Finn responds by saying she should be more sensitive since she has a “retarded baby,” and while he immediately apologizes, Sue sets her jaw, flares a nostril, and walks out without saying anything. It’s easily the episode’s most powerful moment.
Meanwhile, the new kids (Marley, Kitty, Ryder, and Jake) are involved in a battle for the roles of Danny and Sandy, and also in a strange love … square? Love diamond? Quadrilateral of indifference? It’s hard to care all that much, to be honest. The reason why these characters aren’t yet compelling is that they’re all direct descendants of original Glee characters. Marley is Rachel, Kitty is Santana (with a little Quinn, maybe), Ryder is Finn, and Jake is Puck. I know there are countless TV shows that have managed to replace a character or two without the show coming apart at the seams — the Law & Order franchise is a great example — but things aren’t gelling as they are now, and it’s hard to invest in underdeveloped characters. I think there’s tremendous potential in these new performers, but if the writers can’t figure out how to write to that, I’m afraid the show could be headed into Saved by the Bell: The New Class territory soon.
Finally, the cast list goes up, the kids are appropriately elated or devastated, and Finn takes over for Mr. Schue for real — he’s off to Washington D.C. for three months. We’ll miss you, you “strange weeping man-child who has lotion in his hair but no adult friends”!