‘Glee’ Recap (Season 4 Premiere): “The New Rachel”
Rachel strikes out in the Big Apple, and the New Directions reckon with acceptance.
The black ritual is done. The blood moon approaches. The ravens have been sacrificed. Glee is back. For nigh on four months, we’ve awaited the return of our dread beloved com-dramusical with a feverish anticipation that would be described by those around us as “not observable.” But in the absence of our grim narcotic, we are shells. Us seething wretches who roam the wilds at night, driven to a frenzy by a thirst for sub-par Bruno Mars covers—we know that all other camp gods (your Revenge, your Smash) are but craven idols. We need a show made of wickeder stuff. Acid clouds loom o’er this dark age of self-obsession, and Glee bears our standard.
At the outset of “The New Rachel,” we find the titular hero in a bad way, separated from her true love Finn and struggling to keep up in the punishing, merciless world of New York theater school, where Kate Hudson’s barb-tongued dance instructor Cassandra July compares her unfavorably to David Schwimmer—among the worst things you could say to a person. Hudson is clearly having a blast with the role, and I think showrunner Ryan Murphy, queen bitch that he is, is clearly gratified to have a vessel for his nastier compulsive jabs (I haven’t lived in Ohio for fifteen years, and I still bristled a mite when Cassandra calls it “a giant turd that Michigan can’t seem to pinch off”). Rachel’s lot is improved somewhat by episode’s end, with bestie Kurt resolving to stop floundering back home and join her big city adventure. She also garners the attention of upperclassman Brody (Dean Geyer, from my beloved, late Terra Nova) who is introduced singing “Sister Christian” in the shower. Not much happens here, but this parallel plotline could prove enjoyable whether it works or not; if Murphy wants to expand the Gleeniverse to ambitious, dubiously manageable depths, that’s his affair.
Back in Lima, thank god, things are the tonally chaotic Glee mess I’ve been craving. Last year having ended with graduation, a sizable chunk of the cast makes no appearance in this episode, though all their contracts have been renewed, so we can assume they’ll be shoehorned into either the Lima or NY threads before too long. For now, though, they’re relegated to passing mention, while the previously second-tier clubbers get… more dialogue. (Brittany, on her relationship with the departed Santana: “It’s hard to scissor over a webcam.” Holy Censor Stealth!)
We do get two newbies: Jake, a smoldering loner who’s got a chip on his shoulder, which we know because Shue councils, “You’ve got to get that chip off your shoulder.” (He also turns out to be Puck’s half-brother, because soulful bad boys are a rare breed, man.) There’s also Marley, a sweet, friendless chick from the wrong side of the tracks, whose voice I’d describe as “pleasantly earthy” if I knew what I was talking about. Even I could tell it does her no favors that we first hear it, at her glee audition, in a crosscut duet of “New York State of Mind” with Rachel in NY, trying to impress Whoopi Goldberg’s icy diva and rendering the newcomer comparably less spectacular.
The returning gleers are sparse in number but in high spirits. Following their triumph at nationals, the New Directions are the most popular kids at McKinley, which gives their journey a fresh turn, and also imposes upon the writers a dilemma. The entire being of the show—from its initial seductive pull to its off-putting condescension—has thus far hinged on its being an underdog story, so it’s unclear how the drama will proceed. To their credit, Murphy and co. don’t waste any time addressing this concern. To their discredit, the resolution is dumb and manipulative. The kids immediately realize the difficulty in reconciling claiming their throne atop the teen status list with retaining their aggressively inclusive, progressive m.o. When doughy trans kid Unique quits rival Vocal Adrenaline to join the team “where ‘different’ is celebrated,” they advise against casually wearing feminine clothes and products around school.* Initially gratified to be joined by a couple of top dog cheerleaders and football bros at lunch, they’re unnerved by the anonymous bozos’ cruel jokes about a cafeteria worker.
This being Glee, the lunch lady turns out to be Marley’s mom, as well as a selfless saint so mindful of her daughter’s happiness that she insists on picking her up down the block to spare her any potential embarrassment. Let’s not dwell on this character; the only reason she exists, in any case, is to provide the catalyst for the glee kids’ mea culpa and subsequent reversion to the Gold-Hearted Losers we love, as the football jerks show up right in time to burn them for being nice people and slushie Marley and a fully dragged-out Unique. I’m going to be spending a fair amount of time this year doing these Glee recaps (or Gleecaps, as I will never again call them) and I want you to know that I’ll try to avoid getting unproductively hung up on these little symphonies of predictable nonsense into which the scripts so frequently contort themselves. It’s like complaining about too much hitting in a Scorsese movie. The first thing I would tell any Glee neophytes is that the show is like a little kid whose older brother taught him all the swears: he knows he’s saying something forceful, he’s just not sure what it is. So when this episode suggests that what it takes to lose the favor of the high school A-listers is a failure to meet the standards of their vicious fascism, I’m only alarmed for a second because my viewing skills are rusty after summer vacation, and then I remember the show’s propensity for awful, cartoonish straw man villains. Glee takes some acclimating to its blundering rhythms, but once you get going, its foul power can get under your skin.
*I want to note here—in the interest of humanistic self-inquiry that I feel my recapping duties oblige—that Unique makes me curiously uncomfortable. My impression is that they seem reluctant to let her be a real character rather than an emblem of the show’s meta (or should I say lazily transposed) progressivism. I hope my slight cringing at her flamboyance is because it seems so contrived and calculated, a ploy that falls too continually on the side of Murphy’s whole liberal edutainment thing, that is generally given equal footing with the show’s populistically rude humor (though the tone, in the show’s most enduring whacked-out flaw, may fluctuate violently between the two). Can we get the little scamp some lines that don’t conform so strenuously to the “[Sassy quip; Conciliatorily sincere message about acceptance; Sassy facial expression]” template?
Image courtesy fox.com
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