“Glee” imagines life beyond senior year

The third season debut of Fox's musical comedy series sows the seeds of an exit strategy

Topics: Glee, Television, TV,

"Glee" imagines life beyond senior yearThe song remains the same: (L to R) Brad Ellis, Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele.

Oh, “Glee,” why can’t I quit you?

The season premiere of Fox’s comedy/drama/musical series — aka the most infuriating show on TV — had me wondering. It wasn’t mind-bogglingly bad, as “Glee” so often is, nor was it genuinely inventive and passionate, as the series also often is. It was just … How to put this? Is there an emoticon signifying a weary sigh leavened by the faint stirrings of hope? There isn’t? Bummer.

It’s a new school year. All the familiar faces are back, except for sinewy blond Sam Evans, who was last seen threatening to add some much-needed pep to the series by dating the plus-size African-American Mercedes. In a throwaway bit, we learn that Sam “moved away” over the summer, and now Mercedes has a plus-size African-American boyfriend. (Too bad; a relationship between Sam and Mercedes would have been groundbreaking for all sorts of reasons.) Will Schuester is back to teaching music at McKinley High after giving up on his dream of being a Broadway star (the fellow who replaced him won a Tony) and is trying to recruit new glee club members via the Purple Piano Project. The latter places a bunch of donated upright pianos (painted by Will) throughout the school, the better to encourage the teens to show off their talent by bursting into song. (They needed so much help doing that. Good going, Will!)

The daughter of the rich guy who donated the pianos shows up to audition for glee club. She’s awful. She’s also an entitled little snot who thinks she can say the most hateful things without fear of retribution because she’s been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. She’s a great character, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of her.

Most of this episode revolved around Kurt and Rachel fretting over their college prospects and Sue Sylvester running for a death-vacated congressional seat by pledging to introduce legislation that would eliminate arts programs from Ohio public schools. “I thought people wanted a candidate who was for something — that’s why I took that pro-deportation stance,” she says. “But the people are angry. They want a candidate who’s against something.” As always, Sue is plotting to sabotage glee club and prevent the team from making it to nationals. (Coach Beiste tells Will that a win at nationals equals 10 more years of survival for the club, guaranteed.) To thwart Will’s recruitment plan, Sue endorses a sustained campaign of sabotage carried out by three Cheerios. The first incident occurs during a lunchtime performance by Kurt’s boyfriend Blaine, a former prep schooler who’s now a student at McKinley; he performs a bouncy rendition of “It’s Not Unusual” that ends with the purple piano exploding in flame, courtesy of a couple of cups of lighter fluid and a cigarette tossed by Quinn, who has dyed her hair pink and remade herself as a charter member of a heretofore unseen clique, the Skanks.

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Also, Will and Emma are apparently, officially together and seriously playing house. Their relationship seems peaceful, loving and mutually supportive. To quote my 14-year-old daughter, “I’m already bored with this relationship.”

If this were the kind of show where one complained about plausibility, I’d gripe about Sue being allowed to keep her job as a local TV commentator while actively running for congress (which under the Equal Time Rule would force her employers to offer free airtime to any rival candidate who requested it), or the idea that the fiery destruction of a piano at a public high school wouldn’t shut the place down and become a national media scandal. But this is not the kind of show where you worry about such things. It’s the kind where Sue can plan to have her cheerleaders fired out of a cannon the size of one of the guns of Navarone without any of the Cheerios squealing, or anyone from the administration or the local media finding out. You just accept the outlandishness as part of the show’s overall aura of cheerful lunacy. “Glee” is set in the “real” world, but it’s essentially a fantasy — not unlike NBC’s “Community,” which is set at a community college but might as well be taking place in a lunar colony owned and operated by the Marx Brothers.

The most important thing is that the series honors its own internal logic — which on “Glee” is almost entirely emotional — and that the various plot threads ultimately lead somewhere interesting. This already looks to be a throw-stuff-against-the-wall-and-see-if-anything-sticks sort of season. But that’s not a deal breaker. Last season was like that, too; so was the abbreviated Season 1. “Glee” is just that kind of show — one that mixes carefully cultivated, often transcendentally beautiful moments with seemingly random bits.

The most intriguing thing about last night’s season premiere was that if you paid attention to the subplots, you saw that showrunners Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk are already thinking about their exit strategy — as well they should, considering high school only lasts four years and these kids aren’t getting any younger.

The most successful and affecting subplot was Rachel and Kurt’s visit to that New York college recruitment event, where they witnessed a staggeringly polished group of fellow Ohioans performing a medley of show tunes and realized not only are they not the best musical theater performers in the country, they’re not even the best in Ohio. “What if we’re not good enough to make it?” Kurt asked Rachel afterward, sitting in her car while a rainstorm cried for both of them. (Such a melodrama, this series!) In the end, of course, they both rallied and resolved to do their best — which in Kurt and Rachel’s case is formidable.

But in the end, the episode’s most intriguing development wasn’t Kurt’s climactic declaration that he’s going to run for student body president (though I’m looking forward to that). It was the revelation that new characters such as the Aspergers’ exploiter and the eccentric, funny, super-talented kids who performed the medley could hold my attention as strongly as the original cast of “Glee.” 

If Murphy, Brennan and Falchuk are clever enough, they could start integrating new freshmen and sophomores into the existing cast, and make them so lively and distinctive that when the founding characters graduate — as they eventually must — we won’t think that “Glee” is overstaying its welcome by continuing to produce new episodes. 

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