'Glee' Is Back, and It Has Fixed (Almost) All Its Problems

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The season three premiere gives hope to critics who feared the show had lost its way

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Fox


As season two of Glee concluded last May, writers—yours truly among them—griped about the state of their once-great little show. What began as a bitingly honest, yet cartoonishly fun look at a glee club's struggle to be taken seriously devolved into a cacophonous din of too many characters, tonal dissonance, and self-important heavy-handedness.

Now, after a summer of not-so-great "who's getting fired?" press, Glee finally returned last night. And, what do you know, it was kind of good! The premise was simple: The members of New Directions were excited for a new school year and set out to recruit new glee club members. Their method was an amusingly misguided initiative called the Purple Piano Project, in which they spontaneously burst into songs near various purple pianos scattered throughout the school in hopes of winning over classmates. This time, not only did they get Slushies thrown in their faces, but pasta, mashed potatoes, and green beans, too (food fight!), reestablishing them as the school's bottom-feeder underdogs.

It was a solidly entertaining episode that addressed many of the show's most glaring problems, giving hope to fans and critics who feared, after last season's creative meltdown, that the series could be running out of air. Here's why there's reason to believe it's still going strong:

It fixed the character problem
Wisely, the episode addressed the question that's caused sleepless nights all summer for many a Gleek who found out that the show's seniors would be graduating—possibly off the series—this spring: Who the hell is a senior? Glee has never before even made a passing reference to the age of its characters, so in the faux documentary opening—a clever recap-and-reintroduce-the-characters device the show also used to start last season—Tina Cohen-Chang clarified that both she and Artie are juniors, with the rest of the cast, seemingly, set for commencement. And with that, Tina may already have more lines this season than she did the entirety of the last one.

And there's hope that she may even get a few more. One of the biggest issues plaguing last season was an overabundance of characters, too many for any show to write satisfyingly. The result was fleeting character arcs introduced and resolved in the span of one episode—if not one commercial break—while students like the aforementioned Tina were rarely, if ever, heard from. So the news that blond hunk Sam, for all his charm, and sassy Lauren, with her ferocious deadpan, would no longer be part of New Directions must be viewed as good news—even if the respective characters boasted some of last season's most shining moments.

The kids are acting like kids again
All too often last season, various Glee characters were the speaker boxes through which Ryan Murphy and the show's writers pontificated on various sociopolitical issues, or, worse, took the backseat to story lines revolving around the series' adult characters. Glee is a show about high school and works best when it lets it characters actually act like high-schoolers. Mercifully, all the pettiness, delusion, romanticism, and fun that goes along with being a teenager was back in last night's premiere.

In a cafe conversation with his boyfriend, Blaine, Kurt reveals that he wants his senior year to be "magic." It's a wide-eyed optimism shared by many students around the country, inspired by Saved by the Bell, 90210, and, now, Glee to have a fairy tale last hurrah. Similarly, Kurt and Rachel's college aspirations was one of the episode's strongest subplots. They're giddy with excitement as they imagine the possibility of pirouetting through New York's finest musical-theater schools, and then crushed by the realization that, though their talent makes them big fish in a little, suburban Ohio pond, they are itsy bitsy guppies in the national pool of aspiring stars.

And then there's Quinn's makeover from perfectly coifed cheerleader to, as Brittany puts it, "a Jolly Rancher that fell into an ash tray"-looking punk malcontent who rejects everything she used to enjoy—from glee club to cheerleading—while scowling from under her newly dyed pink bangs. Rebellion. It's a rite of passage for many teenage girls, and quite possibly the most interesting thing Quinn has done since giving birth to a baby to the soundtrack of "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the good ole, gloriously weird first season of Glee.

The salty wit is back ...
When the assuredly flamboyant Kurt and his best friend Rachel burst into guidance counselor Emma's office to share their "important announcement" (they're applying to Julliard), Emma sighs, "I thought this day might come. This is the only dating combination the glee club hasn't tried." She then hands them a pamphlet titled "Me and My Hag." It's this darkly funny, politically incorrect way of handling very sensitive issues that made Glee a breath of fresh air on TV—a series unafraid to address the topics that most high school shows skirt around.

Glee fell in a rut last year when it became too earnest, bogged down by its own self-importance. Issues like tolerance, gay bullying, and religion have a place on a show like Glee. They're real issues that real teens deal with. But the acerbic Glee treatment that made the show so relatable and revolutionary quickly evolved into the PSA treatment when it came to these issues, schmaltzified with cliched dialogue and earnest "lessons," and drained of any nuance or fun.

The latest Glee-friendly topical issue, introduced in the premiere, is the cutting of arts funding in schools. Glee club adversary extraordinaire Sue Sylvester is running her implausible campaign for political office on a pledge to remove all singing, dancing, and frivolity from the halls of McKinley High. Given how apropos the issue is to the subject matter of the show, this had all the makings for another cringe-inducing Very Special Episode of Glee. Instead, the preaching was limited, the counterargument instead channeled through Will and Emma's comically lame spoof of glitter-bombing protests. That it only served to martyr Sue as a candidate and put her in an even closer race with the rapist running from prison is besides the point. It was an ingenious way for Glee to make it's very serious point—cutting funding for the arts is counterproductive—in a very not serious way. In fact, all future political messages on Glee should be delivered with glitter.

... and so is the fun
The best part of Glee, and why it's so loved by so many weirdos and misfits—again, this writer included—is because of how deranged and unexpected its sense of humor is. Quinn proudly shows off the "erotic tattoo of Ryan Seacrest" on her back. Emma tries to sell Kurt and Rachel on Kent State instead of a fancy New York school because its "macabre back story" would cheer them up on a self-pitying day. "Things really could get worse."

Glee is most entertaining when the show itself embodies what it champions: Being yourself, unapologetically. An exuberant rendition of an obscure Barbra Streisand take on The Wizard of Oz's "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead" for no particular reason? Sure! An entire episode framed around something called the Purple Piano Project? Why not! The song selection was absurd in the best way possibly, running the gamut from the Go-Gos to Hairspray to Tom Jones. Speaking of which ...

There's Blaine. A walking, dancing, crooning dreamboat of self-confidence and endearing swagger, Darren Criss's Blaine is a new breed of TV teen idol. Undeniably awesome and just happening to be gay, he re-rewrites the adage. Blaine is the guy girls and guys want to date, and guys want to be. His performance of "It's Not Unusual" was embarrassingly enjoyable, and his screen presence is so incendiary that it could have set the fire that engulfed the purple piano at the end of the number.

The show is still a star-maker
It's understandable that some of the newest character additions had to be cut so that the show's writers could finally do justice some of the series long-ignored players (Mercedes, Tina, Mike Chang), but damned if Glee wasn't brilliant at making you fall in love with fresh faces (see: Darren Criss, above). Judging by the few new characters in the premiere, the show hasn't lost that touch.

If the introduction of The Glee Project finalist Lindsay Pearce is any indication of what's in store for the other three contestants from the reality show who will make Glee appearances this season, we're in for a treat. Not only did Pearce torch the high notes while belting "Anything Goes," but she brought, which the best new characters do, fresh and exciting aspects in the show's established leads. The huge helping of humble pie that Kurt and Rachel were force-fed after her performance humanized them in ways we haven't seen before, surfacing new insecurities, and, with that, comedy. "I've never been so humiliated in my life," Rachel says. "Me neither," replies Kurt. "And that's a really high bar."

But then there's Will ...
At this point it's hard to tell whether it's Matthew Morrison's wooden characterization, the stilted writing, or the flat purpose that the character serves on the show that makes Will Schuster so insufferable. "These pianos are still making music. And so are we." That's a line he actually said. Without a smirk on his face. Or any ironic undertone. Will's bland seriousness has reached a level at which it's almost worrisome—Matthew Morrison's forehead may literally freeze in a V-shape if he continues furrowing his brow to earnestly deliver lines about "kids who can't keep the music inside." Even having him prance around tossing handfuls of glitter in the air couldn't lighten him up. Is there anything to be done?

But if a little over-serious Schu is the biggest gripe one has about an episode of Glee, that's a major improvement—even forgivable so long as Sue's supply of "macaroni hair" jokes doesn't dry up. Even more reason for optimism: A preview for the upcoming season teases the return of Shelby, the former rival glee club coach who is also Rachel estranged birth mother and the woman who adopted Quinn's out-of-wedlock baby. So ridiculous! And such soapy, delicious fun ... just as Glee should be.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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