Glee Remixes the Formula for Season 4 — and Slushies Itself In The Face

'Glee' is finding it hard to say goodbye to Rachel and Kurt. Shouldn't a high-school show know that, if it wants to be cool, it has to stay in school?

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Adam Rose / FOX

If there’s one bit of showbiz advice that everyone knows — beyond “Nobody knows anything” and “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”, of course — it is surely “Don’t mess with a good thing.” It’s great advice, even if your definition of what constitutes a “good thing” may differ from other people’s; what it really translates to, of course, is “If you find a winning formula by some lucky happenstance, the last thing you should do is start changing the formula to test what’ll happen.” Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the recipe-tampering now apparently underway at Fox’s high school musical, Glee.

Throughout our tempestuous, three-year-long roller coaster ride of a relationship with Glee — That glorious first season! That somewhat less glorious second season, and let’s not talk about the third season! The continually confusing very existence of reality-show spin-off The Glee Project! — the one thing you could always take for granted was a very clear and direct sense of purpose. Even if you didn’t like the show, all it took was the viewing of one episode to be certain that Glee was a sarcastic, saccharine show about a high school glee club that proudly wore its “outsider” status as a badge of honor and translated various teenage rites of passage into overblown production numbers (sandwiched between wildly improbably and increasingly melodramatic soap opera-esque plot twists). It had its problems — more and more, as the series went on — but one thing that it didn’t have was any confusion about what it was.

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Until now, apparently. According to reports, Glee returns next month as an all-new show. Well, a partly-new show, anyway; although the series will continue to follow the lives of the various members of McKinley High’s “New Directions” glee club for another year, half of the new season is reportedly going to take place in New York, where former New Directions members Rachel and Kurt are going to try and make it in the city that never sleeps. This isn’t entirely new territory, of course; the series has already spent some time in the Big Apple at the end of season two, when New Directions made it to Nationals, but what’s particularly interesting is hearing those making the show talk about this new setting as if it marks a new beginning for the series. “New York’s cooler, the stakes are a little higher. It’s a completely different world from the original Glee,” says new co-star Dean Geyser, who’ll be playing one of Rachel’s New York friends this year. “It’s a little racy. That’s the difference between the old Glee and the new college Glee. It’s a little more controversial.”

Glee, it seems, is changing the formula. But why?

The simplest answer to that question is that there wasn’t any option. Glee, like any television show set in a high school, is a time bomb. Like it or not, there will come a time when your characters are going to have to graduate, if only because there’ll be no convincing way to pretend otherwise, a sad truth that even Saved By The Bell had to deal with eventually (Also, let’s be honest; Glee‘s Cory Monteith wasn’t incredibly convincing as a high school student in the show’s first year. There was almost no way they could’ve tried to suggest that he was still sixteen or seventeen by the fourth year without waving a fond farewell to the show’s already-tenuous link to reality). By allowing all but four of the show’s main teen cast members to graduate at the end of the third season, Glee forced itself to cope with some level of tinkering and rethinking in the following year. The question for fans was: What kind of reboot would it be? Would viewers get a New Class or would they have to deal with The College Years?

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It depends, of course, on whether Glee‘s true appeal lies in its concept or its characters. If Glee rests upon the strength of its core “underdogs finding their true voice through song” idea, then it’s the same as other high school procedural series such as Canada’s Degrassi or the United Kingdom’s Grange Hill; series that cycle through students where the only constants are the school itself and the unfortunate teachers that happen to stick around, year after year. But if what makes Glee work for its fans are the characters, then shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars and Dawson’s Creek are the model, and the school gets left behind as the students go on to pastures new. The problem for Glee is that it can’t do the latter, as much as it may want to; the show may have made the relationships between its high school cast the primary focus for the last three years, thereby pushing them to the fore, but it can’t abandon the school setting entirely, because doing so would also mean abandoning the core idea behind the series that gives the show both its reason for these characters co-existing as well as its very title. Without high school — and more importantly, without the glee club — there’s no reason for characters who dislike each other to spend time together, no regular will-they-win drama, and less reason for so many musical moments every episode.

What that really means is that a high-school-free Glee would be a formula-free Glee, and that would be a very bad thing indeed. Like many a radio-friendly unit shifter, Glee‘s appeal comes from its reliance on a familiar formula. This is not an “anything can happen” series like Breaking Bad or even a Fringe; Glee works because we know what to expect when we tune in every week — some comedy, some heart and four songs that we can sing along with, without the benefit of autotune to soften our harsher edges. The audience tunes in each week to watch Glee, just as they do with so many procedural shows (Law & Order, 24) based around a simple formula, because they know exactly what they’re going to get. Stripping the school setting out of the show isn’t just messing with a good thing, it’s removing a central pillar altogether, with the hopes that whatever replaces the cornerstore is just as good (In this case, we actually have a good idea about what would replace it; after all, the Rachel and Kurt arc teased for the new season of Glee undoubtedly sounds familiar for those who have seen NBC’s musical drama Smash, a series about a wannabe actress trying to make it in musical theater in New York City. The inevitable accusations of copycat-ism, if not Smash‘s continually-falling ratings, should have been enough to dissuade Glee from focusing on Rachel’s New York adventures; another point in McKinley High’s favor, perhaps).

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Thinking about Glee‘s awkward route forward, I find myself thinking about Heroes, the ill-fated superhero series that — like Glee — launched to great fanfare and audience excitement with its first season, and then found itself seemingly uncertain about where to go next, leading to an uncomfortable fourth season reboot that led to the audience rejecting the changes and the show meeting an untimely end. As far as I can tell, what ultimately doomed Heroes and may finish Glee was that the series peaked too early in terms of narrative, leaving everything else that followed feeling like an unnecessary epilogue. After all, where do you go after you’ve saved the world — or, for that matter, won Nationals?

If there’s some reason to feel hopeful about Glee‘s bid to recreate itself this year, it’s that familiar savior of network television, Friday Night Lights. The third season of that show offered a way for Glee to successfully have its cake and eat it too, in terms of juggling concept and characters and bringing in a new high school cast while saying goodbye to a number of its old favorites. Whether or not Glee could manage the leisurely pace that allowed Smash Williams, Jason Street and others to depart Dillon gracefully may be unlikely (“Leisurely” isn’t exactly an adjective that anyone would use to describe anything about Glee, I think we can all agree), but one can certainly hope that Rachel and Kurt’s sojourn in New York turns out to be a way of giving the characters a send-off fit for their status as fan favorites, instead of sneak peek of things to come. Let them find their happy ending on Broadway, after however many detours or potholes in the road are deemed necessary for dramatic tension, and then let their story actually end there.

For Glee to be able to survive beyond its original cast and storyline, it’ll have to begin coming up with new characters to personify the underdogs-who-gotta-sing-to-be-heard premise and prove willing to start all over; following one-time students in the real world for too long dilutes what the show is about, and risks turning those characters — and the show itself — into one long episode of Peaked In High School Hasbeen Theater. Maybe we should offer this advice in the form of a moving musical montage; is it still too early for a Spice Girls revival?