Tuned In

Glee Watch: Back to School

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Spoilers for the second-season premiere of Glee coming up:

If there was one thing season one of Glee trained us for, it was never to know what was coming next. The show could go from scattershot and goofy to assured and transcendent within a week, from wacky fantasy to heartfelt realism between commercial breaks, in a heady rush as if trying to cram five years of TV into nine months.

So the one thing I was not expecting from its season two premiere was what I saw: a simply solid season-opening episode, neither awful nor amazing, that got us back on our footing and set up some promising storylines for the season.

What I liked best about “Audition” was what I didn’t see: no (or very few) outlandish, over-the-top scenarios, no elaborate fake-pregnancy scams, no whirlwind adoptions. Instead, this was Glee behaving as if it was a show about kids in a high school Glee club, experiencing the sort of problems those kids would have.

New Directions, having come back from regionals chastened in third place, realizes it needs more talent if it wants to progress. Rachel experiences a bout of jealousy. Finn has problems dealing with the new coach. Artie and Tina have broken up. Quinn and Santana are pitted against each other. (Granted, the episode did sometimes push the characters to extremes; Rachel’s crack-house plot went from neurotic to villainous, while having Finn actually believe he could push Artie like a battering ram in a football game went beyond his usual range of finely calibrated dimness.)

Where the first season began by throwing balls into the air, as if it couldn’t believe we were actually interested in it, the second season begins with the confidence that we already care. (This was summed up in the video introduction by the school blogger, which at once re-introduced us to the characters, oriented us to their current status in the school, and, a little defensively, addressed some criticisms of the show.) “Auditions” also didn’t feel compelled to shoehorn in a plot to service every favorite character; there was very little Kurt, Mercedes or Brittany, in comparison to some season-one episodes that tried to do too much, all at once.

Perhaps most notably, there was little focus on the adult characters and Will’s personal life, which is where the first season often slipped up. But the faculty storyline the episode did establish looks promising: Will and Sue united—sort of—against the budgetary threat of the school football team, headed by the new Coach Beiste (Dot Jones), who’s replaced Coach Tanaka.

Given the way the first season ended, Glee couldn’t plausibly have returned to another string of Sue-tries-to-destroy-glee-club storylines; Coach Beiste gives her a new target—both a formidable and a sympathetic one. Bringing on a butch female football coach is a distinctively Ryan Murphy move; in both Popular and Nip/Tuck, he created characters who crossed gender lines, using them to explore and test the categories society assigns to people—a major theme, after all, of Glee.

Glee is a show about mash-ups: combining musical styles in the same performance, combining realistic drama with absurd comedy. If it has an overarching philosophy, it’s that no one has to be just one thing, and that if you think you’ve defined someone, you’re probably wrong. Beiste already looks like a strong example of that. Jones manages to make her intimidating and vulnerable at the same time, so that when Sue mocks her—”Oversized, referring to herself in the third person as an animal”—we see that she’s attacking not just a football version of herself but a distinct person.

Overall, “Audition” wasn’t a hall-of-fame episode (none of the musical numbers really stood out, for instance, and save for the “living in the sewers” comment, no classic Brittany-isms) but it gave the season some emotional grounding before the cavalcade of guest stars that begins next week with Britney Spears. It showed us a Glee that’s not working double-time to give us everything we want all at once, and that’s pretty much what I want from it.