Tuned In

Glee Watch: Long-Distance Relationship

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Adam Rose/FOX

Spoilers for last night’s Glee below:

Glee, more than maybe any show on TV right now, has mastered the art of disappointing me just enough that I can never permanently give up watching it. When I try to remember season 3, I remember a few high points and a lot of flailing disorientation (what the hell were they doing with Quinn?). For the first time, I didn’t always watch episodes the same night they aired, and one or two I skipped entirely.

And yet, like a dysfunctional relationship I just can’t end, the finale of season 3 showed up looking pretty and saying all the right things, and there I was, back again. From my review of that finale:

Look, this is Glee, so I’m not going to get my season-four hopes up from one strong finale. We’ve often enough see the show promise a strong premise, then get distracted by shiny objects and new characters… But I’ll let myself hope just a little bit. Maybe Glee, like Rachel, has realized it has to be true to itself. And that the only way to do that is to go, as it were, in new directions.

So last night Glee came back with “The New Rachel,” and, well, it hasn’t made me regret taking it back–yet. The title, it became clear, worked on two levels in an episode that largely operated on two tracks. On the one hand, there was New Directions, back in Ohio, adjusting to its new status and trying to set a new hierarchy in the post-Berry power vacuum. And on the other, there was Rachel herself, with the lonely, uncomfortable job of becoming a new Rachel at a new stage in her life—in a bigger pond whose fish have sharper teeth, having to prove herself at another level.

I was most pleasantly surprised how the episode managed to tell an Ohio and a New York story while making both feel connected (long before Kurt showed up in NYC). Sure it was convenient that the New Directions backup band and NYADA just happened to be using the precise same arrangement of “New York State of Mind,” but that number emotionally and thematically united what was going on in both settings: the anxiousness, the aspiring, the what-now feeling.

The reason Glee can still work, for all its inconsistency, is that it’s still about something besides being a lucrative jukebox: it’s about dreams and their limits, about risk, about discovering identity, about the terrifying work of finding your place.  For this one hour, it told this story well, from Rachel getting beat up on by Cassandra July at NYADA to the New Directions students deciding whether they can be cool and be themselves to Kurt realizing that it’s time to move on. (Speaking of which: God damn you, Burt Hummel. Can you ever not make me cry?)

Again: we’re talking one good episode here. (One that, like many strong Glee episodes, had the wind-assist of involving almost none of the adult characters. They’ll be back!) It will take a while to see if season four is the improvement that, a year ago, I thought season three might be. There are a lot of characters left to pick up with—we were essentially Finn-free last night, for instance—and a lot to introduce, though Miss Poverty Girl is a good start and I’m liking the incorporation of Unique in the group.

But for this one hour, it seemed that Glee could make its balancing act between New York and Ohio work. Yes, I know what usually happens with long-distance relationships. And yet I choose to believe this one can work.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* I said that Glee is “about something besides being a lucrative jukebox”–but not totally. Take “Call Me Maybe,” whose entire setup pretty much boiled down to, “And now it is time for the cast of Glee to perform this summer’s popular song ‘Call Me Maybe.'”

* Whatever you can say about Ryan Murphy’s shows, he casts the hell out of them–my adverse reaction to Gwyneth Paltrow notwithstanding–and I’m liking Kate Hudson so far as the self-and-everyone-else-hating Cassandra July. Though her name suggests that there really is a Ryan Murphy Random Female Character Name Generator out there somewhere.

* As for new characters and storylines that are not grabbing me: the Puckerman Jr. story arc so far feels way too much like a generic bad-boy-with-a-secret-hurt story to me.

* I’m trying to spread the love around on the blog, so I won’t be making Glee Watch a weekly thing this season, but I’ll return to the show at some point. In the meantime: given the number of characters in the vast cast left out of this episode—did you miss anybody?