We can think of no better illustration that we’re in the world of nuGlee than this: All the characters didn’t go around trying to shoehorn the “unicorn” idea into every conversation and the script didn’t try to draw clumsy parallels between the action of “West Side Story” and the goings-on in McKinley High. Had this been a season 2 script, Schu would have written “UNICORN” on the whiteboard in the first 5 minutes and somehow that would make sense as a theme for the show. Or, after the announcement of “West Side Story” as the school musical for the year, Rita Moreno would have guest-starred as Santana’s grandmother, there would have been an incongruous “Mambo” scene in the gym, and some sort of attempt would have been made to connect getting Slushied to getting stabbed in a gang fight. And then there would have been a big production number at the end where everyone oversang “I Feel Pretty” in unicorn costumes.
You know we’re right.
This is what we picked up on during last week’s somewhat disappointing opener. For the first time in its history, Glee has a writing staff now, instead of having all the scripts written by the show’s creators. Season 2 was considered a huge disappointment by just about everyone who was writing about the show on a regular basis. There were too many celebrity guest stars and too many heavy-handed theme episodes, coupled with a somewhat overwrought and too-serious (for the world of Glee) anti-bullying message. The result of all this tinkering with the concept left the characters acting totally different from week to week, with subplots and entire relationships dropped or not referred to when they should have been. We said in last week’s review that, even though the season opener left us flat, we were detecting a sense of refocus that gave us some optimism for the show’s future.
One of the biggest changes in the show’s style is that the storytelling is a bit more serialized. There was no big wrapup last night. No one really learned a major lesson. Instead, quite a few story arcs were set up, or – and this is what made us happiest – were logical progressions from things that had gone before. Foremost among these is Quinn’s story, which for the first time is starting to make a little sense. No character was jerked around from episode to episode as much as Quinn was in the first 2 seasons. She started off as the typical “mean girl” character, but then had problem after problem heaped on her and her character alternated wildly between “reformed bitch who learned a lesson” back to just plain old bitch when the writers needed her to be one. Rather deftly, the point is being made that Quinn doesn’t know who she is and that the reason for her wild fluctuations in character is because she gave up her baby at the end of season 1. Bear in mind that her baby was barely referred to at all in season 2. Having her reform once again at the end of this episode only to reveal to Puck that it’s all an act and she’ll put on the nice girl face if it means she can get her baby back is one of the best of the potential story arcs for this season.
We said last week that it seemed like the writers were tightening the focus by keeping Finn, Quinn, Rachel and Kurt in the center of the action and this episode demonstrated to us how such an approach is better for the show overall and even better for the characters who aren’t in the center of the action. By rehabilitating Quinn’s character, we’re also getting a rehabilitation of Puck’s character. All he did last year was flirt with Lauren and that story went nowhere. One scene of him with his daughter was more interesting than all of his scenes last year. Similarly, Schu standing up in his office and righteously tearing Quinn a new one for her selfishness ranks as one of that character’s best scenes ever. AND the long-forgotten Quinn-Mercedes friendship was brought up again, both in the dialogue and at the end when Quinn announced her return to the club.
Kurt’s story also feels like a logical progression for the character. It can best be summed up as “You’re gay. Now what?” We cringed when he performed “I’m the Greatest Star,” not because it wasn’t cute, but because there was no way he would have been cast as Tony after that and we feared the show was going to go ahead and ignore the pink elephant in the room. Kurt’s wonderful and talented, but he is, after all, a unicorn. Once again, the script deftly makes the point that being a unicorn is fabulous and brave, but the downside, if you can call it that, is that the world will forever see you as a unicorn and pretending to be a stallion is never going to work. In other words, the story arc for Kurt seems to be figuring out what he wants and how he’s going to get it now that he’s come to terms with who he is. That’s powerful stuff and it reflects what quite a few people go through post-coming out. And just like with Quinn’s story and Puck, Kurt’s story naturally spawned a side-story for Brittany and gave Burt yet another Father of the Century moment. We’re telling you, the writing on this series has never been tighter.
It also reflects a more obvious self-awareness on the part of the creators. You can’t pretend that someone like Kurt isn’t going to have obstacles as a performer simply by virtue of the fact that he’s flamboyant. Just like you can’t pretend that Finn is some sort of performing talent when anyone watching the show can see he’s not. Introducing that tension between Rachel’s need to get the hell out of Lima and become a star and Finn’s dawning realization that he’s probably not going to be one is another arc with rich potential. We’re calling it now: Finn’s dance lessons will immeasurably improve his performance on the field and we’ll be looking at a football scholarship for him before the season’s out.
But let’s be clear: this show would be unrecognizable if there weren’t at least a couple bizarre and unlikely-in-the-real-world plots. Of course it makes no sense for there to be a second glee club at McKinley and of course it makes no sense that Shelby would be teaching at the school where both her biological daughter and the biological parents of her adopted daughter are students. But Shelby’s a tool to promote change in Puck and Quinn right now, so her presence, as unlikely as it is, doesn’t bother us. Besides, she and Rachel have insane chemistry as performers and any time they get to sing a duet is a good moment for the show. It really is astonishing that Idina Menzel and Lea Michele aren’t related.
And this is as good a time as any to come out of the closet on something: except for his initial “Teenage Dream” performance and a handful of others, we can’t stand Darren Criss’ performing style. Way too cutesy; way too much head-bopping and grinning while singing – and it’s only gotten worse over time. We wanted to slap him last week during the “It’s Not Unusual” number. But man, give that boy a show tune and he knocks it out of the park. And again, there’s a logical story being promoted here: Darren is simply more talented than Chris Colfer as a musical performer. There’s no getting around that so you might as well wring some drama out of it.
Just about the only subplot that smacks of old Glee is the Sue storyline. It’s silly and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, plus the implication that Schu is going to jump into the race doesn’t fill us with… well, glee. But at least the point is being made that Sue doesn’t really believe the anti-arts stance she’s taking. They have to do something with Jane Lynch, so we suppose this is as good an idea as any.
Still, we’re more convinced than ever that the show is attempting, and just might pull off, a return to greatness after the disappointment of last season.