Tonight's season premiere of Glee was very good, though not quite excellent. It doesn't quite approach the joyous bundle of satire that the original pilot was, nor completely embrace the rich tapestry of character that some of last year's episodes had. But it was by no means a bad episode. "Audition" was a strong re-introduction to the world of Glee, establishing where some of our characters are falling to this year, introducing new faces, and avoiding some of the awful over-indulgences of last year's "theme" episodes (though there are more on the way this year). With a lot of ground to cover in one episode, it came off reasonably well.
It began with a brilliant teaser focusing on Jacob Ben Israel's video show, as he interviews various characters. The first shot was of camera readjusting to his title card after staring at a cheerleader's behind; classic. Jacob is a good foil character when not milked too hard, and this episode used him perfectly. I love his little hebraic microphone. The interview style was a clever way to present us with some quick exposition, but also take some jabs at the series itself and its vocal online viewership. We learn that Puck has had a vasectomy since the Quinn baby fiasco of last season. And Tina has started dating Mike Chang (if you're asking yourself "who?", Mike Chang is the "other Asian")! Poor Artie! Apparently the two really hit it off at "Asian camp". Some of the best bits here though were the self-aware kind of meta look at the show that Arrested Development started to run with, and some of the rapid-fire humor. Take for example Mr. Shue being stunned at the revelation that "kids don't like it when I rap?" I wonder how much web buzz there was when he's rapped previously, because this reads exactly like an acknowledgement to fans (but the white boy rapping continues as Artie busts several rhymes in this episode). Jacob calls out the Glee club (and in a sense the show) for being so gay, saying the songs they sing sound like a drag queen's iPod. Kurt fires back at the end that losers who sit on their couches typing out criticisms on their blogs don't have the courage to get up and sing. That takes guts. Rebuttal: I for one, Kurt, have no problem singing in public. Oh, and Rachel basically got called a hobbit, which I found hilarious.
There's a bit of a shake-up on the series. The old football coach is gone, and in his place is a beast of a woman named Coach Bieste (pronounced Beast). Funding for both Cheerios and Glee has been cut, much to Sue and Shue's outrage, because football is more important to bringing in big alumni bucks. Glee club needs new recruits, especially since "Matt is gone". Don't know which one is Matt, so I'm guessing he's that non-descript darker-skinned football guy who filled out the background. Mr Shue is desperate for new recruits, but refuses to audition them, telling Sue that anyone who wants to can join Glee. But nobody wants to.
This leads the gang to try a recruitment performance at what I assume was lunch or some sort of break outside. Competition this year will be held in New York, and so they chose to perform Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind". I gotta say, I'm a little bothered by this at first. I don't like that the first song we get this season is a current hip-hoppy song that's already over-saturating our culture right now. I'm not that into this song, though it's better than most. Part of it too is that I don't think I get the mad love that New York gets in this country. Because you know and I know that when people say New York they mean a city, not a state. Still, my reservations aside, the song serves its function well here. Glee has a habit of taking current songs I hate and making them work for me ("My Life Would Suck Without You"). I didn't fall in love with the song here, but it was a solid performance. And frankly, if you want to make Glee look cool to your peers, this is exactly the sort of song you would do; one they all know (the new Filipino character even mouths along). And I gotta say, I always wanted to bust out a performance at lunch in high school; I would have been all over that. ...On the other hand, if I had to sit through some junky current pop song at lunch, I'd get terribly annoyed. The performance does not garner the group the instant notoriety in the school that "Push It" did last year, but it does get a few new characters interested. Oh, and on a totally unrelated note, I don't think I can ever hear the song again anyway without thinking of this video. All other versions pale in comparison.
Coach Bieste brings out the angry dog in Sue Sylvester, and thus is forged an unholy alliance between Mr. Shuster and Sue to bring her down. This amounts to a lot of childish pranks designed to make Bieste feel bad about herself and leave the school, thus restoring funding for Glee and Cheerios. In the end, Will can't take being the bully and makes nice with the Bieste. The relationship between Sue and Shue is a tricky thing, and I like that they were walking a delicate tightrope here of them being pals and enemies, building on what happened last year, but not losing the spirit of conflict that makes the show work.
Finn hears a kid singing in the shower (much like he was discovered in the pilot) and thinks he'd be great for Glee. He encourages the new boy, who has a big mouth and a Justin Bieber haircut, to audition. Meanwhile, Artie wants Tina back. He thinks he'd have a shot if he could get on the football team. Finn tries to help him out, but when he suggests it to Coach Bieste, she's not in a good place from all the bullying and thinks Finn is mocking her. She kicks him off the team. The new guy is made captain, and therefore backs out of auditioning for glee because he has a reputation to build.
I like that Tina is getting a little more to do. It's tough because she's a character that they've had a hard time figuring out how to write, but I like her. One of the best jokes of the night came when we saw a bit of Tina and Artie's relationship. Apparently, he was a terrible boyfriend because he didn't talk to her for weeks (he was playing a marathon game of Halo), and when they did hang out, all he wanted to do was watch Coming Home over and over. I thought that was hilarious.
Before he decides not to audition, the new guy (sorry, I don't remember his name. Did they say his name?) gives an informal audition to the guys in glee. He performs "Billionaire" by Travis McCoy (yet another current song), and the guys all join in. While I don't like the song, there was a certain exuberance in the performance, and it was great to see Finn on the drums again. One of the problems with using a song like this is that they had to bowdlerize the opening lyric to "I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad." I'm sure you probably know that McCoy doesn't want anything "freaking bad". I think that's maybe what's wrong with the song, too; its opening tag is poor grammar and curse words. It just makes the idea seem a lot lamer than it should. Compare "Billionaire" with Barenaked Ladies' "If I Had $1,000,000" and see what I mean. The latter is stronger.
Another thing that struck me during the "Billionaire" sequence is that everyone in these episodes always knows the words. It's a tricky thing with a show like this because in many ways it follows movie musical rules, where the logic of the song and dance isn't often there. To a point I like that traditionalism. Yet there are times when I feel it gets one step too far into artifice. Just once, I would love to see an episode where somebody doesn't quite know the words. This kind of thing happens all the time in real life. You're singing a song you all know with your friends, then you get to the part you kind of don't know and drop out for a moment. I think that's the kind of dopey reality that Glee could get away with once or twice in a scene like this. Not in all musical numbers mind you, but in an impromptu jam session on a popular song? Yes.
Meanwhile, Rachel is showing off her commitment to glee club (and her xenophobia) by suggesting to the Filipino exchange student from earlier, Sunshine, that she should join. Rachel treats her like a shy little girl who doesn't speak English well, but quickly learns that this little girl (shorter than Rachel!) has got some PIPES. She sings a little song while listening to her iPod that Rachel joins in on. It was yet another annoying pop song (talking about texting and all) that shows what's wrong with current music. At this point, we had had no older tunes save a snatch of Guns n' Roses and I was getting a little annoyed. The song grew adversarial between the girls, on Rachel's part anyway, until Sue Sylvester did us all a favor and told them to shut up. Thank you, Sue!
A lot of what's wrong with the series too was in that scene. I understand there's a suspension of disbelief that comes from characters breaking into song. I know that they've been pre-recorded and all and are designed to sell records. But it is just so hard to take the scene seriously when their vocals are run through vocoders. I can forgive some of it on the big group numbers, especially when they are "performances", just like I forgive the fact that the musicians always know the songs immediately. When Mercedes sounded like she had some reverb or double-tracking on her during "Empire State" I took it in stride. But in this scene it's an intimate fight between two girls in a bathroom; an impromptu explosion of song. The overprocessed Britney-Spears-esque vocoder sound is antithetical to that sort of feeling. Perhaps they were afraid that without it we would know what a crappy song it was? Considering the bizarre but logically stripped down version of "Poker Face" last season, I think this is inexcusable. They can do better.
There was a moment of real observational humor when Puck tells a Helen Keller joke at football practice. Helen Keller jokes are a definite part of the high school culture; hang around a high school long enough you'll hear a few. I thought that lent an authenticity to the episode as it moved into some good stuff in the second half.
I thought that the show really nicely handled Coach Bieste. She could easily have remained just a masculine gym teacher stereotype; a one-note joke. But as she is teased, and Sue makes a point of referencing how she must have been harassed in high school, we are allowed to see her in her emotional state. It was very real. As she tearfully reapplied her makeup before football, I felt like I was witnessing a real human action. High school doesn't end in high school; certain things do hurt. People do have feelings. And it led to that well-written scene where she kicks Finn out. You know her actions are totally irrational, but you completely understand them. I like when the show allows itself moments to get real like this and not just play the joke.
Santana has had a breast augmentation over the summer. This causes Sue Sylvester some chagrin, who makes a rather impassioned statement that high school girls should not be altering their bodies in this way. It's a nice message. And she caps it with a great breast euphamism, calling them "vine-ripened chest fruits" or something like that. Quinn tries out for Cheerios this year. Though Sue tries to keep her out, Quinn counters that it will only be good press for the team and the school that they take back a wayward teen mom who will be preaching abstinence in a Cheerio uniform. Quinn gets to be captain of the squad again, and Santana is demoted to the bottom of the pyramid. There's a great catfight in the hallway between the two of them. And seeing Quinn put that uniform back on was cool. She's a pretty girl, and she looked good with her hair down, but I really missed that ponytail, Quinn! I have a weakness for ponytails, and seeing her finally put her hair up again really made my night. (Yeah, I kinda have a thing about hair.)
And one more surprise: also auditioning for cheer? Finn. Seriously. Becky was there at the table with Sue during tryouts (you remember Becky; the girl with Down Syndrome). And watching Finn's audition was just... sad. Seriously, Becky's was better. It was especially funny that Becky kept a running commentary of it's epic failure ("Is this really happening?").
Rachel does something despicable, knowing that Sunshine will steal her sunshine, I mean spotlight. She gives her an address for auditions -- but it's a crackhouse. Tina and Mike Chang learn this because "the Asian community is very tight." In fact, the Asian community really IS that tight. There's a large Asian population, many as exchange students at my local high school and I've seen it. Anyway, everyone tells Rachel what a horrible thing that was and Sunshine auditions for them with "Listen" from Dreamgirls. It's one of the songs that was written for the movie to showcase Beyonce, and it serves Sunshine pretty well here. I also like that it has some story significance, in that the lyric has a bit of a bite-back at Rachel. Everyone is blown away by her audition, but she will not end up joining New Directions after all. Why? Well, the crackhouse incident soured her on Rachel, and she's been recruited by Vocal Adrenaline. Gasp!
I'm not sure how I like this development. We know that Sunshine is going to be a regular, which unfortunately means we'll probably get a lot more Vocal Adrenaline in this season. I'm not sure that's wise. The arc with Rachel and Jesse St. James last year was problematic for me (seeming to exist solely to showcase guest stars and reunite Lea Michele with her Spring Awakening costar). All this tells me that the Vocal Adrenaline wrinkle will be a minor arc, and Sunshine will join New Directions within 5 episodes. That's my prediction: five episodes.
After all the good and bad of the premiere, the episode closed with what I think was the most brilliant of witty musical bits. After slogging through contemporary blah music, we got to a modern Broadway standard, "What I Did For Love". But there's a wicked dark humor about its use here. Rachel has just admitted to Finn how wrong and despicable her actions were, and that they really weren't for the team but for her own ego. She suggests he should dump her, but he counters that he's not popular anymore and she should dump him. Neither of them can dump the other, and Rachel walks off to be alone and sing. And what does she sing? An anthem to no regrets. That's right, has Rachel really learned anything? I love this because "What I Did For Love" is EXACTLY the kind of inner monologue a self-righteous theater geek would use to justify her actions. You did it for love, Rachel? Really? I found it brilliantly comic, and darkly pointed. And it was a nice performance.
All in all, a strong episode tonight, and I hope a sign of good things to come. I hope that Sunshine becomes a character more than a voice, and that the new guy whats-his-name doesn't just become a Finn clone. We shall see. I at least was glad to see some human drama here.
Songs in tonight's episode:
Empire State of Mind
Every Rose Has Its Thorn
Getting to Know You
What I Did For Love
Next Week: Britney freakin' Spears. Seriously? I'm sorry guys, this just strikes me as a terrible idea, especially for the second episode. I know the Madonna one was big, but even that one had a certain artificial feel to it. Big theme episodes like this don't work (see the Lady Gaga episode), and it's going to feature Spears herself too. The costume reproductions and just make it look silly, and unlike the Madonna one, it's going to have a lot of awful music. Not even her good stuff (which is understandably a relative term). "Toxic"? Really? That song is AWFUL. Recreating the videos is not a good idea. The optimist in me hopes that at least someone will point out that "...Baby One More Time" and "Oops... I Did It Again" are exactly the same song.