The Purple Piano Project
Glee has a lot to answer for in its third season. The show is no longer a novelty, or a breakout hit: it’s become an institution. Everyone knows what Glee is: everyone’s heard the covers of hit songs on the radio or in grocery stores, and most everyone knows that the show’s been on a fairly steady decline since its breakout first season (really the first half of that season). The show’s permeated popular culture about as much as it’s going to at this point, and it’s main goal now is simply to retain it’s popularity for long enough that Fox maintains this kind of profit for three or four more years. On the one hand this seems easy enough: just keep giving the people crowd pleasing pop numbers, an upbeat attitude that embraces alternative lifestyles, and, of course, more Sue Sylvester. On the other hand, this approach tends to bring out the worst in the show, and there’s been a massive backlash against Glee over the last year. It’s no longer the critical darling: in fact these days, any critic that doesn’t at least have some serious issues with the show is an anomaly. Somewhere in middle of the second season this show stopped being quite the massive hit it once was, and the numbers steadily dropped over the course of the year. About 3.5 million more viewers watched last year’s premiere than this one: if that happens again, the next season could be the show’s last. Something will have to change if the show doesn’t want to keep bleeding viewers.
And, at least over the summer, it seemed like Glee was willing to mix things up more. Ryan Murphy had made statements that the show would be downplaying the constant musical numbers a bit and focusing more on character development. The theme episodes would be reduced: there will only be two this year. Most intriguingly, the show took on six more staff writers (previously the only writers on staff were the show’s three creators), including Buffy alum Marti Noxon (who also wrote for Mad Men in its second season) and former Big Love writer Robert Aguirre-Sacasa. Additionally the show’s second season ended on a relatively high note: the final four episodes were surprisingly strong, and the show seemed to be getting back to some of the things it had done well in its first season. On the other hand, there’ve been many patches like this over the last season and a half of the show: every time it seems to be getting better, it comes back with an episode that’s twice as bad. So the big question this season is: how good a show is Glee? Was the spotty second season just a result of the show being unsure how to reconcile it’s popular aspects with consistent quality? Had Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan just gotten too full of themselves and need to get grounded again by bringing in the fresh perspectives of new writers? Or are the show’s characters so inconsistent and unlikeable at this point that a full recovery is impossible? Is the show just content to be wildly inconsistent, lack any kind of continuity, and allow characters that don’t work at all run rampant on the show?
If the season premiere is any indication, it seems that the answer is a little of each. It’s too early to tell if this year will be a slight improvement on last season, or a terrible season that drives away all the viewers, but the premiere didn’t exactly promise a complete turnaround for the series. It’s definitely the same Glee we’ve known for the last season and a half: characters were abruptly written out, relationships ended and began off screen, and about half the main cast was completely sidelined. There was great stuff, and there was terrible stuff. It was basically what a person would expect from Glee in a nutshell: no better or no worse. I’m just not sure that the show won’t have to do better than this if it wants me (and everyone else) to keep tuning in every week.
If the new writers will shake up the show at all, it doesn’t show in this episode. The episode “structure” (or lack thereof) was typical Glee: throw around a bunch of plots at once and see if any of them stick. After a quick introduction that establishes an awful lots of new plot points: Sam and Mercedes dated, broke up because Sam’s dad got a job in another state, and now Mercedes is dating another football player; Tina and Artie are juniors, which makes no sense; Mike wants to go to an Ivy league school; Quinn’s gone punk and quit the Glee club; and Will and Emma became a couple over the summer but, of course, are having problems in the bedroom. About that last one, I may just have forgotten that Will and Emma had officially become a couple last season, which shows how little I care about them at this point. At the end of Sectionals it was thrilling to see their first kiss, but now any scene with them almost instinctively causes me to roll my eyes.
Kurt and Rachel are still best friends, as in last season’s finale, and want to attend a school in New York together and major in musical theater. They had their sights on Guilliard, until Emma explains to them that they don’t have a musical theater program (which you’d think they would check up on, but they are pretty flaky), and instead recommends another program to them, the best musical theater program in the US, and tells them about a mixer for it that’s apparently happening the next day. It’s weird how on Glee anything less than number 1 is deemed a failure. The club acts like it’s pretty respectable 12th place position at Nationals is a complete failure, and Rachel and Kurt seem devastated by the possibility that they may not get into this school they just heard of. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
They practice yet another musical number from an Oz themed musical to impress the competition (this time “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”, as performed by Barbara Streisand, of course), but don’t even bother to perform after seeing what the others at the mixer have put together, a lively, well choreographed mashup of “Anything Goes” and “Anything You Can Do”. The leader of the group is a girl named Harmony, played by Lindsay Pearce, who makes a big impression in her sole scene. She fits in wonderfully with the cast and is an excellent performer with a great voice. Surprisingly she came in third place in the recent Glee reality show competition but was rewarded with a 2 episode stint on the show: frankly if she could bring the energy she brought to that scene she’d outshine most of the main cast members. Anyway, Kurt and Rachel are devastated, but resolve to try harder to build up their experience and credits this year: Rachel starts work to put together a school production of West Side Story, and Kurt decides to run for class president. All of this worked wonderfully: the songs were quite strong, Chris Colfer and Lea Michele have the best chemistry on the show next to Naya Rivera and Heather Morris, and the story shows some direction and a goal for the season to come. Of course none of it makes much sense when you stop to think about it (like why have neither of them been in a musical before?), but Glee runs on emotions rather than logic, and it managed to land the emotions well with this storyline.
Unfortunately the rest of the episode didn’t fare as well. For one thing, it sticks to closely to the last year’s premiere: once again we’ve got an impromptu performance in a public part of school (this time the cafeteria) to try to attract more people to the Glee club, Sue and Becky insult newcomers auditioning for the Cheerios, and potential new member of the club is introduced and dropped. The rest of the episode was taken up with really, really bad Will and Sue storylines. Sue’s now decided to run for Congress (huh?) and needs something to hate on, as that attracts more voters than lobbying for something positive. So she decides that all funding should be cut from arts programs at schools, which obviously infuriates Will. Will’s response to this is to take an increasingly insane course of action: first he just goes and yells at Sue, easily breaking down and whining about his sex life after a cheap taunt from Sue, then storms off promising revenge. Apparently his great plan is to “glitter bomb” Sue (is this a thing?), have Emma record it on her phone, and put the video up on Youtube. Of all the bad storylines Glee has had, this may be the worst. Well, okay, not worse than Will trying to seduce Sue. But close. Dumping glitter on someone’s head well screaming at them is not a sane course of action. But the show makes it out to be nigh heroic. Then there’s the scene where Emma tells Will “You glitterbombed Sue. At that point you stopped being a man of words, and became a man of action. And that was kind of hot.” I may be paraphrasing slightly, but this is pretty much what she says. So apparently Emma is only turned on when Will acts like a childish, mildly insane asshole. This explains why he thought that whole Rocky Horror scheme would work.
And oh yes, there’s the name of the episode: Will has refurbished a bunch of pianos from repossessed homes, painted them purple, and put them around the school. Whenever the Glee sees one they’re supposed to sing or something, in hopes of attracting new members. This is kind of strange, and nothing really comes from it, aside from that aforementioned scene where the club performs the Go Go’s “We Got the Beat” in the cafeteria, which is a ton of fun. Actually pretty much all of the musical numbers here work well, which is a big bonus for the show, there’s not a really jawdropping, tearjerking number. The focus on Broadway numbers and slightly older songs is very welcome though, and all the songs are perfect for the range of the singers, though Michele and Colfer totally hog the solos.
Then there’s Quinn’s overnight change into an “edgy” punk rock kind of gal, complete with hacked off pink hair, nose ring, and smoking habit. Seems that losing everything at the end of last season prompted a major change with her and she gave up pretty much everything that was important to her (Glee and the Cheerios). One the one hand I kind of liked this development: it was nice to see them not recycling the same Quinn storylines over and over again, and I enjoyed Agron’s new look and attitude. The show’s never given her anything to do other than the same material over and over, and it’s nice to see them make a change for a character for once. However, this is just too much off screen development, and feels completely unearned. You can see how Quinn could have gotten to this point, but it wasn’t developed onscreen at all: it really requires the viewer to fill in the blanks in their imagination. I’m also afraid about how this will play out: hopefully it’s not leading to a standard drug addiction storyline (which would be really painful on this show) or Quinn immediately making a 180 and going back to her old self (the most likely scenario). I just don’t trust Glee anymore, and it’s going to have to do better than this for me to put any faith in these writers again.
Still, this was an entertaining, largely enjoyable hour, and I hope that the season can improve from here on out, and keep the musical numbers on this level. This episode had at least one part of the equation worked out: if it learns to keep the focus strictly on the kids, not give Will, Sue, and Emma as much painful material and think outside the box a bit more and not just recycle past storylines, it could have a shot at giving us a great season. However it seems more likely that it will continue the series of diminishing returns, and halfway through this season I’ll be yelling at the screen again, wondering why I’m still watching at the show. Only time will tell.
The Purple Piano Project: ☆☆1/2