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Glee, “The Purple Piano Project” (3.01)

Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Rachel (Lea Michele) share an emotional moment in a car.

The new show The Signal will be covering this season is, indeed, Glee! A review of the season premiere, written by Brad Falchuck and directed by Eric Stoltz, after the jump…

Glee is back. And maybe it’s the return of standout director Eric Stoltz (who, at this point, I’m betting everyone wishes would become Glee‘s head director), but the show fired on all cylinders tonight. All the buzz coming up on the premiere was about how the characters are approaching their final year, and how that would heighten the stakes and focus the stories squarely on the characters. And it did.

This premiere was very much about a few central figures: Will Schuester, who will be losing his star performers at end of year and must secure them the Nationals trophy he’s promised them or be disappointed in himself, and Rachel Berry and Kurt Hummel, who were in for a rude awakening after thinking they were definitely ready to put themselves forward as two of the country’s top 20 musical theatre potentials. A number of stories swirled in and around these, with the direction always making sure that every story was served without hurting the main threads.

Will Schuester has long been a problematic character. From the opening episode, it was clear that his intentions were noble. However, the gap between his intended result and the consequences of his actions never seemed to get through to him, so viewers have long been frustrated by him. Meanwhile, his messy pseudo-romances with guest stars took time away from the students. But I feel like they got him very right here: wrong for all the right reasons and clearly intended to be read that way. Will Schuester is being a hardass much like he was ‘cool’ early last season; he puts on the face and tries, but doesn’t really understand how to get his result. That’s why he didn’t understand why, in his YouTube video, he would come off as a campy villain to those who fall on the opposite side of the political spectrum. I don’t think he was wrong to reject Sugar, and his desire to do right by the club and shame for completely fumbling Nationals the previous year worked nicely. The Will Schuester here is one with the heart in the game, even if he’s not exactly the Sue Sylvester of vocal coaching. And, perhaps, this is the start of Will getting professional and, dare I say it, moving towards what Sue Sylvester had become in season one. After all, this is Will aiming not to have fun, but to win, and the show has always warned against that dark side. As long as it’s an organic arc, stemming from his realistic internal issues, I’m all for it.

I was also a fan of the plot Rachel and Kurt got here. Yes, they are amazing stars in Lima (and, in fact, Lea Michele and Chris Colfer are stars in general), but there’s a whole world out there that they’ve never even seen. They are up against the whole country in their fight to qualify for the New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts. And, as Glee Project runner-up Lindsay Pearce demonstrates here as Harmony*, there are plenty of people ready to battle to the death. The best thing the show did last season was finally allow Kurt and Rachel, no longer competing for Finn’s affections, to blossom into the friendship we see here. And it pays great dividends as both try to convince each other that the assault they just experienced didn’t shake their confidence.

* By the way, I have to admit to being a regular watcher of The Glee Project. I was a fan of the show and most of its contenders, finding the bulk of them talented and charming. As expected, Pearce fits perfectly here, both displaying some fun acting chops and a great voice. Throughout the reality show, it slowly came to light that she was pretty much a real-life Rachel Berry, with both a similar backstory and personality, so to have her play Rachel’s ‘evil’ double here is a great choice. I also liked the subtle humour of a Glee Project winner, defined by their lack of previous industry credits, playing a character who dwarfs Rachel’s own.

The other characters, while not getting the spotlight here, also got hints that greater stories are to come. Blaine (Darren Criss) transfers to McKinley halfway through the episode, and early signs are that he and Finn will be clashing for Glee Club’s male lead spot. That will be interesting when Rachel’s pleas for Schuester to ‘do whatever it takes to win Nationals’, if he judges Blaine to be a better fit for lead vocal. We also get a sign that Mercedes, after being intentionally shoved to the side through last year*, is ready to start fighting: she’s got a boyfriend who wants her to get the success she deserves, and pipes up that she expects the Maria role in West Side Story to be an open casting call. Rachel might have been bowled over by Harmony, but I expect her greater battle this year will be with her own long-overlooked teammate.

* I am going to choose to believe that was an intentional side story, as Mercedes mentioned her marginalised status plenty of times last year. I just don’t quite understand why they waited to cap it off until this season, despite the fact they knew they’d be back for it.

We also get ‘bad Quinn’, whose reaction to losing Finn and Finn (and her intended little Lima life) has been to dye her hair, pierce her nose and start skipping school. This side plot includes a nice little scene that, while not forgetting that most of what Rachel does (including her speech about Quinn’s new life) is about helping the Glee club, allows she and Quinn to connect again. Santana, after playing both sides, is kicked out of the club by newly-emboldened Schueste. Brittany, Artie, new regular Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.), and Tina are mostly relegated to the background here, but I’m not worried. After all, any more and this episode would have been overstuffed.

I have to say, I’m impressed by Brad Falchuck‘s work here. Falchuck is the strongest dramatic writer of the three original writers, but his attempts at comedy usually frustrate me to no end. The laughs here are smaller, and through that gain strength. Harmony’s almost demonic smile, the visual interplay of Will and Emma’s morning routine, and moments like, “So this is what being turned on feels like.” At no point do the jokes contradict the show’s universe or tone, and Falchuck happily keeps to his strengths: emotionally resonant stories about young performers. And Eric Stoltz, just like his three previous times behind the camera (for “Duets” [2.04], “Blame it On the Alcohol” [2.14] and “Prom Queen” [2.20]) delivers a fantastic episode that colours within the lines and still entertains.

So, the third season is off to a strong start. Could the show indeed pull off a return to form this year? We’ll have to see…

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