Rachel Berry is gone; long live Rachel Berry! Glee returns for a fourth season, and as the episode title makes clear, it’s time for “The New Rachel.” But does that mean that Rachel (Lea Michele) must find herself in the strange new world of New York City? Or does it refer to the New Directions’ lack of a star, as several long-time members seek to fill the glaring whole in their lineup? Both, actually.
At McKinley, the social balance has shifted, with the glee club seniors now allowed to sit at the same table with popular cheerleader Kitty (Becca Tobin) and a couple of jocks. Last spring’s National Championship buys them this right, but turning mean will earn them the ability to keep it, which they do by picking on the very large new cafeteria lady (Trisha Rae Stahl) and making recent transfer, Wade (Alex Newell), hide his “Unique” personality.
But, of course, this is not in character for the singers. Their group is all about acceptance and being true to oneself. It doesn’t take long at all for them to realize the error of their ways, with Kitty and company not only abandoning the lunch table, but also baptizing the new members in slushie. Balance has been restored at McKinley.
I like that Glee comes back and tackles one of the main themes right off the back in such a blatant way. In an episode that feels, most times, like an entirely different show, it provides a narrative through line, like Jacob Ben Israel’s (Josh Sussman) opening, that promises some aspects of the series will not be lost. It’s this continuity that makes the school stuff work.
However, in reality, the popular kids would not care that a glee club won a national title. While it is a huge, significant accomplishment, it is not a “cool” activity, and the cheerleaders and athletes would give it far less attention than Glee sees them do. The inclusion of the gleeks into a different clique, while brief, doesn’t feel right for even a second. And why are there only three popular kids? They travel in much larger packs!
The humbling continues outside of the cafeteria. Four singers vie to replace Rachel as lead soloist; Blaine (Darren Criss), Wade / Unique, Brittany (Heather Morris), and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) each think they have what it takes to be the star of the group. They name Artie (Kevin McHale) judge because, apparently, now his whole identity is wrapped up in directing. But the message of Glee is teamwork, and despite a wonderful competition performance of “Call My Maybe,” which immediately reaffirms the show’s musical chops, it is quickly apparent that no one can really replace Rachel. They realize that they need to worry more about the group and less about themselves.
Tina’s insistence that she is Rachel’s chosen successor is just plain ridiculous. Rachel told her this to be nice. While Ms. Berry may have been sincere at the time, the tiara isn’t really hers to pass off, so Tina’s hold is tenuous, at best. Because she is just not that interesting a character, “The New Rachel” thankfully chooses to address this hanging plot from last season and dispense with it quickly, rather than stretch it out over the course of an entire season.
Blaine is finally named Rachel’s replacement by his peers, but it won’t last. He is the most capable of these four (with Unique a close second, though much newer to the cast), but Rachel is a very specific personality, and not one that can just be handed off to someone else. No one will be Rachel, and that’s OK. It might be nice to have a larger ensemble focus for awhile.
A short while, most likely. As much as none of the current group has a chance to be Rachel-esque, newcomer Marley (Melissa Benoist) has “star” written all over her. She is obviously there to usher Glee into the next chapter, should the series continue past this season. She has a very strong, memorable voice, and in “The New Rachel” is already given a well developed parent and a love interest. Her personality is very different from Rachel’s, as are her background and life goals. Which means that, while she is primed to be the new focus, she won’t just be the same old thing over again. This screams that Marley (criminally not listed as a series regular yet) will soon take over leadership duties, even if they are limited until the seniors graduate in the spring. Glee is in good hands.
The way that Glee chooses to pass the baton is not groundbreaking, but it is fun. Rachel, who we’ll get to in a minute, and Marley both sing “New York State of Mind” as a duet, even though they are hundreds of miles apart. Marley holds her own against the powerhouse diva, and that is saying something, which should immediately earn her some fans.
Rachel isn’t the only one that has been replaced. Kitty is very definitely a Quinn (Dianna Agron) substitute, while Puck’s (Mark Salling) younger half-brother, Jake (Jacob Artist), is a lot like Puck. Jake’s impending romance with Marley may even satisfy the Rachel / Puck shippers, who never were satisfied.
While Quinn and Puck are the two absent characters I will miss least, their replacements looks to be more interesting versions of them. Kitty is much meaner than Quinn usually is, while Jake has an awesome voice, proven with “Never Say Never,” and his anger issues define him more distinctly. Good choices, casting-wise! Hopefully Kitty will stay a villain and not soon be singing.
The worst mistake “The New Rachel” makes is in the audition process. Two pages of singers sign up to try out for the New Directions. Will (Matthew Morrison) chooses two: Marley and Jake, and Jake only gets to join after Will looks into his back story. It has been firmly established that the group needs 12 members to compete, and this only brings them up to ten. Couldn’t Will pick two more to give the New Directions the number that they needed? Even if they weren’t any great singers, most could not be as bad as Sugar Motta (Vanessa Lengies) and she’s still in the club.
Besides, one would think the existing members would champion mediocrity in their ranks. Many already feel the competition for lead soloist is too crowded, which is why they aren’t so pleased by Jake and Marley, not wanting even more kids taking away parts. No one met these very low standards?
Also, the New Directions have always preached inclusion, allowing anyone to join. It makes sense that, given the National title, they might have more interest, and decide they need to be a bit more selective. But there should have been an episode or two before that where they try to let everyone in, and it ends in disaster. Or at least had a discussion about the policy change. Or a punchline.
But with Marley’s inclusion, the fall from popularity, and a lesson learned, it’s time to end in true Glee fashion. “Chasing Pavements” is the chosen finale this week, and it delivers everything that Glee fans have come to expect from an episode ending, while also even more firmly establishing Marley as the new lead.
This covers the McKinley students’ plots, but there are still large chunks of “The New Rachel” not yet touched upon. While all of the graduated New Directions members remain principal cast members (except Quinn), only two are seen in this season premiere, and they are both in very different places, literally and figuratively. I guess the rest will pop up in the coming weeks, though we’re told that “main character” doesn’t mean they will be in every episode, and fans will see them much less than they are used to.
Is this a smart move? The characters are a big draw of Glee, and removing so many of them from the spotlight is hard. It’s also very ambitious to follow seniors post-graduation, and it makes the scope of the series much bigger. Done right, this could be a cool, bold experiment in television. Done wrong, which it very easily could be, hanging on to characters that should have been let go, will kill the show. Let’s hope for the former.
One of the two alumni featured is Kurt (Chris Colfer). He hangs around the high school, visiting Sue’s (Jane Lynch) new baby, Robin (named after the actress who played Sue’s sister), and attending glee club auditions. As boyfriend Blaine tells him, it’s time to move on. With Blaine’s encouragement sung to “It’s Time,” and Kurt’s father’s (Mike O’Malley) wise advice, Kurt finally takes the plunge and moves to New York City.
Will Kurt thrive there? After all, he has not been accepted to school in the Big Apple (yet). No one is saying that he has an easy road ahead. Does Glee go to far by pushing Kurt out of the nest in “The New Rachel?” Or does it stick to its positive messages and themes.
For Kurt, it’s the right decision to make. This is a risk that he needs to take, to follow his dreams while he still can. It may end in disaster, but he has to try. And because this take place in TV fantasy world, it will work out. Cheesy? No doubt. It feels good anyway.
Rachel has a much less inspiring plot this week. She is chosen as the object of her new teacher, Cassandra July’s (Kate Hudson, Almost Famous), torment. Which means that, not only does she have to work her butt off to dance, but she also gets picked on in the process by her alcoholic instructor. Then Rachel goes home to a roommate who is very, very friendly with the guys.
It’s a rude awakening for Rachel. Although I don’t like to see her miserable, though, I do wish it had lasted a little longer. With Kurt arriving, a new cute guy named Brody (Dean Geyer, Terra Nova, Neighbours) who can sing (see: “Sister Christian”) in her life, and the grudging approval of Carmen (Whoopi Goldberg), things should turn around pretty quickly for the displaced diva.
Can Rachel stay true to Finn? No engagement ring is present on her finger, and she refers to him as a boyfriend, not a fiance. Just wishful thinking on her part? After not having spoken to him in two months, how can she even know the status of their relationship? This makes her ripe pickings for the new man. Finchel probably won’t exist much longer.
Lastly, Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) has been reduced to recurring status. It makes sense, given how many episode she has always sat out anyway, and the crowded field of adults at McKinley. But it’s still sad, as she is a wonderful part of Glee.
And where is Brad the piano player (Brad Ellis)? That newbie is not acceptable! In playing ability he does fine, but Brad is a fan favorite! Bring him back!
Glee airs Thursdays nights at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.