Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Glee, including the most recent, “Audition.”
I cannot quite express in words how happy I am to have Glee back in my life, and if that makes me strange, I don’t care. I am an out and proud fan of the show. There is nothing guilty about the pleasure I derive from it. I’ve spent my entire life waiting for this show–a weekly, full-scale musical with biting wit, production numbers featuring pop, rock, and showtunes, and a beating heart that it often wears on its sleeve and effervescently so. Rachel and Sunshine singing “Telephone” is my new happy place, and I’m not ashamed. And as I’ve spoken about in over 22 reviews I wrote over the past year, it is a series whose writing is often underestimated. Underneath the series’ cartoony, glossy sheen lies complex plotting, finely tuned irony, and sharp satire.
So, let’s plunge into some of the deeper levels of the second season premiere now, shall we? One of the first season’s major issues was that it often had trouble keeping track of its immense cast, with many characters sometimes being neglected. The first thing that struck me about this episode was that it accomplished introducing four new recurring characters while still giving excellent material to every single previously established character. Why, even Mike Chang has a plot! Amount of screen time isn’t as important as quality of screen time, and even the characters who were on less had moments and some even had arcs over the course of the episode, thanks to some extremely economical writing. Quinn is an excellent example of this. Her few short scenes, one of which had her walking silently and triumphantly down the hall, conveyed a great deal in a relatively tiny amount of time, and because of this felt more full than most of her appearances in the latter half of the first season.
And speaking of the first season, what this episode accomplishes phenomenally well is to invert the events of the pilot and to establish that the rules, they are a’changing. In some ways, it may seem that things are as they were before. New Directions are still the school outcasts. In fact, after having placed third at Regionals, their reputation is worse than it used to be. If they were in the subbasement of the social hierarchy before, now they’re probably a few kilometers beneath the building. And this episode cleverly repeats imagery and events from previous episodes. Finn discovers Sam Evans singing an 80s power ballad in the shower, just as he was discovered by Mr. Schue singing an 80s power ballad in the shower. A new, incredibly masculine football coach, Ms Beiste (pronounced “Beast”) arrives as a shared nemesis for both Sue and Will, who at first seems like Sue Sylvester on steroids, ten times as butch and spouting off phrases that make even less sense. A teacher is accused of inappropriate behavior with a student. And, of course, the episode revolves around auditioning for Glee Club, including one small girl with a huge voice, just as the pilot did.
This episode then, however, subverts each repeated plot. An episode entitled “Audition” ends with no new members joining New Directions. Sam decides not to join because, as a new kid, he doesn’t want to lose his social standing so swiftly. Ironically, this decision is in large part due to seeing what happens to Finn when he tries to stand up for a fellow Glee outcast–Finn, who was the first person to straddle the social lines in the first episode. Meanwhile, the other auditioner chooses to transfer schools and join Vocal Adrenaline, as the ironic result of Rachel’s machinations. More on that in a bit. Meanwhile, the seemingly villainous new coach turns out to be a sensitive soul whose gruff exterior is a largely an elaborately constructed self-defense mechanism, and the girl who accuses her retracts her statement. Just the fact that the episode starts off with Will joining forces with Sue of all people to take an enemy down is a subversion of what has happened in the past.
The reason he does it at first is that, not only does Ms. Beiste act as a threat to Glee Club, but from a first encounter, she seems to be all that is awful about Sue Sylvester but even worse. So, while, Will’s actions over the course of the episode are rather awful, it is understandable for a time due to how similar she seems to be to someone who has been making his life hell for the past year. The manner in which her arc proceeds demonstrates a perfect melding of Glee‘s stylized and authentic sides. At first, she is a harsh, smack-talking cartoon, but just as what happened with Sue over the course of the season, we soon learn that her bravado is in large part a reaction to how she has been treated her entire life. She is as used to being an outcast as the Glee kids. This erupts powerfully in the scene in which Finn asks if Artie can join the team. She doesn’t know that Finn is actually a genuinely kind person and isn’t trying to make a mockery of her, but it must seem uncomfortably like many gags that have been made at her expense since she was a child, so she reacts in a way that makes her seem like a monster, rejecting Artie out of hand.
Ironically, she hurts Artie’s feelings and crushes Finn because she assumes that that is what they are trying to do to her. It is one of those moments where Glee becomes very real, and heartachingly so. I cannot applaud the series enough for not making Beiste into the beast she originally seems to be. Our first introduction to her is intentionally presented in such a way so that we initially find ourselves laughing at her–the perspective of the bullies that have harassed her for years–and then realize, along with Will, that we are treating her as we would hate to be (and as Will and his kids are currently being treated). It’s a strong statement, brilliantly expressed. Dot Jones is perfection in the role, the best new addition to the cast thus far.
Will’s attempt to sabotage Ms. Beiste is then paralleled with Rachel’s attempt to sabotage Sunshine. Whereas Will’s bad actions eventually lead to making a new friend, however, Rachel creates a new enemy not only for herself but for the entire club. Her efforts to keep Sunshine from stealing her spotlight lead to her providing Vocal Adrenaline with what might be New Directions’ stiffest competition to date, after her relationship with Jesse put the club in danger last season. What I love about Rachel is how uncompromisingly she is written. She is not always a nice person, and in fact can do rather horrendous things some times. She’s narcissistic and self-centered to a staggering degree and can be incredibly childish and petulant. At the same time, that’s also what makes her such a great mini-diva. We know that, like Sue Sylvester, like Ms. Beiste, her behavior is in large part due to having been denied acceptance throughout her life, so she sabotages others before they can sabotage her. Of course, this also leads to her hurting people who didn’t actually intend to hurt her in the first place, something which backfires here quite stunningly. Again, kudos to the writers. I did not see that coming. (Incidentally, a large part of the reason both Sunshine and Sam’s refusal to join New Directions is so surprising is the amount of time the episode took to show us his rehearsal and her audition. It makes the twist feel that much more out of the blue.)
And as fun as Rachel and Sunshine’s diva-off version of Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s “Telephone” is (not to mention sidesplittingly hilarious when Sue interrupts it), my favorite musical moment of the evening is at the end, when Rachel sings the classic “What I Did For Love” from A Chorus Line. In the original song, a group of dancers competing to be in the chorus of a Broadway show sing about the personal sacrifices that they have made and the struggles they have undergone all for the love of what they do. I have always thought that it would be an absolutely perfect selection for Glee, but as it’s used in this episode, more depth is mined out of it than I expected, because Rachel isn’t only singing about what she has had to undergo while pursuing the goal of one day being a Broadway star but also the dishonest and underhanded actions she has done, as well. In Rachel’s mind, it is all justified. So, on the one hand, the song helps us sympathize with Rachel. We know how hard her life has been, being cruelly mocked since childhood. On the other hand, though, it reminds us again what a complicated character she is, unapologetic about doing what she needs to do to succeed. But it isn’t even that simple, because although she may say that she doesn’t regret what she did, and “Look, my eyes are dry,” the expression on her face belies the confidence of the lyrics, and in at least one shot, she does look on the verge of tears. The lady doth protest too much. There is a heart underneath all that gumption.
Furthermore, Glee makes the number even richer by doing one of the other things it does best, which is to parallel lyrics with shots that indicate how what is sung reflects the unspoken feelings of other characters. As Rachel sings about love and kissing today goodbye, we see Artie sadly watching the girl he loves, Tina, dancing with Mike, the man who stole her from him. The triumphant lines of the song contrast with Artie’s melancholy, just as the next lyric, “We did what we had to do,” contrasts with Quinn’s face betraying just the slightest bit of regret for sabotaging Santana (another sabotage this episode), reclaiming her head cheerleader position by selling out her former friend. Sue relegating her to the lowest part of the cheerleader rung due to her cosmetic surgery seems to be another one of the wonderful ironies that makes up Sue Sylvester. She tries to tear others down for being lesser than while then punishing Santana for trying to improve herself. From another perspective, however, Sue is actually remarkably consistent. She doesn’t suffer the weak gladly. She considers Santana’s plastic surgery to be akin to an admission of weakness, an inability to accept the body she was given. Of course, she also makes others feel bad about the bodies they were given. Does Sue Sylvester contradict herself? Very well, then, Sue Sylvester contradicts herself. Sue Sylvester is large. Sue Sylvester contains multitudes.
And I haven’t even gone into the gleefully meta opener in which each of the cast responds in character to various complaints against the show that have cropped up on messageboards–too much rap, Rachel being a diva, overuse of autotune–and then, in true Glee style, goes on to ignore each one. Over the course of the episode, Rachel is perhaps more of a diva than ever before, autotune is used just as much as ever, and two of the songs feature rap. The show is proud of what it is. Because, as Kurt says, “Do you know what does take some courage? Standing up and singing about something.” In its second season premiere, Glee is just as bold and unashamed of what it is than ever before. You either get it or you don’t, and it seems that Ryan Murphy and Co. are just fine with that.