Season Premiere — Glee, “Audition”

Like many critics and faux-critics, I had a number of issues with the back-nine of Glee‘s first season. And the events of the summer — additional cast members, more theme episodes and Ryan Murphy’s hyperbole about dialing it back — there wasn’t a lot to suggest things were going to improve. If there is any series that needs to avoid the classic second year issues like an increase in characters, repetitive storylines and a general ramping up of all the stories and themes, it’s Glee.

And so it’s admittedly shocking that the season two premiere, while surely not issue-free, is actually a fine episode that balances introductions and re-introductions very well while avoiding some of the series’ biggest issues from the past. This is not an episode with a lesson told in the style of an eighth grade civics essay. This is not an episode emphasizing the characters getting back on the horse and dealing with adversity through the feeling of song. Instead, “Audition” depicts the best kind of Glee, the sad kind!

Everyone will surely be talking about the opening to “Audition,” and for good reason. It’s perhaps the best moment the series has done that doesn’t involve Kurt and his father. On the most basic of levels, the opening is an obvious nod to fans and critics and an enjoyable one at that. It’s all tongue-in-cheek and although Kurt stands in for Ryan Murphy with his rant about finding their identities in song and thus seemingly like a total dismissal of all the criticisms, I don’t think that’s the case. Even if the characters within the context of the series find those claims invalid, that doesn’t mean the series as a whole isn’t taking some of them to heart. It’s unclear after one episode if Murphy and company are really going to focus on character over spectacle (particularly because they’re not good at characterization anyway) or stop writing such sloppily crafted “themes,” but “Audition” at least suggests it could happen, if even only on occasion.

The opening segment is also important because it sets the stage for the rest of the episode (and hopefully for the season). After making it to Regionals, the New Directions members and Will thought their profiles would raise, and as this series has stated over and over and over, raising through the high school ranks is ridiculously important. But in reality, as they find in this episode, they raised their profiles just enough for the public humiliations to feel even worse. Making it to Regionals helped people know who the ND’ers were, and coming in third allows all the haters to have even more in their hater arsenal. And being slightly known and thus more widely suppressed/hated feels much worse than being completely unknown. So Rachel’s diva ways and Will’s rapping have gotten around, but those aren’t good things to get around.

New Directions’ issues with acknowledgment and respect continues when there is absolutely no one interested in joining the club after the news that Matt has randomly (read: predictably in a way to create some more false stakes) transferred. Their “wall of sound” performance of “Empire State of Mind” only catches the eye of two people, the terribly named and terribly timid exchange student Sunshine and Finn 2.0 Sam, both of who have their own issues with joining the club (more on that in a moment). And it wouldn’t be Glee without Principal Figgins slamming down the hammer of financial injustice, as now New Directions and Cheerios have to deal with 10 percent budget slashes that are going to the football team instead.

This lack of respect manifests itself in different ways for Will, Rachel, Finn and even Quinn. Will, fed up with the constant beating down of his program, teams up with Sue to destroy the new female football coach Shannon Beiste. Thankfully for Will as a likable character who has faced lots of terrible writing, he never takes the anti-Beiste action too far. He’s certainly willing to go with Sue’s pizza-ordering gag, but as soon as he realizes that Sue’s fear mongering is going too far, he backs out. This is not Will seducing Sue, but a sign of slight maturity. And while by episode’s end, Sue and Will are on opposing sides, the time they spend on the same side of the battle is wholly entertaining thanks to a subdued Ms. Sylvester. I was obviously concerned about how that character would work in season two, but Jane Lynch and the writers both brought in “Audition.” The story also works because Dot Jones quickly takes the character from a gimmick to a real person with some nice, quiet and emotional moments.

For Rachel, the lack of respect from the school isn’t as bad as the possible threat to her throne that Sunshine brings. Though she pretends to be doing it for the rest of the New Directions members, particularly Mercedes and Kurt, everyone is aware that Rachel has more selfish concerns. While recognition from the whole school (and the whole world, really) would be great for Rachel, she’s kind of okay with major recognition from her glee club peers. As long as she’s the star in some way, she’s satisfied. Sunshine disrupts that, so off to the crackhouse she goes.

Finn isn’t totally upset with glee club’s lack of success because he still has football, but that unfortunately gets ripped away from him after Bestie has an emotional reaction to Will and Sue’s bullying and cuts the starting QB. Finn never has many desires but to be popular enough to not get slushied, so it’s actually fitting that he’d break down and try out for Cheerios and totally embarrass himself. Unlike Rachel, he tries to do something good for New Directions by bringing Sam into the fold, but quickly realizes that he’s not the only one worried about an image (though he should know that because everyone on this damn series is worried about image).

A few of the other characters try to re-establish their high school power, however small slivers they might be. Quinn rejoins the Cheerios, Santana’s gotten a boob job over the summer because she doesn’t feel like anyone notices her and Artie attempts to join the football team so that Tina realizes he’s not just a selfish rube.

And because there’s already this uneasy feeling for the members of ND individually, they really freak out when Rachel scares Sunshine off so much that she signs up with Vocal Adrenaline. Though it does seem like a slightly lame way to get the whole group angry with Rachel again, I appreciated the story decision for a few reasons. First of all, it does make sense narratively that if everyone in the club recognizes they’re not going to get much respect outside of New Directions, they’ll still need the feeling New Directions gives them, and without a 12th member, there’s no Nationals (or Sectionals). Secondly, it certainly fits into Rachel’s character. And finally, I actually appreciated that the episode didn’t solve the problem. So many times Glee is insistent on introducing a major drama, blowing through its effects and then solving it by episode’s end. Instead, there’s hopefully going to be this general uneasiness that permeates through the group moving forward, and I like that.

“Audition” suggests that Glee is willing to stick more to its “singing about our problems might make us feel good in the moment, but in reality, we’re still all sad” thesis this season instead of continually bringing forth generic uplifting messages about the persistence of the teenage human spirit. There are still some issues to work out moving forward (notably that if they’re going to focus on character, we need to move past the “I just need to be popular!” shtick), but the slightly melancholy vibe played here is much better than the frenetic moment-reliant stuff from the back-nine. While this episode doesn’t totally confirm that the series won’t fall victim to the traditional sophomore slump, it suggests that there’s a better version of Glee in there somewhere. Again, that’s the Glee for me.

Other thoughts:

  • Sunshine and Sam are fine. Although clearly attaching them to the high school leads makes them feel less real and somewhat repetitive, especially in the case of Sam, I think I’d rather have that than whole new characters that deserve an excessive amount of screen-time. That’s a weird thought, but I can’t deal with too many more newbies when Kurt and Mercedes have absolutely nothing to do in this episode to begin with.
  • I also liked that we didn’t have much Finn and Rachel drama and they as people actually got past the annoying beat last year where their relationship was fully defined by what happened inside New Directions. We don’t really see them exist as a couple and instead focus on them more as individuals, but I think that makes their final scene together more effective. We’ve seen them take these separate mini-journeys in the episode and then come together and deal with it as a couple in more mature ways. That’s nice.
  • The musical numbers here felt oddly like afterthoughts in most cases. “Empire State of Mind” was the best performance, but Finn rapping is almost as bad as Will rapping. I guess the fact that the music didn’t dominate here proves that Ryan Murphy was at least 1/22nd true in his rants about dialing it back.
  • Mike Chang speaks! And takes his shirt off! I think it’s about time Artie actually grows up a little bit, no?
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