The Purple Piano Project
Ah, Glee. What to say? It's the TV phenomenon that put 'pop' into pop culture and, love it or hate it, isn't going away anytime soon. Since it debuted in the US in 2009, the show that attempted to prove the TV musical format could work has done that and more, shifting a crazy amount of albums/downloads and making stars of its young (and not-so-young) cast in the process. Next to its big brothers and sisters who live on HBO, Glee might appear a lightweight indulgence in comparison - alas, in this case, appearances aren't deceiving. However, its bright and breezy demeanour, helped by a wit that is oft-times whip smart, is exactly what makes the show so eminently watchable; what it lacks in pretension it makes up for in showstopping numbers, endearing characters that update The Breakfast Club's stock teens, and one Coach Sue Sylvester. Sure, it might be a mightily Marmitean show but, hey, I dig it.
No wonder then that, with its heavily-promoted move to Sky1 (a move that wisely brings new episodes to UK Gleeks mere days after they're enjoyed by our Stateside cousins), I was trying to puzzle out song choices and wondering what withering put-downs show creator Ryan Murphy and his writers could have possibly scripted for Sue. Season opener The Purple Piano Project brings with it a fair amount of baggage from the prior Season Two, both in terms of plot and criticism; it's no secret that the show's second run, which was brimming with ideas, creative energy and a whole lotta A-list guest stars, alienated some fans and critics who had been firm supporters of Season One. Murphy has already revealed that some of the show's most beloved characters will be graduating (i.e. getting the chop) in 22 episodes' time, so this year really is 'make or break' time. However, while The Purple Piano Project faces the task of servicing an ever-increasing cast of oddballs and underdogs, it manages to demonstrate the 'back to basics' approach Murphy and his team have been promising...
Want the broad strokes? Mr Schue's dating Emma. Sam's outta Lima. Quinn's undergone a bad girl dye job (above). Blaine's playing for his boyf's team. Rachel and Kurt are dreaming big. Mercedes has hooked up. And Sue... well, Sue's running for Congress and, as always, has Glee firmly positioned in her crosshairs.
In a nice throwback to the opening of Season Two, resident 'Jewfro' Jacob Ben Israel transitions us into the new term with his vox-pop video and recaps us on the gang's summer exploits. Since their humiliating defeat at the NYC Nationals, the team have lost two members and are about to lose another one in the shape of Quinn, who's lost the blonde locks 'n' babydoll dresses and taken up smoking as part of all-girl gang 'The Skanks'. She's sore that Finn shunned her for Rachel, y'see. It's doubtful that Ms Fabray's self-imposed Glee exile will last more than a few episodes but hopefully the rock chick aesthetic will make way for some angsty song choices and an edgy display from Dianna Agron.
Anyhoo, worrying that the club may not attract new members in the absence of Sam, Zizes and Quinn, Mr Schuester parks three purple pianos (and we have a title) around the school in an effort for our guys and gals to win over fresh new talent. Cue an impromptu rendition of The Go-Gos' 'We Got the Beat' in the school cafeteria, a choice that inevitably leads to a rallying cry of 'FOOD FIGHT!' but also paves the way for an episode that looks to the past, not the Top 40, for its musical inspiration. From Kurt and Rachel's oh-so-Broadway rendition of 'Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead' to a resolute and triumphant closing rendition of Hairspray number 'You Can't Stop the Beat', the contemporary cuts of Season Two are nowhere in sight. Sure, Katy Perry's mentioned by name but Lea Michele isn't belting out 'Firework' in the hallway. The creative decision to look back is admirable (and not without merit, considering this is the team who introduced 'Don't Stop Believin' to noughties kids) but I have faith that going ahead the music will be a nicely-judged balance of old and new.
Which brings us to Blaine, last season's breakout star, who here belts out Tom Jones' 'It's Not Unusual' without his regular buddies The Warblers. In the midst of the giddy throes of young love, Kurt and Blaine can't fathom competing against each other (awwww/pass the sick bag) and so the latter chooses to transfer to McKinley High, in the process donning a dickey bow and updating the Welsh ladykiller for the Justin Bieber generation. The move is sure to create opportunities for more stories this third year, but the writers seem equally keen on developing Kurt's relationship with Rachel as, following last season finale's sing-song on a New York Broadway stage, the two most dramatic members of the Glee club have set their sights on moving East for college. Their confidence is shaken though when they witness a well-oiled performance that's in no way short of jazz hands and is led by the first of this season's successful Glee Project contestants, Lindsay Pearce aka Harmony aka Rachel-Berry-on-acid. The pair's goal to follow their Wicked-shaped dreams is shaping up to be one of this season's primary threads, so it will be interesting to learn what lengths their ambitions wll take them.
Speaking of ambition, Sue's political aspirations provide some sterling moments courtesy of everyone's favourite tracksuit-wearing sociopath. Aided in her quest for dominance by generals Becky and Santana, Sue is intent on bringing down the arts in order to win votes - and Mr Schuester isn't happy about it. His 'glitterbomb'-ing of Sue backfires when it becomes a Youtube hit and assists Sue in her anti-arts campaign, but Santana isn't so lucky; when she helps set alight one of the titular purple pianos as part of Sue's masterplan, formerly 'butter wouldn't melt' Schue kicks her off the team. How will Brittany cope?! Mr Schue's new 'tough love' streak is also evidenced in his honest but fair dismissal of tone-deaf auditionee Sugar (played by Vanessa Lengies), who looks set to be a new recurring character. Poor Schue, he may be shacked up with Emma now (when the hell did that happen?!) but his frustrations over their lack of bedtime music-making may be spilling over to the day job.
After all is said and sung, this is a solid season opener but perhaps lacks some of the spiritedness of the first two opening episodes. However, the suggestion of things to come is promising and, with two years now under its belt, it's quite apparent that the show's creative forces really know how to turn out a polished, entertaining hour of television. Glee's still got the beat, let's just hope that beat continues to go on...