The teen comedy musical is still singing. Are you still watching?
The bell is set to ring on Glee Season Four following this week’s US airing of the season finale. With five episodes to go before UK Sky viewers catch up, it’s about time The Digital Fix called interval and checked the vocal muscles of the current series. With Fox having confirmed a further two seasons (at least) of the hit musical comedy, Glee isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – but is that something to sing about or has the fat lady already sung?
Earlier this year, I cast my eyes – and opened my ears – over season premiere ‘The New Rachel’ and raised concerns carried over from the mediocre Season Three. Suffice to say, there are still ongoing issues that are stopping the show from reaching the high notes it did back in its first two years but thankfully Season Four is a step up for show choir and cannot be accused of standing still; while the sing-songs are never far away to remind you what you’re watching, the evolution of its core characters is what keeps the show on the right side of the shark.
As established in the season premiere, two core threads have run through this season: Rachel and Kurt’s adventures at drama school in New York City, and Mr Schue and Finn overseeing a new look Glee club comprising familiar senior faces and ‘Saved by the Bell’-style ‘new years’. There have been frequent visits from old friends in both NY and Ohio too, for those viewers nostalgic for Puck and Quinn and the like, but showrunner Ryan Murphy and his creative team are to be commended for taking risks. It would be easy to rest on dependable old favourites, but the writers have pushed ahead by separating characters and throwing new ones in the mix.
Although the NYADA diva-offs and theatrical bells ‘n’ whistles can be hard to sit through, Rachel and Kurt’s New York independence opens up the show’s world from the halls of McKinley High. Lea Michele and Chris Colfer seem to be having a blast (even if the location shooting is kept to a minimum and NY is mostly soundstage), with flights of fancy such as Kurt’s Vogue internship being mentored by Sarah Jessica Parker further adding to the fresh and fun potential. By splitting up go-to couples Finchel and Klaine, the maximum angst and romantic possibilities are also explored. Although Kate Hudson’s raucous stint as Rachel’s dance teacher has seemingly fizzled out, Rachel’s graduation from first-year NYADA newbie to hardened sophomore (and potential Broadway breakout) will hopefully involve a Cassandra guest spot as the season wraps. And will Kurt settle for NY nice guy Adam or will Blaine’s bow ties and ‘Moulin Rouge’ dream duets be too much to resist?
Back in Lima, things feel very familiar but sound slightly different thanks to a new set of voices. It’s here where this season has dropped the ball, although a swift musical number and some glib one-liners tend to paper over the cracks. Existing faves like Tina and Artie are short-changed (despite last season’s promise of the former taking lead – poor Jenna Ushkowitz!) in favour of the newbies; while it’s great to mix it up, the new characters and their players range from sweet but bland (Melissa Menoist’s Marley, The Glee Project winner Blake Jenner’s Ryder) to downright irritating (Alex Newell’s ‘Unique’ Wade Adams). The love triangles and obstacles are first-year rehashes set to a different soundtrack, while only Blaine and the loveably goofy pairing of Sam and Brittany get chance to shine out of the seniors.
With so many characters to service, oftentimes the balance is askew. Jane Lynch is always deserving of praise but, despite a series highlight as she dons a pink wig and ‘does’ her best Nicki Minaj, she’s barely around these days while the other oldies, Mr Schue and Emma, feel tacked-on too despite their big wedding leading into one of the season’s big sweep episodes. Matthew Morrison takes a step back as Corey Monteith’s Finn somehow (bafflingly) takes the reins of New Directions after leaving the army, despite not having a teaching qualification to his name, which provides Sue with lots of jibes that may raise a chuckle but ultimately point a spotlight on the series’ tendency to make plot adjustments without actually earning or explaining them. It’s this haphazard approach, which can only be heightened by having so many voices for which to write dialogue, that ultimately causes dud moments or entire episodes. It’s never less than simply entertaining (it is a teen soap with jokes and pop covers at the end of the day) but could surely prove even better by cutting some of the dead weight (Joe, Brody, etc.) and not rushing through huge plot developments (the ten minutes devoted to Kurt’s dad’s cancer revelation) to get back to trivial who-fancies-who stuff.
The music itself (it is a musical show after all that) is the usual mix of chart pop, lovey showtunes and the odd ‘how the hell did they get the rights?’ alternative moment, ranging from a fun Hole cover to a plain wrong Radiohead rendition. Darren Criss proves the show’s standout performer with a wrenching live piano take of ‘Teenage Dream’, which suggests the overly-produced pop numbers might actually diminish the talents of the cast, but even when the gang are doing ‘Gangnam Style’ the show’s embracing of pop, good and bad, makes you realise that for every irksome plotline or character quirk, at the end of the day it’s a TV show and one with a hearty message. And, even if the rot sets in again, there are surely worse things than Marina & the Diamonds getting a primetime Glee-over, right? Here’s to the Season Four encore.
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