Glee is a formulaic series. For all its insanity, uneven character work and ridiculous logic, we pretty much know exactly what to expect from the series on a weekly basis. Ryan Murphy and company have pin-pointed a few things that they think the audience enjoys and they just keep hammering away with them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, every television program is formulaic in some way or another and only something like Community can be something totally different from week to week.
However, I think Glee needed to be as non-formulaic as possible in the season three premiere, “The Purple Piano Project.” There’s an influx of new writing talent. There’s all the talk about back-to-basics storytelling. The series is coming off a mostly terrible second season that had no narrative depth or through-line and the celebrated buzz that came with last season’s premiere isn’t quite there anymore. We were willing to give Glee a lot of leeway before; it doesn’t feel like that is the case now. With the four most important high school characters (Rachel, Finn, Kurt and Quinn) graduating at the end of this season and Nationals hanging over New Directions, season three’s plot should be easy to identify and execute.
But easy ideas aren’t anything without execution and unfortunately, “Purple Piano Project” gets lost in the typical Glee rhythms and stories to actually make us care about the things that we should care about.
So yeah, this episode is too formulaic. On a structural level, this episode isn’t at all different from last season’s premiere episode “Audition.” It’s a new school year and the kids of New Directions don’t have much confidence in themselves. They didn’t make it as far as they wanted to on the competition circuit and now they’re down a few members. It’s recruitment time! A few new characters are introduced, old characters revert back to their old ways (didn’t Santana and Brittany leave the Cheerios?) and Will and Sue are still frivolously fighting one another in such a way that they should both be fired. Rachel finds a new enemy who might be more talented than her. Hell, this episode even starts with a mostly funny Jacob Israel video report. All that we’re missing is Rachel sending some poor girl to a crackhouse and we’re right back where we started last season.
It’s very common for a series set in high school to start off with an episode like this. We’re given the basic motivations for almost every character and we can see where the narrative appears to want to go throughout the whole season. Generally, “Purple Piano Project” does just that. We know that certain characters are graduating and we know that Nationals is the primary directive, this time the characters are singing for keeps, etc. But we shouldn’t be satisfied with Glee giving us a retread of an episode, especially when it still finds a way to get lost in the worst things the series has to offer and when we can’t trust the rest of the season to hammer home any of the character or narrative beats it sets up here. Remember when it seemed like Sam was going to be a nice addition to the series? Yeah.
For whatever reason, the people in charge of Glee still think we care about the Will-Sue competitions and their plots couldn’t be bringing the series down any more. Sue running for political office is an interesting concept and immediately tying it to the glee club isn’t the worst thing in the world. Now, Will and New Directions have their backs against the wall much like they did in season one and some of that underdog charm can return. Nevertheless, I’m already ready for this story to be over because Will’s actions in this episode are unbelievably dense, immature and short-sighted. Time after time, Glee allows Will to make awful choices that make him look like an ignorant fool and time after time, the writers assume that if they have him admit he’s a tool in the next episode before he does something stupid again, that’s OK or that’s character development. Well, it’s not. Will should be smart enough to know that getting in the ring with Sue is not what he needs now, especially since he just gave a speech to the students about focusing on the journey to Nationals. Will is a hypocrite and an idiot and yet the writers still assume that the audience will find all his mistakes endearing. We don’t and it needs to stop. Glee shouldn’t be a story about adults, or at least not these adults.
Elsewhere, repetitiveness also reigns. Quinn is out of the glee club and hanging out with extras from Avril Lavinge’s “Sk8er Boi” video for no real reason. Santana and Brittany are back on the Cheerios for no real reason and there’s no discussion about their relationship or Santana’s sexuality, outside of a few thinly-veiled jokes from Sue. Rachel learns that she might not be as good as she thought she was. We’ve been here before, countless times really, and even if the ideas seem like good starts for the season, I have no faith in the writers to execute them any better than they did the other 15 times Quinn and Santana waffled between groups or the other 11 times Rachel realized being a star is tough. It’s almost like the writers just assume we weren’t paying attention to the narrative in the previous two seasons – the songs, they’re so lovely! – or they’re hoping we won’t care anyway.
However, let me say that there are good moments in “Purple Piano Project.” Separated from his place as a beacon for societal change, Kurt is a damn fine character to watch. His scenes with Rachel and Blaine were the obvious highlights of the episode and he’s really one of the only characters the writers seem to put much effort into. Kurt and Rachel’s time at the NYADA meeting was really fun and their scene afterward was fantastic. Like most people, I prefer my Glee to be sad and watching Rachel and Kurt struggle with their talent level and how they stack up against better competition could and should be a great story to watch unfold. Will they follow their dreams or will they try to make it work with their respective love interests who will presumably stay local (because Blaine is apparently younger now)? This is something that I am interested in, so of course Glee will screw it up.
This isn’t the worst episode of Glee ever. It’s fine. But coming off of last year’s debacle and with so many obvious great arcs and stories seemingly there for the taking, it’s just disappointing that the series is going through the exact same beats and rhythms that they’ve done before. Glee needs to be more.
- The writers will never get Will and Emma’s relationship right, will they? They’re miserable and I’m miserable watching them.
- The performances were just as fine as the episode, but I did enjoy Darren Criss’ individual one the most. He and Colfer just need their own series. Maybe the writers are intentionally tanking this one so they can move on to the spin-off?! Heh.
- Finn had absolutely nothing to do in this episode. Ryan Murphy really does hate his guts, huh?
- Lindsay from The Glee Project was pretty great as Rachel’s new nemesis. It’s the perfect role for her and our paratextual knowledge from TGP made it even better. She probably should have won that competition.