Every high-school show deals with the same problem — even if with Beverly Hills, 90210-like leisure — if it lasts long enough: What now?
Most often, as on 90210, everyone mysteriously goes off to the same college that doesn't exist. Sometimes, as on Friday Night Lights, the show follows some of the kids further but also toughens up and freshens the cast.
Glee appeared last season to be especially poorly positioned to deal with the graduation of several of the members of the ensemble: Rachel (Lea Michele), Finn (Cory Monteith), Kurt (Chris Colfer), Santana (Naya Rivera), Puck (Mark Salling), Mercedes (Amber Riley), and Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.). Despite the continuing presence of some good performers, optimism was hard to muster. This, after all, was a group effort. What's that going to look like without the group?
The first three episodes of the new season were, to employ the adjective that has haunted Glee from the outset, uneven. The premiere was okay, a second Britney Spears episode was mostly flat, and last week's student-government episode was better, but mostly served as setup for what comes this week.
That's what makes it so surprising that in Thursday's fourth episode, Glee suddenly seems to know exactly what to do. The lesson it's somehow learned: when you take kids out of a fantasy version of high school, you don't have to send them off to fantasy college. You can, instead, steer into the skid and make the abandonment of the fantasy into the story.
Called "The Break Up," the episode has more than a whiff of gimmick: it follows Rachel and Finn, Kurt and Blaine, Santana and Brittany, and Will and Emma. Will someone break up? And if so, which couple?
But in fact, it's not really a romantic shuffle. It's legitimately an episode about loss. Not loss of a boyfriend or a girlfriend, but loss of a lovely idea — in this case, the idea of the choir room and everything that accompanied it as your sanctuary and your solution. Your solution to your family problems, your solution to bullying, your solution to not fitting in. That's part of what puts the poignancy in every coming-of-age story: even the happy things are likely impermanent, because almost everything about being 17 is impermanent in its details and lasting only in the way it pushes you to the next thing. Most high-school sweethearts will not marry. Football teams, glee clubs, student governments, people who share a prom limo — all these groups will nurture you, they will teach you something, and then all of them will turn into pictures where you will one day strain to remember at least one person's name.
It's been hard to remember with the theme episodes and the weird storylines and the fancy guest stars, but when Glee began, it had an evident strain of bone-deep sadness. Some of the most heart-swelling numbers, like Artie's "Safety Dance" faux flash mob, were reflections of some of its toughest truths, as when Artie watched Tina dance with Mike Chang, knowing that many things might be part of his future, but dancing as he dreamed of it was not.
And one of the show's best moments came after the Glee kids sucked it up and had their yearbook photo taken, overcoming their fears that they'd just be made fun of and have their photo vandalized. In the closing moments, they posed, they grinned, "Smile" played, and the episode closed as we watched the same bullies who had tormented them all along laughing and defacing their group photo just as they always had, scrawling "LOSERS" and giving Kurt breasts and a skirt. When the show has been good, it's always had a certain grim understanding of the limitations of "believe in yourself" as an actual defense against pain. But it's also built in plenty of fantasy, from the booming musical numbers to the giant trophies.
What "The Break Up" does is turn the fantasy elements, the way everyone felt safer and better and cuter as Glee and Glee grew, against the characters. For Finn, after all, it's great not to peak in high school because of football, but it's not that much better to peak in high school because of Glee. It's taken the question that confronted the show — What now? — and made it the question that's confronting the characters. And that takes a structural problem and makes it an asset. For three seasons, the choir room was where everything was happy, but now, the show is able to see that room two ways at once: for the kids still in high school, it's where they need to be, and for the ones who are out of high school, it's where they need to learn not to be.
The strategy crystallizes in a gut-punch repeat performance of a song the show has done before — one that's so well suited to its purpose that you'd almost suspect they planted it in the second season just for the wallop they're able to draw from it here. It's a big help that they narrow the field a bit in this episode, because the show has absolutely been guilty of trying to juggle too many stories and too many new characters.
Moreover, as much as everyone loves Jane Lynch, since Sue Sylvester grew a heart and therefore a limit on her evil scheming, they haven't quite known what to do with her. It's sad to say, but this is the strongest Glee they've put forward in quite a while, and she's not in it at all. They're coming back to strengths here, especially Rachel and Finn's surprisingly genuine love for each other (easy to forget until they play a terrific scene together as they do at the end of this hour) and Kurt's progression from terrified gay kid who just wants a love life like everybody else to young guy on his own in New York with the same messed-up love life as everybody else. All the relationships that were so comfortable across a classroom, however genuine they are, look like underdogs when they bump into distance and diverging paths.
Given the unevenness of Glee over the past several seasons, it would be wildly optimistic to assume that this is some sort of a permanent stabilization of the quality or improved treatment of the characters. There's still Glee itself — a whole crowd back at McKinley High that needs a lot of help. Just like it's often said that a cynic is a disappointed idealist, a person who can't stand Glee is often a person who's gotten excited about it over and over and then felt let down. There's no guarantee they can keep this up, but if it's been a long time since you actually cared what happened to the people on this show, this is an episode that might surprise you.