The four-month wait for Glee‘s first season return has been a long one for Gleeks. In the interim, the show has been showered with awards, including the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award, and the Peabody. Its soundtrack CDs have become bestsellers; and just last week, the cast was invited to perform at the White House and on Oprah (Which is more culturally significant? Discuss among yourselves.)
While Glee is an entertaining hybrid of absurd comedy, musical theater, and high school drama, not every one of the first 13 episodes was a winner (“Wheels” had the toughest time merging the three genres), and an endless and unbelievable fake-pregnancy plot line threatened to undo the show. But the last episode before the break, the stellar “Sectionals,” was a gift for Gleeks everywhere: the show choir competition delivered palpable suspense; for the Barbra fans out there, Rachel (Lea Michele) belted a powerhouse rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade”; scheming cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (the brilliant Jane Lynch) received her comeuppance. And, most delectable, Will finally expressed his feelings for longtime love, Emma (Jayma Mays), running to her through the halls of McKinley High (in slow motion, of course) to the strains of “Life Would Suck Without You.” Subtle? No. Utterly satisfying in every other way? Yes, yes, and hell yes.
The first three episodes of the second half demonstrate that the show maintains its sense of humor and play, while characters grow deeper and more complicated. “Hell-O,” “The Power of Madonna,” and “Home” vary wildly in tone (the first is campy, the second inspirational, the third deeply melancholy), but each episode succeeds on its own terms.
In “Hell-O,” Sue Sylvester returns to McKinley High after being suspended, and her plans to annihilate the glee club are back on course. Her “motivational” speeches to her Cheerios squad are again a highlight: “You two may be the stupidest teens I’ve ever met. And that’s saying something. I once taught a cheerleading seminar to a young Sarah Palin.” Still, it must be said that Heather Morris, as the dimwitted cheerleader Brittany, is quickly gaining on Lynch as the show’s funniest performer. Her quiet delivery of Brittany’s inane non sequiturs (“Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?”) is priceless.
As the glee club prepares for their upcoming regional competition, romantic complications come to the fore. Will and Emma’s blossoming relationship cannot proceed as quickly as they (or viewers) hope, and Rachel and Finn’s (Cory Monteith) on-again, off-again flirtation is threatened when the smooth lead singer of the rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline, Jesse St. James (Jonathan Groff), puts the moves on love-hungry Rachel. The parallels drawn between the teenage Finn and adult Will in this episode reveal a self-serving side to the nice-guy teacher that we haven’t seen before.
The wistful mood at the end of the first episode is deepened by the third, “Home,” in which the widowed parents of Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Finn fall in love. Finn is initially appalled to see his mother dating again, but Kurt is lost in fantasies of getting to move in with the football star, on whom he’s long had an unrequited crush. But when the bond between Finn and Kurt’s father grows, Kurt feels terribly threatened. Here is where Glee is at its best dramatically: depicting the loneliness of someone who feels like an outsider. The parting image may be the most poignant depiction of teen heartbreak since Brian Krakow watched Angela Chase get into Jordan Catalano’s car in the final few minutes of My So-Called Life.
“The Power of Madonna” is many shades lighter. A celebration of the pop icon, the soundtrack is saturated with songs from “Like a Virgin” to “Ray of Light,” as both Will and Sue call on Madonna’s music to empower the girls in Glee and in the Cheerios. Of the three episodes, this one is essential to DVR, as it contains the most joyous three minutes of recent television I can remember. A meticulous step-by-step recreation of a classic Madonna video reveals the hidden reserves of sex appeal and musical talent in an unlikely character, which will make you see the actor in a new light. The sequence is the perfect blend of parody, homage, and delirium — and if you don’t have the urge to strike a pose afterward, you should seriously consider having your pulse checked.