An inescapable pall has hovered over the season premiere of Glee in the past few weeks, following the devastating, premature death of actor Cory Monteith.
Monteith, who played jock-with-a-heart-of-gold-and-two-left feet Finn Hudson on the series, passed away in July at 31 of a drug and alcohol overdose. It’s remarkable and reassuring, then, that the first episode of Glee since Monteith’s death was so purely fun, lighthearted, and joyous.
The premiere picked up exactly where last season’s finale left off. We learn that Rachel is a finalist for the part of Fanny Brice in the revival of Funny Girl. Kurt and Blaine are back together. Sue is principal of McKinley High, and Will’s still frenemies with her.
The members of New Directions are all still dating some other members of New Directions, the exact pairings of which are nonessential as they’ll change by next week. Naya Rivera’s Santana Lopez is still one of the greatest characters on TV and Matthew Morrison’s Will Schuester remains unequivocally insufferable. Theme weeks are still par for the course. For absolutely no reason at all, this week’s theme is songs by the Beatles.
The episode opens with a chipper Lea Michele as Rachel Berry frolicking through Times Square on her way to call backs for Funny Girl, an eerie sight considering that we, the audience, know that Michele was dating Monteith when he died and she bravely began filming the episode shortly after he was laid to rest. That said, it looks as if there will be a wise refocus of the show on Michele’s character instead of the messy ragtag New Directions remnants as the collective leads. Her arc was always the most interesting and relatable, and what hooked us on Glee to begin with.
That Rachel would be this far along in the Funny Girl auditions with no other acting credits to her name is, of course, blissfully implausible. And that’s just the way we love our Glee.
This is the land where 19-year-olds move to New York and conceivably land leads in the most anticipated revival in modern Broadway history. It’s a fantasia where our fabulous gay heroes (Chris Colfer’s Kurt and Darren Criss’s Blaine) decide to give coupledom the old college try—again—while having a fully pimped-out picnic on the steps of their high school’s courtyard. Then to celebrate their reunion, they sing a duet backed by the school’s marching band. Rather than point and laugh hysterically, the other students in the courtyard join in as backup dancers.
Erupting into spontaneous song and having strangers fully embrace it rather than recoil? It’s musical-theater utopia. It's the ideal that any showtune-singing thespian who starred in a shoddy production of Grease in their high school days has fantasized at least briefly about. As insane as it is to watch the likes of Kurt and Blaine live it, we're so jealous that we just roll with it. Plus, they sing pretty.
Glee’s is a magical TV universe where, when someone doubts that Rachel is “a star,” she decides that “she’ll just have to prove it to you, then,” and performs an intricately choreographed production number in a New York City ’50s-style diner. It is both ludicrous and perfect.
This is a TV series that’s unabashed about its Love for All agenda, and one that knowingly embraces the corniness of that very thing. At one point, Blaine even praises, with a serious face, the new world we live in: “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or even what God you believe in. They’re beginning to see that people aren’t that different. Honestly, if we can get a bunch of cutthroat show choirs side by side and unite something, then anything is possible.”
I mean … come on. He’s basically saying that if we just flash some jazz hands at the world’s problems, they’ll go away. And you know what? In that moment, we believe him.
But for all the silly singing of Beatles songs (which, by and large, is all that really happened in the first 85 percent of this episode—there was barely any plot development), Monteith’s absence did loom over the hour.
Glee won’t directly address Monteith’s, and the character of Finn’s, death for two more weeks, after the second part of the two-part Beatles-themed premiere airs. There was, however, a gutting, subtle, and poignantly appropriate nod to Monteith’s passing in the episode’s opening moments.
Rachel at one point moseys the streets of Manhattan, despondent and introspective, while singing the Beatles ballad “Yesterday.” She glances at a photo on her cellphone of her old high school friends as she belts, “Oh, yesterday was such an easy game to play. Now I need a place to hide away. Oh, I believe in yesterday.” The one face impossible not to spot in that photo: Monteith’s.
The final moments of the season premiere found Blaine proposing to Kurt amid an ensemble of trumpeters, dancers, friends, family, falling rose petals, and frothy Beatles tunes. Set aside the infuriating inanity of these two characters considering marriage at such a young age—Glee’s writers have long done the same. As a TV moment, it was—against every jaded instinct to loathe such things—hopeful, playful, and jubilant.
The best kind of musical theater will literally bring you to your feet after the closing number. The singing, dancing, and arpeggio of emotions you’d just witnessed will leave you brimming with so much unbridled, uncontainable joy that the only proper response is to spring up with applause and, well, glee.
Cory Monteith, an untrained singer and an untrained dancer, was the most unlikely of actors to lead a series that doubles as a love letter to those musical-theater conventions. And yet, he had us leaping to our feet each week.
There’s not a doubt in my mind that the tribute to Cory Monteith that airs in two weeks will be unbearably emotional. But as we prepare ourselves for that, it’s nice to be reminded of the happiness the actor brought to us by helping build Glee into the bona fide pop-culture phenomenon it became—and that that spirit will still remain now that he's gone.