Glee Season Premiere Recap: Vexed in the City

brody rachel gleeLike the bracing slap of an icy cold slushie to the face, Season 4 of Glee began with Rachel brought low in New York City, the remaining kids of New Directions on a nasty power high in Ohio, and a new girl named Marley stuck in the middle of potential popularity and crippling insecurities, between small-town life and big-city dreams.

In other words, while there’s always a little sting where change is concerned, it also feels like something unexpected and even a little dangerous has been awoken in the show’s writer’s room. And yes, while it’s understandable that longtime fans of Fox’s (former) high-school musical have some anxieties about where the mothership is headed — No sign of Finn, Mercedes, Quinn, Puck, Emma, or Santana! So many new kids! — I’m personally thrilled at the prospect of seeing characters like Rachel, Kurt, Tina, and Blaine (among others) grapple with the intense changes, often terrible decisions, and new connections you’d expect to see made by any kid on the brink of adulthood.

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Finchel, Klaine, Britanna, and Tike 4EVA? Call me #TeamMaybe. But let’s be honest: The odds on high-school sweethearts making it to their Golden Anniversary aren’t exactly phenomneal — and without some genuine self-discovery beforehand, they’re closer to nill. And if ever a season premiere could/should convince shippers to think twice before they jump ship, this one was it.

That said, if you were too busy pouring moonshine into your fruit smoothie to catch the episode, here’s what you mixed (typo, and it stays) on Glee.

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* We opened with Kate Hudson’s much-buzzed-about NYADA instructor, Cassandra July, chewing out a not-rail-thin girl in Dance 101. Rachel’s reflexive glance of disgust/dismay caught Prof. Evil’s eye — and not in a good way — and the wide-eyed Ms. Berry wound up getting every abuse short of a slushie to the face in front of her clasmates. When Rachel later (foolishly) blurted during class that she could smell alcohol on Cassandra’s breath, it led to this jab from the nastiest dance instructor this side of Abby Lee Miller: “You’re not just on my list, [David] Schwimmer, you are my list.” (If only Rachel knew that Prof. July drinks because of all her failed Broadway dreams. Nah, actually, she’s just a total bitchface.) It’s gonna be a long semester, although I have to say it’s kind of refreshing (and somewhat realistic) to see Rachel realizing her wide-eyed ingenue schtick might send some folks into a borderline homicidal rage. Time to grow up, toughen up, and fight back (when it makes sense), sister!

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* It wasn’t all mortifying failure for our protagonist, though. Rachel capitalized beautifully in one of her two chances to sing this semsester in NYADA’s unbelievably gorgeous “Round Room” in front of the terrifying Carmen Tibideaux. Being in a room with no corners means there’s “nowehere to hide,” but Rachel’s flawless rendition of “New York State of Mind” meant there was no shame necessary.

* Rachel also met a hot, naked upperclassman while doing her skincare regimen in the co-ed bathroom in the middle of the night. (Loved the realism of the trials of college showers for small-town freshman in need of a little privacy.) The fact that she hadn’t heard from Finn for over two months certainly makes her vulnerable to a little romantic longing, no matter how much the Finchel Nation considers her (possibly) wandering eye as a total betrayal. “In case you’re wondering — which I’m sure you are — I’m straight,” said Brody. Hey, you’ve got to double-check when a dude is that carefully manscaped. Later, Brody and Rachel had a nice, not-quite-romantic bonding moment that featured my favorite line of the episode. “I feel like I’m gonna throw up all the time,” admitted Rachel, perfectly capturing the main emotional response to the first week of college. Still, how come we don’t see her connecting with other terrified freshmen?

* In other NYC news, Kurt began to lurk the halls of McKinley while waiting for the semester at his local community college to begin. (Side note: Why do TV writers act like going to community college is the life-dreams equivalent of coming down with a mild case of Ebola?) After being insulted by the Cheerios new beast in charge Kitty, and encouraged by boyfriend Blaine to go spread his wings, our dapper dandy was leavin’ on a jet plane to Manhattan. (Don’t know when he’ll be back again.) Burt’s farewell speech was a thing of beauty, but isn’t that always the case when Mike O’Malley guest-stars? His final words — “You can always come back. But you won’t.” — made me reach for the Kleenex.

* Also tear-jerking? Lonely, scared Rachel and finally-where-he-belongs Kurt, reuinited (and it feels so good). Besties! Roomies! Make it happen!

* Back at McKinley, Jacob Ben Israel got the party started with his standard bit of expository video. Seems the fortunes of the New Directions kids had changed. Sam went from “hobo stripper” to glee-club celeb. (Loved him doing an awful Taylor Lautner impresh). Tina’s ego grew two sizes too big (and she got herself an assistant/minion). Oh, and her “make change forever” tattoo? That was an alteration of “Mike Chang Forever.” Don’t judge: Long-distance relationships are hard! And Brittany, too, was feeling the pain of separation from Santana. “You can’t really scissor a Web cam,” she sighed.

* With Rachel out of the picture, Jacob asked the central question looming like a cloud over the New Directions choir room. “Who’s the new Rachel?” Artie, Tina, Brittany or Blaine? Or would it be Unique, making a transfer from Vocal Adrenaline? Artie, putting on his director hat, judged a “Call Me Maybe”-off among the remaining quaretet, and declared Blaine the winner. (I’d have picked Tina.) But then Schue made his most dishonest/ridiculous statement ever: “We don’t win with stars, we win as a team.” So why did the Lady Berry have so many solos back in the day? The story, as they say, is developing.

* There was also a need to fill out New Directions’ vacancies, and Puck’s never-before-seen half-brother Jake came and nailed his audition on “Never Say Never.” Seems, though, the kid has a chip on his shoulder — and he likes it! He knocked over the music stand when Schue cut his number short, then refused to reconsider his heinous attitude when the kindly teacher (whose fiance I kinda missed!) tried to talk some sense into him.

* And then there was the matter of New Directions auditions, with absolutely impossible-to-root-against newcomer Marley — daughter of the morbidly obese lunch lady — nailing her audition, making the cut with Schue & Co., then questioning if she wanted to be a part of a group that sat with the popular kids and openly made fat-phobic jokes. I loved seeing her admit the lunch-lady was her mom, and I loved that it was Sam who apologized first and revealed he knew what it was like to be poor and have your mom stitch designer labels in your second-hand sweaters. New Directions’ apology accepted! Welcome to the club, Marley. And here’s a nasty slushies for you and Unique, courtesy of Kitty & her football-jock buddies! Unique wins the award for Best Ever Response to a Slushie: “Unique’s eyes! They’re on fire!”

* Finally, Sue Sylvester has a daughter, and her name is Robin, which promoted a joke that had me mumbling “too soon” under my breath: “[The name] recalls hope and springtime and my favorite dead Bee Gee.”

With that, let’s hand out some letter grades for tonight’s musical numbers:

Tina, Brittany, Unique, and Blaine, “Call Me Maybe” | Grade: B+ (side note: What was Artie smoking when he didn’t name Tina the winner of the “Thunderdome-style” sing-off?)

Cassandra, “Dance Again”/”Americano” | Grade A-

Jake, “Never Say Never” | Grade: B

Rachel & Marley, “New York State of Mind” | Grade: A

Blaine, “It’s Time” | Grade: C+ (Sorry, Darren Criss, it’s not really your fault. This song is kinda weak for me, and in the context of the scene, even weaker. Plus, those aggressively rolled jean legs are working my last nerve, especially since your character doesn’t dig clams for a living.)

Marley and New Directions, “Chasing Pavements” | Grade: B+

What did you think of the Glee premiere? Hit the comments with your thoughts!