Fall screener season has arrived, and I’m stoked to report that I’ve now had a chance to view the Season 4 premiere of Glee. The good news? Those of you who’ve been fretting over the show’s new split focus between the adventures of the New Directions gang in Lima, OH, and its MVP graduate Rachel Berry in New York City, can channel your inner Whitney Houston and finally exhale.
Ryan Murphy & Co. have, at least in Episode 1, managed to beautifully balance these dueling locations in a way that never feels schizophrenic or jarring. Rachel’s life as a freshman at NYADA is filled with a pitch-perfect anxiety and tension you’d expect from a little fishie who’s just been dropped from a backyard pond into the Atlantic Ocean. And the power vaccuum left at McKinley after the exit of Rachel, Finn, Kurt, Mercedes, and Santana gives some of the show’s often-dormant supporting players some interesting new angles to play.
Here are 13 observations I took home from watching the very, very good “The New Rachel”:
* Cassandra July (Kate Hudson) starts her humiliation of Rachel right in the cold open — and while it’s 98 percent arbitrary, it has to be said the wide-eyed New Directions vet calls attention to herself with a justified (but not entirely well-disguised) side-eye at her new teacher.
* Jacob Ben Israel is back to do his usual start-of-the-season exposition/meta-commentary on Gleek message-board chatter, and his video package ends with a burning question that might take all season to answer: “Who is the new Rachel?”
* Tina’s got a brand new “Make Change Forever” tattoo, and if you stare at those letters long enough, you might be able to grasp their significance.
* The season premiere also raises the important question: If you haven’t heard from your boyfriend for more than two months, is it okay to do a little bit of window-shopping?
* New Cheerio Kitty (Becca Tobin) immediately establishes her beeeotch cred by grilling visiting graduate Kurt about why he’s not already away at college, then dropping in this zinger: “I thought gay people were all successful overachievers.”
* Smash isn’t the only network TV musical that’s slipping a little something extra into the smoothies of its visiting movie-star’s character.
* Melissa Benoist’s Marley is introduced with a backstory so heart-tugging, it’s kind of impossible not to root for her. That said, Rachel’s half of “New York State of Mind” is decidedly superior.
* NYADA’s “Round Room” is sooooooo pretty. But sometimes ugly things happen there.
* Lea Michele has never been more perfect as Rachel than in her delivery of the line, “I feel like I’m gonna throw up all the time.”
* Oh, and on a related note, Cassandra is introduced as kind of a one-note vicious harpie, but that doesn’t mean you won’t secretly kind of feel like Rachel deserves (just a tiny bit) and could benefit from (a lot) her barbaric teaching methods.
* Mike O’Malley once again uses seconds of screentime to brilliant (and tear-jerking effect) as TV Dad of the Year/Decade Burt Hummel.
* Kitty takes over from Santana as Head Cheerleader in Charge of Vicious Nicknames. Best one so far? Richie Poor.
* And finally, while I’m still not 100 percent certain Alex Newell can act, he definitely scores a big laugh with Unique’s response to her very first slushie. “Unique’s eyes! They’re on fire!” Oh girl, keep on keeping on with your unsinkable attitiude, mmmkaay?