Few programs have burned brighter or fizzled faster than “Glee,” which for some will turn the prospect of its sixth and final season — which Fox has relegated to the not-so-friendly confines of Friday nights — less into a nostalgic moment than a “Oh, is that still on?” shrug. Still, being allowed to formally end a show whose main participants graduated high school and (sort of) moved on feels strangely liberating, allowing the series to get back to its roots and accentuate key original cast members. Those dynamics should make this closing number worthy of attention, despite “Glee’s” continued irritants and excesses.
Without giving too much away (the plot has been out there, but could be considered a SPOILER for those who want to come in completely fresh), the two-hour premiere finds aspiring star Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) licking her wounds after receiving a drubbing for her ill-conceived TV vehicle, “That’s So Rachel,” which has turned her into an instant has-been. A glimpse of the series, with raucous laugh track, provides one of the opener’s more amusing bits.
While the notion that Rachel would retreat to her home town isn’t particularly convincing, it creates an excuse to put some of the original gang back together again, only in reconfigured positions: Sue (Jane Lynch) has become principal at McKinley High (where, she boasts, “Test scores are up; body mass indexes are down”) and, naturally, eliminated the Glee club. Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) has thus been forced to take his talents elsewhere.
So Rachel — needing a sense of purpose — sets about the task of reinstating the program, which not only offers the chance to introduce a couple of promising newcomers but also to unleash Michele’s glorious singing chops, including her rendition of an especially appropriate show-stopper from a certain animated hit, given her character’s lineage.
It’s not particularly convincing that somebody as driven as Rachel would be so easily sent packing, however humiliating her Hollywood experience might have been. As usual, “Glee” also occasionally veers out of its lane to score political points and pick fights, like having the Glee alumni march into a meeting of McKinley’s Tea Party Patriots group, where one of the members sneers about “Barack Hussein Obama” and the “homo elite.”
From a musical standpoint, however, there are impressive and characteristically eclectic highlights in this opening salvo, from an energetic cover of A-ha’s “Take on Me” to “Suddenly Seymour” from “Little Shop of Horrors,” one of those songs from the playlist’s periphery that fits surprisingly well. And the story does seem invigorated by this shuffling of relationships and emphasis on those who helped make the show a hit initially.
To say “Glee” has been uneven over the course of its run would be an understatement, but at its best, the series provided forceful messages about teens dealing with being different and feeling like outcasts, mixed with an infectious love of music in general and musicals in particular.
As the ratings dwindled and newer characters began to inspire more indifference than passion, it was clearly time for the show to go. But credit Fox with affording the program’s prolific mastermind Ryan Murphy and his team the opportunity to craft an exit on their terms. At least based on the overture, the producers look determined to give sending “Glee” out on a high note the old high-school try.