Like last season's premiere, we start by learning what everyone did over the summer. Quinn rebelled, Finn & Rachel stayed together, Mercedes & Sam split, Will & Emma cohabitate, Blaine transferred to McKinley, and Sue is back to comic villainy. The roiling status quo of high school has a suprising placidity to it; we realize that each little turn may turn back, each alliance and dalliance may be broken or discounted.
But there is a new wrinkle this year: graduation is a reality for roughly half the cast. This ain't Welcome Back, Kotter, with the same students in the same class for year after tedious year. So good on them; real plans are being made.
Kurt and Rachel plan on attending an arts college in Manhattan ... a plan given a comic roadblock when they discover that Julliard doesn't have a musical-theater program. (Yes, it's credible that they would be innocent of that fact, and the reveal is funny.) This leads them to mix with a new group in an insane level of competition for an insanely competitive performing arts school. The result is a gobsmackingly-good production number. The sight of Rachel- and Kurt-clones performing Cole Porter with such energy and polish recalls the very first musical number of the series, when the underdogs went to see Vocal Adrenaline's performance of "Rehab". The number is this episode's highlight.
The other numbers -- pop and Broadway staples all -- get such workmanlike treatment that they entertain without exciting. "We Got the Beat" and "It's Not Unusual" were puffed-up productions so faithful to the originals that they could not surprise. Kurt and Rachel's jazzy "Ding-Dong" rendition -- I'll admit that I don't know who re-interpreted it, but I'd lay even money that K&R executed a note-for-note re-creation. And "You Can't Stop the Beat" pulled that tired stunt: a down-tempo, soulful intro to an abruptly raucous (and faithfully so) follow-up. Musically, this was a very un-challenging episode.
The characters were also un-challenging. The only new face I remember was Sugar, a 30-year-old girl with hilariously-bad stage presense, pretty transparently intended as an Eliza Doolittle to be transformed into a song-and-dance machine worthy of Rachel's post-graduation empty spot. The new flavor she brings -- self-diagnosed Asperger's Syndrome -- is neglibile in a show where everyone constantly speaks their mind. (Honestly, who DOESN'T seem to be suffering from Asperger's on this show?)
The plot directions mapped out for early this season -- two characters running for office, two more competing for Head Cheerleader, two more for the Big Lead Role -- feel a bit ho-hum. The one-liners, while chuckle-worthy, lacked the sting of seasons past. Glee has the increasingly difficult burden of surprising us in the confines of high school's rule of the-only-constant-is-change. I don't think they've exhausted the possiblities yet, but most of this episode felt familiar, to a fault. For this episode, they played catch-up with familiar faces, using familair tunes in mostly familiar ways. I look forward to new faces and unlikely songs given a sly spin; by necessity, those are coming. 'til then, this was a fun hour, nothing more.