"The Purple Piano Project," written by Brad Falchuk, directed by Eric Stoltz.
Season Three began as Season Two did: with a viral video update on everyone's lives, courtesy of Jacob Ben Israel and the gossip mill. The tack always works, because it allows for some meta self-reference, and lets us have a chance to catch up with our kids - while simultaneously outlining a little character arc for them right away. For instance, we heard about Sam (or Hobo McBieber, I guess) moving away and leaving Mercedes to find herself a new man to have cocoa babies with. Santana has plans to be the top ho on the Cheerios. Finn feels lost. Tina and Artie are officially juniors; Mike is a senior and applying to colleges. Kurt and Rachel want to go to Juilliard together. Brittany's considering time travel.
Y'know, the usual.
But right off the bat, we know the plan: Will wants to push them to Nationals again, and everyone wants to make their senior years special. Simple enough, right? I'm thinking that having the built-in purpose of Senior Year will be good for developing the characters and raising the stakes this season: it's an automatic excuse to get these kids off their butts and doing things because it's their last year of high school. Hopefully it will also set their sights past high school, and they can stop being so afraid of bad reputations and hallway cred, thereby naturally eliminating some of Glee's favorite - and tired - conflict.
There's one person we didn't hear from in the first few minutes of the episode, though: Quinn Fabray. Turns out she let her voice go all deep and raspy, dyed her hair pink, got an ironic tattoo of Ryan Seacrest, and joined a group called The Skanks. It seems The Skanks hang out under the bleachers and revile the smell of soap, and Quinn's decided she's never going back to her old life. Or soap. (Even though Artie misses her, apparently. Uh, okay?)
We got two good Quinn scenes out of this setup: one with Santana and Brittany, and one with Rachel. The premiere remembered that Santana and Brittany were there for Quinn in New York, and continued their concern for her, both girls wanting her to return not only to glee and the Cheerios, but also to being their friend. It was a lovely sojourn into the dynamics of the Quinn-Santana-Brittany relationship, which hasn't historically gotten much exploration.
The other scene involved Rachel trying to reason with Quinn to return to the club, and it was Rachel that hit the nail on the head. She told Quinn she was sorry to see her so sad, and I hope the writers continue with the idea that Quinn is miserable, that Rachel knows it, and that Rachel wants to help her. They even penned a sly reference to the song Rachel wrote because of Quinn - "Get it Right." It looks like this storyline is intended to go somewhere, and I am excited for it. I love that we didn't get any immediate resolution with Quinn in the premiere, and that can only mean one thing: either I will rage next week because it's dropped, or we will get a multiple episode arc. And if the latter is true, I will be elated. Elated, I say!
"The Purple Piano Project" also set up a multi-episode (or dare I say season-long?) arc with Kurt and Rachel. It was very clear from the moment we reunited with them that they are now BFFs through and through, which in itself is darling. Kurt really is the only one at that school who can truly relate to Rachel, and I love that the writers made them friends instead of bitchy competitors. They frolicked, duetted, cavorted, and schemed their exits from Ohio with self-congratulating aplomb, and I loved every second of it.
Anyways, Kurt and Rachel have Big Plans, and decided to go to Emma to talk to her about college options: preferably Juilliard. In a welcome display of her actually counseling and counseling well, Emma advised Kurt and Rachel to check out another New York school for musical theatre. (NYAD? Cursory Googling leads me to believe that this does not actually exist. Sly one, Glee writers!) Simply bursting with confidence in their potential, Kurt and Rachel went to the local community theatre to strut their stuff, where they were met with... people who were exactly like them: drama-obsessed, driven, and talented. (Cue The Glee Project's Lindsay Pearce, who rocked out a damn good mash-up of "Anything Goes" and "Anything You Can Do.")
The highlight of Kurt and Rachel's arc this episode was, really and truly, their scene in the car. How wonderful was that? Lea Michele and Chris Colfer, while certainly talented individually, really do turn in A+ performances in each other's company. They both cried for themselves and the discouraging realization that small-town kids with big dreams and big talent are a dime a dozen. While this is certainly relatable and heartbreaking, I was worried though that the scene would devolve Rachel and Kurt into their vulnerabilities, only letting the audience feel sorry for them and giving them nothing else. But luckily, Kurt pulled them out of their self-acknowledged pity party, and they talked themselves back up. This is perhaps the true appeal of Rachel and Kurt's friendship: for once, these formerly isolated and frequently crushed characters don't always have to rely on themselves to rebuild their self-esteems. And to boot, they have a partner for gay-high-fiving! It's a win-win, really.
Kurt also got another dose of happiness with the inevitable transfer of Blaine Anderson to McKinley High and the New Directions, because bitches can't get enough Darren Criss. (And by "bitches," I mean Ryan Murphy. But y'know, when Darren puts on yellow sunglasses and swivels his hips to "It's Not Unusual," "bitches" usually means me too.) Finn called Blaine out on the differences between the Warblers and the New Directions, and hopefully Blaine will fit in nicely. Nothing in his character seems to indicate that he'll get overbearing about solos, although it'd be interesting if he threw a little tantrum here or there. Anything to muss up Blaine's composure a little bit.
It was an important note, though, that the writers managed to hit: Blaine had to transfer because he wanted to, not because Kurt made him. It was great to see Kurt be so self-aware about imposing unreasonable demands on Blaine, and that Blaine's transfer was simply framed as an expression of devotion - the next step in their relationship, perhaps. So the Dalton uniform bit the dust! (It's a fair trade, though, in uniforming - Brittany and Santana got re-Cheerioed.)
"The Purple Piano Project" also introduced Sue Sylvester's new agenda for the year. This wouldn't be Glee without Sue having an agenda, now, would it? Turns out our favorite tracksuit-sporting villain is running for Congress, and has decided to turn her campaign into an attack on the arts. I'm intrigued by this, because this is something that is 100% realistic for Sue. While her intentions are selfish, stemming from her own drive for success and her hatred of Will Schuester, it's not uncommon to see arts programs cut in favor of core subject areas. It's completely legitimate that Sue could get elected on that platform, and I'm interested to see what Ryan Murphy has in store for a pro-arts message. It's something he frequently speaks about outside the show, but honestly, to me, it hasn't manifested in the show's narrative as strongly as it could.
Of course, Sue's plan directly affects Will, who decided to take General Schuester to the forefront. (I'm 99% sure he wasn't referring to his penis, even though he and Emma were apparently having bedroom troubles.)
Will was kind of hard to track during "The Purple Piano Project." He wanted to get the school excited about the glee club, and encouraged the glee kids to express themselves in song every time they saw a strategically-placed purple piano in the hallways. But (new character alert!) Sugar, she of self-diagnosed Asperger's, tried to audition, sang terribly ("Hey Big Spender" is destined to be sung horribly on this show... remember that wonderfully stern citizen of Lima auditioning for it in "Dream On?"), and Will had little choice but to turn her away. I don't think anyone could blame Will for denying Sugar from the glee club, but I do wonder if the writers will take this to an interesting place in terms of Will's teaching philosophy. Is the drive to win greater than being all-inclusive, or does that rule not extend to people completely deluded of their talent? Is he becoming more like Sue, and what realizations will he have about that?
I doubt the show will go there, though. I fear we'll just get more scenes where Will accidentally starts talking about his sex life in Figgins' office.
In all, the character stuff in "The Purple Piano Project" was strong on all fronts. I do think that the plot that supported it wasn't as strong, which I'm not as fussed about, as long as the character interactions and development stay interesting. My main quibble is actually in the frame of the episode: the purple pianos. They were conceived as a motivation for the glee kids to burst into song, as well as a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor for them as outcasts who keep their beat even when someone tries to silence them. It's a nice conceit, even if the bit with Tina directly voicing the metaphor was a bit on-the-nose.
What irked me more was the use of the purple pianos in Sue and Will's antagonism - through Santana. Early in the episode, Sue declared that Santana was co-captain of the Cheerios, and told her to make a choice between cheerleading and glee. Santana chose Sue, but then kept with the club for the rest of the episode. She took no actual actions to suggest that she'd turned her back on the club - mainly because the Piano Fire construction was clunky. I get that the Cheerios doused it in lighter fluid, but it was Quinn's errant cigarette that actually set it in flames, and all Santana seemed to do was dance around Blaine with a ridiculous amount of charm.
For Will to kick Santana out of the club for loyalty issues, we needed to see that Santana had some sort of maligned plan. Because as is, it plays as Santana being punished for choosing cheerleading over glee, which is not a punishable offense. Santana's done worse than that before, and this feels like retroactive retribution for those past actions. If Santana's going to be aligned with Sue, then she needs to actually be involved in a nefarious plot, in a clear and understandable way. Bonus points if it interacts with her character arc!
The episode ended much like it began: setting up goals for the characters. Santana's no longer a member of glee, Rachel wants to stage a high school production of West Side Story (and appears to be going for the same role as Mercedes) and Kurt sets his sights on Senior Class President. This last one I'm particularly interested in, because it has the potential to pay off Kurt's accidental Prom Queen win with an actual title he strove for. We'll have to wait and see how it plays out!
In the end, "The Purple Piano Project" did indeed seem to get back to basics: there was strong character work, with questions asked and left unanswered for the purpose of unraveling over several episodes. Friendly character interactions were strong as well, and romantic drama took a backseat. Mostly, it was just lovely seeing these kids be friends and working through their problems together. I'm glad the writers are playing to this strength! Nothing's better than seeing the glee clubbers come together - especially when it's in song. Plot quibbles be damned, this was a good episode!
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A+
Episode MVP: Kurt Hummel and Rachel Berry.