Why do we want to be special? Is it because we truly want to stand out, or is it because we want others to know that we belong?

The New Rachel

Nearly every character wrestles with that question in the fourth season premiere of “Glee,” an unoffensive but unspectacular hour that introduces new characters and kicks off some storylines without so notably venturing into the shark-jumping territory that plagued seasons two and three.

Riding the popularity associated with winning a National Championship, the New Directions open the season in a completely-unfamiliar position–at the same lunch table as athletes and new head cheerleader Kitty (new addition Becca Tobin in a “what if Quinn was only a bitch” role). For once, people actually admire the glee club members, and though that admiration comes with perks (immunity from slushies, gawking groupies and a school-wide desire to make next year’s team), it also brings a host of consequences.

On the one hand, the sudden burst of popularity goes directly to the misfits’ heads, leading them to boss around freshmen “assistants” and dish out horrendous Taylor Lautner impressions without hesitation. On the other hand, it also creates the biggest insecurity the perpetually-bullied bunch has ever endured. Thrilled with their popularity but aware it can be fleeting, the New Directions find themselves willing to protect their reputations at all costs, even if it means regrettably insulting the sweet, yet poor and overweight lunch lady or requesting new transfer Wade Adams not dress as “Unique” in public.

Though Wade can largely roll with the punches, the “new” New Directions make a less favorable impression on new student Marley, whose mom just so happens to be that lunch lady who, when sitting around the house, “actually sits around a house.” Marley, a gifted singer who aspires to be on the radio rather than follow Lea Michele’s Rachel to Broadway, is initially excited by the prospect of finally “belonging,” especially in the group of outcasts that somehow became the stars of the school. But as she gets to know the suddenly-arrogant group of singers who bicker over getting to be the “new Rachel” (in a pretty weak storyline that includes an abysmal rendition of “Call Me Maybe”) and insult women based on their looks, she wonders if she even wants a spot on the roster.

Elsewhere at McKinley, Sue shows off her new baby Robin, Kurt hides in the comfort of Lima to avoid the challenges of adulthood and “bad boy” Jake, who comes with a backstory, has his first encounter with Schu and the New Directions.

But in the first glimpse of the show’s new format, the action is not entirely contained within the borders of Lima, Ohio. Rachel consumes significant screen time as she struggles to fit into the aggressive, disheartening NYADA community. Never one to hide from the spotlight, a naive Miss Berry approaches New York without the overbearing confidence we have come to expect, instead striving to quietly prove herself while avoiding conflict.

Unfortunately, conflict has a way of finding characters on television shows, and for Rachel, it rears its head in the form of dance instructor Cassandra (Kate Hudson, in a role derivative of Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester) and good-looking, charming junior Brody (Dean Geyer).

Only the hostile, mean-spirited Cassandra poses an initial problem for Rachel, but given Brody’s self-professed heterosexuality and Finn’s vast distance from the bed of his soulmate, the threat of temptation certainly lingers in the background.

“Glee”‘s foray into a new format comes with mixed results. On the one hand, those frustrated by the lack of screen time for characters like Sam, Artie and Tina will be thrilled with them getting an opportunity to shine. But on the other hand, the actual character development remains minimal, and there exists no debate that Rachel and Kurt–along with new characters like Marley–are the leads.

The idea that the New Directions have always been altruistic and tolerant is incorrect–Artie and Tina, for instance, have previously shown a tendency to be shallow–but here they are stripped of nearly all identity for the sake of creating a generic archetype. Rather than acting as unique characters with whom we have spent as many as three seasons, the kids are reduced to complete storytelling devices.

In the hunt to be the new Rachel, Blaine, Brittany, Tina and Wade are all generically catty; and when it comes to their dealing with fame, all basically play the same shade of arrogance before, predictably, finding their way in the episode’s climax.

“Glee” has never been particularly rich when it comes to realism or character depth, but the best moments–think season one’s “Preggers”–have always involved characters showing multiple layers. Here, even though we are supposed to know these characters well, they accomplish nothing that could not be accomplished with any generic group of teenagers thrust into a similar backstory.

Having personally spent several days answering premiere questions for very passionate “Glee” fans, I can confirm that many do see each character as possessing unique value and might feel underwhelmed–if not betrayed–by the lack of personalized characterization in the episode.

New characters Marley and Jake both have potential, but in typical Ryan Murphy fashion, their personality traits, backstories and connections to other characters are exaggerated so that viewers do not have to “think” about how the characters might fit in.

Of course Marley is the daughter of the overweight lunch lady. Of course her economically-disadvantaged mom sews J. Crew tags into her Wal-Mart clothes. Of course she joins Rachel on a duet of “New York State of Mind” in the episode entitled “The New Rachel.”

As for Jake, of course he is “surprisingly” connected to a previous character; a connection so obvious that FOX did not even bother hiding his last name from publicity materials.

In order to sell the “horror” of New York, Rachel, meanwhile, shows far thinner skin than she ever has. While Rachel has always dealt with insecurities, the idea that she would be so emotionally-crushed by having to live with a sexually-charged roommate or deal with a mean dance instructor seems excessive. “Glee” feels comfortable using its “star” Rachel to establish the challenge of the world beyond Lima, but it has to dampen what we know about Lea Michele’s character in order to fully get there.

The result is that the episode, which has a very appealing premise regarding the question of “fitting in,” struggles to captivate. The events of the premiere seem compelling on paper, and indeed are at times, but ultimately feel flat when occurring on the screen.

The fact that the humor, outside of the occasional one-liner from Brittany or Kitty, is lacking and the performances are unmemorable does not help things. “Glee” is enough of a musical comedy to get by on those elements even when the drama and characterization are lacking, but when the latter two qualities are flat and the former are unimpressive, there is no way for the episode to dazzle.

Because it cared about developing a multi-layered relationship between Kurt and his father Burt, anytime it went to that well in the first season, “Glee” scored big time. In poetic fashion, Mike O’Malley absolutely steals the episode with a phenomenal scene that includes great “awesome dad” dialogue and a tremendous emotional showing from the one-time “Guts” host.

With its new characters and with the spotlight on some familiar faces, “Glee” has the chance to excel if it can devote the same investment to their development.

And it is for that reason that Thursday’s premiere, while unspectacular, still presents some cautious optimism about the upcoming season of “Glee.”

Music Reviews:
Call Me Maybe – An atrocious cover of the song that comes a few months too late.
Americano/Dance Again – Kate Hudson is competent, but it is certainly nothing about which to write home.
Never Say Never – Jacob Artist shows some nice vocal swagger, but The Fray’s ballad is not the most lively song.
NY State of Mind – Lea Michele and Melissa Benoist deliver the best vocal moment of the show, but it is hard to get too excited about a Billy Joel song “popularized by Barbra Streisand” in 2012.
It’s Time – Darren Criss delivers a credible version of the Imagine Dragons song, which is probably the episode’s best chance at a successful iTunes single.
Chasing Pavements – Melissa Benoist shows off a lot of vocal talent, but by being such a straight cover, she is inevitably compared to Adele, who is obviously leagues better.

The Burning Question: Who’s Back?
While most regular “Glee” cast members are still on the show and expected to appear throughout the season, not all show up on the premiere.

Returning New Directions Artie, Tina, Joe, Sugar, Sam, Brittany and Blaine all appear.
Unique returns and joins the New Directions.
New Directions alumni Rachel and Kurt appear.
Sue Sylvester and Will Schuester appear.
Burt Hummel appears.
Minor characters like Jacob and “Stoner” Brett appear.

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