After a summer of drama over who will – or won't – graduate, plus a box office flop and concerns that the second season had gotten too off course, Ryan Murphy knew he had to get Glee back on track. And so he promised to remind us of the Glee we loved consistently once upon a time. It's almost like he wrote Mr. Schuester's pledge to the New Directions to the viewers at home: "I'm planning on pushing you harder than you've ever been pushed... This year, I'm not planning on letting anyone or anything get in the way...I lost focus."
And with that, "The Purple Piano Project" is born. Schue hopes to inspire school enthusiasm for the New Directions by placing donated pianos around the school. He's painted them purple; whenever a New Directions member happens upon one, they have to sing. Before anyone opens their mouths, however, Jacob Ben-Israel gives us a speed update on what everyone's been up to: Finn puts up a front but actually confesses he's directionless, seniors Rachel and Kurt have big plans to move to New York and go to Julliard, senior Mike's mom hasn't decided whether he's applying to Harvard or Stanford, juniors Tina and Artie don't have to worry about the future yet. After a brief stint with the now-gone Sam, Mercedes is dating a nameless football player who has big Grammy dreams for her, Santana wants to be head Cheerio and model herself after fierce Latina Paula Abdul (obviously!), Brittany being Brittany assumes Jacob's question means he's also working on a time machine and Puck is back but single after Lauren ditched the New Directions. Missing in Action: one Quinn Fabray, who has since abandoned showering, dyed her hair pink, gotten her nose pierced, adorned her body with a Ryan Seacrest tramp stamp and joined tough-girl crew the Skanks. And then, 19 minutes in, the music starts:
"We Got the Beat":
With the New Directions still afraid of school ridicule but also three men down, Rachel pushes them to perform in the cafeteria, where Schue has conveniently placed a piano. The Go-Go's tune is a blast of energy that welcomes us back into the Glee-sphere. Santana, Brittany and Rachel trade lead vocals and it's nice to see the latter two match the rawness of Santana's voice (Auto-Tune help aside). The only thing that would have made this better is a surprise performance by Gwyneth Paltrow's Emmy-winning Holly Holliday, who would surely be dancing on the lunch tables with the New Directions. Instead we got a bunch of mostly stoic faces, save for Mercedes' boyfriend who actually seems kind of into it. As the last note plays out, a few pieces of food get thrown. Puck: "Oh, god, no!" But it's too late: Jacob proclaims a food fight and the New Directions remain firmly at square one.
Or so we think. A lone auditioner shows up, Sugar Matta, daughter of he who donated the pianos. She talks a big talk but then can't hit a note to save her life during "Big Spender." The New Directions are against bringing her on, but Schue has a soft spot for any kid who loves the arts. He seeks out advice from Coache Bieste during lunch – who, in the best non-music moment of the show, nonchalantly uncovers an entire rotisserie chicken while listening. These concerns are pushed aside however, when Emma comes in with Sue's latest poll numbers. Sue's congressional campaign was fading into oblivion until she declared a "no arts funding" stance during an episode of "Sue's Corner." Now she's consistently climbing, and Emma – who has been living in domestic bliss with Will, save for the actual sex part – shares the news. He decides to launch a counter offensive, and his passion and fury manage to turn Emma on.
"Ding Dong the Witch is Dead":
Crushed by Emma's revelation that Julliard doesn't offer a musical theater program, Kurt and Rachel take to the auditorium stage to lift their spirits and prep for Plan B: the local mixer for prospective students at top-ranked New York Academy for Dramatic Arts (NYADA). The number is all we could ever want from a Kurt and Rachel performance: it's effortless, charming, full of power musical theater vocals and Rachel gets to channel Barbra Streisand (who, along with Harold Arlen, sang the cover the Glee version is based on).
"It's Not Unusual":
After a mushy "no you will," "no you will!" debate over who would beat whom if Blaine stays with the Warblers while Kurt is with the New Directions, the lovebirds are united when Blaine opts to switch to McKinley. For his audition number, he takes over the courtyard steps with the Cheerios to cover Tom Jones (slightly confusing because we thought the Cheerios were banned from any glee club interaction not endorsed by Sue, but whatevs). It's like an answer to "We Got the Beat," where the purple piano and the glee club band are serendipitously set up. Only this time, it seems like the school can't help but subscribe to Blaine's charismatic performing, though they seem confused by the final spectacle of the Cheerios pouring gasoline onto the piano and Quinn lighting the thing on fire with her unwanted cigarette. McKinley criticism aside, we continue to subscribe to Blaine's frontman abilities, even if this wasn't his finest hour: some of the belting felt strained and the energy a little forced.
"Anything Goes/Anything You Can Do":
From the departments of Glee's sugar-rush mash-ups comes this gem, which combines the title song from Anything Goes (once sung on Broadway by season two finale guest star Patti LuPone) with the much-covered track from Annie Get Your Gun. The exuberant, tap-filled number serves as our introduction to Rachel and Kurt's NYADA competition, a room full of Rachel and Kurt clones including Robert Pattinson's self-proclaimed future husband Gavroche, named for the Les Miserables character, who is starring as Rizzo in an all-male production of Grease and the Gerber Baby herself Harmony (played by The Glee Project runner-up Lindsay Pearce) who has been famous since she was a fetus. Harmony can sing with the best of them and, at the moment, is Rachel's only true competition on the show. We can't wait for the belt-off that's brewing between the two leading ladies.
Between the banter and the belting, the NYADA scene was the best of the episode, and was followed closely by Rachel and Kurt's emotional breakdown and build-up after the two realized they weren't the only ones with talent and big dreams in the Lima, Ohio region. The Kurt/Rachel friendship has grown from something catty into something genuine and relatable and their interactions are likely the most authentic for any aspiring musical theater performers among Glee's viewers.
"You Can't Stop the Beat":
Schue's Sue Sylvester Counter Offensive starts with him glitter-bombing her during Cheerios auditions (one glitter piece for every child whose dream she is killing) and continues when he bans Santana (newly appointed co-Cheerio captain, with Sue's henchwoman, Becky) from the New Directions for lighting the piano on fire. "If we're going to win Nationals this year, we need to be united," he says. After Tina compares the New Directions state to that of the battered purple pianos, Schue seeks to inspire. Rachel gets on board immediately and kicks off the finale from Hairspray, with a slow-burning first verse in the choir room that explodes into an auditorium number of purple-clad New Directions (down Quinn, Santana, Lauren and Sam, but with the addition of Blaine). It's a standard Glee episode finale, full of inspiration and importance for the future, and catchy as all hell. As the fun reaches a peak, Quinn watches the fun from the sidelines, but doesn't move to join.
While "The Purple Piano Project" didn't hit any of the emotional notes Glee is capable of, we did get a healthy dose of witty reparte and – most importantly – plot development that both fit into where things left off last year and set up interesting prospects for this year. That the music actually worked within the context was even better. The question, of course, is whether this can keep up. Ryan Murphy has made big promises about reducing the number of guest stars and tribute episodes (which got the show a lot of attention but mostly made no sense in the long run) and keeping things more tightly around the characters we're already invested in. Fingers crossed.