‘Glee’ season premiere recap: ‘The New Rachel’ and the new ‘Glee’

Being brand new to the cutthroat world of “Glee” recaps, I was really hoping to write something about why I like the show, why I’ve stuck with it over the years and why I’ve often been annoyed with its status as a designated punching bag in some corners of the web. An episode like the season four premiere, “The New Rachel,” makes that hard to do.

In many ways it was a fresh start for the show. We’ve been hearing for several months that season four will take on the ambitious challenge of splitting screen time between New York — where Rachel Berry is newly enrolled at NYADA — and the usual setting of McKinley High, where a handful of returning cast members will be joined by new recruits. There’s a lot of potential in this approach for both success and failure, and after watching the first hour I’m more concerned than optimistic.

That’s because “Glee” has a whole new problem. For the first time they’ve introduced a slew of characters who are one thing the show almost never is: boring.

The impulse to shake up the status quo is a good one. I’ve loved the entire “Glee” ensemble cast since the start, but there’s no question that the show has always had more characters than it can comfortably juggle. So if the post-graduation plan means we’re going to be seeing a lot less of Cory Monteith, Dianna Agron, Mark Salling, Naya Rivera, Amber Riley and Harry Shum Jr. in either the short or long term, I’ll miss them. But I’d be happy with an increased focus on the kids left behind. Or to see the obvious stars, Lea Michele and Chris Colfer, step into the spotlight in New York.

Instead, “The New Rachel” spends a lot of time establishing five new characters. Two of them essential to fleshing out Rachel’s experience in New York, three of them provide something “fresh” at McKinley. None of them worked, and here’s why:

Cassandra July (Kate Hudson)

She’s Rachel’s dance instructor at NYADA and the new Sue Sylvester. Why does the show need a new Sue Sylvester when Emmy winner Jane Lynch is sitting around with almost nothing to do? Even if you believe Sue has become redundant (and I don’t, Lynch had far too many great moments in season three when they gave her room to play, it’s foolish to just write off her immense comedic and dramatic gifts), why start off Rachel’s story with someone designed to make the audience think of nothing but Sue’s unique teaching methods. And if you’re gonna remind people of Sue, you better bring it better than “muffin top” or “Little Miss David Schwimmer.” It’s not Hudson’s fault that her dialogue wasn’t funny, but it sure didn’t help. And her big solo number was disappointment. Hudson tackled the mash-up of Jennifer Lopez’s “Dance Again” and Lady Gaga’s “Americano” with gusto, but that couldn’t disguise the lackluster vocals and choppy editing obscuring what little we saw of the unimaginative choreography. (C’mon, Zach Woodlee, we know you can do better.) So far, Cassandra is little more than that crazy woman from “Dance Moms” reimagined in the form of Hudson’s ridiculously thin body. Not good enough.

Brody Weston (Dean Geyer)

OK, so it’s a “Glee” thing to introduce the new hunk singing in the shower. And I’m thrilled “Sister Christian” finally got its turn on the show. But when the ab-tastic Geyer emerged from behind the curtain we were suddenly in the world of “Glee’s” new timeslot rival “Grey’s Anatomy.” Never before has the show gone so blatantly himbo. That will probably get Geyer more than his fair share of attention from boy-crazy fans and the entertainment media. I get it. We’re in the post-“Magic Mike” era now. That’s fine. But every time Geyer opened his mouth to deliver a line like “People give me a hard time about my moisturizing ritual” or “Anyway, I came to tell you that you killed it in Tibideaux’s class, nice job!” it was painfully evident that abs won’t get you everywhere.

Jake Puckerman (Jacob Artist)

Puck’s little brother should’ve been an easy character to create. Even if he’s a half-brother who has no real relationship with “Glee’s” original bad boy, there’s a built-in history that should be fun to mess around with. But Jake turned out to be just a whiny brat with anger issues and no other distinguishing characteristic. Also, Artist performed a solo during the audition sequence. I only remembered that happened because I went back to rewatch parts of the episode.

Kitty (Becca Tobin)

Sue’s “new head bitch” is a bad knockoff of Quinn version 1.0 (back when she was convincing Finn he got her pregnant in the hot tub, and Dianna Agron pulled off nonsense like that because she’s wicked talented). Of all the new characters, we see the least of Kitty in the premiere. But it’s enough to know that Tobin is in over her head when it comes to the new Cheerio’s raison d’etre: mean girl quips. Her put-downs are weak (“Gimpy and the tarantula head and Richie Poor,” really? At least she got “Pre-op Precious: Based on the Novel Barf by Sapphire”) and the delivery doesn’t help. Santana would eat this twit for breakfast, and still have time to make a couple cracks about Finn’s man boobs.

Marley Rose (Melissa Benoist)

Finally, and perhaps most problematic given the amount of screen time she had to carry, there was wallflower waiting to blossom Marley Rose. Benoist got to sing twice (including the lead on the closing number, Adele’s “Chasing Pavements”), received the week’s designated “After School Special” subplot, and became the darkhorse contender for New Directions’ “New Rachel” slot that Artie appropriately assigned to Blaine. Through it all Benoist demonstrated all the range and charisma of  Katharine McPhee on “Smash.” And if you consider that a compliment, well, maybe Benoist worked better for you than she did for me.

We’ve heard Lea Michele’s powerhouse voice juxtaposed with co-stars before (Chris Colfer on “Defying Gravity,” Amber Riley on “Out Here on My Own,” Idina Menzel on “I Dreamed a Dream”), but never heard her blow someone completely out of the water the way she did Benoist on “New York State of Mind.” Although it’s clear that Marley is supposed to be a completely different kind of character than Rachel — humble, shy, more interested in being “on the radio!” than Broadway — and Benoist has a completely different voice than Michele, the mismatched “duet” was still an odd choice to get your audience invested in a potential new (co-)leading lady.

Look, I didn’t want to hate any of these characters, and I don’t want to condemn the actors too swiftly without allowing them time to grow into the roles (or for the writers to find actual roles for them to grow into). But I was shocked to meet five new additions to the show and not be interested in a single one of them. I’m more than open to the idea of “Glee” introducing fresh blood (it worked like gangbusters on the fourth season of “Friday Night Lights”), and I’ve always considered the ability to create compelling new characters one of the show’s consistent strengths.

Darren Criss’ Blaine and Chord Overstreet’s Sam fit right in from their very first episodes. Even Vanessa Lengies’ Sugar — still on the sidelines, still amusing and adorable — hit the ground running at full speed. They were funny, charismatic, unusual characters and actors completely in line with “Glee’s” cockeyed view of teen dramedies, unlike tonight’s bland and blander newbies who would be right at home in ABC Family central casting. The only immediate dud I could think of before tonight’s episode was Grant Gustin’s one-note evil Warbler Sebastian from last year.

Now there’s Sebastian, plus five.

Stray thoughts:

– Heather Morris can do no wrong. Just the way she delivered the throwaway line “Yeah, just a little bit” in the scene with Kurt and Blaine at the Lima Bean was roughly twenty zillion times better than anything any of the new cast members did.

– I’m glad to see Jenna Ushkowitz’s Tina speaking and singing more than usual, but it’s frustrating the writers (and Ryan Murphy is the one specifically credited with this episode) still can’t come up with any better angle for her than “I want to be like Rachel!”

– I was willing to put up with Alex Newell’s insufferably sassy Unique provided the role didn’t stretch beyond what he was promised for being a runner-up on “The Glee Project.” And I appreciate that a transgender character isn’t something you see often on TV. But I’m not so willing to tolerate his transformation into the new Mercedes. Especially if all Unique’s going to do is complain about not getting solos.

– The Burt says goodbye to Kurt scene didn’t hit any new beats in their relationship, and was probably one of the laziest scripted moments they’ve ever shared, but good lord, Mike O’Malley still killed it. If you want to feel extra depressed about the new characters, compare this to any scene with Marley and her lunch lady mom.

– Fortunately, I’ve already seen next week’s episode, “Britney 2.0.” And it’s a lot better than the premiere. So if you’re like me and borderline hated this week, hopefully you have something to look forward to.

What did you think?