We’re jumping into the old Wayback Machine this summer to see where it all started for the little musical-comedy-juggernaut-that-could. Glee’s pilot aired on May 19, 2009 – right after the final performance of that season’s American Idol run, and months before it officially started its 13-episode run in the fall.
I’ve been Glee fan (aka “gleek”) since the very beginning, and I’ve really gotten wrapped up in all the current plot-lines for the season that just ended. So it was a bit of a shock how many times I literally laughed out loud at this first episode. The show sets the tone with its opening Bring It On-esque Cheerios routine and Coach Sue yelling at them through her megaphone that water-boarding is harder than their workout. We meet Mr. Schue next, as he’s walking through the McKinley High parking lot. He stops to ask Kurt whether he’s making friends with crowd of muscle-headed morons surrounding him, which includes guys we’ll learn later are Finn and Puck. Finn gives him the best lame-o homework excuse ever (“Almost halfway done with almost all of it, Mr. Schue!”) and then offers to hold Kurt’s designer jacket before the jocks throw him in the dumpster.
One thing I found really interesting was how much time the pilot spent with the adult cast members. The next scene is Schue in the teachers’ lounge, bitching with Emma and the football coach, Ken Tanaka, about how the coffee budget was cut in favor of a nutritionist for the Cheerio squad. Ken starts trying to hit on Emma, and she squirms out of the conversation by announcing that chorus teacher Sandy Ryerson has been fired. Mr. Schue immediately asks Principal Figgins’ permission to take over the glee club, and is informed that he’ll have to pay $60 a month for the privilege. Cut to him lying awake next to his sleeping wife, Terri, trying to figure out how he’s going to hide the expense and how he’s going to inspire his New Directions.
With all of the adult cast introduced, we finally get to meet the kids who will be the heart and soul of the show. This happens in the form of the standard audition montage, where the chosen songs serve as an auditory shorthand for who each of these kids are. So of course Mercedes belts out “Respect”, and edgy-goth Tina spits out Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” (while practically daring Mr. Schue to object), and Kurt goes full-on theater queen with an amazing snippet of “Mr. Cellophane”. And then there’s Rachel. She of the gold stars next to her name and random hallway slushie facials. The show turns her stupid-good version of “On My Own” from Les Miz into a musical montage/voiceover to introduce her as our female lead. Schue tells her it was amazing, and she immediately wants to know when rehearsals begin.
Apropos of that question, the next scene opens in the choir room where we’re going to be spending so much of the rest of the series – with Artie taking the lead on a cringe-inducing version of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat”. Rachel questions the wisdom of giving the lead in said song to a kid in a wheelchair, then storms out when Artie suggests that maybe Schue did it ironically. Cut to the bleachers out by the football field, where Schue finds Rachel watching Coach Sue verbally abuse the Cheerios some more. Schue tells her that she’s better than most of the kids in glee, but she needs to tone down a little. She replies that she wants to be part of something special, and that she needs a male lead who can keep up with her or she’s quitting. Football coach Tanaka rolls up in a golf cart to tell Schue that the principal needs to see him. In Figgins’ office, Schue has to fend off another attempt to cancel the club. He agrees to run detention for free, as well as stipulating that he gets to keep the auditorium for practices as long as the club shows at regionals.
Will explains his overtime work to his wife at her workplace, Sheets & Things, and she doesn’t take it well. She berates him about the lunch he was sweet enough to bring her and the tiny number of hours she has to work; it’s clear within 30 seconds who runs things in the Schuester household! While he’s there, he sees Sandy Ryerson and tries to escape, but Sandy spots him and strikes up a conversation about the glee club. He tells Schue that he’s started making a killing selling medical MaryJane to “patients”. He gives a charmingly-packaged sample to Schue and tells him should really consider getting into the business himself. In school the next day, Schue talks to Sue about getting some of the Cheerios to join glee club. She snarkily informs him that his group of kids aren’t just losers, they’re in the popularity sub-basement. Emma agrees, but says it would only take one popular kid to join for others to follow. Schue gets Coach Tanaka to let him pitch the glee club to the football jocks, but only if Schue puts in a good word for him with Emma. This leads to a sign-up sheet filled with names like “Gaylord Wiener”, “Butt Lunch” and “Penis”.
Despite this, there’s one boy who really needs to be in the club, and Schue overhears him singing in the shower. And here’s where shit gets dark, yo – Schue blackmails Finn into joining glee with the little package of pot from Sandy Ryerson. We get Finn’s back story via flashback/voiceover, talking about how hard his mom has had it since his dad died in the first Iraq war and her last douchey boyfriend (the one who taught Finn to love classic rock) ditched her for a newer model. Finn’s vowed to make her proud of him, so he agrees to do time in glee instead of serving detention. Flash forward to the club singing a stripped-down version of “You’re The Once That I Want” from Grease. Rachel looks at him the way Wile E. Coyote used to look at the Roadrunner in the old cartoons, and he’s a little freaked out. Mercedes objects to singing backup, but Kurt points out it’s the first time they’ve been kind of good. She grudgingly agrees, and they resume rehearsal.
Later that night, Will and Terri are doing a puzzle in her craft room, and Will says he wants to take the glee kids to Carmel High to scope out their competition. He even asks her to chaperone this little field trip with him, but she turns him down and tells him he needs to quit trying to relive his own high school glee club glory days. The next morning at school, he posts a chaperone request sheet in the teachers’ lounge, and Emma signs up right away. Meanwhile, out on the football field, Puck’s giving Finn crap about missing a Saturday practice. Finn tells a ridiculous lie involving his mom and prostate surgery, and Puck backs off.
Cut to the lobby outside Carmel High auditorium, where Emma and Rachel are trying to impress Will and Finn respectively, and sort of striking out. Will’s married, and Finn pretty quickly informs Rachel that he’s dating Quinn Fabray, head cheerleader and president of the McKinley High celibacy club. Once the McKinley group makes it into the auditorium, they’re treated to a frightening display of musical prowess by Vocal Adrenaline. The crowd loves it, but our heroes just look dazed.
Back at McKinley, Puck and the rest of the football corner Finn with paintball guns, since they figured out that moms don’t have prostates. Will goes home to a “Congratulations” banner in his dining room, champagne and a pregnant wife. He goes back to the glee club next day to let the kids know he’s put in his 2 weeks’ notice, and tells them he’ll try to find a replacement sponsor for the club. Artie asks why he’s leaving, Mercedes assumes it’s because they suck compared to Vocal Adrenaline, and Finn just wants to know if he’s still on the hook. Will tells them that adults have to make tough choices, and goes off to pack up and finish a job application to an accounting firm that’s hiring.
During his lovely rendition of “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane”, we see Emma clearly pining for Will. She overhears a couple of the teachers talking in the lounge about how his wife is knocked up and that’s why he quit. She chokes up a bit, and next we see her in his classroom. She tells him she wants to see him tomorrow in the career center, for some guidance. Cut to Finn closing his locker, only to jump when he sees Rachel lurking behind the door. She demands to know why he wasn’t at glee practice. He says he thought it was done, and Quinn swoops in to find out why Finn is even talking to her. Rachel fibs to get rid of her, and then tells Finn he shouldn’t worry so much about trying to be popular.
Out on the football field, Finn is fibbing to Puck too, saying that he was only in glee so that he could pass Spanish and stay on the football team. Puck welcomes him back to the land of the normal with a present: Artie locked in a porta-john, and Finn gets first crack at pushing it over. Instead, he lets Artie out. When they complain that he’s helping a loser, he points out that everybody in their town is going to be a “Lima loser” and he’d just rather do stuff that makes him happy. In his case, that means football and glee club. He looks over to see his mom’s ex-boyfriend spraying the football field with the fake green junk that makes the grass look better, and hears Journey blasting out of the guy’s stereo. You can practically see the lightbulb go on over his head. He runs back into the school, and interrupts Rachel’s hostile takeover of a closed glee club rehearsal. After apologizing to them for being a jerk, he dishes out some assignments (Artie to recruit the jazz band, Mercedes on wardrobe and Rachel on choreography) and tells them he’ll take care of the music. This is just the first of many times that Finn steps up to “save” the glee club, and it says much about who this character is.
In the McKinley High cafeteria, Emma’s providing Will with career guidance in the form of a videotape of the 1993 New Directions’ Nationals performance. Will was a member of the glee club then, and describes the performance as the greatest moment of his life – until he found out he was going to be a dad. Awwww…. Emma reminds him that doing something he’s passionate about (like being a teacher) is more important than money. He leaves the lunchroom, and goes back to the auditorium, pulled by the sounds of singing. It turns out to be the 6 members of New Directions, led by Finn and Rachel, singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”. They’re all dressed in black Chucks, blue jeans and variations on a red shirt appropriate for each character. He’s not the only witness, either; we also see Coach Sue and Quinn, as well as Puck, separately watching the performance. As triumphant as the performance is, it’s clear that the course of true show choir is not going to run smooth for these kids. Mr. Schue applauds them, tells them he changed his mind about leaving, and it would kill him to see them win Nationals without him. We know that such cockeyed optimism may be unfounded at that very moment, but damn if it doesn’t feel good anyway.