For Gleeks across the world, last season’s finale Goodbye appeared to signal a major change for their favourite musical comedy-drama, with many of the central cast stars seeming to bow out either with a bang (Finn and Rachel, for example), a whimper (the awkward unresolved Quinn-Puckerman chemistry, for example) or pretty much no mention at all (Santanna and Mercedes in particular reeking of rushed send-offs). Would it really be all change for a programme that was so centralised on its admittedly repetitive themes and series structure? Could the big shift in the focus towards more minor characters who had not yet graduated breathe new life into Glee when to some extent its ratings had started dropping- Series Two averaging around 9-10 million viewers and Series Three around 6-7 million- and the novelty of the format had begun to wear off?

With the return of Glee via its Season Four debut episode The New Rachel, the show’s writers provided near-definitive responses to both of those questions: No. Rather than make major changes to the series’ structure and teen-angst themes to transform the pseudo-drama into something more meaningful than the shallow love/pregnancy/career sub-plots of the past three seasons, the writing team instead decided to split the first episode into two storylines, that of the continuing antics of the New Directions glee club at McKinley High and that of Rachel’s first classes at the NYADA school in Manhattan. Instantaneously, this reliance upon a compelling yet rather one-dimensional character who has proved to be one of Glee’s most iconic faces (Lea Michele’s Rachel) was always going to be a problem, as it highlights the inability of the producers and indeed to a larger degree the cast to move on from what has come before. Though this approach has been flawed from time to time, shows like Smallville and Being Human have pulled it off in the past, maintaining fairly consistent ratings after a one-season lull where many viewers try to find their feet with the new performers.

Michele’s rapid reprisal of her role wasn’t the only instance of this over-reliance on past leads, either: quite aptly, Chris Colfer’s Kurt continued to make appearances at McKinley too, unable to decide what to do next with his life given his rejection from NYADA. To the credit of the writers, they did at least ensure this wouldn’t just enable a rehashed return to the New Directions for Colfer, yet that Kurt ended up in NYC sharing a room with Rachel come the end of The New Rachel and along with other comments by Colfer and Michele, it’s safe to say that Kurt will continue to return again and again. No-one would mind the odd cameo or dedicated episode to these originally-thought departed characters, but to have them reprise their roles so regularly is going to prove a big distraction for the New Directions plot arc this time around. Perhaps the writers would have been better off making the full switchover to New York, though how this could have quite been accomplished is of course up to debate. Worse still, this means the brilliant Matthew Morrison and Jane Lynch were relegated to merely a handful of scenes this time around!

If it were just the ‘Rachel and Kurt re-runs’ that gave me cause for concern regarding The New Rachel, then I would hold no doubt as to the strength of Glee’s future. However, there was an overriding sense of deja vu present in the standalone elements of the storyline that was proving equally worrying as the first instalment drew on. First and foremost here, the revelation that the aforementioned ‘new Rachel’ (because, let’s be honest, it ain’t Kurt)’s mother was a kind-of-discriminated overweight dinner lady at McKinley was by no means surprising, simply because it was merely a different spin on the well-handled Coach Beiste storyline of Seasons Two and Three, albeit one now likely devoid of real surprises. Don’t get me wrong, both the newcomer actress Melissa Benoist’s Marley and her mother seemed to be portrayed well, but they’re likely to fall prey to some lazy dialogue reprisals of what’s come before, again placing them in a less favourable position than their still-present predecessors.

I could go on about all of the reasons that The New Rachel was a foreboding word of warning to the writers of Glee that this show may well meet its end in days to come if it doesn’t get some new ideas, but to be honest, I can probably let the ratings speak for themselves. The original season premiere, Pilot, garnered 9.62 million viewers in the States; the second season’s Audition boosted this to 12.45 million and the third’s The Purple Piano Project dropped down to 9.25 million. These all seem like strong showings, yet by the time we reached the penultimate episode of Season Three, its ratings were down to just over 6 million viewers, the lowest the programme has ever seen (and bear in mind here that dramas that are in my opinion now far superior like Doctor Who and Downton Abbey are earning well-over those kinds of numbers in the far smaller UK alone). Put that all together, and add in the fact that The New Rachel acquired just 7.41 million viewers Stateside, with the Britney-based follow-up getting an only slightly higher score of 7.46, and it might appear trouble is ahead. Yes, there is still cult appeal surrounding Glee at the moment, yet I reckon that if the show keeps rehashing characters, locales, themes and plot vibes as its writers are continuing to do so four seasons in, then it’s only a matter of time before Fox realise the cult drive for the programme just isn’t enough to warrant a place in their schedule anymore.

Oh, and the new temper-challenged character Jake just happening to be Puckerman’s brother? Do not get me started…

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This article was first posted on September 22, 2012