It may be early in its rebooted fourth season, but Glee is back to its roots.
The Fox musical answered one of the new fall season's biggest question last week, unspooling its split-location format and introducing a loyal army of Gleeks to four fresh new faces as the series repopulates McKinley's halls and spices up Rachel's love life in New York.
The massive change has reinvigorated co-creator Ryan Murphy and the rest of the writers to tap into what once made the show a breakout: plots grounded in realistic stories about the underdog in high school. Ratings for the premiere, which saw Lea Michele's Rachel get off to a bumpy start in New York with her tough dance teacher (Kate Hudson), illustrated that the beloved musical -- which in its third season found itself a target for critics -- was not just back but creatively stronger. "It's very nice to hear people say nice things about the show again, I won't lie about it," Murphy tells The Hollywood Reporter. Further proving the point is Thursday's "Britney 2.0," Glee's second Britney Spears tribute episode, which THR screened early. The hour, which like the first, revolves around Heather Morris' lovable dingbat Brittany S. Pearce, is grounded in reality.
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The premiere episode, titled "The New Rachel," averaged a 3.3 rating in the all-important 18-49 demographic, with 8.1 million viewers -- up 25 percent compared with its season three average and up 10 percent vs. last year's graduation-themed finale.
Further proof can be seen on iTunes, where at press time, six songs from the season four premiere were the series' most-downloaded for the week, with two appearing in the top 200 a week after the episode aired (Darren Criss' cover of "It's Time, Michele and newcomer Melissa Benoist's "New York State of Mind").
THR caught up with Murphy to discuss the revitalized Glee 2.0, his plans for keeping the show on point -- don't expect to see locations other than New York and Ohio -- his love for new cast members Melissa Benoist (Marley), Jacob Artist (Jake), Dean Geyer (Brody), Becca Tobin (Kitty) and the upcoming Glee Project winner Blake Jenner (Ryder) as well as his burning desire to bring the fresh faces out on the road for a concert tour.
The Hollywood Reporter: Considering the feedback you've heard about season three, what did you take away from last season?
Ryan Murphy: What I wanted to do with Glee was get back to the roots of what it was. We got back to the idea of looking at a long-term goal; to really take it back to its underdog roots. That was a natural choice we made to send Rachel and Kurt to New York because once again, they are little fish in a big pond. That opened us up to write stories where you could root for them, and follow them and invest in their hopes and dreams like people seemed to have done at the beginning of the show. When they started off, they were a little club that everybody hated and no one thought they would ever amount to anything. But at the end of Year 3, they won Nationals. What was also important to us was to do a show where characters were given an opportunity to grow and change, particularly like Lea Michele and Chris Colfer's characters in New York, and introducing a new love interest for Lea [Geyer's Brody] to complicate the Finn [Cory Monteith] thing. Like you'll also see in the Britney Spears episode and the "Makeover" episode after that, there's such a big leap forward in terms of interests and everything about how Rachel looks and acts -- that was important.
The other thing we wanted to do was repopulate the school with the next group of core characters. We've done that not so necessarily well; every year we'd add one or two new people and then we wouldn't necessarily follow their stories as much as perhaps we should have. We wanted to add a new group of four or five new kids who are sophomores now and hopefully they would take us through a couple more years and we can really follow their growth as well. We spent three months casting those people. Blake Jenner won The Glee Project and I knew that he was one of them and the other two we cast a really wide net and spent three months casting all over the country, just like we did the pilot; I don't think we'd done such a wide search since. Like the pilot, we took six actors for each of those parts: Jake, Marley and Kitty and we brought them to the studio and network. Since we did the pilot, I chose them, but I really wanted the studio and the network to be invested in these kids. The big find to me was Melissa. None of us were happy with the choices for that part because we wanted a fresh face we hadn't had before, an every-girl. She came in at the very last moment and the thing that pushed her over for me was the casting of Jake: we'd cast him and I had him read with all the nominees and at the very end, I said what do you think. He said, "Melissa is the one." She's the one he had the most chemistry with and I thought that was a great observation.
In the storytelling, in seasons two and three, shows are journeys and you figure out what you do and what you can and cannot do successfully and I think we took some risks with a lot of fantasies and some big production numbers that maybe to some people weren't rooted enough. I loved them but some people didn't. The storytelling is much more rooted in realness, perhaps more than it's ever been before. When you follow these first nine episodes, you'll see that. The perfect example is how we told Britney Spears -- that [tribute episode] story in season two and how we told it in season four is very different. For the most part, the Britney stuff in the second go-around is much more relatable and real and there's not a lot of fantasy stuff. There's still some crazy moments, don't get me wrong, but that was basically the feeling. Populate New York, repopulate the classroom and you have to be careful with who's coming back and how they're doing it and when do you want them to appear, what's really fun for the audience is to have this group of kids who have graduated and then every couple episodes -- through episode 12 -- people that you've grown to love will pop up in new and fresh, exciting ways and you can catch up with them and see how their journey is going. That's been very invigorating as well. Basically we have a glee club emeritus situation and then the new glee club and it's been really fun and exciting to write toward.
The Grease musical also seems to be following a similar arc as last season's West Side Story, which overlapped with the student body elections, that will also be part of season four. Was the decision to follow the traditional school year an intentional one?
Grease is episodes five and six. Some of the things that people have always remarked to me that they love is when we do the musicals, elections and graduation, so we'll probably always be doing those three things every year and rooting [the show] in events. I loved West Side Story and last year, I think we got off on a tangent where perhaps we did too much Broadway stuff and did too much stuff that was unknown to our audience. I personally enjoyed it but I know a lot of people did not know those songs. We were very careful this year to say, "OK, let's do something that parents can watch with their kids; what would that musical be?" It would be Grease. We all grew up with Grease and kids still watch it and love it. That's an example of things we're trying to do on the show to make it a little more broad appeal to family viewing and a little less niche. That's been a real concerted effort and I think it's paid off.
How will you be reincorporating the original characters -- like Quinn, Santana, Mercedes, Puck -- into Glee 2.0 to help boost the show?
People love those characters and for me, we could have done a show where we stayed with this group of people for six years and then the show was over, but make no mistake, the show has a heightened realism and I wanted to follow their journeys, and the ups and downs. For example, Rachel and Finn's careers, and how is Santana (Naya Rivera) doing in college -- she comes back in a really unexpected, fun way. Quinn (Dianna Agron) comes back around the holidays in a really cool way. I want to see those characters grow up and change and not be the same. At the end of the day, the show is really about the pursuit of dreams, that's what Glee has always been. I want to see those characters go get their dreams, I want to see them fight and achieve. I recognize that some people really miss a lot of those characters but I recently got on Twitter and was happy to read the night of the premiere how many people loved Marley and Jake and how many people loved to hate Kitty; that was a good sign to me. By the end of episode 12, we will have touched base and brought back into the fold everybody that everybody has loved and people will find that interesting, it's something fun to look forward to.
I remember when I graduated from high school and went off to college. I had a lot of success and friends in high school and I would come back for holidays and when they had musicals and big events because I felt like I was a proud graduate and had a lot of pride in that. That feeling is definitely in this season; those guys won Nationals and I think they have a great pride in that and a great tradition that they're going to try and instill with those kids. All the actors have loved it. Before it was a very difficult schedule and it was very hard. Now it's a very energized cast. People don't have to work 18-hour days; they can work three or four days a week and have a week off and people are allowed to go pursue film, musical or book projects. It's become a really nice home base. I'm really proud of how we've intertwined New York with Ohio and we've kept these stories threaded together, that's been something that I wanted to do and the writers have done a great job with that.
Might we see graduates in other cities (Mike in Chicago, Puck and Mercedes in L.A.)?
We're not going to do L.A. or San Francisco. When you have events like we're going to have -- Sectionals is our Thanksgiving episode, the musical, there's great opportunities for people to come back and share what's going on with them in their lives. That will be fun for people but no, we're really only interested in New York and Ohio.
What challenges are you coming across with the new format? What's been the easiest/hardest?
The easiest thing to do in this show, and this show is about first times, that's why high school shows at their best work because you're following characters who are going through first times in their lives. In Year 3, we were getting a little slow on what were the first times, because they had had so many of them: dated, lost virginity, won glee club Nationals, etc. But with some of them growing up and going to college and moving to New York, there's a whole next big set of first times and for our new crop coming in, they're experiencing their first times in a very different way than the other crop did. We wanted to make sure that Marley, Jake and Kitty, on first blush, it'd be very easy to say, "That's the new Rachel, Puck and Quinn," but they're very different. When you get into around episodes 5, 6 and 7, you see that they have very different issues and things going on than the graduating senior group did.
The comparisons for the new characters, was that done intentionally to help the audience ease into the newbies and not miss the graduates as much?
I think so. That's what happens in show business, you replace stars with archetypes in a weird way (laughs). That was the joke that we had, we called [the premiere episode] "the new Rachel," but make no mistake that after the first episode, as you'll see with Marley's relationship with her mother, guys and her own self-consciousness about her weight, she's a completely different character than Rachel ever was. We were aware that people would think that but as we get deeper into the run you'll see how individualized and great they are. We've never had a character like Marley on the show. Rachel was a confident animal right from the get-go, though she did have insecurities.
"Britney 2.0" is a strong episode, was that a natural decision to do another Spears tribute given her commitment to X Factor?
No, that was my idea. They never asked me at all. The first episode, we had Britney's cooperation and she was in it and had approvals and I never wanted to do that again. I thought it would be interesting to do another tribute to her simply because it was a big hit for us but to do it in a different way. I like doing tributes the way we do in this episode; what's more important are following the characters' stories or doing another fantasy number or some of that razzmatazz stuff. I suggested it and network liked it because of the Britney tie-in but it was a different way of doing it. I don't know if she's seen the episode and I really admire her. I hope she would like it but it was meant to be another type of love letter to her. What Brittany says about her at the end is that Britney Spears' career is about resiliency and that's what we say.
The same could be said for Glee.
(Laughing) Yes! It's very nice to hear people say nice things about the show again, I won't lie about it. Sometimes when you're in the weeds of a show and when the show becomes so popular, I get that people want to bring things that are popular down to heel and that's part of the process. There have been some dark days along the way with Glee and what happened is we stopped paying attention to it. We said, "Let's stop with the fantasies and let's stop with the razzmatazz. What are the character stories we could tell?" I was shocked that so many people seemed to have loved it and gotten back on board, in a pleasant way. I feel like I have a really renewed passion for it because I love what we're doing with the old characters and with the new characters. I really want it to go for many more years to come.
Do you have an eye on how many more seasons you'd like Glee to go for?
I don't know. This time last year I was telling people I would personally only want to do it for five years, with this year four. But I'd really like to follow these new kids and their journeys. We're having a meeting with Fox about it in a couple days and I think if we continue to do it right and we can populate it, I really want to go on tour this year. I want to get the new kids out and have them go across the country. That was so important to the show and the life of the show. The fans love it and I think it gets them close to the characters. If we can find a way to keep doing that every year and hopefully keep the storytelling good, I'd like to do it for many, many years. This year, we will in a month have done our 500th song, which is insane. I thought by the point I got there, I'd be tapped out. But I really feel invigorated by it. I love the fan response and where we're headed. I'm very confident with the season and I know the network is, and that's a good feeling.
Will seeing musicals and graduations be something we see every year? Will the seniors this year -- Artie, Blaine, Brittany -- graduate?
Yes, Artie, Blaine, Brittany will hopefully graduate if she can get it together. I think it's important and I think it's closure and important to pay tribute to these characters that we've followed in a major way. They're always very emotional to write and film but my feeling is there's always a place through these actors here, they can always come back; we'll always write to them -- maybe not in every episode. Some of the people we've brought back for the first 10 episodes have been in three, four or five episodes and they've really enjoyed it. That's not to say everybody that we have will go on tour, I think we have to figure that out and when and where we're announcing that tour. It all feels good to me. That's my wish; I really loved the tour. If you read Twitter, people really seem to be clamoring for one and I can hear the new kids and have heard them talking about it already and asking the old-timers what it was like. I'm excited about that and I think it's joyous and celebratory. I don't know how big the tour will be or what it will be, but we're just now talking about should we or should we not do it but I'm throwing my hat in the ring and saying I've seen six of the episodes now and I know these new kids are so good that I really want to put them out in front of people and have them see how talented they are.
Since joining Twitter, you've engaged a lot with the show's vocal audience. How has that helped inspire you?
It's been a great experience because sometimes I'll hold a Q&A with the Glee fans to hear what they like, but that doesn't mean that's what I'm going to do. I think passion is passion and I really admire that and Glee has some of the most passionate fans in the world. Even when they don't like something, they'll tell you and I appreciate that as well. It's a very young fan base and a very vocal one but it's fun to put out an episode and live tweet during it and see what people are saying -- both good and bad. I've enjoyed it and surprised that I've been as "Switzerland" as I've been on it (laughing). Sometimes it's rough to read mean and horrible things about you, about characters. Death threats are never fun but for the most part I've looked at it as something that I've really enjoyed because the fan base is so loyal and I that I appreciate.
What do you think of Glee's fourth season? Hit the comments with your thoughts. Glee airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.