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TV Tonight: Happy Glee-turn

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Between the May sneak-premiere and the incessant advertising, it probably seems like Glee is entering its fifth season on TV. In fact the snarky-with-heart high school show choir comedy returns tonight with its second episode. And while it’s not as knock-your-socks-off as the pilot (while retaining some of the same problems), it continues to show why, at its best, this is the freshest and most joyful new show of the year.

Given how much exposure the pilot got (aired, repeated, put online and on DVD, etc.), the first new episode, “Showmance,” labors a little too hard to re-introduce the characters and conflicts of the pilot (right down to a jocks-throw-the-gay-kid-in-the-Dumpster and a geeky-girl-takes-a-soft-drink-in-the-face scene). It would seem that, at this point, if you’re going to watch Glee, you’re going to watch Glee, and you know what it is.

(OK, on the off chance you don’t: Will [Matthew Morrison], the Spanish teacher at an Ohio high school, organizes a group of misfits and outcasts into a competitive show choir, meeting resistance from the administration, the popular kids and Jane Lynch as the sharky coach of the school’s champion cheerleading squad.)

The first half of “Showmance” is a little weighed down by all the exposition, although it’s still a delight to meet Lynch all over again. But about halfway in, it takes flight with the show choir’s school-assembly number. I won’t spoil it, but it ties in with the episode’s theme, about teen sexuality and the way it gets expressed/repressed—appropriately for a show whose female lead, Lea Michele, was in the musical Spring Awakening.

(Speaking of which, the show’s risque streak is even stronger in the new episodes, suggesting that the show, which previewed after American Idol’s finale is not aiming to be the same kind of wholesome-for-the-whole-family programming. When an insecure Rachel [Michele] gets caught by a guidance counselor trying unsuccessfully to induce vomiting in the girls’ bathroom, she says, “I guess I just don’t have a gag reflex.” The counselor: “One day, when you’re older, that’ll turn out to be a gift.”)

Glee’s definitely not a show for everyone. The characters are very broadly drawn, especially Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) as Will’s materialistic wife. (When the couple goes house shopping and their budget requires her to choose between a grand foyer and a “sun nook,” she says, “It’s my very own Sophie’s Choice.”) Not only is her money-grubbing harpy a stereotype, but unless creator Ryan Murphy is able to find something human in her—something that made Will end up with her in the first place—their relationship will make no sense.

But when it succeeds, which is often, Glee is an exhilarating mashup of genres, combining highly arch satire with heart-on-its-sleeve musical dramedy. (There have been a lot of comparisons to teen shows like Freaks and Geeks and High School Musical, but Glee also reminds me of Bring It On, the high school cheerleading movie that was both a comedy of teen culture and a genuine underdog story.)

Like other shows that juggle genres (think Rescue Me), there’s always the danger of this falling apart. But for all the risks and flaws on the page, what carries Glee is its sense of humor and heart. Even when its lyrics are off, its music speaks louder.