The breakout hit of last season returns, having conquered the world and iTunes charts for the past year. Musical "dramedy" Glee was beginning to wilt in the second half of season 1, with the writers recycling many of the same character arcs, and papering its cracks with an increase in musical numbers -- so after a summer break to reassess things, has Glee come back revitalized with some new tricks up its sleeve? After coming third in Regionals last year, a new term begins for the students of William McKinley High, with glee club once again on the bottom rung of the social order. The arrival of a butch female football coach, Shannon Beist (Dot Jones) causes ructions, when she convinces Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba) to reduce the cheerleading and glee club budgets, to the consternation of Sue (Jane Lynch) and Mr Schue (Matthew Morrison), who form an alliance to undermine their common enemy. Elsewhere, the glee club try to swell their ranks in preparations for this year's New York Regionals, by promoting themselves around school, hoping to attract fresh blood like Filipina exchange student Sunshine (Charice) and athletic new boy Sam (Chord Overstreet). The former of which poses a threat to Rachel's (Lea Michele) position as lead vocalist, while Finn (Cory Monteith) realizes Sam's a flaxen echo of himself. He even discovers Sam's singing talent while he's taking a shower, mirroring how Schue chanced upon Finn in the series pilot. One thing I appreciate about Glee is how it's clearly listening to its fans. This episode throws up a number of in-jokes (Figgins telling Schue that nobody likes his rapping, Finn dancing badly for a Cheerios try-out) that are allusions to feedback received from the "Gleeks" and critics. This synergy between show and audience is a major component of Glee's success. Goddess of deadpan Brittany (Heather Morris) might never have become a regular in season 2, without fans taking her to their hearts after her "dolphins are just gay sharks" comment last year, and the feeling that audience response can shape this show almost gives it interactivity. One issue with Glee last year was the repetitive nature of its storylines, or generally weak excuses for plots. "Audition" was about easing us back into the embellished world Glee occupies, but the throughline of the glee club trying to attract new talent was a neat way of making this premiere feel accessible to newcomers watching, too. And the subplot with Sue and Schue essentially bullying Beist was a definite highlight, as Dot Jones (Mean Girls) is a brilliant replacement for the misfiring Coach Tanaka -- a large, powerful, masculine woman (reminding me of "The Trunchbull" from Roald Dahl's Matilda), Beist is a wonderful new addition. Another cartoonish monster to sit alongside Sue Sylvester, but with a tender side that was nicely revealed. The musical performances this week were okay, particularly the big song-n'-dance version of "Empire State Of Mind" outside (evoking memories of Fame, Glee's '80s inspiration), but I also enjoyed Rachel and Sunshine's interrupted version of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" in a rest room, and Sam's rendition of "Billionaire" was also nicely done. The song choices have always been eclectic and fun, but given Glee's snowballing reputation in the music industry, I'm sure its jukebox selection will continue to blossom. Sunshine and Sam don't scream originality to me as characters (she's the shy foreigner everyone underestimates, he's another jock who keeps his singing a secret), but the actors have innate likeability, and hopefully we'll start to appreciate their characters when the details are added. Glee's ensemble is already large, especially now Santana (Naya Rivera), Brittany and Mike (Harry Shum Jr) have added screentime, so hopefully the show will continue to service its original characters without simply focusing on the new blood. Overall, "Audition" was a decent start to Glee's second season, which many people assume will suffer a backlash, even if it did reset things to a certain extent. I'm not sure failure is a given, if Glee can find compelling stories and character development to sit alongside the music (which is where the show currently excels), and actually stick to them without undoing the knots. This episode's focus on discrimination, and the idea that high school is ultimately an audition for the rest of your life, was certainly a better theme to employ than the majority of last year's episodes. Provided Glee can shake off its tendency to adhere to formula (which is comforting, but will only bleed the show dry in the long-run), the pop-culture phenomenon doesn't have to lose its voice. Asides Quinn (Dianna Agron) is without her baby bump and back as the cheerleading leader, literally demoting Santana to the bottom of the pile, but there was no mention of her baby Beth. Brittany, on her summer: "people think I went on vacation, but I was lost in the sewers." Of course she was. Lea Michele's "What I Did For Love" was an exceptional performance, but was anyone else confused by its inclusion as the climactic song? It didn't really fit what the episode and didn't feel earned.
WRITER: Ian Brennan DIRECTOR: Brad Falchuk CAST: Lea Michele, Dianna Agron, Chris Colfer, Jane Lynch, Matthew Morrison, Kevin McHale, Cory Monteith, Heather Morris, Amber Riley, Naya Rivera, Mark Salling, Jenna Ushkowitz, Charice, Dot Jones, Chord Overstreet, Lauren Potter, Harry Shum Jr & Iqbal Theba TRANSMISSION: 21 September 2010 FOX, 8/7c