Fox's clever decision to sneak-preview, back in May, the pilot of "Glee" -- the high school musical whose second episode airs tonight -- created a kind of cliffhanger summer for a show that had not yet properly premiered. The pilot was rebroadcast last week in a "director's cut," a phrase that translates as "Take this seriously."
The series is set in an Ohio town where high school Spanish teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) takes over the glee club after its former director (Stephen Tobolowsky) is fired. Will cherishes memories of his own national-championship days in what is more properly called show choir -- performing jazzed-up pop songs, with choreography -- and grasps at a chance to lift his lowering horizons.
There is a lot to like here, most of it to do with the cast's younger members, and the show -- created by Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck"), Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, all of whom participated in show choir or musical theater in their own school days -- is to be embraced just for being a little different. (It is not all that different, but the particulars of its focus are fresh and its celebration of the misfit, in the age of "Gossip Girl," is refreshing.) Even with its problems -- we'll get to those presently -- it's one of the best shows of the fall season.
Still, I find it maddeningly schizophrenic, not exactly balancing its moments of real feeling with a tendency to reach for the provocatively absurd, uncomfortably mixing the authentic with the arbitrary. The adult characters, especially, tend more to caricature than character, and while that is true of many youth comedies, they are not incidental figures here. Lumpish football coach Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher) has designs on guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), who is in love with Will, who is married to Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who has just told him she's pregnant.
Terri is one of those unfortunate characters who -- because she stands between her hero husband and his putative love interest, Emma -- has been designed not to be taken seriously. From the moment we meet her, at her retail job, saying, "I'm on my feet four hours a day, three days a week here -- do you see what I have to deal with?" we regard her as history. (Although she will not go quietly.)
The villain of the piece is cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch). Jealous of anything that draws focus away from her fiefdom, she sets out to destroy the glee club. ("You do with your depressing little group of kids what I did with my wealthy, elderly mother," she tells Will. "Euthanize it.") An actress beloved by Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow, Lynch has gotten a lot of notice for her work here, but the writing flattens her toward a single note. She's funny from line to line, but there is little to her besides tin-pot contrariness. (In an upcoming episode, she editorializes on TV in favor of littering.) And she dominates every scene she's in.
By contrast, the exaggerated qualities of his colleagues make Will, as the show's only normal person over the age of 18, seem a little drab. As might be said of the whole show, he comes alive when singing and dancing -- see his exuberant take on Kanye West's "Gold Digger" tonight -- but for much of the time his character is more reactive than not, and his usefulness to the plot is undercut by the fact that the choir seems to do quite well without him.
As to the choir, I don't know whether its variety-pack makeup -- black girl, Asian girl, gay boy, boy in wheelchair, Jewish girl, jock -- is a comment on such conventions or just conventional. As the jock with a yen to sing -- a character Ryan had written into his previous high school series, "Popular," long before "High School Musical" thought it up -- Cory Monteith is especially good, and as the bullied Jewish girl, Lea Michele is a new kind of heroine, obnoxious yet sympathetic. Chris Colfer, who plays the gay character, gets some great scenes in an upcoming episode, but in the three I've seen, Kevin McHale (wheelchair), Amber Riley (black) and Jenna Ushkowitz (Asian) have stayed mostly in the background, which can start to look like tokenism.
The show is at its best at its sweetest -- not just when the characters soften toward one another but when they soften toward an idea, a possibility. And, of course, there are the musical numbers (staged by Zach Woodlee, who choreographed the occasionally musical "Eli Stone"), which by their very nature express possibility, embody a giddy kind of striving. (It's why you love "American Idol," American idolaters.) In these moments, all is forgiven.
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14-D (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)