Glee’ returns for an encore, with a stronger story

Last week the hottest new show of the year — FOX’s “Glee” — returned after an unbearably long mid-season hiatus. Already, after only two episodes, the show has shown why it won a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award this past awards season, as it continues its ascent to being one of the most original, insightful and exciting shows on the air.

The show returns to the lives of the high school misfits that make up the McKinley High glee club. Viewers find out that Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith), the two superstars of the group, are trying to make a go of their relationship, though Finn doesn’t quite understand how to deal with Rachel’s obsessive-compulsive behavior. In swoops Jesse St. James (guest star Jonathan Groff) of the rival show choir Vocal Adrenaline to sweep Rachel off of her feet — even though he seems to have ulterior spy motives given to him by his coach (guest star Idina Menzel).

Meanwhile, coach Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) wants to start a relationship with guidance counselor Emma (Jayma Mays) while still reeling from his separation from his wife, Terri (Jesslyn Gilsig). Schuester also has to contend with the return of his nemesis Sue Sylvester, the head coach of the school’s cheerleading squad, played by the hilariously offensive Jane Lynch.

The rest of the glee club keeps trucking along. Quinn (Dianna Agron) tries to make things work with baby-daddy Puck (Mark Salling), Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Mercedes (Amber Riley) want bigger solo parts, and cheerleaders Santana (Naya Rivera) and Brittany (Heather Morris) are up to no good, as usual.

“Glee” successfully combines standard TV storytelling with grandiose musical numbers. The songs are a combination of pop hits that any teenager would know (Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” 2005, or Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You,” 2009) and should know (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” 1981, and Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” 1976), as well as a few Broadway goodies for those who love theater.

Some critics have accused “Glee” of using the musical numbers to hide the fact that the story really isn’t all that stellar. For example, Will left his wife because she faked a pregnancy into the sixth month … and he believed her for that long.

As the show returns, however, executive producer and creator Ryan Murphy has made sure his team focuses on the club members and their issues: teen pregnancy, dating and love, sexual orientation and, above all, a desperate need for attention.

The writers don’t try to gloss over the bratty nature of these teenagers’ personalities; as a matter of fact, many of the lead characters (both teenage and adult) are downright unlikable. The show often vacillates between hating and loving its main characters — mostly Rachel, Finn and Will — allowing for the superb supporting cast to take over and shine, both in terms of acting and singing.

Michele and Morrison have really settled into their characters, and though the hokey, Broadway leanings of their acting will probably never dissipate, it’s easy to watch them on screen. Monteith still needs a lot of work looking natural on camera — he’s got all of the charisma of a leading man, but Finn’s awkward, sometimes idiotic persona sometimes makes it seem as if he’s lost on camera.

Every “Gleek” has their favorite character, whether it be Quinn, the pregnant, sassy former cheerleader; Puck, the rough bad boy; Artie (Kevin McHale), a wheelchair-bound nerd; or any of the others who make up the dozen or so glee club members. Though most of the episodes center on Rachel and Finn, some of the best episodes — like “Wheels” — have been about the supporting characters.

Though some might expect this new emphasis on storytelling to detract from the musical numbers, the newest episodes have proven the exact opposite — especially after Tuesday night’s all-Madonna episode. A recent reexamination of the story means that all extraneous storylines have been removed, leaving more room for bigger and better numbers. Jane Lynch’s rendition of Madonna’s music video for “Vogue” (1990) is a perfect example.

The rest of the season promises to be just as grandiose, with guest stars like Neil Patrick Harris (in a Joss Whedon-directed episode, no less), Olivia Newton-John and Molly Shannon. No matter what, the cast will continue to awe viewers with its talent and enthusiasm, both of which rival any other show on television.