Glee's second season debuts tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern.
The assumption all summer has been that Glee would collapse early and often in its second season. The show made all of the classic bad moves a sensation show can make in the off-season between its first and second seasons. The show started by promoting a bunch of actors who were recurring players last season to series regulars and then adding many more characters on top of that. This continued with every bit of information leaked about the show ending up seemingly contradicting every other bit of information. Ryan Murphy would say the show was going to refocus on what made it special - the characters and their sense of desperation - and cut back on the sensationalism and songs. Then he'd turn right around and announce 15 more themed episodes, like the Britney Spears one we'll all be subjected to in a few weeks' time. It doesn't help that even at its best, Glee has always been a show that's more about manufacturing moments than coherent storylines or character arcs. It lives and dies by the scene, and that's a punishingly brutal pace no TV show can hope to keep up. So, yes. Season two of Glee is going to be terrible, and we can all watch something else and pretend we care about it now.
But wait. What if it wasn't terrible?
There's no way to say that "Audition" is perfect. The final number, while well-performed, is so poorly chosen that an emotional moment becomes unintentionally hilarious. (Without spoiling too much, it is apparently a song Rachel sings to the sheer strength of her ego.) The show hasn't stopped being that moment factory, tossing ideas at the camera at a rapid-fire pace, with not all of them matching up. There are some odd song choices here, including a number performed by one of the new recurring players that's adequate but doesn't do nearly as good a job at introducing his character as the other new character's number does at introducing her. And like all high school shows, the episode contorts itself in ridiculous fashion to get back to last season's status quo (though it leaves a few small matters changed). Also, one of the characters had some plastic surgery, and there's basically no build-up to it before a major, major plot point hinges on Sue finding out about it.
But if the episode has problems, Glee has always had problems. And there are encouraging signs in "Audition" that the show has learned a surprising amount about what does and doesn't work within its format. It feels more like an episode from the latter half of last season's first 13 (when the show went from a well-reviewed pilot to a critical sensation with equally loud critical detractors) than from the back nine (which everyone agreed were all over the place, with most fans and critics having completely different favorite and least favorite episodes). It feels like it's headed somewhere, like the show has a better idea of how to construct individual episodes so that they make sense both as moment machines and storylines. It's willing to risk having its characters do some pretty awful things and then doesn't immediately excuse their awful actions and deals (as much as Glee can) with the consequences. Obviously, this is Glee, and it's felt this way numerous times before, only to disappoint with the very next episode, but as a season premiere and promise for what's to come? "Audition" is very good indeed.
The central premise of the episode is a bit ridiculous: Finishing third at regionals has caused everyone at school to again realize that the glee club members are losers, all at once, despite Will and his kids' beliefs that they would somehow, magically, become cool. The series' continued insistence on its rigidly defined view of the high school caste system remains one of its bigger problems; it's always been a more interesting show when those lines aren't so rigidly drawn. The premiere works a little too hard to reassert the world as it was back in the pilot, and that suggests there may be a little too much in the way of redoing the first season, step for step, especially at episode's beginning. But Will won't take permanent loser-hood for an answer. Nationals are in New York this year. Surely, some kids will want to sign up after hearing that, right? Instead, the episode advances the first of several clever notions it sprinkles throughout the hour: If you build a club where anyone can be a member, pretty much no one will want to be a member of your club. So Will's dreams of building a titanic wall of sound, despite performing "Empire State of Mind" for the kids eating lunch (the best production number in the episode), fall flat. Will he find new kids to join the club? Or must everything be tinged with bitter failure?
What's surprising is how nuanced what happens next is. Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, Glee is never going to be as nuanced as most other shows, so this is nuanced for Glee. It won't work for everyone. But in particular, a storyline where Will joins forces with Sue to punish the new football coach (who's caused both the funding for the glee club and the Cheerios to be whittled down) is a much more interesting take on the idea of jumping to conclusions about a person based on their appearances and on the idea of people doing awful things to hang on to something they love than any of the "WILL JOINS THE DARK SIDE!" plots from season one. Similarly, Rachel does some incredibly awful things in this episode, but the show never loses sight of how they hurt people (and also Lea Michele's increased confidence at playing dark gags like this). And Artie endures heartbreak, Quinn makes compromises to try to forget the last year, and Finn … well, Finn mostly gets a lot of awkward reaction shots.
But the show also has a pleasant willingness to make fun of itself. It remains to be seen if this is the gentle self-mockery of a show on top that doesn't want to change anything or actual acknowledgement of some of last season's flaws, but an opening scene where the show walks us through many of the problems it had last year and tears into itself for, say, Will's rapping and the over-reliance on autotune is surprisingly funny as this sort of self-commentary goes. Even better is the way the show interrupts Rachel and new character Sunshine Corazon's performance of Lady Gaga's "Telephone." The show knows that some of what it did last season didn't work, and it's willing to make fun of it, even as it plays up the sadness and desperation that made the humor much funnier when it was around last year.
Glee's burned its fans before. It will feel like it's heading somewhere, then abruptly wander off to some other corner of the fictional universe entirely. And many of the consistent flaws of season one are still present - the autotune, for instance, is probably never going away. But "Audition" is a good episode because it reminds viewers just how big the world of McKinley High got last year, and it barely even leaves school grounds (problematic characters like Terri and Emma are nowhere to be seen). The new characters aren't perfect, but they suggest a way Glee could continue while shifting out old fan favorites and working in new blood. Furthermore, "Audition" finds a way to tell three completely separate stories that are all about the awful or misguided things we do to hang on to what we want most, and that thematic underpinning gives the episode a structure much of last season lacked. If Glee is not a show for you, it hasn't magically become one in its second season premiere, but if it is for you, this premiere will probably leave you very happy indeed. The true test of whether the show has changed enough to be consistent will be the upcoming Britney Spears episode (and how the show handles all of the guest stars), but for now, this is very enjoyable, very entertaining television.
Then again, most everyone thought Heroes' premiere signified a kick-ass second season too. So … grain of salt.