First Night: Glee, E4

New faces join class of 2011 – but the plot needs homework

"We're plankton on the high-school food chain..." Yup, welcome back the McKinley High School glee club, whose meteoric rise to third place in the regional championships won the hearts of millions last year, and turned a likeable, if inconsistent, high-school drama into a global phenomenon spawning hit records and (last night) endless commercial breaks on E4. Glee is like Fame with irony and High School Musical with people who don't look like Zac Efron, but now its overnight success has turned to overnight disenchantment. Perhaps people just rated it too highly in the first place.

Last night's opener was what you call quintessential. Wrapped around an unrealistic and actually quite bland teen drama was all the important stuff – the smart, bitchy one-liners and the big production numbers. Most enjoyable of the latter was a storming rendition of Alicia Keys and Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" delivered to a resolutely uninterested crowd of lunch-eating peers – a not entirely oblivious audience however, since Finn noticed signs of foot-tapping. This was a neat way of introducing us to two potential new recruits: a lad with a Justin Bieber fringe and a female foreign exchange pupil who instantly engaged the jealous Rachel into an impromptu Lady Gaga duet duel in the girls' toilets.

There was welcome new blood on the teaching staff as well, and at last a worthy-seeming opponent for the caustic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (the terrific Jane Lynch), who served all the best lines in season one. The formidable-looking Shannon Beiste hit back hard, accusing Sue, for example, of being "all coffee and no omelette". And anyway it soon became clear that Beiste was no beast, just misunderstood – an outsider, just like, yup, the glee club. Vinegar Sue has the field back to herself again.

What's going to be tricky for the writers is finding a story arc that doesn't become repetitive – after all, how many variations are there on the basic "bunch of losers come good" riff? It might be why, despite a snappy opening recapitulation of the story so far, last night's show felt like it had gone right back to the beginning – with the glee club as unpopular as ever and a new contest to enter – this time with a final in New York (cue Alicia Keys and Jay-Z).

The biggest complaint from American critics has been about the number of "specials" in this second series, including (next week) a Britney Spears episode and, later, a guest appearance by Gwyneth Paltrow. That's the sort of thing that usually happens in the later, decadent stage of a TV hit's existence, not during the sophomore season. But I don't want to pre-judge. Bring on La Spears and hit me with it one more time – especially as I understand that Britney is thoroughly upstaged by Glee's hugely skilled cast.

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