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'Glee' is back, and so is the pettiness and potential of high school life

The musical comedy follows an optimistic high school teacher as he tries to transform and inspire a group of ragtag teenage performers. The show returns on April 13 at 9:28 p.m. ET on Fox.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Triumphantly, if a bit lazily, "Glee" returns from a hiatus Tuesday night, and it is still filled with that incessant, full-volume glee, the kind that gets under the skin of anyone who doesn't like it when people burst out into song. Mostly "Glee" is laden with cruelty, which ironically is its most winning element: "Those sweaters make her look home-schooled," announces a cheerleader about Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), the nerdy songstress who commandeers the glee club.

"Oh, hey, William," sneers that track-suited terror Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch as the nefarious cheerleading coach; the actress is now fully digesting all of "Glee's" scenery) to the eternally optimistic glee club coach, Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison). "I thought I smelled cookies wafting from the ovens of the little elves that live in your hair."

A voice of wisdom, the spacey guidance counselor Ms. Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), finally acknowledges something that is ostensibly about life at McKinley High School, but could be about our youth-obsessed, "Idol"-atrous, Justin Bieber-fever, "Twilight"-ish culture at large: "I think we spend so much time with these kids, we start acting like them."

High school is a delicious hell. Once in a while, an education reformer will present new data and arguments for doing away with the institution as we know it, with seldom a word about how to replace the school of hard knocks made up of homecoming games, yearbooks, proms, musicals, pep rallies and also bullying, drugs, petty crimes and the torment of bad skin. It's not a 100-percent terrible idea -- to assess young Americans around age 14 or 15 and funnel them off to separate, more appropriate curricular and vocational channels. Underlying the argument is the one inescapable fact of high school: It works a real doozy on us, forever.

* * *

Nowhere has this been more clear lately than in Itawamba County, Miss., where, very much like an episode of "Glee," the school board voted to cancel a high school prom rather than let a lesbian teenager named Constance McMillen bring her girlfriend as her date.

After a flurry of media attention and protests from the ACLU and others, the board relented and Constance was allowed to go to prom on April 2 -- which turned out to be a prom for losers. When she and her date arrived, only faculty chaperones and a few other students (some of them learning disabled) were there. Meanwhile, across town, parents of the popular kids paid for and staged a big, secret prom, with all the glitter and good times, and no invite for Constance.

This actually happened, and it comes with about 1,000 ready-made jokes for "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy his writers. The show revels in a world where the underdogs (the gay kids, the disabled kids, the minority kids, the awkward kids) are magically gifted with song-and-dance moments from a fantasy of pop charts, which transport them from the jocks who wait around the hallways to douse them with Big Quenchy cups filled with blueberry slush.

Viewers fell into a deep infatuation with "Glee's" dynamic, and didn't seem to mind that the show burned off its most interesting plot developments within the first month, racing ahead like a series afraid of imminent cancellation. Instead, despite being the gayest straight thing on TV, "Glee" is a smash. Since its debut last fall, the show has spun off hit songs and will soon be a concert tour featuring cast members. More interestingly, it has assembled an online legion of devotees known as Gleeks, who revel in the show's twin aspects of spite and comeuppance.

When we left them, the students of the McKinley High School's "New Directions" glee club had won the "sectionals" competition, guided by Mr. Schuester. They had momentarily vanquished Coach Sylvester, whose obsession with ruining glee club became her undoing.

"We're stars now," gushes Rachel to her fellow gleeks. "On par with all the jocks and popular kids. It's a new dawn here at McKinley and we are going to rule this school!"

Cue the Big Quenchy dousing.

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