Glee

Few shows experience growing pains more publicly than Fox's Glee, the exuberant and irreverent — and often painfully inconsistent — coming-of-age musical comedy that is in a seemingly constant state of reinvention, often at its own peril. Coming off the most significant upheaval to date, a graduation-day finale that sent a number of its most prominent characters (Rachel, Kurt, Finn, Quinn, Santana, Mercedes, Mike Chang) into the world beyond Lima, Ohio, Glee rebounds in the fourth season with a terrifically entertaining season opener on a new night and time (Thursdays, 9/8c). Glee may never be able to recapture its initial glow and buzz, but if this is an indication of its future, I like where it's heading.

And that "where," as most are aware, includes splitting time between the gang back home and the starry-eyed hopefuls (Rachel and Kurt) who've set their sights on fame if not fortune in New York City. Unlike their own Glee experience, overnight success is not in the cards. Anyone who's long considered Rachel (Lea Michele) to be annoyingly full of herself — and face it, that's just about everybody — will delight in the comeuppance she immediately gets from her glamazon gorgon of a dance teacher (an electrifying Kate Hudson, a soused sexpot who's more than happy to prove "I can still dance circles around any of you.").

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While a shaken Rachel gets encouragement from a hunky classmate (Dean Geyer, who if he sings as good as he looks is poised to break out), telling her, "Don't fight the new you," those left behind back at McKinley High jockey to become "The New Rachel" (the episode's clever and double-edged title) amid signs that the glee club has become the "mean" club, with championship success breeding attitude. When even Tina is exhibiting diva behavior, you know you're in trouble.

But enough with the old-timers. Glee's best trick as the new season begins is to nurture a fresh wave of talent, led by remarkable discovery Melissa Benoist as Marley Rose, a good girl with a great voice and a disadvantaged background. She'd fit right in if New Directions hadn't somehow gone all Heathers all of a sudden. Also making a strong first impression, but not without issues: Jacob Artist as an explosively hair-trigger crooner with a personal connection to the choir. Last year's Glee Project runner-up Alex Newell is back as Wade-aka-cross-dressing "Unique," of whom a little goes a long ways. (Co-winner Samuel Larsen is still lurking around for some reason.) And in a few weeks, second-season Glee Project winner Blake Jenner will show up. Could he the "new Finn?"

As usual, Glee's tone is all over the place in the premiere, from the comedy of cruelty — you won't be surprised to learn that Sue has found a new "head bitch" Cheerio, and somehow they're still letting people carry Slushees in the hallways — to lump-in-the-throat sentimentality, epitomized by a key scene between Chris Colfer's Kurt and his heroically supportive dad, Burt (the wonderful Mike O'Malley). The music is plentiful and as current and infectious as "Call Me Maybe." No maybes about it. Glee is off to a good start. Please let it last.

WHAT ELSE IS ON?: Before Glee, Fox delivers a second night of The X Factor auditions (8/7c), and good luck topping Wednesday night's high drama: Britney Spears awkwardly confronted by a singer from her past who's no longer up to snuff (painful!), or fresh-faced Demi Lovato comforting a fellow survivor of bullying as she rocks the arena with her emo anthem (triumphant!). Both pop stars, by the way, a definite step up empathy-wise from last season's self-absorbed divas. ... A winner will be named on NBC's two-hour finale of America's Got Talent (8/7c), a show whose title I always feel should come with a question mark. Attempting to distract us from the anticlimax: Blue Man Group, Green Day, Ne-Yo and Justin Bieber (in descending order of interest and novelty). ... After taking a week off for the VMAs, MTV's Awkward returns (10:30/9:30c) for its next-to-last episode of the season (too soon!), with Jenna deciding to fictionalize her blog in hopes of changing her fate. Good luck with that.

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