‘Glee’ gets subtler, but big songs still drive the show (TV commentary)

There was no second-episode jinx for “Glee” (8 p.m. Central Wednesdays on Fox) when it returned to the schedule this week. It’s too early to declare it the best new show of the fall, but it’s definitely a frontrunner.

I think executive producer Ryan Murphy (“Nip/Tuck”) and his writing team have found a niche with this show. For teens who have outgrown “High School Musical,” it provides a more serious exploration of high school issues. For those of us who remember high school but don’t want to be reminded of the horrors, it’s a smart, sly and upbeat way to get back into this material.

“High School Musical” comes to a head when the district finals, theater tryouts and knowledge bowl all happen at the same time and Troy and Gabriella have to choose. That scheduling conflict is pure Hollywood exaggeration, but it’s based on the truth that hard choices do exist for students.

“Glee” gives those choices a more accurate — though still highly stylized — appraisal. Finn (Cory Monteith) is a football star and a good singer; naturally, he has an identity crisis over this, even going so far to assume he must be gay because he likes glee club more than the gridiron.

A picnic-on-the-stage scene with glee-clubber Rachel (Lea Michele) makes it abundantly clear he’s not gay. Finn’s internal character conflict is pure TV. However, the juggling of one’s schedule is something high schoolers can relate to. The idea of cliques — so nicely compartmentalized in “HSM”; many a 1980s John Hughes movie; the 1998 film “Disturbing Behavior”; and heck, “Happy Days” for that matter — is also a Hollywood thing. But Finn’s search for who he is — that’s a real thing.

Here are a couple other examples of how “Glee” stages things broadly, but hints at something deeper:

  • When cheerleading coach Sue (Jane Lynch, whose brilliance I am starting to appreciate) tries to intimidate glee club coach Will (Matthew Morrison) into giving up on Glee, she smirks at the end of the scene as if she was just trying to motivate him. (For the record, I think she genuinely is supposed to be the villain, but I like that they’re making me think twice.)
  • Ken, the gym coach who repeatedly asks out the adorable, clean-freak counselor Emma (Jayma Mays), is at first glance awkward and creepy. Yet I suspect he actually is a solid guy once you get to know him. We’ll find out more when Emma goes out on a date with him.
  • The love triangles (Will, Will’s wife and Emma; and Finn, Quinn and Rachel) are well staged because the “villains” are complex. Will’s wife has serious issues — she lies to him about being pregnant — but she truly wants the marriage to work. Quinn is a superficial head cheerleader (and head of the abstinence club, where guys go to meet chicks, naturally), and yet she’s clever enough to come up with the idea of infiltrating Glee. And she cares enough to try to get Finn back.

Oh, and it should be also noted that the music is a smidgen of the appeal of “Glee.” The show popped onto our radar with the “Don’t Stop Believin'” performance in the pilot. Episode two features a rehearsal of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” a sexually charged assembly production of Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It,” and Rachel’s solo of Rihanna’s “Take a Bow.”

They are staged in three different ways. The Kanye song plays as a soundtrack over a rehearsal, the Salt-n-Pepa song is performed by the cast (some lip-syncing their own voices, some lip-syncing dubbed voices), and the Rihanna song is lip-synced (to the actresses’ own voice, I think) in a scene that’s almost from a musical — a pained-looking Rachel watches Finn and Quinn reunite and sings her heart out. But it’s not truly a musical scene because Finn and Quinn don’t know she’s there; it’s more like a montage of a real event with Rachel’s emotions pasted on top.

I have to admit that my mind wandered during “Take a Bow.” It’s an OK Rihanna tune, but I’d rather have seen Rachel and the gang do their interpretation of “Umbrella.”

Big, stagey — and yes, gleeful — songs are what “Glee” means to me. And if they go more than an episode or two without a knock-’em-dead number, it’s gonna feel like we’re missing something. “Glee” has set a high bar for itself, but apparently it’s getting a lot of cooperation from hit makers (as episode two’s song list proves), so I expect more great performances in upcoming episodes. If we get that, I’ll be calling “Glee” a great show itself.

What did you think of the second episode? Does “Glee” live up to the hype, or are you just not feeling it?