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Glee's back, and still brilliant - for now

There are just way too many ways to approach Glee. And the show has benefited from that, obviously. It's become inescapable.

Is it a musical, a comedy or a drama? Good luck with that. There's the multi-multi-media aspect of it. (This is a boon to writers and editors ready to do cartwheels to appear clued-in to non-traditional media.) How multi? There are the iTunes sales of the songs, the performance tours by the stars, the radio exposure, the YouTube tributes and the cult-like, fanatical fan base. Plus the widely read rumours of big guest-star turns and even talk of a Broadway musical version. Good luck with all of that too - spreading rumours in the press and planting wildly speculative gossip is as old-fashioned as newsprint itself.

Yes, yes, it's different. But how much so? And, really, is it any good?

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Glee (Global, Fox, 9:25 p.m.) is back for its final nine episodes of this season, riding a massive amount of coverage. You can't not know it's back tonight. It's good, and it has evolved, but as before, it teeters astonishingly between brilliance and banality.

First thing you'll notice is that there's even more music. The occasions when the characters burst into song have multiplied. In fact, after seeing a few episodes - Fox sent three to us critics, with characteristic confidence - you're braced for a musical number about every five minutes now. Some are inspired and done with a knowing sense of irony. Others are jaw-droppingly jejune. All that lip-synching, all that grasping at the stand-up-and-cheer musical moment of high, sweet emotion.

For all its eccentricities, the show has, from the start, been rooted in the old, in stock characters and familiar situations. High school. The jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds and the cool kids. Jealousies and spite. The pregnant teenager. The gay kid. The high drama of sneers muttered by the locker. The misfits and loners. The well-meaning teacher. The principal who is clueless.

The brilliance is in the manner in which these clichés are tossed around and upended. Unlike the students we see in most high school epics, hardly anybody in Glee belongs to a traditional TV family. Rachel (Lea Michelle) has two gay dads, which she reminds someone tonight when she needs help during a boy-trouble crisis. Most of the kids have a single parent. The central teacher, Will (Mathew Morrison) was married through the first batch of episodes but didn't have kids. God only knows about Sue Sylvester - during these episodes she announces, as an aside, "My parents were famous Nazi-hunters. They were rarely home." The teachers are, for the most part, rather pathetic. Football coach Ken (Canadian Patrick Gallagher) accepted the excuse given by guidance counsellor Emma (Jayma Mays) for declining a date: She said she was allergic to the dark.

The possibility of banality is nigh. Glee has received so much coverage that it is, apparently, inundated with offers from movie, TV and music stars to do cameo roles or guest spots. An infusion of gimmicky walk-ons would generate even more publicity but would diminish the show's essential status of "otherness" as a TV series. It's about ordinary kids and teachers whose lives are improved by music, song and performance. Already, in next week's episode, in which all the songs performed are by Madonna, there's a hint of the gimmick - the plot device used to go all-Madonna is cringe-worthy contrived. And then there's the reliance on using power ballads to illuminate just about every high-school moment. The world has enough power ballads, and power-ballad karaoke performers, thanks.

Simultaneously, the show's wit remains brilliantly absurdist. These new episodes introduce a routine in which cheerleaders Brittany (Heather Morris) and Santana (Naya Rivera), who appear to be in a relationship, both terrorize others and appear to be as thick as bricks. Brittany announces at one point that she suspects her cat is reading her diary.

Glee is maddening in its contradictions - watching it is a headlong, giddy journey into frustrations and contradictions. Watching it now is watching it at its most intriguing. It's ludicrously good and, maybe, about to veer into bloated excess.

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Check local listings.

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Also airing

Frontline: Obama's Deal (PBS, 9 p.m.) is a detailed account of the months of machinations that led to Barack Obama's health care bill being passed last month. The program promises that it "reveals the realities of American politics, the power of special interest groups, and the role of money in policy making." And it does that with sobering aplomb. We get the full chronicle covering months of bickering, public hostility and secret, closed-door deals with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry. Right up to the last minute, the bill hinged on deals that, as several observers say in the program, "smelled." We also get a look at Obama's ruthlessness and pragmatic streak - his willingness to concede deals in private and then sell the overall merits in public. We get a picture of him snapping at House Leader Nancy Pelosi when she told him, "you don't understand the realities." He asked her for suggestions on how to pass the bill and, when she had no suggestions, he was furious. In the end, of course, he got his bill. Finding out how he did it will either increase your admiration for his skills or shrink your admiration for his public face of idealism.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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