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john doyle: television

Oh, my shattered nerves. Watching Glee these days is a perilous experience. One starts with buoyant anticipation, ready for moments of glory and joy. But they are far fewer now. Before the end of this, just its first season, Glee has gone rangy. It's a torture to watch. It's arch and undeniably interesting, camp but with a tincture of the annoyingly self-conscious.

Tonight on Glee (Fox, Global, 8 p.m.): "Mr. Schuester encourages the members of glee club to express themselves using Lady Gaga's music." For heaven's sake! At least Lady Gaga does not make an appearance, which is a relief.

With this show we are witnessing the monster that is over-exposure eat alive the sweet, guileless talent that simply wanted to succeed. Check out this, in the space of weeks - the cast appearing on Oprah, the cover of Rolling Stone and the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

In the no-time-to-think world we live in, the world of media rapidity accelerated by Twitter, Facebook and countless, frantic online sources, a TV series can glide from good to great to grating in a matter of months. Among those of us who write about the TV racket, it is already a cliché to point out that Glee was so much better when it wasn't a huge show. We want to tell people liking it now, the recent converts, "You shoulda seen it when it was really good."

The problem with Glee became apparent when it returned with new episodes last month. Interestingly, the first 10 episodes were made last year, complete and ready to air before anyone outside the cast, crew, producers and Fox had seen them. There was no manipulating the show as reviews came in and fans obsessed about it. It was a great creation and everybody involved just ran with it.

When the new episodes arrived, several things became clear. The show was going to indulge in the inclusion of bizarre guest stars. The musical moments were going to be expanded. The show was eighties-obsessed and simultaneously anxious to be hip to the music of the moment. And many of the most interesting characters were going to be pushed into the background.

We had the freaky Madonna episode, in which more time was spent on an elaborate, frame-by-frame remake of the Vogue video than on the plot and dialogue. We had the utterly pointless camp of the Olivia Newton-John episode in which Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) got a call from Newton-John after someone posted a video of Sylvester's dancing on YouTube. After much strained, unfunny nonsense that featured Newton-John reminding everyone that she had big-selling hits in the eighties, there came a redundant remake of the video for Physical.

Key characters in the early episodes, Coach Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher) and knocked-up cheerleader queen Quinn (Dianna Agron), are pretty much invisible these days. The central character Kurt (Chris Colfer), so compelling when he admitted to his dad that he is gay, then went through a cringe-inducing period of acting straight, channelling John Cougar Mellencamp and making out with the airhead Brittany (Heather Morris).

Lat week we had Neil Patrick Harris arrive at William McKinley High as Mr. Schuester's nemesis from long ago, one Bryan Ryan. Harris was very good, but he took over the episode, making everything else (including an insane storyline about Rachel finding her birth mother) seem tiny. Celebrity-cameo stunts are disastrous for TV series, mainly because they are one-off contrivances and the show is meant to evolve inside an enclosed, self-contained world.

One cool scene had one great line, as Ryan got lusty with Sue Sylvester. When she blurted out that that she had a room upstairs for private engagements, she said, "Just like Letterman." The thing is, we've come to wait and wait for those delicious lines and now they are all that's memorable about Glee.

Glee arrived a year ago (in a one-time, sneak-peek airing) as a wonderful hybrid of high-school drama and musical comedy. It was snarkily anchored in the American Idol culture and it felt fresh, mainly because the motley crew of kids had a kind of square naiveté. It's impossible to maintain that lovable naiveté when the show is so preening in its camp, knowing awareness of its success. The gaiety is gone from Glee. You should have set it in its prime, mere months ago. Lady Gaga be damned.

Check local listings.

Airing tonight:

Nova: Mystery of the Megavolcano (PBS, 8 p.m.) is a repeat but when it first aired, four years ago, it must have seemed the stuff of fantasy. Now we know a volcano in remote Iceland can pop and shut down air travel in great swaths of the world. Here, scientists examine evidence of a massive volcanic eruption that appears to have had a devastating impact on the Earth 74,000 years ago. They also speculate on several supervolcanos (to qualify as a supervolcano, a volcano must produce at least 1,000 cubic kilometres of magma, or partly molten rock, in a single eruption) may reawaken, and what terrible effect that will have. It is pointed out that the supervolcanos dwarf the likes of Vesuvius, Pinatubo, and Mount St. Helens. They are located in Italy, New Zealand, Japan and the United States. Be afraid.