The big question heading into this third season of “Glee”: would having more than three writers contributing to the show make a noticeable difference? Would it still be a schizophrenic mess that could occasionally pull itself up from the mire of mediocrity and produce powerful television? Would it gain strength through the influx of new voices? Or would it get pulled in even more disparate directions than ever before? The answer, after tonight’s premiere episode, seems to lie behind Door #1. It’s still “Glee,” for better or worse. Tonight? Mostly worse.

Writing weekly variations on the central reason why “Glee” is the most frustrating show on television is taxing my mental thesaurus. There’s a good show here. No, there’s an excellent show here. Or, at least, there’s a show I’m dying to see actually reach fruition. Obviously, what I think is the ideal form of this show deviates wildly from that of devoted Gleeks who hang on every scene, download every song, and think the current iteration is just dandy. Me? I had hoped that a fully stocked writers’ room would absorb the creators’ best ideas, filter out the worst ones, and produce a show that felt less like a first draft come to life and more of a carefully conceived (if occasionally gloriously messy) television show.

Note the caveat there: messiness still has a place in this show, because let’s face it: teen angst is as messy as a food fight in the cafeteria. That emotions bubble up over the slightest event can feel overwrought, but it’s not exactly farfetched. Having the ability to translate said emotion into song is the show’s greatest strength: the musical theatre genre is based around this central principle. So why does “Glee” seem to go out of its way to avoid this simple, potent premise? The show’s third season offers a slam-dunk storyline that I didn’t think even this show could screw up. Bringing in new writers at this time should have been perfect. And yet, while some cosmetic things have changed, it’s still the same, slapdash beast underneath.

That slam dunk story? Senior Year. Sure, it’s not Senior Year for everyone (as we learned in the exposition-heavy intro that mirrored the one done at the start of Season 2), but it’s a vital year for the primary players that formed the core of the initial cast. Rachel, Kurt, Finn, and Quinn all face an uncertain future in different ways. At the dark, most fascinating heart of “Glee,” none of them have a guaranteed shot of ever leaving the Lima, never mind Ohio. That some of them will undoubtedly make it is beside the point: there needs to be true uncertainty for all of them to give weight and gravitas behind the show’s trademark snark. The comedy in “Glee” often comes from a ferocious place, one fueled by self-doubt and jealousy. All this season has to do is follow these four characters. Everything else is just window dressing. Sure, go for Nationals. Make that the backbone of the nominal season arc. But focusing on what happens the day after that should loom even larger.

Here’s the thing: this isn’t wishful narrative thinking on my part. It’s all in tonight’s episode. But, as is the show’s wont, it’s buried under a few dozen other storylines that dull its impact. Sure, it jettisoned characters like Lauren and Sam in ways that made the funeral on last night’s “Two and a Half Men” seem downright warm. (Puck: “She’s the one that got away…really, really slowly.”) But when “Glee” thinks of its core characters, it thinks of nearly two dozen different individuals. That approach might work if you’re “The Wire”, but just creates a whiplash effect in this case. At best, many scenes feel as if they are servicing contractual, not narrative, obligations. At worst, they create reactions such as, “Oh, right, Artie’s still on this show, isn’t he? Huh. Fancy that.”

Storytelling need not be democratic, in terms of the tales it services.  There’s a huge difference between spreading the wealth behind the scenes in order to maximize effect and spreading the wealth onscreen. There are too many things competing for audience interest to make any of them have true impact. I’ve accused “Glee” of being many things over the years, but I’ll accuse its first 45 minutes tonight of something new: being dull. Everything felt like a dull retread of episodes past, a reset that put everyone back at the start of the game board. New Directions needed new members! School-wide performances ended in pain and sometimes arson! Sue did things that would land a normal person in jail yet somehow made her more powerful! Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200, Do Not Kiss at Nationals.

The easiest fix for “Glee,” and one that will never happen in a trillion years, would be to either remove every adult entirely or at least reduce them by 90% per episode. There’s absolutely no reason for them to be the focus of any scene whatsoever. They can exist as motivation for plot: Will gives them an assignment, then leaves; Sue makes a crack that humiliates/motivations someone. But that’s it. (Making said function more realistic than the character assassination of Santana that resulted from their interference would be appreciated.) Until then, here’s a tip for anyone watching “Glee”: just imagine every adult on the show talks like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Replace their dialogue with that type of squawking and you’ll probably enjoy the show a lot more.

If Will does anything besides send New Directions on another silly assignment that causes the students psychological or physical pain, then he’s doing too much. At some point, he could have been the show’s central figure (back when it had hints of a deeply morose core at the center of its musical Tootsie Pop), but that time has long past. Matthew Morrison does fine work with the right material, but I’m not sure “Glee” knows how to give him that material anymore. And Sue’s desire to run for an open Congressional seat is the show at its most unrealistic. It’s hard to ground any of the real emotion that attempts to seep out of this show when Sue’s rise in popularity is the stuff of science-fiction, not real life. (This show takes place in a universe where Ohio hates the arts, apparently. It’s also a universe where somewhere right now, Jesse St. James is wandering downtown telling anyone who will listen that they could have had it alllllllll……)

But then, Kurt and Rachel went to a mixer for regional students anxious to attend the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts and everything changed. There are moments in “Glee” where it feels like you stumble across a clear, calm pond in the middle of a dangerous jungle. Having nearly died in the dangerous, thorny path that led you there, you’re stunned by the power and clarity of the oasis before you. Watching an army of musical theatre robots perform the living hell out of the title track from “Anything Goes!”, followed by the nakedly emotional scene afterwards between Lea Michele and Chris Colfer, reminded me why I would watch this show on a weekly basis even if I weren’t reviewing it here out of professional obligation. The Rachel/Kurt relationship proves how well long-form narrative can work when properly deployed. When the show first started, the pair hated each other. Now? They lean on each other to escape to bigger and brighter things. And it feels completely authentic and organic. THE SHOW CAN DO THIS WHEN IT TRIES, PEOPLE. That the show achieves these moments makes it unique in the television landscape. That the show treats these moments less like an oasis and more like a landmine makes me bang my head repeatedly on the coffee table.

Will things improve over the course of the season? We’ll just have to wait and see. Let’s just hope the final acts of tonight’s hour are a better barometer by which to measure what’s to come than the uninspired elements that preceded it.

 

A few more bullets about tonight’s episode:

*** In terms of the four I feel should be the focus this season, Finn and Quinn had far less to do tonight. Finn primarily played the drums, and Quinn walked around like the love child of Gollum and Ramona Flowers. That’s fine: I appreciate that Quinn’s return to the group wasn’t immediate, and this hour demonstrated that Rachel’s closest relationship now is with Kurt, not Finn. Plus, they actually paid off Quinn’s haircut from the Season 2 finale! Unbelievable. Continuity: so fleeting, yet so sweet.

*** Another great brochure in Emma’s seemingly unending supply: “Me and My Hag.”

*** Of COURSE April Rhodes’ musical won a damn Tony. Would “Glee” have it any other way?

*** Purple pianos are to “Glee” what rundown hotels are to “How I Met Your Mother.”

*** Blaine coming to McKinley: leaving Tolerance Hogwart’s for public school seems sort of silly, but I’m fine rolling with this as it will hopefully streamline the storytelling through keeping the action and characters in one place. Plus? He rocks a bow tie as well as Matt Smith’s version of The Doctor.

*** I didn’t watch “The Glee Project,” so I’ll leave it to you to inform me if Sugar (she of the Asperger’s) got the role from that show. She didn’t do much for me either way, until she called Will out for being a pathetic has-been, at which point she became my favorite character in the history of the show.

Update: Thanks to the commenters for letting me know Vanessa Lengies played Sugar, and Lindsay Pearce from "Glee Project" runner-up fame performed "Anything Goes". 

What did you think of the return of “Glee”? Happy to have it back on your television, or rolling your eyes once again? Should the show focus on the seniors only, or do you enjoy the large ensemble? Sound off below!