The commercials are everywhere: Not only is "Glee" returning Tuesday after a four-month hiatus, but the breakout(-in-song) hit is holding an online talent search for new cast members.
It's a natural move for a program that helped build an audience/community of fans via the Internet. The gimmick also is a nod to the phenomenally successful show to which "Glee" is musically and promotionally tied: "American Idol."
So the folks behind "Glee" would be wise to consider some lessons to be learned from this season of "Idol," during which a somewhat lackluster crop of contestants has led to too much focus on the judges.
"Glee" and "Idol" share a mutually beneficial history of hype that started last year with constant promos for the new show airing during the old favorite.
The "Glee" pilot aired last May, the day before Kris Allen was crowned "Idol" champ for Season 8. "Glee" didn't return for four months, but the strong first impression stuck. The show went on to solidify its reputation as a delightfully twisted combination of "Idol" and "High School Musical," wrapped in often-bawdy, heightened-reality camp.
The first 13-episode mini-season of “Glee” ended in December, a month before the return of "Idol," providing what Fox evidently hopes will remain a tag-team combination that will attract young viewers.
The challenge of "Glee" will be to live up to the first season, in which the creative team somehow pulled off outlandish plots filled with multiple deceptions, real and fake pregnancies and Slushie facials – set to musical numbers that sometimes were part of the action and other times seemingly came out of nowhere.
It might seem like an odd comparison, but “Glee” brings to mind, in more ways than one, "Twin Peaks." The early 1990s David Lynch mix of the dark, quirky and unexpected also centered on angst-ridden, small-town high school kids and dysfunctional adults – but never quite scaled the loopy heights of entertaining bizarreness set in the truncated Season 1.
Signs are more promising for "Glee": upcoming episodes are expected to bring the return of Kristin Chenoweth as a boozy has-been singer, and new turns by Neil Patrick Harris as Glee director Will Schuester’s old nemesis, and Broadway star Idina Menzel who, one suspects, will be revealed as Rachel's mother.
Like "Twin Peaks" and "Idol," success for “Glee” will rest in balancing disparate elements. "Idol" still has more than a month to turn things around and finish strong. But so far, this season has been dominated by the adults on the show, thanks to relatively weak performances, the arrival of Ellen DeGeneres and Simon Cowell's acerbic, lame-duck last stand.
“Glee” wouldn’t be the same without Jane Lynch as scheming cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, just as it’s hard for many of us (and Fox) to imagine “Idol” without Cowell. Still, the shows work best when bickering adults are background noise for the kids (even if most of the kids already are past high school age) – and, of course, the music.
As “Glee” returns to TV, the young cast members are getting ready to tour the country, singing songs from the show. Meanwhile, a whole new version of “American Idol” is playing out online as thousands of “Glee” hopefuls submit homemade audition videos.
Check some out here. Maybe you’ll discover the next “Glee” star – or perhaps the next “American Idol.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.