In her musical opening number during the Emmys, "Glee" star Jane Lynch took a gentle jab at her own show – singing that TV is "a world where high school students look roughly 24."
It's a funny line that speaks to perhaps the biggest challenge facing the show, which begins its pivotal third season Tuesday: With its cast getting older and its overreliance at times on gimmicks over character, can "Glee" graduate to the next level?
Four months have passed since the last episode, in which the glee club from Ohio's McKinley High flopped in New York. The summer break presented a chance for fans to process a high-energy, somewhat erratic – if ultimately winning – second season.
Even more so than the first season, which created legions of Gleeks, the sophomore effort offered wild shifts in tone. The gay bullying plotline gave the show grounding and impact beyond the TV screen. The "Grilled Cheesus" episode offered a smart religious satire that spoke to the value of faith.
But the repetitive relationship roulette among the New Directions grew tiresome, and there were more misfires in the more stunt-fueled episodes (the Britney Spears tribute, the disappointing "Rocky Horror" mess and the "Grinch" takeoff) than hits (conniving cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester’s “Vogue” video).
The show works best when its musical whimsy is rooted in human emotion, as when Kurt sang a slow, tender version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to his stricken father, and when the glee club performed “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” at the funeral of Sue’s sister.
Kurt, along with Rachel and Finn, are among the characters entering their senior year, offering new plot possibilities, but signaling change is necessary. Fans got mixed signals over the summer with "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy announcing the graduating crew will be gone after this season and the producers quickly insisting they'll be back next year.
The producers also have suggested that the show will be more character-driven this around – Fox's "Glee" website promises a "back to basics" approach. Idina Menzel is returning as Rachel's birth mother, and the winners from “The Glee Project” reality competition show will be woven into “Glee” in various forms.
We're most intrigued, though, by Sue Sylvester's plan to run for Congress as a Christian conservative intent on wiping out glee clubs everywhere. Whether the storyline will mark a step toward the shark-jumping diving board or another brilliant stroke from a show whose greatest consistency rests in its ability to surprise, remains to be seen.
Part of the fun of "Glee" is that it mimics the heightened, manic craziness of high school. But also like high school, there's a danger of never leaving mentally, as evidenced by some of the show's adult characters. Students who look roughly 24 eventually need to move on – even on TV.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity 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.