"Glee" unexpectedly took the TV and music scene by storm following its debut in 2009, and by the end of the first season it was a multimedia juggernaut (and is poised to expand further). Anticipation for its return reached a fever pitch over the summer, with people wondering where it would go, and whether it would become a victim of its own success - the answer is, a little bit. The first ten episodes of the season have plenty of strengths compared to the first season, but also many of the same weaknesses, and others that the first season (particularly the first half) didn't have. As an aside, one can debate the merits of whether you want to buy the season in volumes or as a whole, but it's fairly upfront about the choice, so I don't see the reason to base a review around that. You can decide for yourself whether you want the set now or want to wait until summer of next year for the whole thing. Spoilers thing.
The first volume consists of ten episodes, from "Audition", the season premiere, to "A Very Glee Christmas", obviously the Christmas episode. The ninth and penultimate episode is Sectionals, the first of the three competitions that New Directions will face in the course of the year (after that, Regionals, and then, Nationals). Two of these ten are "theme" episodes focussed on, respectively, Britney Spears music and "The Rocky Horror Show" (and its film adaptation, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"), while another is more or less built around a guest appearance from Gwyneth Paltrow. There has been some debate in the fandom about whether the season is being dragged down by an overabundance of themed stuff, but I would, on the whole, say no - this ratio is far from unworkable (and supposedly the rest of the season will have less of this). And, episode to episode, the show is operating at a level of quality similar to last year. The problems are derived in great part from the big picture, and here the producers shoot themselves in the foot on a number of occasions.
The biggest debate raging in the media and fandom about "Glee" at the moment is about Kurt (Chris Colfer): Kurt is probably the show's breakout character, and certainly the one with the highest degree of social relevance. The complaints have been multiplying lately about whether Kurt is taking over the show to the detriment of everyone else. With rare exception, I would again say no - the amount of screentime Kurt is getting is not that out of line with what would be due a major story (and what he got last year). The other characters, for the most part, don't suffer from a lack of screentime - indeed, the show is actually doing a better job of dividing screentime and songs this year than last year (though a few characters, most notably Mercedes, suffer from this). Where the writers are actually failing, and why this creates a mistaken perception about Kurt's relative amount of screentime, is in dividing story. Simply put: Kurt has a story this year, and, in practice, nobody else does. Kurt has a storyline with continuity that develops from episode-to-episode, and the other characters have nothing remotely like this. Most of them could at best be said to be "dating" somebody, which in practice amounts to sitting next to them in class and singing together in duets; there are no substantial plots other than Kurt's. This is particularly marked in the case of Rachel, who used to be the lead character but for most of these episodes could be best described as "Finn's girlfriend". Indeed, none of the girls of ND have any story this year beyond dating one of the guys (Mercedes and Santana aren't dating anyone, that's true, but then, they also have no story). The producers need to start giving everyone else the level of plot and character continuity they give Kurt.
It didn't have to be this way. Indeed, "Audition" seems to set up a number of plots that would cover most of the cast, and from pre-season interviews, these were intended to be storylines. However, in what can only be called spectacularly shoddy writing, these all vanish within an episode or two. For instance, creator Ryan Murphy said that Quinn (Dianna Agron) and Santana's (Naya Rivera) story this year was going to be a rivalry over who would be the #1 girl at the school; the first episode has Quinn betray Santana to take back her old spot, leading to a physical fight. Okay, promising start. And that's all we ever see of it. This supposed storyline vanishes without a trace, leaving Quinn to spend the rest of the time dating Sam and Santana, well, doing nothing beyond supplying her usual biting one-liners. There's a truly baffling about-face with the supposed Artie/Tina/Mike triangle, where Artie suddenly decides he wants to date Brittany between episodes, despite "Duets" ending with him saying he loved Tina - "Duets" also finally gives some actual seriousness to Santana and Brittany's hinted-at relationship, but subsequent episodes totally drop this too in favour of Artie and Brittany hooking up, with Artie's feelings for Tina and Santana's jealousy seemingly forgotten (that a show that markets itself as very gay-friendly continues to treat the idea of female homosexuality as a silly joke is rather disheartening). I would have thought that having a full season (indeed, two full seasons) commitment from the network would have allowed the creators to plan things out, but if anything the show is less coherent then ever when viewed as a season-long narrative.
So, negativity aside, what does work? Well, first and foremost, the cast of "Glee" remains utterly amazing; even when the writers fall down, they manage to make the show much more coherent than it frequently deserves to be. Several castmembers get additional spotlight here: apart from the aforementioned Colfer/Kurt, Heather Morris/Brittany continues to become more important to the show, including her own episode (which was somewhat controversial, with a lot of people hating it for its lack of plot, but I enjoy fluff every now and then, and it was well-done fluff); Morris and Naya Rivera/Santana are now series regulars, and they make the most of their additional screentime. Rivera, in particular, is rapidly ascending the ranks of the show's main vocalists, delivering two duets and two solo songs in the course of the year, and doing amazing on all of them. Poor Jenna Ushkowitz/Tina, so frequently ignored despite being an original castmember, also gets more to do here, both singing and dancing (her "Dog Days Are Over" is fantastic, and she and Harry Shum, Jr./Mike do a terrific duet of "Sing!") - though they still really need to define who her character is and what her role on the show is. And the writing, while narratively flawed, still has plenty of bite, delivering an onslaught of quotable lines and memorable moments.
If the writers could bring some order to all this and write actual stories and consistent character development for people other than Kurt, the show would be absolutely unmatched on TV. As it is, it's messy and fun, but frustrating given how easily it could be much better if the writers put the effort in.