'Glee'

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Ryan Murphy's "Glee" is as far from his "Nip/Tuck" as possible, and that's a good thing.

"Nip/Tuck" was a groundbreaking FX drama that's become lost in its tired desire to shock, but Fox's "Glee" is a tightly done hybrid of musical and dramedy that's unabashedly heartfelt and possessed of an honest sweetness.

Murphy's sharp wit still is present, and the show certainly doesn't shy away from the darkness in some of the plot lines. But instead of wondering why you're spending time with these characters, you'll wish you could spend more. Previewing tonight after "American Idol" before returning in the fall, the series is smart, fun and completely winning.

William McKinley High School is firmly divided into a caste system, as cheerleading coach Sue (Jane Lynch) tells Spanish teacher Will (Matthew Morrison): jocks at the top, geeks at the bottom, with kids in glee club — the show choir — occupying "the sub-basement." But Will, who did glee when he attended McKinley, has a soft spot for the small band of misfits who just want to sing and dance, so thanks to the encouragement of fellow teacher Emma (Jayma Mays), who's nursing a crush on Will, he volunteers to take over the group when the former instructor leaves.

The pilot episode deals with Will's struggles to make something of the small group, whose members start out as placeholder stereotypes for high school outcasts — the gay, the handicapped, the minorities — but under Murphy's skillful hand show the promise of becoming fully realized characters.

The most dynamic cast members in the opener are Rachel (Lea Michele), the naive diva, and Finn (Cory Monteith), a football player recruited by Will to boost the small club's street cred with the student body. The series benefits from the fresh faces. Michele hits the right balance of opportunism and insecurity — she nails the line, "There's nothing ironic about show choir!" — while Monteith manages to convey youthful confusion without resorting to playing dumb.

But the show really shines in the musical numbers, these quick bursts of poppy energy that sometimes forward the plot and sometimes simply allow the characters to pause the action and reflect on their situation. A rival glee club's cover of "Rehab" is almost enough to make you not hate Amy Winehouse — almost — and Morrison's rendition of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" is sweet and sorrowful. The episode builds to a rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " that's corny and wonderful. It feels like the finale of a stage show, but it's also the beginning of the next big thing from Murphy. (partialdiff)
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