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Glee Premiere Recap: Lea Michele Flexes Comedic Chops, Delivers Chill-Inducing Vocals

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It's OK. You can admit it. You love Glee — a few saved episodes on the DVR here, a few pop songs on the iPod there. But somewhere in between "Don't Stop Believin'" and Carey Mulligan lamenting in Vogue that she's not famous enough to guest-star, this fun Fox series spiraled into the most overhyped pop culture franchise this side of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The season two premiere was doomed to fall just a smidge short of expectations. Right?

Turns out the producers are not only well aware of the backlash buzz, they actually capitalized it in this rollicking installment. How else to explain the super-savvy opening montage called "Glee's Big Gay Summer" in which a reporter named Jacob Ben Israel quizzed Lea Michele — er, Rachel — on rumors of her diva behavior and joked that song selections rivaled a drag queen's iPod? Well done. And ha!

Related: PHOTOS: Love lives of Glee stars

So where were we? Oh right: Olivia Newton John and Josh Groban screwed over our beloved New Directions and placed them third in Regionals. Now it's time to regroup and recruit. Hello, as Mr. Shu reminds his students, Nationals are in New York this year! Cue a rendition of "Empire State of Mind" for the McKinley High student body. Their hearts were in the right place. But there's just something wrong about Cory Monteith rapping about his Dominicanos right there up on Broadway.

Two new students get the not-so-coveted invite: Football player Sam (Chord Overstreet) and golden-voiced Filipino, Sunshine (Charice). Neither end up in the club — but it's obvious that we haven't seen or heard the last of them.

Time to rate the newbies. Sam is already one of the most interesting characters in the bunch — he's reluctant to join glee club and give up his prized place as the new quarterback on the football team. Clearly there's a rivalry brewing between him and ego-bruised Finn. And you know the intrigue will build even more once he starts up his romance with (spoiler time) Kurt. His ho-hum performance of the summer hit of "Billionaire" isn't going to earn him a place on the national tour, but he's bound to improve.

Sunshine, thus far, has the opposite problem. She can obviously wail. We're talking flawless versions of Beyonce and Lady Gaga. But aside from rivaling Rachel in the ballad-belting department, what else you got?

Also, must take issue with the third cast addition: a husky voiced, masculine-looking football coach named Shannon Bieste. Coach Beast, get it? Groan. She ousts Finn off the team and bullies Mr. Shuester and Sue. Yet it turns out — no surprise here — she's secretly sensitive! As if this show needs another misunderstood outsider.

Related: PHOTOS: Glee stars' yearbook pics

Great to see noticeable character development during the interim. Quinn gave up her baby and gained a backbone as she campaigned mightily to get her spot back in the Cheerios. This entailed sweet-talking Sue and backstabbing Santana, who got a secret boob job over her summer break.

But the golden slushee goes to Rachel. If the girl twirled a fire-lit baton while walking on a tight rope next week, it wouldn't surprise me. The Emmy-nominated Michele is that talented. (How friggin' annoying.) First she flexed serious comic chops in that bathroom scene with Sunshine. ("Oh, you don't speak English? You.. like…me…sing!") She ended the episode with such an emotionally drenched, chill-inducing version of "What I Did For Love" from A Chorus Line, I had to play it back immediately and re-live it. Fine, I did it twice.

Next week: The much-talked-about Britney Spears tribute. But with all due respect to the former teen queen, Javier Bardem, Gwyneth Paltrow and every other actor who's ever worked with creator Ryan Murphy, the show doesn't need fancy guest stars. It shines on its own merit.

By Mara Reinstein for For more TV news and reviews, click here.

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