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Fox’s “Glee” returned Thursday, Sept. 13, and after last season’s ho-hum performance, many fans were unsure if they’d be tuning in. However, the show that seemed to get worse every season finally took a turn for the better, returning to the era of “Glee” when viewers cared about the characters.

It is, in fact, very much a throwback to season one — the music seemed worse than last year (with the exception of Rachel (Lea Michele) and “new Rachel” Melissa Benoist’s version of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” which was superb), but the characterization is far better. The characters are flawed — annoying at times, frustrating and anger-inducing at others, but they seemed far more real than last season, when ridiculous plot points (a la Quinn Fabray in a wheelchair) and forced relationships (Finn and Rachel getting married) overshadowed everything else in the show.

This year, “Glee” is divided into two separate storylines that occasionally overlap — Rachel in New York City and the other “Glee” kids in Ohio, coming down off the high of their victory at Nationals. Cory Moneith, who plays Finn Husdon, was noticeably absent from the episode, though there are scenes that alluded to the fact that he and Rachel are still together. Kurt, played by Chris Colfer, was somewhat stuck between the two worlds for most of this installment.

Rachel’s storyline in NYC is the most compelling, since it’s the first time loyal viewers have really seen her out of her element. There is something satisfying about seeing her a bit more vulnerable — yes, she’s still incredibly talented, but she went from big fish in a small pond to big fish in the very large ocean. The adjustment is difficult, but allowed for the introduction of some great new characters.

Kate Hudson joins the show as Cassandra July, Rachel’s dance instructor at the New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts (NYADA), who plays the role of a pretty, failed-actress-turned-teacher version of Sue Sylvester — at least to Rachel. Though she is shown being supportive to some students, it’s clear she likes to weed out the underclassmen. In addition to Hudson, there’s a possible new leading man possibility for the lonely Rachel.

Dean Geyer plays Brody, the new love interest, another student at NYADA. And quite frankly, after so much time having been spent on Rachel and Finn last year, it was a nice change.

Back in Ohio, the Glee kids are finally experiencing popularity, and it’s not a good look for them. While Blaine, Brittany, Tina and Unique (the newest addition, though a familiar face from last season) compete to be the “new Rachel,” the group as a whole socializes with cheerleaders and jocks, as well as cruelly mocking the new lunch lady and telling Unique that he shouldn’t wear his makeup or dresses because the popular kids won’t accept them anymore.

It wasn’t the Glee club’s most flattering moment, but it was a human reaction to gaining something the club never had before and it makes sense that they  cling to the status as hard as they can. Still, it doesn’t win them any points as far as likeability, and even their moments of regret at the end of the episode doesn’t counteract it.

The Ohio storyline also got some new additions to the cast. Jake (Jacob Artist) was introduced as Noah Puckerman  (Mark Salling)’s half-brother who, conveniently, Puck never knew about. Perhaps this will be resolved later, presumably with a return appearance by Salling. It felt unplanned — not in a surprising way, but in that  “Glee” Creator and Writer Ryan Murphy needed a new resident bad boy and why not make it the half-brother of the old one? But working with what he had, Artist does a great job with the “rebel without a cause” idea, and has a great voice to boot.

But then there was also Marley (Melissa Benoist) who, though adorable, seemed to have little personality besides “sweet” and “poor.” Maybe she’ll develop further in future episodes, but at the moment there is nothing truly special about her besides her gorgeous voice.

Kurt’s storyline is perhaps the most emotional, as he struggles in Ohio, perpetually stuck in high school with his boyfriend Blaine (Darren Criss) and New Directions. Eventually, he decides to move on to the next stage in his life and go to New York, resulting in one of the most emotionally taxing scenes in all of “Glee.”

Kurt’s father, Burt, played by  the ever talented Mike O’Malley, who seems to have become the king of emotional scenes within the show, drops him off at the airport with a tearful goodbye.

“You can always come back,”  he says as Kurt departs. And then a few moments later, to himself he says “but you won’t.” There’s something about seeing Burt, with all his flannel and typical down-home boy appeal, welling up and red-faced that will make even the coldest hearts melt.

Additionally, the reunion between Rachel and Kurt, whose friendship was one of the few last interesting facets of “Glee” last season, is so sweet that it almost guarantees people will tune in next week, if only to watch these two.

This week’s “Glee,” though not perfect, is certainly an improvement. The characters are more interesting, the plot points are more normal and the writing … well, it’s “Glee,” so it’s as good as can be hoped for. Overall, though, it is a strong episode that gives hope that this season will be infinitely more like the first than the third.

Howard is a member of the class of 2013.

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