Since its debut last year, FOX's hit musical-comedy "Glee" has become a pop-culture fixture with a formula of aggressive inclusiveness (jocks and gays and the handicapped all harmonize in its fictional high-school glee club) and buzzy special episodes devoted to the music of Madonna and Lady Gaga. After a long summer hiatus, "Glee" returned to the airwaves last night with new cast members and dramatic tensions. (Watch "Glee"s's newest star.) Critics weigh in:

"Glee" is back at the top of its game:
"Artificial themes and senseless stunts" threatened to diminish "Glee" last year, says Sam Evans at Vanity Fair, but, judging from this first episode, "the show's got its groove back." The new rivalry between the club's diva Rachel and an intimidating Filipino transfer student, Charice (a nod to conservatives' fear of immigrants?) exemplifies a return to a more "organic, humane, and emotional sense of conflict.

The show avoided a predictable backlash:
Given the white-hot hype leading up to "Glee"'s premiere, the first episode seemed "doomed to fall just a smidge short of expectations," says Mara Reinstein at Us Weekly. But the show's producers are "not only well aware of the backlash buzz, they actually capitalized on it" with a opening video-sequence titled "Glee's Big Gay Summer," which winked at the cast's heavy cultural exposure.

The performances are as good as ever:
"The songs from last night's episode are still on repeat in my head, says Jacques Wilson at CNN, "even the ones I don’t really know the words to." The moves weren't too shabby either; "all the girls seem to have developed some dancing skills over the summer," and "their performance during 'Empire State of Mind' was awesome."

The new cast members excel:
"I was concerned that the show's already large cast of characters was about to get bigger," says Tim Stack at Entertainment Weekly. But "it turns out things got even tastier with all that fresh meat — particularly the show's hulking new female football coach, Shannon Beiste (pronounced "Beast"), whom  "I am obsessed with."