"Get used to it, guys - we're stars now, on par with all the jocks and popular kids. The dawn of a new era."
--Rachel Berry, in the opening scene of this Tuesday's episode of "Glee"
In another place, in another time, "Glee" might be hanging from its underpants inside a high school locker.
The Fox television show is that nerdy.
So earnest, so cornball, so bent on delivering ham-handed messages worthy of an after-school special. Plus, every five or 10 minutes, one of the characters spontaneously bursts into song.
Instead, "Glee" is on top of the world right now. If the show were a high school boy, it'd be driving around in a new Mercedes and dating the prom queen (or, quite possibly, the prom king).
Just 13 episodes old, the musical comedy - about a high school glee club populated by misfits, led by an optimistic teacher, and despised by a malicious cheerleading coach - is already the smashingest of smashes. It owns a Golden Globe for Best TV Series - Musical or Comedy and has redefined the music industry practically overnight.
How did this series about losers become such a winner? Here are a few explanations for the success of "Glee," which returns Tuesday night after a three-month hiatus.
1. It's a throwback
Sure, the characters chatter away on cell phones, and yes, the script is sprinkled with pop-culture references.
But strip that away and you have high school students dealing with the same issues they've dealt with in movies and on TV for decades, from "Heathers" to "Clueless" to "Bring It On" to "Mean Girls."
"In so many ways, it's such a naïve little show: a bunch of people in the glee club, with these really kind of overt moral messages of tolerance and difference and diversity," says Robert Thompson, a popular culture expert at Syracuse University. "There is so much of this state-of-the-art, ironic hipness (on TV), but this thing could have as easily played in the '80s - and I think that's one of its charms."
2. It's got sunshiiiine...
Many of TV's most talked-about scripted shows are so dark. Terrorist plots on "24." Murderous vampires on "True Blood." Lurid crime dramas like "CSI."
"Glee," on the other hand, glows. The greens, reds, yellows and blues in the color palette of the sets and the costumes have a lot to do with this. But everything about the show feels upbeat and fun. The pace is zippy. The writing is peppy. And the characters "all have a good side that you get to see in different episodes," says Jennifer Welfare, 35, of Charlotte.
For example, ex-cheer captain/teenage mom-to-be Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) - initially one of the show's meanest characters - has become one of its most mature and introspective.
Even supervillain Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) has been given a soft spot: In a November episode, she accepted a student with Down syndrome onto the cheerleading squad; though her motives were questioned, it was revealed she has an older sister with the disorder.
3. It's a box of chocolates
In other words, you never know what you're gonna get, musically speaking.
It could be Kanye West one week, a show tune from "West Side Story" the next. Van Halen. Carrie Underwood. The Rolling Stones. John Denver.
You also never know when they might deliver a showstopper, something that sticks with you for days, weeks, months.
For Nikki Van Lanen, a seventh-grader at South Charlotte Middle School, the highlight so far was when glee club star Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) belted out Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade" in the December finale.
For Beth Ann Viering, 44, of Charlotte, it was the "Defying Gravity" sing-off between Rachel and gay soprano Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer).
And for Steve Blahitka, 35, of Huntersville - well, that's easy.
"The original performance of 'Don't Stop Believin'' (in the pilot) blew me away. It's when I knew that this show was really something special."
4. It keeps on giving
Twenty-five songs the "Glee" cast has covered landed on Billboard's Hot 100 in 2009, the most by any artist since the Beatles put 31 on that chart in 1964. The show isn't even two-thirds of the way through its first season, but has yielded two soundtracks that have sold more than 500,000 copies each; fans have downloaded more than 4.5 million songs.
"I've bought every song," says Bobbie Cloud, 59, of Charlotte. "I'm sick this way... the show has got me."
It's a masterstroke of marketing, something other networks will no doubt try to copy. Soon.
5. Then there's Sue Sylvester
"Glee" has charm, warmth and a great variety of fun music. But "Glee" wouldn't be "Glee" without Jane Lynch, the sharp-tongued comic actress who plays the glee club's nemesis.
Lynch crackles in every scene she's a part of, and her one-liners alone could fill a book (see box for some samples). In an episode set to air April 20, she's the center of a parody of Madonna's "Vogue" music video that is one of the show's most audacious and hilarious moments yet.
Fox, not surprisingly, knows how big a draw the character is. As part of its press kit for the spring episodes, the network included a T-shirt with an image of Sue Sylvester yelling into a megaphone and the words "Face it - you want to be me."