Television musical comedy "Glee" returned to smaller audiences but warm reviews after a summer of confusion over the future of its stars, a box-office flop of a concert movie and disappointment at the Emmys.
The Fox show attracted just 8.9 million viewers, a 30 percent drop on last year's season two opener, according to figures on Wednesday from media research company Nielsen.
But those who watched the subversive comedy about a failing high school show choir mostly liked what they saw.
Entertainment Weekly said it was "a really satisfying start to the new year." Rolling Stone praised the plot, the witty repartee and song choice but thought the season opener "didn't hit any of the emotional notes 'Glee' is capable of."
As promised, the show made clear that lead characters Rachel (Lea Michele), Finn (Cory Monteith), Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Mike (Harry Shum Jr.) would be "graduating" and leaving the program at the end of the season.
Artie (Kevin McHale) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) still have another year of high school to complete while the status of other key characters, including Brittany (Heather Morris) and the newly-punkified Quinn (Dianna Agron) was unclear.
"Glee" became a pop culture phenomenon in 2010 with its best-selling musical cover versions, quirky humor, treatment of teen sexuality, a character in a wheelchair and an actress with Down's Syndrome.
But last season, the show disappointed fans when it brought in too many guest stars and the plot meandered. "Glee The 3D Concert Movie" made a dismal $16 million at world box offices over the summer, and the show won just two Emmys last week, for best casting and for guest actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
Creator Ryan Murphy has said that this year the show will get back to basics and renew its focus on core characters.