By Lynette Rice
Updated September 15, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

After a series of headlines about Glee’s future that didn’t exactly endear him to fans, a very humble Ryan Murphy on Thursday demonstrated that he can still deliver more than a few surprises — and lots of big entertainment value — on his Emmy-nominated series.

Murphy screened the first episode of season three for reporters that had him talking about feeling revitalized and passionate for the new season. But first, a spoiler alert! If you don’t want to read about what happens in the Sept. 20 episode and beyond, stop reading now.

Here goes: The premiere episode next week features a terrific performance by The Glee Project runner-up Lindsay Pearce and the very unexpected ouster of Santana (Naya Rivera) from New Directions. For a show that’s under constant scrutiny by press (including — we admit it! — EW), Murphy was shocked but obviously pleased that these two major plot points managed to stay under the radar. In fact, Pearce’s number was shot under a cloak of secrecy: the 20-year-old was literally snuck into a soundstage to make sure no one recognized her.

Don’t worry, Murphy reassured reporters: Santana will be back, as will Pearce. In fact, both the 20-year-old Pearce and fellow runner-up Alex Newell, 19, will each appear in two episodes this season while Glee Project winner Damian McGinty, 18, will debut in week 4 as a foreign exchange student who “shacks up” with Brittany (Heather Morris). The show’s other winner Samuel Larsen will appear in episode 10 or 11 as a relative of Puck (Mark Salling).

Here are some other highlights from the episode directed by Eric Stoltz: It features four musical numbers, including a rousing cafeteria performance of “We Got The Beat” by the cast and a sexy solo by Blaine (Darren Criss), who (finally!) leaves the Warblers to be with his beloved Kurt (Chris Colfer) at McKinley High. Rachel (Lea Michele) and Kurt check their egos at the door, as they learn it won’t be so easy to get into a performing arts college after high school. And much to the despair of Will (Matthew Morrison), Sue (Jane Lynch) vows to cut all arts programming to public schools as part of her platform to run for a congressional seat.

And look who’s too cool for school these days? Quinn (Dianna Agron) dyes her hair pink, lights up the cigs, and vows never to sing again. (We’ll see about that!) Mercedes’ new boyfriend appears, too! If that’s not enough, Murphy jam-packs the episode with kneeslappers about tiny trophies, making cocoa babies and Will’s “macaroni hair.” He even quotes John F. Kennedy.

So what did Murphy learn over the last three months?

“I will never again say people are leaving,” Murphy declared, smiling. But he turned serious when admitting that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to discuss the idea of a spinoff with so many people in Hollywood, which led to an explosion of stories about the show’s future and what it could mean to seniors Rachel, Kurt and Finn (Cory Monteith).

“It just snowballed,” Murphy admitted about the reaction. “It took a turn and got nasty … I think fans resented it.”

Instead, he and fellow Glee scribe Brad Falchuk decided to “not talk about it” and “wait until spring to figure out” the next chapter — assuming a spinoff remains a possibility. (Hey, Fox is still in need of a strong Glee companion). In the meantime, he spoke about how there is a very real possibility that his McKinley High graduates will stick around Ohio and assume other vocations. Teacher, anyone?

Lastly, Murphy teased that Gwyneth Paltrow may return for another episode but said there won’t be a sea of tributes this year. Right now, he’s only considering one two-hour tribute in the spring.

“I feel great about it again,” Murphy said of the show.

For more:

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