The whole idea of The Glee Project is just so… so… meta. That’s not surprising — Glee is itself as much a mash-up of culture as the songs it performs. On the Project, average kids (Gleeks all) compete a la American Idol for the reward: A guest arc on next season.

Part of the appeal of Glee has always been its empowering sensibility: The characters all look like actual high schoolers, from the cheerleading beauty queen to the kid in a wheelchair to the flamboyant gay kid to the jock to the chunky, sassy black girl. It’s no surprise, then, that the Project has a similarly quirky cast: Mario, who’s blind; Ali, who is a paraplegic; Maxfield, a country boy who just started singing; and Tyler, a female-to-male transgender, pictured. And like Glee, it’s shamelessly manipulative. Watching these kids who desperately want to perform, who idolize the cast members of Glee (who are mentors; the first one is Lea Michele) is charming.

Of course, there is a sameness to a lot of it; half the kids (including a girl) look like Justin Beiber, and they flirt with the camera like pros and you kinda want everyone to win. This ain’t no Real Housekids — it’s happy reality.

Debuts tonight on Oxygen.