A broken clock is right twice a day. And every once in a while, “Glee” works on every conceivable level. There’s no guarantee that what happened tonight will happen again anytime soon, but there’s no denying that “Duets” took what could have been another awful “Theme Week”-type episode and used it for the strange purpose of actually advancing character and story. I call that purpose “strange” not because that it’s wrong, but “strange” because the show so infrequently chooses to do so.

[Full recap of Tuesday's (Oct. 12) "Glee" after the break...]

The show paid lip service to enough plot points that came before it to keep it in the show’s overall universe, but in many cases, “Duets” took an Etch-a-Sketch approach to the situation at hand, shook the whole thing vigorously, and just started to redraw. That tendency usually unnerves me to no end, but the reestablishment of certain set pieces felt like a reinvigorated approach to the season (and show) as a whole, as opposed to a haphazard jam-band approach in which musicians noodle for a while, decide that part is dissonant, and then move onto something else. Same musicians, same instruments, different approach.

That’s not what “Duets” did. After the hypersexual, hyper-annoying Britney episode followed by last week’s religious mishmash, the show seemingly remembered it’s about normal people in a small town in which a local Olive Garden knockoff is the height of fine dining. That’s a terrifically interesting place in which to set a show such as “Glee,” where singing can turn into an escape in and of itself, irrespective of goals such as winning Nationals. Moreover, New Directions can, and probably always should, serve as a refuge from that usually mundane, but quite often cripplingly cruel Midwestern world.

Kurt often stands in as the show’s prime example of difference, but one of the smartest things that “Duets” did was take Kurt off his high horse while simultaneously reinforcing that his solitude isn’t absolute. Seeing both Finn and Burt call out Kurt’s behavior in last year’s stunning episode “Theatricality” demonstrated that the show doesn’t deify Kurt. That might have been obvious to some, but it wasn’t totally clear until tonight.

Having Kurt be as fallible as the rest of the group is important, if for no other reason to keep him from being a walking, talking soapbox on a weekly basis. So long as the audience understands that Kurt isn’t a mouthpiece for the writers of the show, they can put whatever words they want into his mouth. If he’s not Ryan Murphy’s proxy (something he sure as hell seemed like in “Audition”), then his actions stand as simply one set in an overall high school chess board. The show wisely didn’t try to show people telling Kurt to simply get over his misgivings. Rather, it tried to demonstrate that the people he offends in New Directions are also some of the most understanding people he has in his life. Whatever problems they have with him, they don’t stem from his sexuality.

More importantly, Kurt’s realization of the impact of his actions didn’t simply serve as a “One To Grow On” moment for the character to potentially disregard when the story suits the show. Rather, it was integrated into the overarching theme of the episode: New Directions can only win as a group, but even with a year under their belts, they know very little about each other. So many of the pairings on display tonight, both on- and offstage, were unique in the show’s brief history. Unless there’s a subset of Brittany/Artie fanfic out there that I’m unaware of (and would like to stay in the dark about, thankee kindly), I’m not sure many people thought about this pairing ever appearing onscreen in any fashion. And yet, there they were, byproducts of broken hearts caused by other members of the group. They are dysfunctional. They are rather incestuous. They are New Directions.

But honestly, this is ALL that they have at this point. Bizarro Finn (imported from a universe in which he has a clear head on his shoulders and a moral purpose that defies any iteration of the character that has come before) wisely notes to Sam that being in the group is like walking the line down the middle of a busy highway. There’s no going back for any of them at this point. Quinn notes that she feels a loyalty to the group after her traumatic year, but it simply points out that she needs the group as badly as anyone else at this point. Most people in New Directions (Will included) feel this way. They are family, for better or worse. And like real families, they find it hard to cleave themselves fully from the group, even if prolonged exposure to each other drives them batty.

Rachel and Finn quickly identify Sam as a possible balm to the group’s overall problems, the Billy Preston to their “Let It Be”-era Beatles. Rachel, like Finn, grew a brain this week and realized that her diva ways more than likely helped send the group to the bottom of Sectionals last season. Letting Sam win the competition was a small step in the right direction, although her duet with Kurt was a much larger step. Will name-checked the “Defying Gravity” Diva-Off from last season, and while I’d love to rage against his genius idea to build team unity through divide-and-conquer contest making, I’m feeling really generous towards the show this week and will just forget it ever happened, much in the way that “Glee” chose to forget that Sue Sylvester exists this week. (Was she missed? Absolutely not. I love me some Sue, but the show had actual obstacles for the students to overcome this week, obstacles that involved one another, and therefore no external source of tension was needed in the least.)

Not only did Rachel and Kurt reach a détente (if not an outright truce) as a happy byproduct of the duet competition, but we got to see some other interesting pairs perform. My favorite? Tina and Mike, performing “Sing” from “A Chorus Line.” Turning a weakness into a strength, the show picked a perfect number for his dancing prowess and singing…well, anti-prowess. But damnit, he SOLD that number, vaulting it instantly into my Top Ten All Time Numbers on the show. Mercedes and Santana also sizzled during their duet, “River Deep, Mountain High.” That being said, Santana’s ever-present Ebonics has got. To. Step. Or I be gettin’ my gat and bustin’ a cap. (See how annoying that is? Exactly.)

“Duets” even did the one thing I thought an episode of “Glee” would never, ever do: show people practice these complex numbers. Too often a person will spontaneously think of a song, only to find Creepy Piano Dude and Randomly Appearing Student Band there to mind-meld like a show-tune loving Borg and play along with them without a hitch. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” still sounded flawless, but I can more easily buy into the conceit that I’m watching the result of a few hours of practice onscreen than I can the usual modus operandi on this show. It’s a super small thing, and yet it helps sell the illusion infinitely more than Kurt’s huge production number for “Le Jazz Hot.”

As for the winning couple this week…hey, Sam, you had me at whatever the Na’vi word for “hello” is. You’re a monster dork, and you own it, and cheerleaders apparently like that. They don’t like that on the Earth in which I live, but that’s my problem, not yours. “Glee” could have made Sam a direct competitor for Finn, but wisely chose to give him a unique vibe. It’s a bit too Jack Johnson a vibe for my taste (or, more accurately, given his song choice tonight, a Jason Mraz vibe), but it’s not what I expected, and I can’t ask for much more than that this early in his run on the show.

 

A few more bullets about tonight’s ep…

*** I’m unaware of any real-life reasons why Mark Salling’s Puck was thrown into jail this week, but I can’t say I exactly missed his character this week. Hopefully there’s a market for pop stars written by Jewish artists in juvy.

*** I am just trying to think of how many parents had to answer the question, “What is scissoring?” across America tonight.

*** Artie: I understand why you’d be worried about VD, but c’mon, at least be excited about losing your virginity for a MINUTE or so.

*** I know I ask for more realism on this show. But I also want more unnecessarily “Asian”-themed things on this show. Asian Bowling Night would be a fun place to start.

 

Like I said at the start: there’s every chance that I will come back and lament the fact that my bald head has no hair for me to rip out after watching the latest “Glee” assault on the hour-long television format. But for tonight? I’m pleased. I’m more than pleased. I’m delighted. “Glee” used to make me feel this way all the time, even in its obvious imperfections. Hell, those imperfections only made me dig the show even more. But it hasn’t been this way for a while. “Duets” was like listening to your iTunes collection on “Shuffle” for a while, and suddenly hear a song that you used to love but hadn’t thought of in ages. There’s no guarantee that I’ll like what “Glee” will shuffle to next.

But I dug the hell out of this particular track.

What did you think of “Duets”? Leave your thoughts below!