So here we are, near the end of the Fall run for “Glee.” Next week is the holiday episode, which pretty much exists out of continuity. Well, continuity as far as this show goes. It’s a stop-gap episode filled with holiday sweaters and Artie’s Magic Legs. But let’s not worry about that now, because we have before us the task of analyzing what went down at Sectionals. In the first season of “Glee,” Sectionals provided the majority of the narrative thrust, given every episode some overall context as New Directions tried to get its act together in order to eventually compete. Now? Sectionals is something that “Glee” tries to get through as opposed to strive for. If it could avoid actually having to go through these motions, it probably would.
 
But it begrudgingly has to, even though it’s the latest in a series of competitions in which New Directions shows up woefully underprepared to actually perform. Look back at the history of Sectionals, Regionals, and Nationals: each performance was either the result of another set list being scrapped, original songs being written the day of the performance, or numbers conceived after last-minute additions to the overall composition of the club. And yet…everything usually works out just fine. Worried about losing Rachel to an already depleted group? Just head across the border and snag Sam, who has been working in a Chippendales-esque club in order to make ends meet for his family. Worried about losing out on the numbers Rachel would have performed? No problem: you didn’t have a set list anyways. Just go up onstage, perform the worst, and you’ll win anyways.
 
Were they actually the worst? It’s hard to tell, but “Glee” honestly couldn’t care less about who wins or loses. How do I know this? I look at the judges, who are part of the Sue Sylvester realm of comedy that doesn’t actually jive with the life-and-death way in which these kids consider this competition. I mean, look at all the potential stakes in place: nearly every kid on that stage from both New Directions and The Trouble Tones have a decently sketched out reason for that competition being meaningful. “Glee” has sometimes taken shortcuts to get there with some characters, to be sure. But the fact that I freaked out about the possibility of Mike screwing up in front of his father means the show has done at least some honest emotional work this season in demonstrating how much the group, and these competitions, mean to them. So what does Glee do to honor this? Make Tickles The Freakin’ Clown one of the judges. Unbelievable.
 
So there’s no real criteria by which to assess who was actually the best. “Glee” wanted New Directions to stay intact, and so it re-absorbed the members of The Trouble Tones who actually have names in the credits back into their fold by episode’s end. I could see arguments either way about which group was actually best (and even hear arguments for The Unitards, even if no one actually expected them to win), but those arguments are pointless since the competition served to fulfill the pre-existing plot requirements of the show. Everything returned to the status quo, even if it made absolutely no sense and actually violated the central theme of tonight’s episode: growing up.
 
Now, I know this episode’s main theme was “growing up” because I played a drinking game in which I took a sip every time mentioned the phrase. After receiving a complete blood transfusion, I sat back down at my laptop and started to compose this review. Quinn rallies Santana, Mercedes, Brittany, and Other Girl Whose Name I Refuse To Learn back into the fold under the guise of wanting to have fond memories looking back on this when they are older. That’s not an incorrect impulse, per se, but it doesn’t have anything to do with what’s transpired to this point on the show. It’s been about many things this season, some interesting (what the world outside McKinley High might look like) and some less so (anything to do with politics). But there’s been no sense of anything in the here and now being anything but filled with strife.
 
So, fine, maybe Quinn’s speech was meant to put a button on all the craziness that’s gone down thus far this season. Maybe she reaches that revelation as a result of all the dissonance. But having that group hug of a number (complete with an awkward attempt at joining in by Will) at the end of this episode means that we’re now wiping aside everything that’s come before in this season. In the case of Mike’s future, turning the page felt earned. Everything else? Not so much. Santana’s coming out and subsequent estrangement? Mercedes’ inability to ever stand out? Quinn’s increasingly horrific attempts to reclaim Beth? Brushed aside, not because they were properly resolved but because the show didn’t feel like making them issues anymore. Other elements, such as Sam’s reconnection with New Directions (and Mercedes) and the Finn/Blaine strife were shoehorned in and given the barest amount of time in order to move on to the next point. Quinn should be going to jail. Instead? She’s probably going to Yale. Kill me in the face.
 
This is all too bad, since Sectionals is a perfectly arbitrary way for a half-season’s worth of material to actually culminate. Whether or not the show ever shows New Directions giving more than 5-6 hours worth of work to throw together their performance, thematically those numbers could tie a bow around several lingering plots at once. The strongest moments this season have generally been montages set to musical performance (when the cast list of “West Side Story” went up, when Kurt/Blaine and Finn/Rachel had sex for the first time). So getting a series of songs to sum up the thoughts of its performers should have been a no-brainer. However, this approach assumes long-term planning that chooses material based on dramatic punch rather than iTunes sales. So, Jacksons Montage ahoy! Good. Grief.
 
Having Tina stand up for Mike? Great. Having her sing co-lead on “ABC”? Mind-boggling. Not because she performed it badly, but because there was no reason for her to sing that number at that time. The same goes for The Trouble Tones, whose mash-up of “I Will Survive” and “Survivor” was musically proficient but devoid of context. Was it about Santana surviving the aftermath of her conversation with her grandmother? Maybe. But the only context for her performance was 1) reading a list of jokes about Sam’s mouth, and 2) leading the snarky charge to snag New Directions members if they lost Sectionals. Is expecting every song to have thematic connection to the actual scene too much to ask for? Probably. “Solo Red Cup” was a fairly terrible number, but at least I could see a tenuous connection between Sam’s return and the number itself. (It’s a number I wish had been in “Blame It On The Alcohol,” but that ship has sailed.)
 
It’s that lack of context that kills the show on a weekly basis. Blaine’s punchy rage at Sam came out of absolutely NOWHERE, even factoring in his simmering rage towards Finn. It was sandwiched in between scenes involving Quinn wanting to tattle on Shelby, a Mike/Tina fight, and Sam saying a teary farewell to Clark Kent’s father. (Sorry. John Schneider will ever and always be Pa Kent to me. Just how it goes.) The plot careens around Lima, Ohio like a drunken pinball: sometimes it lands a high score, and sometimes it just tilts. But it never stays in one place for very long. The scene in which Blaine and Finn reconciled their difference was competent, but it should have been the culmination of weeks of tension between the two. But the show was too busy introducing leprechauns and putting Coach Beiste into an awful love triangle to bother fleshing out what should be an interesting pair. Here’s the boyfriend of Finn’s step-brother and main rival for his girlfriend. It’s a solid foundation for some potential conflict, but “Glee” took the same approach to this conflict that it did with the “too few members to compete” controversy: it invented a quick fix and moved on. (Don’t get me started on the band joining the group at the last minute. Just don’t.)
 
Honestly, this might all sound like I’m mad at the show. I’m not. I can’t get worked up about this show at this point. Instead, I look at it as a detached observer, taking down notes the way Jane Goodall did while studying chimps. “Glee” works by its own rules, and it’s going to actually spend an episode developing the impact of Sam’s return when it can just slide him into one of the fifteen narrative slots it has for a particular week. Chord Overstreet actually charmed the heck out of me when given the chance to speak, but those chances were few and far between. Rather than wonder why “Glee” would possibly waste his return this way, I choose to acknowledge that this is just how the show operates. For some, the refusal of the show to adhere to the most basic tenets of storytelling is what endears them to the program. And while I would never say there’s only one way to make a television show, I’d say “respecting the audience” would be perhaps the only universal rule I’d apply to any and all pieces of pop culture. When “Glee” skips over character development, changes the rules of its own reality, and drops plots when it no longer feels like dealing with them, they aren’t being revolutionary. They are being disrespectful. That’s their prerogative. But it’s mine to not be invested in this show fully until they change their own tune.
 
What did you think of “Hold On To Sixteen”? Did the right team win? Did you even care? If we’re going to be turning the page on all the plots this Fall, what do you want to see in 2012 for these characters? Sound off below!