I Am Unicorn” is a statement about “Glee” itself as much as the characters involved in tonight’s central plots. The hour concerns identity, and how people often view themselves in terms of how they are viewed by others. That’s not a radical way to structure an episode of television, but know what? “Glee” excels when it keeps things simple. At the same time, the multifaceted ways in which that theme played out amongst Kurt, Brittany, Quinn, and others also represents the multifaceted show that is “Glee.” Sometimes, that combination is an ugly mess, slapping disparate elements together to form a horrific Frankenstein of a television program. But as character after character rediscovered things about themselves tonight, perhaps the show rediscovered a few things about itself as well.

The strongest elements of this rediscovery centered around the show actually remembering its own history. “Glee” has this horrible way of rewriting motivations and situations in order to fit whatever they want to accomplish in a particular scene , never mind a particular episode. Reintroducing Shelby Corcoran (guest star Idina Menzel) seemed like a stunt at first, akin perhaps to bringing back Gwyneth Paltrow’s Holly Holiday. But each scene with her reignited a long-dormant storyline, ones that I forgot because the show had forgotten them as well. Whether bringing Shelby back at this point was intentional or accidentally is besides the point, because either was it is pretty much a masterstroke. Why? Because it forces a multitude of characters to re-evaluate themselves at a critical point in their lives. She functions like Gus Fring from “Breaking Bad”, but with a pitch pipe in lieu of a box cutter.

This isn’t to say we can now reconfigure Season 2 as, say, a conscious, willful neglect of Season 1 on behalf of the characters. That narrative amnesia still rests fully in the three-man writer’s room that conceived of and wrote those first few years. And last week’s episode felt like the same old “Glee”, even with the influx of new members of the show’s writing staff. But this one felt like the newcomers actually had an impact, bringing up important elements from not simply the show’s past but the characters’ past. But what makes Shelby’s introduction tonight vital is how she affects certain characters in the show’s present. It’s not as if life in McKinley High was rosy before her arrival, but her presence certainly gives things a focus and an urgency lacking in last week’s hour.

Her impact primarily falls upon three people: Rachel, Quinn, and Puck. Seeing Shelby step all over Rachel’s audition for the upcoming production of “West Side Story” gave me “bluffin’ in my muffin” levels of queasiness, but Shelby gives Rachel a specific example to which to aspire to the life of a performer.* The show seems determined to never show us her two fathers, and Will-as-parental-figure simply isn’t in the cards. Having Kurt as a companion in the journey is nice, but hardly sufficient. Rachel needs someone besides Barbara Streisand as a role model, and Shelby could fill that need.

* This of course ignores the part about Shelby returning to Lima as a hired hand by Sugar’s mega-rich father to start a competing show choir inside the high school. This is fairly stupid, but I’m willing to forgive the show’s plot shortcomings when it gets the emotions right.

More important, and more powerful, was the way in which Shelby’s return affected Quinn and Puck. I left Puck off my list last week of crucial characters that Season 3 needed to address, because he’s been stuck in Lauren Limbo for so long that he ceased to matter. But Shelby exists as a role model not just for Rachel, but for the parents of her adoptive daughter Beth as well. Senior Year is giving these students a chance to figure out who they want to be before leaving the nest (or, at the very least, leaving high school). Quinn didn’t decide who she wants to be so much as retreat from the person she was, leaving her pink-haired and skankified under the bleachers. What tonight attempted to demonstrate is that both Quinn and Puck have been running away from the decision to give up Beth for adoption at the end of Season 1. While I’d never let the show off the hook for forgetting this plot last year, I’m certainly glad that it brought this narrative back tonight.

 

Indeed, the Shelby/Quinn/Puck plot represents “Glee” at its best, showing the deep strain of melancholy that sits at the heart of the show. New Directions is not simply a place for joy, but often a place to hide from pain. Not every member of the group is ailing (Mike Chang has first world problems at BEST), but plenty of members use the group as place of escaping their real-life problems. Again: I don’t think the show intended Puck and Quinn’s amnesia last year to be part of their characters. The show just chose to ignore Beth’s existence, period. But Puck and Quinn’s place in New Directions henceforth is tied into their desire to reintegrate themselves into Beth’s life. That’s a HUGE change, and a welcome one, since it gives everything inside the group resonance for things outside of it as well. Simply singing a song that reflects inner turmoil is fine. But using the group to give laser-like focus to a custody battle? That takes things up a notch, in a welcome way.

Kurt’s storyline played out along these lines of self-identity as well, but with less effective results. Having his Burt onscreen makes every “Glee” episode 19.4% better (trust me, I’ve done the math on this), but having him onscreen to deliver the “just be yourself” message felt like a waste. Not because we all don’t love Burt, but because it served to undercut Brittany’s hour-long attempt to make Kurt see the very same thing. Now, perhaps that’s the point, and Kurt’s devaluing of Brittany will pay off as the now-competitive race for Student Body President pits the two of them against each other. If Season 3 continues her rise into self-awareness/self-actualization with Santana’s continued help, I’m on board. But time will tell.

More problematic with Kurt’s storylines? The ways in which the show had the directors of “West Side Story” (Beiste, Emma, Artie) questioning his appropriateness for the role of Tony (all while Kurt eavesdropped), then had said directors giggling during his attempts at manliness in a follow-up audition. Now, I get it: the show was attempting not to mock Kurt’s masculinity so much as his attempts to be something he’s not. That they eventually consider Blaine for the lead role showed that the directors have no problem with a gay man playing Tony so much as Kurt in particular. But the way in which the episode gets to this point makes everyone look bad. Kurt eavesdropping? Meh. The directors laughing at the scene from “Romeo and Juliet”? Ugh. Kurt inevitably being mad at Blaine when he gets the role? Sigh.

Still, this could all still work. Remember: Rachel and Blaine had some serious onstage chemistry in her basement back in “Blame It on The Alcohol.” Rachel and Kurt are besties now, each helping each other to get to the bright lights of Broadway. But would Rachel refuse the lead in “West Side Story” opposite Blaine? Doubtful. It’s all about how this story plays out down the line that will determine its power. Given how much old stories were reignited with Shelby’s return, I am optimistic this one will continue as well. (Well, relatively to last week. This is still “Glee”, after all, and one week of continuity might be all we can hope for. “Glee” is the freakin’ Lucy van Pelt of TV, and we fans are all Charlie Brown.)

The beauty of all this? “Glee” actually has some structure around which to hang its narrative hat. In years past, the vague goal of “Nationals” hasn’t been enough to keep the show on point, leaving room for meandering plot lines, homages to pop stars, and enough schizophrenic characterizations to fill an insane asylum. We know have two big storylines to get us through the Fall: the school musical and the class president elections. Those storylines aren’t just about plot, but about character. The pressure of both of those plots has the potential to have these students interact in interesting and surprising ways. Through in a potential custody battle AND the imminent, omnipresent aspect of Nationals/graduation, and you have a lot going on. All of these things are big, but none of them are particularly complex. They are big because they are universally applicable: everyone can relate to trying to define who we are, what we’d like to be, and what we’d like to get out of this world. It’s as relatable as…well, a really good song, I suppose.

 

“Glee” is definitely the unicorn of television. But not always for the reasons it believes itself to be so. What makes it stand out is not the music, but the raw emotional aspects that seep through in its best episodes. Music is sometimes, but not always, the delivery system by which to achieve those emotional highs. At one point tonight Shelby tells Rachel she will never be a star by playing it safe. But people haven’t fled “Glee” because the show plays it safe. They have fled because it’s gotten away from what people fell in love with during the first season. If “Glee” has any hope of recapturing the fans that it’s bled over the past year, it needs to worry less about being “different” and more about being its best self. If it can apply the lessons to itself that it started to apply to its characters tonight, then just maybe it can do that.

 

Some more thoughts on tonight’s episode:

*** The best part of Quinn’s story that I left out? Her confrontation with Will as part of Sue’s campaign for political office. That “Glee” wants us to think that Sue could possibly be winning is something that I try to ignore. But honestly, have we seen THAT Will since he found out about Terri’s false pregnancy? That Will/Terri scene was the single most “Nip/Tuck”-esque moment of this show, and quite frankly, I would prefer my Will featuring  “simmering anger” and not “perpetual stupidity”. But given that Shelby’s return will probably spark up a love triangle with her, Will, and Emma, I am not holding my breath here.

***While Rachel may step over Kurt to get to the top (not happily, but perhaps inevitably), I liked her short scene with Finn in the shop. The show managed to make a life of a mechanic noble, while simultaneously suggesting Finn might have a different future than that. Subtle. I know, I just applied the word “subtle” to “Glee.” My head hurts. Are we in Bizarro World?

*** Another positive tonight: the realism with which the musical performances were deployed. The show tried this in last year’s fundraiser episode “A Night of Neglect,” but actually succeeded this time in building an episode around audition songs that doubled as characterization. Bonus points for Kurt actually explaining why scaffolding was onstage for his audition. Realism in performance! Who are you, show, and what have you done with the old “Glee”?

*** On the down side, “Booty Camp” had an interesting idea (actually PRACTICING dance routines as opposed to magically performing them via Mike Chang mindmeld), but those odd slo-mo shots of Will and Mike dancing were the stuff of fanfic vids.

*** The Vocal Adrenaline coach was fired after coming in second at Nationals. The boosters for Vocal Adrenaline and the boosters for the Dillon Panthers must have a lot of overlap.

*** "Kurt Hummel's Bulging, Pink Fun Sack." My. God.

*** That being said? Whenever I am down, I will play Heather Morris saying “I love my happy, happy unicorn!” henceforth to cheer me up.

*** Can’t wait for the next Depeche Mode single: “Your own…personal…Henson…”

 

What did you think about tonight’s episode? An improvement over last week, or more of the same? Do the callbacks tonight give you hope the show will mine its past going forth, or was this simply a one-off that will be forgotten by next week? Sound off below!