A lot of people love the competition episodes of “Glee.” I’ve never been a particularly big fan of them for two reasons. One, the performances themselves rarely measure up to the best performances in other episodes. It’s hard to wow the audience at home with spectacle when they get it on a weekly basis anyways. Secondly, the show rarely builds up to these competitions with little more than lip service. Ostensibly, every week of rehearsal should be building towards these specific events, but all too often everything that’s come before the week of the show gets chucked out in favor of musical Hail Marys.

But what “Original Song” did right, and did differently than all other previous competition episodes, was properly frame the competition itself as secondary to the various emotional entanglements going on amongst its participants. That’s a good thing, especially since the deliberation process to decide the Regionals winner was so painful and so tonally off from everything that preceded it that it nearly ruined all the good feelings this episode produced in my cold, black heart. I don’t think “Glee” views these competitions as anything more than a convenient way to frame a season of television anyways, so I’m glad that the show used this particular opportunity as a point at which much more important moments in life could come to the forefront.

[Full recap of Tuesday's (March 15) "Glee" after the break...]

Over in McKinley High, things started off shakily, as Quinn rambled off a Tarantino-length monologue that contained more words than that character has spoken all season. The use of voiceover in “Glee” has come and gone over the past two seasons, deployed when the writers feel like it then discarded like last year’s fashion. To top it off, not only was she suddenly front and center in the show again, but she was given a new purpose: saddling up to Rachel in order to achieve her new goal of being prom queen. So much for the past year of post-baby meandering, right?

Well, not so much. Perhaps I’m giving the show far too much credit, but by the time Quinn turned her plot into an excuse to set Rachel free in order to pursue her dreams, I couldn’t help but rethink her entire opening speech as either self-delusion or simply incredibly sad. That strain of melancholy bubbled up to the surface every once in a while on the show, where the strains of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” stop short of its optimistic crescendo and stay focused on a small town girl (or boy), living in a lonely world from which there’s almost no escape. Quinn sees a future with Finn, but it’s an incredibly muted future in which marriage doesn’t mean they will ever leave the city limits.

This isn’t exactly a tragedy, per se, but does reconfigure a host of actions in “Glee” to a gaggle of people acting histrionically about things that are neither unique nor all that dramatic. One can look at Sue Sylvester as a singular, fictional figure. Or one can look at her as the embodiment of everyone that likes to be a big fish in a small pond. Her actions are cruel, but they are also not exactly singular except in terms of the extent to which she enacts her petty revenges. Her nemesis, Will, is another example of ubiquitous in the cyclical nature of small-town life: the local boy who didn’t quite make good and ended up back in the same high school that featured the best time of his life. The reality of that “best time” being in fact rather mundane always hangs over the show, but the show often forsakes this forlorn approach to the proceedings in favor of slapstick comedy, surrealism, and often operatic strains of incredulity.

There’s nothing to say the show will continue down this road, because after all this is “Glee” and things like “long-term continuity” fly out the window with not only each episode, but often each act break. But if it DID, then the central figures in the show become clear: Rachel and Kurt. These two, amongst all others, have the chance to actually break the aforementioned cycle in a meaningful way. And with its gaze fixed through this particular lens this week, it’s fitting that both characters had moments in which they rediscovered their voices in meaningful ways. The show didn’t give either character many favors in order to achieve that breakthrough, but there’s something to be said for proper sentiment overriding shoddy plotting.

The whole “original song” concept is classic “Glee”: a great idea that didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. The notion that Rachel needed to find her true artistic voice through the process of singing her own words, not those of someone else, is a fantastic notion. The show tried to organically show her maturity as a songwriter as best it could, but didn’t do enough justice to make “Get It Right” or “Loser Like Me” feel earned as pieces of polished music.

But Lea Michele performed the hell out of “Right” anyways, turning it into the “Glee” version of Stevie Nicks screaming “Silver Springs” at Lindsey Buckingham during their legendary 1997 comeback concert. Even if “Glee” botched the plotting of the songwriting arc, it got Rachel to a point at which she broke past technical proficiency in favor of pure emoting. As far as “Loser,” that was far less successful, less an anthem for the audience at Regionals so much as a meta statement to the audience at home, replete with Slushie machines and hand “L”s to ensure that the show’s visual branding made it into the show itself. 

More successful, since everything stakes-wise truly happened offstage, was Kurt’s first kiss with Blaine. I’m chalking this as a win in the Chris Colfer column, since just about everything that worked in this part of the show fell on his shoulders. That it took an inappropriate rendition of “Blackbird” (a song about the 1960’s civil rights movement) to sway Blaine finally over to Team Kurt hurt my head something fierce, but Lord Colfer sold that “oh my GOD” moment in a way that felt universal in its application. It’s his second kiss (anyone remember Karofsky?), but something tells me he can rewrite history and make this one his first from now on.

The Kurt/Rachel kinship this season (again, off and on, but still more than occasionally mentioned) was reinforced with both cheering for each other at Regionals, a signal of mutual respect but also mutual recognition. Mercedes has sometimes formed a diva trio with this pair, but it’s these two that, to paraphrase their sing-off from season 1, have tried to defy the gravitational pull that this small town has over its citizenry. It’s not that small-town life is looked down upon in “Glee”: it’s just that it recognizes that there is a tiny group in each one that aren’t meant to simply re-enact the lives of their parents. New Directions takes the competition seriously, but members like Quinn also realize that even if they go on to win Nationals, there’s a damn good chance their lives won’t actually alter one iota more than if they once again placed third at Regionals.

Again: all of this may be giving the show too much credit. And any show with a song about Sam’s enormous mouth and Kathy Griffin playing a combo Christine O’Donnell/Sarah Palin/Michelle Bachmann Trio of Tea Party Terror probably shouldn’t be looked at in this light. But because this strain of sadness constantly rises to the surface in “Glee,” it’s useful to think about the show in this manner. Not because that’s what the show is. Because that’s what the show COULD be. Push past the national concert tours, constant stream of albums on iTunes, and Sue Sylvester-isms and therein lies an incredibly heartfelt, incredibly conservative, and perhaps incredibly important show. More than anything else on the air, “Glee” can speak to everyday problems through its musical conceit in ways more direct and more emotional that quote-unquote “normal” shows could ever hope to achieve. These are kids that like to sing. These are kids that NEED to sing. And when the show opts for the latter, the show is something special.

It’s just too damn bad that it so often settles for the former. After all, nothing described above accurately depicts the way in which “Glee” approaches this particular universe. There’s no reason to think any of this will stick when the show returns in a few weeks. It might return to lazy, inconsistent world-building that sacrifices character to create a problem to be solved within that hour. But for tonight, it pushed through that complacency a few times to offer a peak at the greatness this show could achieve if only it tried harder.

 

What did you think of this year’s Regionals? Did the original song conceit work for you or come off tone-deaf? And did the show’s tone this week feel authentic or just unrealistic? Sound off below!