There’s a shot halfway through the second hour of tonight’s two-episode “Glee” gauntlet in which the camera zooms in tight around Finn Hudson’s face. He and the rest of New Directions have just finished their set at Nationals, ending in a lengthy performance of Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”. His face is triumphant, but more importantly, his brow is sweaty. For the first time I can remember in the show, performing seemed like actual hard work. It’s an easy thing to forget in “Glee,” a program in which flawless numbers seem to fall out of the sky only to disappear into the ether.
 
Now, was that sweat earned? Well, no. Of course not. Nor was New Directions’ win at Nationals, a win three years in the making only because it made sense for the show to break its story that way. What should have been a cathartic moment years in the making turned oddly anticlimactic, but this really shouldn’t be surprising. Plenty of shows have plenty of Achilles heels. “Glee” has Achilles ankles, knees, shoulders, and ears atop said heels, to be sure. But one of its most glaring, inexplicable shortcomings lies in its treatment of the judges at the ostensibly important competitions towards which New Directions spends up to three hours rehearsing for.* Even if the show treated these competitions as anything more than narrative signposts, it wouldn’t matter: The clowns that render judgment upon these poor show choirs essentially reduce the entire endeavor to a farce.
 
* Artie’s line in Chicago slayed me, in which he complained about them working hard for the equivalent of 180 minutes. This would have been the most ridiculous line of the night, had Will not uttered this gem just moments before: “I don’t want everything we worked for to collapse because of one bad burrito.” This show, you guys.
 
Somehow, having Lindsey Lohan, Perez Hilton, and Rex Lee’s local government official was the most legitimate panel thus far on the show. Think about THAT for a moment. The fate of these kids lies in the hands of people who function as jesters more than judges. This means that the show has an out should New Directions lose, but also delegitimizes tonight’s win as well. There’s plenty of discussion about the dissonance in “Smash” between what people see inside the show and what those at home see. Tonight, I would offer that Vocal Adrenaline fairly clearly won Nationals. Granted, we only saw two groups perform substantially in tonight’s Nationals competition. But of the two we saw, Vocal Adrenaline simply had the better performance. But the story of “Glee” needed New Directions to win, and thus the decision went that way. In that respect, it really doesn’t matter that the judges are stooges: What really matters is the whims of those in the writer’s room.
 
That’s too bad, but the show really wrote itself into a corner by this point in the run. So much had gone wrong for so long, and so many stakes were wrapped up in an “all or nothing” attempt to win Nationals, that having New Directions lose would have sent everyone involved into a Jonestown-esque pact. “Glee” has been fairly good, all things said, about painting a portrait of a town in which not everyone achieves their dream. But other than Rachel not winning Individual MVP, everyone won tonight. New Directions won Nationals. Will won Teacher of the Year.** Rachel is probably going to get into NYADA after what’s tantamount to stalking Carmen Tibideaux. Puck gets another shot to graduate. Emma won in her battle against virginity. The final song was “We Are The Champions,” for crying out loud. And yet, I double dog dare you to tell me the name of the Irish kid who is now a champion. Yup. Thought so.
 
** Do I have to point out that McKinley High’s Teacher of the Year is a Spanish teacher than didn’t know Spanish, and had to switch departments?
 
The lack of attention to non-primary players was the thrust of the first hour, in which Tina turned into this week’s mouthpiece for Ryan Murphy. If you paid attention to the “Previously On” this week, you heard an extremely long account of how much the show has forgotten about Tina. It’s accurate, but hardly counts as something actually planned by the writing staff. Tina rages against her second-class citizenship on the show, angers Mike, and then takes a total dive into the mall pool while fight texting with Mike. (Quinn was right: walking while texting IS dangerous!) What followed was a body-switching act of television that, incredibly, didn’t fall apart upon execution. I’m not sure it was actually good, but it was fairly amazing to see all the actors commit so heavily to the concept. It seemed like great fun for them, and that energy rubbed off. Since actors like Darren Criss usually have “Please Help” tattoo’ed on their eyelids, it was a nice change of pace.
 
Unfortunately, the body swapping soon yielded to a series of lectures about knowing your place in this world. It was odd, didactic, tone deaf…in other words was totally “Glee”! Tina’s berating of those who felt costume committee was beneath them got a lecture on putting in the work in order to shine. It’s an odd speech not only because it sounds like a veiled threat from the show’s creator to his young cast, but also because New Directions has never put in the work over the past three years in order to achieve the things they have. Tina notes that Rachel is constantly working to perfect her craft, and in this case the show makes a good point. But while it’s impressive that the cast of “Glee” can perform so many numbers over the course of a year, it’s downright insane that New Directions only hones its performing acts days in advance of the competition.
 
It’s also insane that “Glee” tried to re-introduce Beiste’s domestic abuse storyline into this initial hour. But it’s still preferable than never, ever returning to it again. The show time and again shows that it doesn’t understand that sensitive topics need room to breathe (and probably shouldn’t involve jokes about William “The Refrigerator” Perry). I maintain my anger about this storyline’s introduction in the first place, but having it solved via Puck’s own struggles was about as good a way for the show to extricate itself from this mess as possible. It’s still conceivable that Cooter will turn into a Carver-esque serial killer in Season 4, hunting down victims in both Lima and New York City. But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t a little moved by Puck/Beiste’s duet in the auditorium all the same. I don’t buy for a second that Puck would choose to sing Taylor Swift’s “Mean”. However, I completely bought that he tied into the emotion of it, and Mark Salling/Dot Jones harmonize surprisingly well. For all the obvious, anvilicious moments in tonight’s two hours, I didn’t see this one coming. I never anticipated how well it would work. It was the type of surprising moment “Glee” is somehow still capable of pulling off.
 
Still, too many moments were too predictable tonight, and more importantly, the show didn’t earn them. I wouldn’t mind seeing a show in which Sue Sylvester isn’t in charge of the Cheerios, where New Directions isn’t now beloved by even hatahs such as Rick The Stick, where Will realizes that he’s five seconds away from a restraining order at any given moment. Rather than being a show in which good sits along the bad, everything came up roses for everyone tonight. It makes sense on paper. But it simply never achieved flight onscreen.
 
One final thought: as I alluded to earlier, “Glee” is going into a fourth season in which time is split between the two towns. Little is known about how this will break down at this point, but…is staying in Lima even worth it at this point? The problem with installing that trophy in the rehearsal room is that the ostensible goal of the show has been achieved. But there’s a world to explore in New York. I’m not interested in putting people like Jenna Ushkowitz out of work, especially since the first hour tonight heavily suggested she could be a lead in Lima next year. But when you’ve achieved everything, shouldn’t the curtain close?
 
What did you think of tonight’s two-episode “Glee”? Did the results at Nationals surprise you? Did New Directions earn it? Given those results, does splitting time in Season 4 make sense? Sound off below!