It’s been roughly two months since the last episode of “Glee,” during which time I forgot how to actually watch the show. Sure, I’ve watched plenty of television in the interim. Probably too much, according to my family. But “Glee” breaks the rules of how television is supposed to work, and so coming back into it is now is liking coming from a 3 Doors Down concert and then sitting front row at a jazz fusion festival. Not that “Glee” would ever do jazz fusion: I’m not sure its supposed demographic of seven-year olds would appreciate covers of “Bitches Brew.”

[Full recap of Sunday's (Feb. 6) "Glee" after the break...]

That crack about a seven year old being the show’s target demo came out of the mouth of “Glee” creator and Kings of Leon superfan Ryan Murphy, who kept the show in the spotlight despite its prolonged absence from the small screen through a series of outlandish quote. It was one of many things that ran through my mind while watching fiery whips and sparkling bras fill the screen during the show’s routine to “California Gurls”. It was a number designed to maintain the Super Bowl audience in much the same way as “Alias” putting Jennifer Garner in sexy lingerie or “Grey’s Anatomy” putting half of its cast naked in the shower in their respective post-game episodes. But did Murphy and Company think that the audience for the Super Bowl was pre-teens who need to learn about the importance of the arts?

Then again, the tension between football and the arts were at the center of “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle,” an episode that featured the show at its very best, its most pandering, and its downright sloppiest. Not only that, it usually managed to do at least two of those things in every scene. FOX wanted to brainwash its Super Bowl audience into thinking the show is merely a comedy, but anyone who watches an episode of the show knows there’s far more going on than that. Mixing multiple genres within one program is hardly the issue for the show as a whole: it’s that if often puts SO much into an individual hour that it can’t accomplish anything as a coherent whole.

To put it in football terms: “Glee” is like a broken play. I’m not even talking about single episodes so much as atomized elements that constitute at episode. Each bit could end in a miraculous touchdown or a horrific sack. For every Coach Beiste as the seemingly only sane voice in the entire school, there’s a plot that lets Rachel and the rest of the New Directions girls dress up for the championship football game*. For every Sue plot that threatens to completely engulf the show in a spirit of potentially interesting anarchy**, there’s a fairly complex plot about an unlikable, self-hating, closeted football player that’s as close to grounded as the show gets. The fact that it can BE all of these things is the show’s greatest strength. That it doesn’t know how to effectively deploy all the weapons in its arsenal (and, conversely, when to keep certain ones holstered) is its greatest weakness.

* Darren Criss’ character can not only sing, dance, and run in slo-motion, but has intimate knowledge of Ohio high football regulations. It boggles the mind. I expect him to ride into Regionals atop a unicorn that convinces everyone to double their recycling efforts. Nothing could shock me at this point.

 

** Seriously: she’s buying CANONS at this point. I don’t know if she’s trying to win a cheerleading competition or trying to kill The Road Runner.

Let’s start with the Karofsky storyline, since through either sheer miracle or careful planning (which, on this show, is essentially the same thing as a sheer miracle), this story has been carried over the course of a fairly long arc and almost always zigs where the show usually zags. The biggest misdirection, of course, sent Kurt over to Dalton Academy even after getting the full backing of the glee club. The second, smaller, but still appreciated twist happened tonight when Zarofsky refused to continue working with the club even after their successful halftime performance at the championship game. It’s not that he’s an unredeemable jerk: it’s that he needs much longer than one week to come out of a shell from which he may, in fact, never emerge. That is a realistic approach to such an epiphany, feels right, and feels honest in a way most revelations on the show do not.

This is all good stuff, and maybe even important stuff to certain sections of the show’s demographic. But it potentially gets lost in the noise of Sue Sylvester tearing the school down to its studs to the strains of “O Fortuna.” And that potential distraction leads to things like Will Schuester getting up on his soapbox and announcing that Karofsky, much like Will Smith’s parents, just doesn’t understand. But the way in which Will announces the reasoning for the football team/glee club combo (people’s hatred comes out of ignorance) is just as literal and ham-handed as the way he introduces the big “Thriller”/”Heads Will Roll” mash-up featured as the centerpiece of the hour. The writers of the show can’t literally transcribe the ideas they pinball off each other in the writers’ room and pass it off as dialogue. And yet so many scenes of “Glee” sound EXACTLY like that.

That doesn’t mean the big number itself suffered for the labored way in which it was introduced. Hardly. The mash-up looked expensive, well choreographed, mashed the songs up wonderfully, and even snuck in seeds for the Karofsky sucker punch at the end of the hour. Likewise, the single, solitary number over at Tolerance Narnia (ie, Dalton Academy) was slick and well-performed. But both were essentially devoid of context. WHY New Directions did the mash-up was as impenetrable as why Darren Cross complained about “Bills Bills Bills.” (Is tuition up at Dalton? Who knows!) And as long as the show favors bytes of entertainment that choose the single moment over a coherent whole, it will always be frustrating and only intermittently appealing.

Numbers in which the musical selection actually has a relationship/impact on the relationships on the show always work better. Thus, Rachel/Puck performing “Need You Know” was a weird way to sell the football team on the glories of glee club, to be sure. But at least it spoke to both Rachel’s desire to get back with Finn as well as the on-again, off-again tension between Rachel/Puck. Episodes like “Duets” or “Furt” have shone this year for that reason, but those have been the exception, not the rule. What will make that number even more lasting is if the show actually follows up with trying to put them back together, which seems now in play thanks to Finn/Quinn seemingly back on the path to coupledom.

This latter development was hinted at by Ryan “Use Somebody” Murphy during the break as well, and honestly, I’m torn. Specifically, I’m torn about whether to care about his reasons for breaking up Sam/Quinn so much as I should care about the fact that Sam is a two-dimensional character, and therefore his overall fate doesn’t interest me in the least. If reuniting Finn and Quinn gives Sam a spark as a character, then break them up, I say. (Give him something beyond “hot abs”, please.)

Quinn spoke of Finn’s actions this week reminding her of why she loved him in the first place. But the Finn this week is NOTHING like the semi-savant who didn’t understand that hot tub accidents don’t inseminate women back in the pilot. That doesn’t mean that the mature, put-together, completely likeable version of Finn will be around Tuesday when the next episode of the show airs, but I’d like to think that Quinn’s wrong in her assessment of him. Or, at the very least, that the spark that attracted her last year has now blossomed into something much more whole now. If Kurt can get accumulated weight with lasting impact, there’s no reason someone like Finn can’t.

Sadly, I’m probably thinking about this much more than the show does. Again, the writers think largely in micro, not macro, ways. That thinking can (and does) produce moments that are singularly wonderful and unique, moments that cannot be produced in any other show now. But those moments are hampered by those around it, brought down by surrounding mediocrity and thus not allowed to shine as much as they could or should. They are the types of moments in which I had a chicken cutlet handy so I could slap myself in the face with it. In trying to be all things to all people, it risks not resonating with anyone.

By uniting music with character, and continuing the Kurt/Karofksy storyline along its unpredictable path, the show can really soar in the second half of this problematic season, then it will regain some of the magic it had last year. But right now, I worry that simply isn’t possible anymore.

What did you think of the show’s return? Classic “Glee,” or simply another step in the show’s decline? Is the Karofsky storyline working for you? Is Sue too over-the-top for the show, or the antidote to its earnestness? Leave your thoughts below!