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Glee: "Sectionals"

After 13 episodes, it increasingly feels like Glee is figuring out what works for it. It's a show about performance, it's a show about dreams, and it's a show about desperation, and any time it hits on at least one of those themes fairly well, it seems like the episode works, no matter how much odd pacing and huge tonal shifts the series attempts within that episode. Time's James Poniewozik defended putting the show on his top ten for the year by saying that consistency is overrated, that the highs Glee has hit more than offset its lows. While I doubt the show would make my top ten were I to make such a thing, I can sort of agree with that. When Glee is firing on all cylinders, there's just nothing else like it on TV, and that's why I stick with it, though the fake pregnancy subplots of the world try my patience.

"Sectionals" is an episode that rather feels more important than it actually is. Naturally, it's kind of a big deal in terms of the show's universe whether or not New Directions moves on from here to go to regionals, but it's not as important to the show and the audience's investment in it as the fact that, say, Finn finds out that Puck is the father of Quinn's baby. And that's as it should be. "Sectionals," clearly, was supposed to work as a series finale if Glee just didn't catch on, and that means some of its happy endings can feel a bit rushed, but it more or less hits all of the beats it needs to hit in style. There were some weird issues in the show's conception of sectionals, but to complain about them feels rather stingy in an episode that mostly engendered goodwill all around.

The episode is written by Brad Falchuk, the guy who seems most intent on blending the campy elements of the show with the more emotionally realistic elements. Unlike Ian Brennan, who sometimes tries to find the emotional realism IN the camp with diminishing returns, Falchuk isn't as hung up on indulging in some of the show's goofier elements, but he can also come up with a surprisingly glum moment, like the team boarding the bus to sectionals after Finn quit the club after the Puck/Quinn revelation. Shot through with the sort of late autumn/early winter colors you get in the Midwest - all greys and browns - and full of people with long faces, the moment was surprisingly poignant, a good "darkest hour is just before dawn" moment in the weird sports movie that is the road to sectionals.

That said, I do want to quibble just a bit with how the show has portrayed sectionals throughout its run. Though sectionals has always clearly been set up as the major goal for the kids to aspire to, the show has done a pretty poor job of explaining how the whole process works, only doing so in fits and starts when it seemed like it needed to. For that reason, the whole emotional impact of the kids going to sectionals and having to come up with a new routine on the fly was curiously muted. To a degree, this is because the show shows these kids coming up with new routines on the fly like it isn't any big deal on a weekly basis. At the same time, the sectionals process was too ambiguous throughout, and the competition was too obviously bad in both senses of the word. Compared to one of the show's most obvious comparison points, Friday Night Lights, Glee probably needed to explain the world of competitive show choir slightly more than that show needed to explain the world of high school football.

For the most part, though, the structure of this episode does a lot of the heavy lifting the rest of the series hasn't done to this point. While there are a few clumsy elements in the early going of the episode, once you have that six-way phone call discussing what to do about Rachel figuring out that Puck is the father of Quinn's baby (from a psychic hunch or something), everything's on the rails. The cut from Rachel telling Finn to the commercial break to Finn beating the hell out of Puck is aces. The scene that follows it is almost as good, as everything that needs to be said by the characters is said. And from there, it's on to sectionals, where the show tries a little too hard to conserve time leading up to the big performance by having really short acts but mostly pulls it together with that big performance. Having the audience standing up to dance was a little (OK, quite a bit) over the top, but it captured some of the series' infectious joy built around the idea of performance. Nothing's better, Glee argues, than getting up there and strutting your stuff, and if you can pull in other people with you, more power to you.

The stuff with the judges was funny and on-point. These competitions are generally judged by some combination of any minor celebrities that can be roped into doing such a thing (and usually a college professor or two), and watching the three random people try to come to some sort of consensus was amusing and introduced just enough of an element of suspense to the results of the competition to make everything not such a foregone conclusion. While it was obvious that New Directions was going to win sectionals (otherwise, what would the show do in the back nine?), this didn't make it feel like they blew their competition out. There's still room for them to grow, even if they can learn an entirely new routine in 15 minutes.

The rest of the episode, then, managed to wrap up a bunch of plotlines well and introduce new ones at the same time. Showing that Terri's serious about getting her life back under control? Check. Showing that Will, like Finn, is unable to forgive and move past her deception? Check. Sue being put on suspension, Will being made director of New Directions again, and Will and Emma coming together? All checked off the list. It was as if the series was working through a long list of things it wanted to get to that might simultaneously wrap up enough loose ends and keep some other ones dangling if it did come back. And, of course, there was one last song to send us all home with smiles on our faces, a cluttered routine to Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You" that incorporated something from just about every routine the club did at one time or another this season. All of this could have felt rushed and insufferable, but it somehow didn't. Glee is a show that's always living its life on the edge of ridiculousness, but it pays off in moments like these, when the show's big, throbbing heart is exposed for all to see.

Stray observations:

  • I know I've complained about the unadventurous song choices this season, but I actually was amused by the black girl singing "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and the Jewish girl singing "Don't Rain on My Parade." It felt like wry self-commentary.
  • Brittany and Santana in love? This strikes me as somehow absolutely appropriate.
  • The Will and Emma pairing is a bit sudden, no? I hope the show deals with this more thoroughly.
  • The deaf kids singing "Don't Stop Believin'"? Cruel. But I laughed.
  • And with that, the show's gone until April. I'll be back then, but so will be Lost. Decisions, decisions.
  • "Artie keeps ramming himself into the wall."
  • "Hey, buddy. I just came by to feed my Venus flytrap."
  • "I'm reasonably confident that you will be adding revenge to the long list of things that you are no good at. Right next to marriage, running a high school glee club and finding a hairstyle that doesn't make you look like a lesbian."
  • "Sue, there is an orgy of evidence stacked against you."
  • "You are about to board the Sue Sylvester Express. Destination? HORROR."

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