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Glee Watch: The Walking Dead

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Spoilers for the post–Super Bowl Glee up next:

If you had never watched Glee before, yet lived in American society with full possession of your senses and faculties, what would you probably know about it? That it’s set in a high school. That kids sing popular tunes of the day. That there’s this cheerleading coach who does all kinds of crazy stuff. And maybe that it involves outcasts, or something.

That is, more or less—not much more, really—what “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” delivered: a mostly self-contained,  tame by Glee standards, and easily forgettable episode of the series that seemed designed to accommodate first-time viewers and bring them into the fold. (As most post-big-game episodes of existing series are.) In its conflicts and stories, in other words, it was a typical Glee episode. But “typical” is hardly what Glee is when it’s at its best.

The basic plot: there’s tension between the football team and the glee club, the former being embarrassed that many of its members are in the unpopular latter group. This is a storyline the show has returned to endlessly, since the pilot, and that has to some extent seemed to be resolved in the past (remember “Single Ladies”?) only to rise anew like, well, a zombie.

Here, at least, the episode had the excuse of trying to reach out to new viewers, for whom “jocks versus the geeks” is probably the most familiar and accessible angle from which to enter Glee for the first time. They had a sense of how the conflict would develop, got a taste of Glee’s style and its fanciful relation to reality (football and otherwise) and got a feel-good resolution in which the athletes and the choir nerds found common ground and were able to pull together for a win. (While, of course, at the end Karovsky explained why the “Thriller” moment actually changed nothing, which both [a] allowed Glee to reset for its regular run of episodes returning Tuesday and [b] provided an excuse for yet more football-vs.-glee conflicts in the future.)

For a regular viewer of the show, though, the episode largely seemed like Glee returning to a storyline it’s used a lot in the past, but with an extra helping of Sue Sylvester antics and sociopathic behavior. (To be fair, it’s not like Glee has needed a Super Bowl slot to do that in the past.) The episode referenced some of the show’s running storylines without really advancing them (with the cliffhanger exception of the Finn-Quinn kiss). And though a series with a cast as big as Glee’s inevitably gives some characters short shrift in any given episode, most of the kids seemed especially flatly drawn tonight—again, maybe to make their broad outlines more accessible to newbies—with the exception of Finn, who’s always most compelling and enjoyable when he’s caught between two irreconcilable groups, trying to do the right thing by both.

For all that, Glee is at this point a sufficiently sprawling and weird show that there were unavoidably scenes and transitions that I have to imagine completely baffled newcomers. Like: why is there suddenly a choir of fancy boys appearing from out of nowhere, singing Destiny’s Child? (Yes, there was an obligatory mention that the Warblers were New Directions’ competition, and a cursory reference to Kurt’s history, but I still can’t blame any new viewer who thought they had suddenly switched over to a musical episode of Gossip Girl.)

Even more so than most Glee episodes, this was one that I had to enjoy for the moments. Even though I knew what the “Thriller” storyline would build to—because I have seen enough movies and TV shows, and because the promos told me—it was still a hoot to see the entire McKinley student body creeping out their opponents by chanting “BRRRRRAAAAAINS!” I liked the typically Glee-talking-to-itself commentary of the intro sequence, in which Sue Sylvester’s ennui, leading her to try to “top herself” with increasingly ridiculous stunts, might just remind you of a certain comedy-drama. (As for Sue, while this was another episode that took the crazy about two notches past the threshold, I did enjoy her “30% chance of catastrophic… success!” line.) And credit to the show for at least acknowledging that the inspirational “Thriller” prison video is at this point several years old.

Did the episode work as a recruiting tool for new fans? I have no idea: as regular readers know, I love Glee even when it frustrates me, and in many ways I love it because of the very unpredictability and inconsistency with which it frustrates me—but honestly, I have never been able to figure out why a show this erratic, snarky and weird has managed to become a mainstream hit, pop songs and earnest stories notwithstanding.

So for all I know this was a brilliant use of the Super Bowl time slot. I only know that Glee is back—and that I look forward to the regular-time-slot episodes, when it will really be back.