After a trio of crazy, divisive opening episodes, this week felt like a breath of fresh air, or at least a sigh of relief, for Glee. In many ways, "Duets" brought us back to the better elements of Glee 1.0: great vocals, nods to current pop and throwback Broadway, and plenty of cuteness combined with a few genuinely touching moments. Plot arcs weren't advanced in huge ways, but characters were developed: We got more of Brittany than just the usual absurd commentary; glimpsed cracks in the Love Between Two Asians (we love Artie and all, but please don't let it end!); marveled at the continued great acting of Dianna Agron; and, perhaps most important, gained some insight into Kurt’s struggles both at home and at school. Also, Rachel wore a Barbra Streisand sailor blouse and everyone sang a lot!
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”
Puck’s in juvy for driving his car through a convenience-store window, but Sam’s back (miraculously in one piece after his major football injury last week — hmmm ), which means Mr. Schue has decided it’s fun, mindless assignment week. Everyone pairs off; Kurt attempts to flirt with possibly gay, always-in-the-shower Sam by accusing him of coloring his hair, and the writers make any straight boys watching Glee happy with a brief moment of Brittany and Santana making out (“I'm not making out with you because I'm in love with you. I'm making out with you because Puck's been in the slammer for 24 hours and I'm like a lizard: if I don't have something warm beneath me I can't digest my food”). Meanwhile, we’re sure Rachel expertly chose this duet as the natural one for “the It Couple” (though for us, Elton John and Miss Piggy sang the definitive version). Evidence that Finn’s coordination is improving: his smooth drumstick trade-off mid-song.
“River Deep/Mountain High”
Jilted by Santana, Brittany sets her sights on Artie, leaving the delightfully Machiavellian Santana (who now seems to add an “s” to the end of every verb — which we are okay with) to pair with Mercedes. All we have to say is, these two ladies need to officially Take It on the Road. Naya Rivera comes pretty close to matching Amber Riley’s vocals (this really does feel like a VH1 Divas Live duet, no?), and the Tina Turner–esque booty-shaking is simply fabulous. And the perfect ending? “Just so you know, I have custom bibs for me and Mercedes. You know why? Cause we's be's goin' — to Breadstix.”
“Le Jazz Hot,” from Victor/Victoria
At long last, Kurt gets the character treatment he very much deserves. He’s neither forced to be a martyr for gay men everywhere, nor is he demonized as a selfish diva (and we’ve seen both on Glee before). Both Finn and a weary Mr. Hummel try to dissuade Kurt from duetting with Sam, a well-meaning but inherently Über-awkward undertaking, since both sound small-minded in the process. But in a sign of slow maturation (or a simple realization that, as his dad says,“Until you find someone who’s as open and brave as you, you’re going to have to get used to going it alone”), Kurt rises above the situation, orchestrating a fantastically glitzy number which, realism be damned, still works: It shows his two sides while emphasizing how lonely it can be to be a standout of any kind in high school.
“Sing,” from A Chorus Line
In one of this episode’s wonderfully realistic moments of high-school-relationship drama, there’s trouble in Asian paradise: Tina’s sick of going out for dim sum with Mike’s family and only eating salads with chicken feet — in fact, she’s sick of anything preceded by the word “Asian” — while Mike thinks they may need Asian Couples Therapy. Meanwhile, Artie puts on a brave face for Tina, but confesses to Brittany that he still has feelings for her. Brittany, of course, decides sex will fix this; a fact we learn later, when Artie’s feeling awful for giving up something he never thought he’d even be able to do. It’s all fairly touching — even Brittany’s ridiculous hope to eat pasta à la Lady and the Tramp with Artie (we once thought this would be romantic, too, though we didn’t imagine pushing a meatball with our nose). But the drama’s put on hold with this amazingly adorable number from Tina and Mike. We marvel more than ever before at Harry Shum’s eye-popping elasticity and totally winning charisma, and as usual Jenna Ushkowitz’s lovely voice makes us wish the writers would let her sing more.
This week, for once, we’re not completely annoyed by Rachel. In fact, hers and Finn's twisted, not-totally-logical plan to lose the contest so Sam can win and thereby guarantee them success at Nationals (huh? We’ll go with it for now ) is somewhat endearing, as is the outright awfulness of their thankfully brief performance of “With You I’m Born Again” (ears bleeding ). Also, we’re utterly charmed and moved by the tentative beginning of the Sam and Quinn romance. After Sam’s first overture, Quinn’s response — frightened, defensive, shy, and still more than a little angry about her pregnancy — is completely well-played by Dianna Agron; we felt every pang of sadness and bitterness right along with her. Sam’s lame pickup lines are totally believable for a sweet high-school doofus, and their non-date turned date made us say “Awwwww” out loud as Quinn slowly opened herself up to getting close to a boy again. Though we usually find this entry in the Mellow Canon boring, it’s a perfectly sweet choice for these two, well-suited to their voices, free of artifice, and pleasant all around.
“Happy Days Are Here Again”/“Get Happy”
In the end, Rachel and Finn get their wish: Sam and Quinn win (we assume the two deciding votes were Rachel’s and Finn’s). Perhaps buoyed by seeing the right thing can happen without her winning, Rachel continues her do-gooder streak, speaking to Kurt about the difficulties of standing out — and we believe she knows what she’s talking about. In yet another vote for non-huge-production-number episode-closers, the simple sight of Kurt and Rachel letting their freak flags fly (it’s Barbra and Judy — who else would they choose?) feels the right way to end things. This episode thankfully returned to an important Glee theme — that being unique can often mean being alone, but that music can make even self-proclaimed losers feel better — and maybe bring them together. Let’s hope this builds next week — before absurdity returns with Rocky Horror.