Glee can be a very difficult program to approach critically. Because the series shifts gears so rapidly and at any given moment, you don’t know if you’re watching a drama, satirical and intentionally absurdist comedy, or some mutant hybrid, fans almost inevitably pick one aspect of the series they like the most and then fiercely eviscerate the program when it steers too far from what they believe Glee should be. My favorite iteration of the program is as a dramedy, where these kids face realistic problems and deal with all of the awkwardness of being a teenager (and particularly one that wishes to be a performer) but we’re still allowed some laughs from Brittany and Sue (as long as Sue is operating in some remotely recognizable corner of the universe and not the cartoon world she’s been in all this season). However, unlike most fans of the series, I’m comfortable with all of its iterations as long as it’s doing any given story well. The best episode of the season (and potentially the series) was the heavily dramatic “The First Time” but at the same time, it was the early, nearly surrealist Glee where every character was an intentionally exaggerated caricature that made me fall in love with the show in the first place. This season’s problems (and boy has it had some problems) hasn’t been the series schizophrenic tone but rather the massive derailment suffered by some of our most beloved characters as well as what has easily become the most disgusting story in the show’s history (Puck/Shelby). Much like the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead which helped curb some growing problems with everyone’s favorite zombie series, this season’s sectionals episode brought back one fan favorite character and successfully resolved many of the most frustrating plots on the show while also having the New Directions give their single best competition performance to date (made all the more impressive by the lack of Rachel Berry or any of the members of the Troubletones).

Sectionals are finally upon us. This year, it is the New Directions versus the Troubles (as well as the Unitards from another school with Harmony from the season premiere). Finn is justifiably concerned that his group is lacking some intangible star quality in the face of the dancing/singing/sexy triple threat that is the Santana (sexy), Mercedes (singing), and Brittany (dancing) led Troubletones. Setting out on a trip to return Sam Evans (Chord Overstreet) to the New Directions, Finn and Rachel head to Kentucky to find Sam and discover that he is now a male stripper (I guess if Puck can bang his teacher then Sam can take his clothes off for money). In a process that was ridiculously simpler than it would be in real life (but not in a manner that was as annoying as some critics found it), Sam moves back to McKinley. Though there is some initial tension between Sam and Blaine (and also Blaine and Finn), Finn (who’s been the glue keeping the group together this season) is able to make it all work out in time for the competition. Quinn finally knows about Puck and Shelby and she tells Rachel about her plan to rat Shelby out to Figgins so Shelby will be fired and Quinn can have Beth back. Rachel pleads with Quinn to not take this one last step towards becoming an unbelievably horrible person. While Rachel agrees that what Shelby and Puck are doing is gross, Rachel just wants what is best for Beth and tries to get Quinn to see the same. She at least convinces Quinn to confront Shelby about this information herself before she goes to Figgins. The last pre-competition stories are Kurt standing up to Sebastian for creeping on his man, Blaine, and Tina finally confronting Mike’s dad for the way he’s treated Mike because of Mike’s passion for dancing.

Finally the competition itself rolls around. For the first time in series history, Sectionals isn’t either a completely one-sided contest (season 1) or a competition between only two of the three teams (Season 2). Glee Project runner up Lindsay Pearce returned as Harmony for the hilariously named Unitards (that’s almost as good as Aural Intensity). During the Unitards competition, Quinn finally confronts Shelby who miraculously convinces Quinn to keep this info to herself and that she’s ending things with Puck and that she’s ashamed of her actions. I’ll detail my opinions of all of the performances in a bit, but during the New Directions’ act, Mike Chang’s father shows up and is giving his son a standing ovation by the end of the performance. He meets Mike and Tina in the dressing room after the show and finally gives Mike his blessing to be a dancer. The Unitards receive third place (and Harmony gives Kurt a very overly excited and cocky prediction about her group’s future since she’s only a sophomore). With little tension (because the quality of the two remaining team’s performances were not especially close), the Troubletones get second place and the New Directions win their third straight sectionals. If the show has any future left after the cast exodus that will occur at the end of this season, I wonder if they will ever lose their sectionals competition. That would make a great twist. Anyways, Quinn manages to convince the dejected Troubletones members (specifically Mercedes, Santana, Brittany, and god knows why but Sugar Motta) to rejoin the New Directions with the promise that the Troubletones will get to sing at least one number per competition. Suddenly, all is well in the Glee universe. For now.

Off to the performances then. First and foremost, Glee should never sing a Toby Keith song. The show’s track record for incorporating country music is spotty at best with only one great country performance, Lea Michelle and Mark Salling’s sizzling rendition of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” (and actually maybe Kristen Chenoweth’s version of Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name” as well). “Red Solo Cup” is a pretty terrible song to begin with, and not even Chord Overstreet’s fantastic voice could make it better. While I enjoy the spontaneous feeling performances the show occasionally does in the choir room, this one seemed incredibly artificial and Glee‘s strengths like in Broadway style theatrics and pop excess. They aren’t rednecks singing to the odes of getting drunk, and I really did not like the song. Fortunately, it was the only blemish in an otherwise stellar episode. Next, the Unitards, led by Harmony, did an absolutely rousing rendition of “Buenos Aires” from the musical Evita. Harmony sounded as good vocally as she did in the season premiere which means she sounded spectacular, and the group’s choreography was famtasic as well. My only big problem with their performance was that not sense Vocal Adrenaline became the Jesse St. James has one person so completely dominated a performance. I’m pretty sure Lindsay Pearce was the only person singing during that entire performance. She was blessed with some wonderful back-up dancers (who would make the Troubletones look like they were having epileptic fits but more on that in a bit), but she was the only person singing. I’m pretty sure that makes them something other than a show choir. It’s almost like a cabaret act. Rachel heavy songs proved again and again that you can center a  performance on one singer but still let others sing as well. It’s not a knock against their rendition of “Buenos Aires.” It just doesn’t work in the context of a show choir competition.

The Troubletones did a mash-up of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gayner and “I’m a Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. While there was nothing wrong with the song from a vocal perspective (Amber Riley sounded as soulful and intense as ever and Naya Rivera’s remarkable growth in singing talent over the last two seasons continues to wow me), but the choreography from the number wasn’t just bad. It was Corey Monteith bad (and Corey actually danced well for once). They were flailing their arms around like they were having seizures the entire performance and to make it all worse, they weren’t remotely in step with each other. There’s a reason Mr. Schue wanted you to work hard at Booty Camp Mercedes. You can’t dance, and apparently, it caught on with the rest of the Troubletones (except for Heather Morris as always). It’s a shame because they were so much better during their “Rumor Has It”/”Someone Like You” mash-up and at least the choreography for “Candyman” was better even if the singing wasn’t. The New Directions gave their single best competition performance to date though with three numbers all culled from various Jackson family acts. They started off with a rousing rendition of the Jackson 5 classic “ABC” led by Tina, Mike, and Kurt. Mike’s dance moves were MJ worthy and for once, the entirety of the New Directions moved like a well oiled dancing machine. That segued into “Control” by Janet Jackson. Blaine and Artie took lead this time and the dancing was even better than last time, and once again, all of the New Directions looked like they were dancing right out of the memorable music video. Then, they brought it all to a close with the slower (but still amazing) “Man in the Mirror” which is my favorite MJ song. All in all, the group has never sounded better at a competition and the fact this was achieved without Lea Michele is remarkable. I hope they can keep this high standard of competition performances up for the rest of the season.

Once again, Glee managed to make me cry. While it wasn’t the full body sobbing that occurred during Jean Sylvester’s funeral after “Imagination” (Jesus was that an emotional scene) or when Santana came out to Brittany, I definitely choked up. While some have said that the story with Mike and his father was a little rushed (and maybe it was but we have half a season til Mike leaves the cast and graduates), I felt this gave plenty of closure to one of the most interesting stories of the season. Mike has transformed from a guy brought to the show just to dance to someone who has his own stories and gets more screen time and attention than his girlfriend who was one of the original members of the New Directions. I thought the scene between Shelby and Quinn was great. Idina Menzel is a pro and I really felt like so much of this episode was the program apologizing for some of the terrible paths it had taken us down storywise. I just hope this means that Idina Menzel’s time on the program isn’t over because she’s still a better character than Emma has been since the first half of Season 1 ended. My only concern at this point will be where the show finds its tension and drama for the second half of the season. By this point, the New Directions had already solidified Vocal Adrenaline as the Big Bads of the series in both seasons (as well as the Warblers as some less vitriolic competition). Sebastian and the current head of the Warblers aren’t great singers, and regionals isn’t going to be nearly the competition it was last year. Similarly, I wonder where the interpersonal conflict within the New Directions is going to spring from. Will Sugar Motta be the downfall of western civilization as many (or maybe just myself) predict or will that fight between Blaine and Sam be the beginning of something bigger down the road.

Will this be the season that the New Directions finally win Nationals? If their performance at this Sectionals is any indication, they’ve never had a better shot. Between Sam, Blaine, and Kurt on male vocals, Rachel, Mercedes, and Santana on female vocals, and Brittany, Mike, and Blaine’s dancing, there’s no area where this group can’t succeed. While I don’t want them to win the competition if they aren’t the best (which they haven’t been close to being at Nationals last year or Regionals in Season 1) and I don’t want the show to make their competition unrealistically weak so they can win, I would love the emotional pay off of this group finally going all the way after three hard fought seasons together. Glee won’t be Glee without some bickering and infighting amongst this group, but hopefully, the last half of this season will be able to handle that material without making individuals like Mercedes and Quinn seem like nearly cartoonish villains. We still have plenty of room for these guys to grow (as well as for the show to lay the groundwork for future stories with the members who won’t be graduating like Blaine, Artie, and Tina) so I have high hopes for Glee. At this point, you’re either with the program or you’re not. You either like a sort of cheesy but fun and almost always musically entertaining show about a glee club or you don’t. I’m in it for the long haul and “Hold on to Sixteen” has renewed my hopes that this show hasn’t lost its way.

Final Score: A-