Songs in the key of angst: a Glee specialty, and tonight the show pulls out the emotional stops in the best episode yet (9/8c on Fox) for what's shaping up to be a mostly terrific transitional season. One caveat: I wish it had been this easy to flit between the heartland and New York City back when I was in college, not to mention high school.
Though "Heartbreak Hotel" is somehow left off the playlist of "The Break Up," there's plenty of tears flowing amid the singing as many of Glee's core couples come to a crossroads: Kurt and Blaine (including a stripped-down reprise of an iconic Warblers number guaranteed to put a lump in any fan's throat), Rachel and Finn (whose surprise return from the Army involves another "Rachel"), Brittany and Santana, even Mr. Schue and Emma joining in for the final Coldplay power ballad. There's a typically outrageous comic subplot involving the apocalyptic Left Behind book series, but the essence of this hour boils down to a simple observation regarding long-distance relationships: "Being left behind sucks."
Ryan Murphy's unusually focused teleplay acknowledges that these kids are too young to wallow forever in their nostalgia for the "good old days" (of last season!) while also respecting how painful it is when first loves begin to fade against the realization that absence and distance don't always make the heart grow fonder. Breaking up is hard to do, but returning to the choir room or the auditorium stage — where they can "say things with music when words just [aren't] enough" — makes it all go down in Glee style. Which may not make it easier, but at least you can sing along (if you're up on your Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato). If this pivotal episode has the feel of an early mid-season finale, there's a reason. Because of political and post-season baseball preemptions, Glee will be taking a break until Nov. 8, by which time we'll know if one Cheerio's prediction of the presidential race has come to pass.
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In the same time period, ABC's Grey's Anatomy (9/8c) flashes back to the trauma in the immediate wake of the plane crash whose sad and lingering aftermath was revealed last week. Knowing how characters like Mark Sloan and Arizona ended up, I'm not sure how eager I am to be put through this wringer, but I know better than to hope for a musical reprieve. This show's soundtrack is deafening enough as it is.
Elsewhere, the night's big TV news involves the race to the finish line for two culturally revolutionary series from opposite ends of the spectrum as they begin their final seasons. From the high-end of comic absurdism, though well past its peak, 30 Rock (8/7c on NBC; not available for preview) opens with Liz appalled by Jack's new programming line-up — ironic, considering the real NBC is experiencing a bit of an uptick this fall. ... And from the bottom of the behavioral barrel, MTV's Jersey Shore (10/9c) begins its final season of summer-lovin' shenanigans as the gang contends with Mike's newfound post-rehab sobriety and Snooki's pregnancy. They're all too old for this crap now. I was always too old to sit still for this swill. I'd like to think this really is the end of the line for these publicity-freak-show exhibitionists, but we all know MTV better than that.
WHAT ELSE IS ON: A good night for guest stars. The wonderful Emmy-winning Margo Martindale (Justified) appears on CBS' Person of Interest (9/8c) as a woman with a connection to Finch's kidnapper, Root (Amy Acker), while "The Machine" keeps trying to help Reese find his missing bestie. And on NBC's Parks and Recreation (9:31/8:31c), former "warrior princess" Lucy Lawless begins a recurring role as the new lady in Ron Swanson's (Nick Offerman) life. ... Jon Michael Hill (Detroit 1-8-7) joins the full-time cast of CBS' Elementary (10/9c) as a detective who no doubt has plenty to learn, as do we all, from Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller). ... And in the never-ending world of singing competitions, Fox's The X Factor (8/7c) continues putting contestants through Miami "boot camp," while CW answers the question "What if you conducted a singing contest and nobody came?" with the finale of the woefully low-rated The Next (8/7c). For this they delayed the premiere of The Vampire Diaries for weeks? Next!