In a true testament to the power of the cast–and the occasional brilliance of the writing team–“Glee” has always managed to make its biggest storyline elements matter, even in the face of the illogical absurdity that seems to rear its ugly head every other episode.

That power to sell the journey to adulthood, including the relationships that are made and broken along the way, has helped “Glee” fans remain passionate about the characters, even as the show loses its buzz and, frankly, its artistic excellence.

Given the tone-deaf nonsense that plagued its third season, including poorly-executed arcs involving a suicide attempt, domestic violence and a car accident, it was simply mind-blowing that the pseudo-breakup scene between Finn and Rachel in the third season finale could resonate the way it did. Playing into the relationship the show spent three years crafting, and the immense chemistry and talent shared by Cory Monteith and Lea Michele, that scene emerged as one of the best on broadcast television last year.

And it is those moments of brilliance, those moments that play to the strengths of the characters and the original writing that developed them, which highlight how far “Glee” has fallen.

By no means has the New York City action involving original characters Rachel and Kurt (Chris Colfer) been inventive television, but because of the work laid out in the prior few seasons, viewers care so much more about their journey than they do about the adventures of the veteran and new characters still in Lima, Ohio.

While it might be unfair to combine feelings for veteran characters with rookie characters, note that the best television shows have always been able to achieve that. It took only a few episodes to make “Friday Night Lights” viewers care about characters like Vince and Luke with as much passion as they did the original characters. And remember that “Glee” itself managed to deliver “Preggers,” the most poignant episode of its run, just a few episodes into its very first season.

When the writing and vision are in unison, “new” is not the enemy of “effective.”

In Thursday’s “The Break Up” episode of “Glee,” the FOX musical comedy parlays the credibility and passion it built for the central characters into one of the best episodes in a while. Make no mistake–this is not a flawless episode and is still way below the standard of the first season–but it is also one that does what “Glee” has so notably failed to do in its past few seasons. It makes viewers care.

A pretty simple storyline–four veteran couples are tested by circumstance, at least one does not survive–it is an immensely effective and welcome one nonetheless. The concept forces its writers, actors and, most importantly, viewers to consider the relationships not as foregone conclusions to appease “shippers” and market duets and love songs but as organic connections between characters that might not be as strong as they once were.

If there is a flaw in the premise, it is only that combining storylines for four romances–and five, if you count the love triangle between new characters Jake, Marley and Kitty that does receive some screen time–is not the wisest decision from a time management standpoint. At least one of the couples is done a severe disservice by the abruptness and swiftness of its pivotal scene.

But the flaws of the episode are not nearly enough to sink a very strong effort from “Glee.” Season four has not yet provided the mark of a show back to its original form, but thus far, this year’s effort is easily pacing to be the best season since the first one.

Here are some reasons why the episode works:

Love and Relationships are not the same thing
Impressive about “The Break Up” is that writer Ryan Murphy fully understands that the emotion and practicality of relationships are two vastly different things. For an episode entitled “The Break Up,” the hour is actually immensely effective at portraying the everlasting bonds between the couples rather than only zeroing in on their faultines.

The episode is also conscious that part of true love is knowing when continuing a relationship could be destructive to those involved. And so in an interesting twist, those couples most “in love” and immune from argument and incident might be the ones most at risk of breaking up.

Cory Monteith is in top form, but Heather Morris also shines
Neither the most musical nor the most complex as an actor, Cory Monteith has endured his fair share of criticism over the years. But few credible critics can deny that when he is on–and has a poignant bit of material–he is perhaps the most effective performer on the show. His goofy charisma is a natural fit for the “Glee” environment and allows him to avoid the caricature-like exaggerations that sometimes sink other cast members.

Monteith is on this week.

But so too is Heather Morris, who finally gets a chance to display the humanity of Brittany. While she still gets some comical material in the early part of the episode, she also gets the chance to approach her character’s relationship with Santana (Naya Rivera) the way a true, hopelessly-devoted lover would. Her feelings exist for more than the opportunity to throw in a one-liner about dolphins being gay sharks.

Rivera certainly holds up her end of the bargain, delivering a mature, emotional take on Taylor Swift’s “Mine” that all-at-once reminds viewers how talented she truly is. But for as much of herself as Rivera injects into that performance, try looking at Morris’ reaction and then doubting whether this relationship has evolved into something deeper than the “shock” of coupling two attractive women on primetime network television.

Characters toe the line between love and backbone
“Glee” fans take their characters very seriously, and so whenever two characters fight, allegations of a “conspiracy” to protect those believed to be Ryan Murphy’s favorites emerge. People insist that any time another character wrongs such “favorites,” the writers are assassinating the less-preferred characters.

In “The Break Up,” it is true that some characters act more selfishly and short-sightedly than they normally do. But nothing feels grossly irreconcilable with how those characters could be expected to act in their respective situations. Nothing feels like “Glee” is throwing its investments into such characters down the drain.

If there is a notable character development this week, it is that the “victims” in the respective breakup storylines show backbone. They do not simply remain silent, let alone forgive, because it is more convenient. They let it be known that they have been wronged.

But Murphy is also careful not to let his characters cut off their noses to spite their faces. The characters most content to preserve their pride still acknowledge their love; they do not pretend that one transgression or inappropriate comment erases how they feel about their significant others.

As such, there is a feeling of realism and investment that is often lacking from “Glee”‘s cartoonish relationships.

The writers found a new love — Kitty
The witty material given to Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester was a driving force in putting “Glee” on the map. After going a bit too far with that character, and scaling back Lynch’s role on the show, “Glee” knows it can no longer as prominently return to that well.

Luckily, the writers have given themselves a new toy in Kitty (Becca Tobin), who spouts off an endless collection of the funniest, most absurd dialogue “Glee” has ever scripted. Tobin is no Lynch from a delivery standpoint–an “mmm, kay?” feels particularly out of place–but it is clear the writers are enjoying having a young, sassy character to read from their rolodex of one-liners.

But, as noted, action involving Kitty, along with new characters Marley (Melissa Benoist) and Jake (Jacob Artist) is dwarfed by the storylines involving the veteran characters. This is nothing against the actors themselves; Tobin is definitely having fun with the “bitch” role, Artist has some charm and Benoit’s innocent glances and dialogue is nearly enough to make some melt, but there is just not enough interesting about their world.

Are we really going to care about the ludicrous Jake-Kitty relationship when the ones that truly matter are also in jeopardy this week?

Music that matters
“Glee” has been hit or miss with music this year; like some of the numbers in “Britney 2.0,” this week mostly features hits. Some are calling a duet of “Give Your Heart a Break” between Rachel and Brody (Dean Geyer) cheesy, but Michele definitely brings her vocal power to the table. Finn and Blaine (Darren Criss) mesh wonderfully on “Barely Breathing,” while Criss also reprises his breakout cover of “Teenage Dream” with a painfully-emotional, piano-driven version of the song.

Numerous cast members come together for songs like “Don’t Speak” and “The Scientist,” which are both great efforts.

As noted, Naya Rivera’s version of “Mine,” which gets off to a slightly awkward start due to her intensity, turns into a beautiful number.

Beyond sounding great, the songs fit well into the plotline and thus attract senses of character and emotion that have started to become absent from “Glee” soundtracks.

Spoiler-y Hints and Observations
— In the season premiere, Sam (Chord Overstreet) called out Marley for wearing Wal-Mart clothing disguised as J. Crew. Expect another character to learn a secret about Marley’s poor economic situation. And expect that character to share some of his/her own secrets and insecurities.

— The Brittany and Blaine friendship continues.

— A cruel stunt at Breadstix causes one character to suffer a massive freakout. This serves as a metaphor for another character’s frustration.

— Apparently, people still “poke.”

— Prior to announcing he was going to the army, it seemed painstakingly obvious that there was another careerpath more suited for Finn. This episode shines further light on that possibility.

— One of the songs Finn sang in the series premiere seems to setup an upcoming storyline on “Glee.”

— Expect interactions between Finn and Schue (Matthew Morrison) and Finn and Kurt, two of the most important platonic relationships from the prior few “Glee” seasons.

— A New York City bar called “Callbacks” is apparently welcome to those under 21 and even serves “virgin amaretto sours.” But don’t think about showing up in a rugby shirt.

— Kurt receives two sets of flowers in this episode. The delivery of the second ones can only mean one of two things.

— If you read Virginia Woolf, it apparently means you’re not crazy. And if you’re not crazy, it can only mean you’re….

— “Obama’s…gonna…lose”

— There is a difference between knowing your job is secure and getting to actually do your job.

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