'Glee' Season 3, Episode 1: 'The Purple Piano Project'

“Glee” has a tendency to oscillate between sappy and nasty, sometimes without any warning. Just look at Sue Sylvester. The show’s success can often be charted by how enjoyably it navigates the balance –- sometimes it feels like a PSA, and other times like a look into someone’s S&M musical fantasy. The opener of the third season did a better job of dealing with these two urges -– the first to reassure lonely 13 year olds that they’ll make it, the second to remind adults that life is strange and often evil -– better than almost any episode of the second season did.

And now for the play-by-play...

Jacob Ben Israel is making another documentary, this time about what everyone's plans are for after graduation. While Kurt and Rachel have decided they’re headed to NYC to enroll in Juilliard and live in an “eclectic little apartment on the Lower East Side” belting show tunes all the way to Broadway, Mercedes has a new football player boyfriend (trouty mouth Sam has headed out of state) with whom she plans to make “beautiful cocoa babies.” Finn, however, is freaking about having no plan. He promptly gets slushied.

“Taste the rainbow, Glee-otch,” says the assailant.

Mr. Schue and Emma are living together, sleeping together (though not very much, to Will’s frustration -- he's trying to start a family!), and packing lunch for each other in matching Superman and Wonder Woman tin lunchboxes.

Back in the rehearsal room, Mr. Schue has a surprise: A bevy of repossessed pianos that have been painted various shades of purple, soon to be deployed across the school so that Glee-sters can sing at them spontaneously (a tactic that has ended in assault every other time they’ve tried it).

Schue gives us the first terrible metaphor of the episode.

The pianos are “Used and in need of repairs,” he says, “But still capable of making beautiful music.”

Rachel and Kurt visit Emma for school advice. Misinterpreting the situation, she remarks that it’s the only dating combination Glee hasn’t tried and hands them a pamphlet titled “Me and my Hag.” They correct her, and she tells them that Juilliard doesn’t have a musical theater department. But the New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts does -– Emma tells the kids that they can go to a mixer with other little stars who want to get in.

Meanwhile, Sue Sylvester continues to try to destroy the Glee club. This year, she’s running for office as an elected official. But she’s currently in 9th place behind a convicted rapist and “I don’t care please just don’t call me during dinner time.” When she encounters Tina and Mike in the hall at a piano playing a song, she rips the guts of “Liberace’s piano” out with a single hand. Another teacher at the school, having witnessed the destruction, tells her Sue has her vote, and Sue is struck with a new idea –- run on a platform to DESTROY THE ARTS IN SCHOOLS. She hops on TV to broadcast her plan.

Schue is understandably pissed off and declares (again) that he won’t stand for it!

“So that’s what being turned on feels like,” says Emma.

The only character who’s changed is Quinn. And she hasn’t just gotten a haircut. Instead, she’s dyed her hair pink, pierced her nose, stamped herself with an “ironic tattoo of Ryan Seacrest” and is lighting up cigarettes under the bleachers with bizarro bad girl versions of her old friends. She’s “found herself” she says.

“We’re like Almond Joy and you’re a Jolly Rancher that fell in the ashtray,” says Brittany, in her take on the matter.

The Glee team hits the cafeteria to sing “We Got The Beat” by the Go-Gos which features great dancing by Brittany and Mike and autotuned singing. It ends in a food fight –- Brittany pirouettes in the meatballs, Kurt slides screaming under a table using a tray for protection.

“I have pepperoni in my bra,” Brittany says after.

“Those are your nipples,” Santana retorts.

But there’s one good outcome –- a girl named Sugar Motta, who has Asperger’s and can therefore say anything, and does, wants to audition so she can be a star. She is truly awful, but as Schue says, “We have a policy where everyone who tries out gets in.” Still, in the end, she’s just too bad, and Schue turns her away.

Kurt and Rachel go to the auditorium (which after “the lights of Broadway” feel “so provincial”). They sing a Barbara Streisand/ Harold Arlen number, “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead,” hoisting broomsticks and donning pointy hats and singing with smiley faces. While this brings “Glee” one step closer to having Rachel sing every single song in Streisand’s back catalogue, the song itself is a strange choice for Kurt and Rachel to show off their talent.

Schue, following up on his declaration of war, pours a bucket of glitter on Sue and films it. This apparently gives her a big boost in the polls, from all the people who want to see music excised from school.

Blaine and Kurt have been squabbling over whether Blaine should transfer from Dalton, because Kurt doesn’t think their relationship can survive if they're competitors. This is insane, but Blaine gives in. We can expect to see the two of them in matching adorable dress-up outfits for the rest of the season.

To celebrate, he performs a “10 Things I Hate About You”-style number on the bleachers with his rendition of Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.” It’s sparkly and jangly and bright, and for a second there, it looks as if the Glee club may finally get to perform in public and not get pelted with rotten fruit.

Quinn walks by the purple piano, throws her cigarette onto the keys, and it explodes into flames. Oops.

Rachel and Kurt head to their Very Important mixer and meet their rivals. Harmony, played by runner up Lindsay Pearce from “The Glee Project” in the first episode of her two episode guest arc, informs them that she’s been acting since she was a fetus (her ultrasound was on “Murder She Wrote”) before launching into a mashup of “Anything Goes” and “Anything You Can Do.” If you’re a “Glee Project” fan, you won’t be surprised to hear that Pearce is pretty awesome as a Rachel Berry-knock off -– bitchier, more obnoxious, and as perky as a sun shining out of a Florida orange. And she holds her notes longer, and louder than Rachel, which both Kurt and Rachel notice as they head off to the car to cry.

“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life,” Rachel sobs.

“They were so... fabulous,” Kurt says.

As they ponder whether they’re good enough to make it, and a future full of local theater productions of “Nunsense” and “The Vagina Monologues,” the spirit of Glee fills the car and Kurt assures Rachel that there’s no one out there like her.

“You are fierce, Rachel,” Kurt says. “Your ambition does pushups while you sleep.”

Rachel tells Kurt he’s great too, no, really, and the two head back to McKinley.

Good news and bad news in the rehearsal room: Blaine’s joining the group but Santana is out. Mr. Schuester has found out that she’s the one who set the purple piano on fire outside. Also, Rachel and Mercedes are trying out for Maria in “West Side Story” and Kurt is running for student body president (apparently having forgotten that he was shamed in front of the entire student body for being gay during prom last year).

“These pianos are still making music!” Schue exclaims, in yet another plodding, painful metaphor for the scrappy Glee club. The kids, wearing electric purple, burst into “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from “Hairspray.” Everything’s okay -- until next week.

Best musical number: “Anything Goes/Anything You Can Do” -- It’s hard not to feel a little like a proud parent watching Lindsay sing and dance her way through a number so well suited to her particular style after a long season of “The Glee Project.” Her intensity works perfectly for Harmony’s more Rachel-than-Rachel craziness. It’ll be interesting to see how Damian, Alex and Samuel get integrated as the season goes on (Damian will apparently be shacking up with Brittany ... )

Sappiest moment: Everything involving a piano as a metaphor.

Unexplainable cruelties: Sue is clearly off the meds again when she rages at “Glee” for their heartfelt performance at her sister’s funeral last season.

Best Brittany line: The pepperoni joke.

WATCH a preview for "Glee" season 3: