‘Glee’ recap: ‘Britney 2.0’ lets Heather Morris shine

Now, that was better. After last week’s lackluster introduction to the multiple new characters on “Glee,” it’s a relief to get a second episode more focused on old favorites.

The newbies were all still around (even Marley’s lunch lady mom had an encore), but “Britney 2.0” worked better as a showcase for Heather Morris, a reminder the writers really should be using Chord Overstreet more, and a tiny glimpse of what might have been if Kurt and Rachel actually got that New York spinoff. Plus, we saw a real Puckerman back in action.

Let’s start with Brittany, because when the writers allow Morris a chance to step up and shine, she nails it every time. Her crack comic timing was one of the best surprises of the second half of season one (“Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?” will forever have a place in TV history), and every time she gets to dance there’s a good chance your TV may spontaneously combust (proof: her performances of “I’m a Slave 4 U” in the first Britney Spears tribute “Britney/Brittany” and the “Glee Concert Movie”). All this, plus Morris has gracefully developed one of the show’s most unexpectedly perfect romances with Naya Rivera’s Santana.

But among the many missteps of “Glee” season three, putting Brittany on the back burner was one of the most inexplicable. Morris and Rivera were delivering Emmy nomination-level work in season two, and they started out strong in season three with Santana’s coming out storyline. Then… background. Weeks would go by without even a line from Brittany. How you can justify not writing to one of your most consistently funny characters is a mystery I don’t think the “Glee” writers will believably ever answer.

Fortunately, “Britney 2.0” put the spotlight back on Morris with glorious results. She opened the episode with a sizzling rendition of Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” and socked over one-liner after one-liner. And the central joke to this Britney tribute redux — that Brittany’s downward spiral mirrored Spears’ own self-destructive tabloid frenzy period — was both genuinely funny and more than a little brazen since Spears herself is a brand new “star” on the Fox network, appearing on “X Factor” immediately before “Glee.”

The “Glee” mean streak can be a double-edged sword. How catty can a show be while simultaneously preaching messages of tolerance and anti-bullying? But I like a little bite in my “Glee” comedy and if seeing Brittany passed out in a cloud of Cheetos after sleepwalking her way through an awesomely disastrous version of “Gimme More” is wrong, I don’t want “Glee” to be right.

In any event, “Britney 2.0” gave us depressed Brittany, heartbroken Brittany, hilarious Brittany and ultimately triumphant Brittany (because it’s just so perfectly “Glee” that Brittany amends the student council charter with a well-reasoned argument scrawled in crayon). I can’t ask for more. Do I want Naya Rivera on the show for more than just a Skype cameo? Absolutely. But the long distance relationship frustrations they’re establishing for both Brittany and Rachel (and maybe Kurt), are two of the most promising storylines so far.

When it comes to Rachel, that’s not because her flirtation with Brody is actually working — I’ll have to side with #TeamFinchelForever on that one — but because this is one way the show is smartly pushing a character forward. The potential in following Rachel to New York lies in shaking her confidence, forcing her to try new thing and explore the world. She can’t have Finn to fall back on, at least not right away. That would be too easy. From what we’ve seen so far, Lea Michele is up to the challenge as an actress. I just hope the writers can devote enough time to the New York half of the show to deliver payoff to what they’re setting up. I expect Finn’s return will probably be one of those.

I didn’t like the new characters any more this week (if anything Marley and Jake’s duet on the Spears’ “(You Drive Me) Crazy”/Aerosmith’s “Crazy” mashup was the hour’s most snoozeworthy moment), but at least we got a little progress with Kate Hudson’s Cassandra July. We discovered why she’s such a bitch (a meltdown stopped her hot Broadway career in its tracks), and got a little closer to the inevitable positive turning point in her relationship with Rachel. Plus, Cassandra pushing Rachel to prove she can be sexy gave us Michele’s version of “Oops! … I Did It Again,” a big improvement over both Hudson’s solo last week and Michele’s “Baby One More Time” back in “Britney/Brittany.”

Next week brings the arrival of Sarah Jessica Parker when Kurt randomly lands a job at Vogue.com. I’m hoping that works out better than the other new additions. And that Heather Morris doesn’t revert to the background.

Stray thoughts:

– “I’ve been up every night this week yelling at the shrubs in my yard that have been making fun of me.”

– I mentioned near the top that we need more Overstreet on this show. Between his Taylor Lautner impression last week, and his touching “I’m your friend” scene with Brittany this week (those two can have chemistry with anyone), Sam Evans has more than come into his own.

– What a difference there is between Mark Salling and Jacob Artist. I don’t know how often the show can credibly fly Puck out from L.A. for a cameo (although it’s “Glee,” so credibility isn’t much concern), but I don’t expect to see Salling a lot this season. Unless he’s secretly faking the whole L.A. thing?

– If Rachel and Kurt riding bicycles in their spacious New York apartment made you think of this Jim Jarmusch scene from season one of “Bored to Death,” you’re not alone. But I’m doubtful there’s a huge crossover audience between “Glee” and “Bored to Death,” so maybe I’m the one who’s alone.

– Nice to see Emma and Principal Figgins again.

– Artie and Blaine’s mashup of Spears’ “Boys” and Bieber’s “Boyfriend”? Awesome. After “It’s Time” last week, Darren Criss is two for two in delivering my favorite song of the night.