September 28th, 2010
A week after opening with an unquestionably meta opening, Ryan Murphy did not stray far from that example with “Britney/Brittany”: in the opening scenes, Will expresses how he wants New Directions to know when to show restraint, while Kurt and many other students express their desire to branch out into something more exciting, youthful. It picks up directly where last week’s opening left off, questioning the song choices the series makes, which I’d argue is an interesting question that this season does need to respond to.
Of course, how much you enjoy “Britney/Brittany” depends on both its framework (which has some issues in terms of balancing fantasy and reality) and how Britney Spears’ presence plays out throughout the course of the episode. As someone who admittedly enjoys Spears’ music on the level of cheesy pop fare, I thought choosing Britney was not in and of itself a mistake; however, the show was let down considerably by the way in which her music and its legacy were received by those both within and outside of New Directions.
While musically satisfying, at least for me personally, “Britney/Brittany” suffered from an inelegance which is likely to cause any future themed episodes to raise even more red flags than this hour.
In terms of Spears’ involvement, my biggest issue with the episode is that I found its characterization of Spears to be highly erratic: Kurt’s adoration seems too uncomplicated, while Sue’s vilification is similarly black and white. Brittany is the one character whose approach to Britney has something approaching interest, in her somewhat humorous lifelong effort to get out of her shadow (due to her name being Brittany S. Pearce), but while Brittany was central to two of the night’s musical numbers she completely disappeared – or, more accurately, returned to her normal marginalized role – halfway through the episode. Brittany was the opportunity here: this was a chance to flesh out her character, showing us more about this one-liner machine, and going into the episode the title created potential which the episode failed to live up to. All we learned was that Heather Morris is a solid singer and as strong a dancer as we already knew, as the episode was more concerned with the Britney debate and its impact on the other (read: main) characters in New Directions.
In theory, I actually think this is a solid idea, and there are parts of the episode that I appreciate as someone who is critical of the series. I like that the stories from last week return: sure, Chord Overstreet is entirely absent despite a story about football, and Rachel never mentions Charice by name, but Artie’s desire to get Tina back and Finn’s identity issues regarding football do persist. Plus, Will’s storyline plays back into last year’s mention of Emma’s new boyfriend, Carl (played by the inimitable John Stamos), so the show is actually somewhat abnormally serialized here.
The problem is that those storylines reach bizarre conclusions which feel awkwardly relative to the already bizarre Britney image. That Artie is let onto the football team is one of those moments where I presume that Glee is doing a dream sequence but it’s actually reality – it’s a rare circumstance where I don’t blame Brittany for her silly comment about a leg transplant, because it really is incredulous enough that the question is justified. This break between fantasy and reality is especially concerning in an episode where they try to draw a clear line between fantasy (all of the music video-inspired Spears performances) and reality (“Toxic,” the closing Paramore song), as if there are different rules which govern each world. And yet Sue’s opinion of Britney, and the audience response to the “Toxic” performance, are so over the top that they feel as if they belong in the fantasy, and as a result come across as awkward and unnatural. The legitimate fantasy elements of the episode are a bit hokey, what with the Dentist connection bringing them together, but by grounding them in reality (by suggesting that their fantasies are influenced by their thoughts before being drugged) the fantasies become fun in a way that cartoonish reality (without any grounding) simply is not.
I think Glee works fine when it operates in two different worlds: there is a value to demonstrating how far apart (or how close to one another) reality and fantasy can be, and it’s an area that I enjoy seeing the show play around with. However, for it to truly work, the reality needs to feel real: the caricatures need to go away, the bizarre sexualizing powers of Britney Spears need to be less grotesque (Jacob in the library was a serious misstep), and Terri needs to be something more than a psychotic ex-wife who shows up to berate her ex-husband. In isolation, a fantasy sequence like Artie’s offered an effective glimpse into his emotions in the situation, but when taken as part of the larger episode it becomes a frivolous exercise which fuels a ludicrous story development to prove part of a larger, and incomprehensible, argument about the power of Britney.
Although, the episode suggests in its conclusion that its argument is different: by ending with a song not by Britney, Paramore’s “The Only Exception,” the show intriguingly gestures back to the series’ normal structure (as Rachel returns to Will’s original exercise, albeit with a contemporary twist). At the core of the episode were a series of identity crises, and the conclusion focused on those characters (Will, Finn, Rachel, Artie) without any sort of Britney Spears context. I don’t have any huge problems with the sequence itself, which was fine, but in a way it glosses over how ridiculous those various roads were. It’s one thing to connect a theme episode like this one to ongoing storylines: that’s logical, and I think shows a level of integration which justifies these sorts of hours. However, when you start to say that a wildly uneven, unrealistic series of events intersecting fantasy and reality came to a grounded and normal conclusion, forgive me if I become a tiny bit frustrated.
It’s a problem because viewers are likely going to gloss over the conclusion. While Will’s car can go back to the dealer and he can go back to pining for Emma from across the parking lot, viewers are going to remember the stunning production work on the two Brittany performances (which heavily feature Morris’ dancing skills, and really effectively recreated numerous music video scenarios), or Rachel as “(Hit me) Baby One More Time” Britney. The element which made the episode memorable seem to act in direct opposition to the supposed function of the episode, creating a disconnect between how viewers respond to the hour and the way it actually concludes. Plus, with Artie’s fantasy football moment barely distinguishable from his addition to the team, the episode lacked any sort of clarity which could actually contribute to the character moments it tries to argue are developed by episode’s end.
I think some people are too quick to pre-judge themed episodes of Glee: while centering around a single artist can be problematic, it does offer a potential coherency which could simplify the storytelling and draw out some new elements within the show’s characters. However, all of that potential is wasted here, as Brittany gets benched once the dance-heavy musical numbers are out of the picture and any simplicity is lost amidst the confusing divisions between fantasy and reality. While “The Power of Madonna” was problematic in its own ways, it was perhaps intelligent to avoid any sort of major serialized storylines: by trying to tie things into the characters, “Britney/Brittany” renders the show’s characters hostages to the show’s erratic image of Britney to a degree which keeps even my non-ironic appreciation for Spears’ catalogue from winning me over.
- While a lot of things about the show are problematic, one thing that just bugs me is characters using pre-song introductions to very clearly lay out the meaning of the song in question – it’s unnecessary, and obnoxious.
- In all seriousness, Heather Morris in the “Toxic” outfit during “I’m a Slave 4 U?” Wowza.
- Another possible meta-moment: Will talks about needing to get out of his own way, and that’s the advice I’d give to Ryan Murphy after this episode.
- My “inimitable” above was slightly in jest, but I quite like John Stamos, primarily for his role in the absolutely fantastic animated series Clone High, which aired a single season on MTV and features voices from Will Forte, Donald Faison, Christa Miller, and Nicole Sullivan. It’s the story of a high school made up of teenaged clones of historical figures (JFK, Abe Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Ghandi), it is fantastic, and it features a recurring feud between Principal Scudworth and Mr. Stamos. Do enjoy the below clip.