Glee – “Britney/Brittany”


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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.

Clone High – STAMOS!



Filed under Glee

19 responses to “Glee – “Britney/Brittany”

  1. trippdup

    Myles, at one point you suggest connecting to the ongoing narrative is the right thing to do in a theme episode but in your conclusion you indicate they should avoid just that.

    re: Song intros I agree 183%. However, I PROMISE you that you are overestimating the percentage of people who would fail to grasp much of the (even explicitly lyricized) meaning without them. Depressing but true.

    In conclusion, Clone High rocks.

  2. Glad to see I’m not the only one who might have been screaming “STAMOS!” at the TV anytime he showed up tonight.

  3. Great post Myles.

    After Madonna, Britney, and to a lesser extent Gaga…I really hope this is the end of the single artist episodes for a good long while.

    Glee has a hard enough time figuring how the songs they want should influence the story as it stands, they don’t need the extra wrench of building it all around one singer’s catalogue.

    • Carla

      Let’s remember that the “Theatricality” was not meant to be a GaGa tribute episode- there were other artists featured and her songs were used in a different fashion that in the Madonna/Britney episodes.

      • Hence the “lesser extent”.

        Regardless, that’s two episodes already in a series that’s 24 episodes old that have built the entire story around one singer’s catalogue.

        They shouldn’t keep coming back to the idea.

  4. belinda

    Because their covers of Spears’ songs are mostly close to the original, the dream sequences were oddly kind of boring (even though I agree that the actress who plays Brittany is a terrific dancer) and only emphasized how autotuned these songs are the song sequences were a little hard to listen to.

    Yeah, what is up with the show emphasizing that Spears and her music have magical sexual powers? It’s just odd for the show to single Spears music out as this sex-inducing thing when they’re really just your run of the mill pop songs.

    Speaking of, just how old is Will supposed to be? I understand Will hates Spears because he’s uptight and less because he’s “old”, whatever, but it’s silly to age his musical taste so much older than his age in this episode just to make sure we get it, Spears music is so”outrageous”! They might have been….years ago. They’re pretty tame now, no?

    And I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about Artie. Thinking back, he was a pretty lousy boyfriend to Tina. I much prefer the “asian fusion” if only it might mean we’d get more time to explore the peripheral characters of the glee club (which I thought would happen in this episode with Brittany, but nope).

  5. greg

    I’ll be honest; I watch ‘Glee’ with the same mindset I bring to ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force.’ It’s complete inanity and separation from reality is its greatest asset.

    I love how, when the writers need to come up with a way to get all the kids to be obsessed with Britney songs, the “solution” they come up with is dental work. (Performed, oddly, by a dentist sans assistant or even a hygienist – anyone EVER go to a dentist who worked solo?) Strange that they ALL hallucinated Britney videos (though conveniently, all different ones), especially when you condier that their day-t0-day life consists of little else than singing and dancing. Don’t any of their fantasies include attending class and studying?

    And I love the ambiguity; for awhile there I was seruiously confused with the “sex riot” allegedly taking place (even odder when you consider how little the kids in the quad cared about singing and dancing last week) How much was actually happening and how much was all in Sue’s exaggerated POV was a little unclear. And, personally, I would have chosen ‘If You Seek Amy’, but mayhap standards and practices wouldn’t allow that.

    And I got a good giggle out of Will being told that he was possibly the best teacher in the school. Has Ryan Murphy even seen ‘Waiting For Superman’?

    • Evamarie

      You’re right to note how last week the kids didn’t care about Glee. Now, they are all hot for Glee and sex-rioty. I imagine that next week the kids will still get bullied and ignored and no one will join the club. This is a fair-sized school, and after that performance, I think more kids would join. We had a “dance team” at my high school that would do sexy dance numbers at assemblies. They had about 25 members or so (our high school was around 900 ppl total). I wish the show would be a bit more steady in depictions.

      And Artie on the football team? Ok, but will she let him play? I don’t care how “like a battering” ram he is – is it really going to go all that fast? And can they tackle him? What position is he exactly?

  6. Leslie

    I’ll agree that Jacob in the library was a misstep, but even worse for me were his ridiculous exclamations during the Toxic number. I’ll also agree on the “wowza” about Heather Morris in the Britney dream scenes

  7. Jenn

    I really disliked Jacob throughout the entire episode. I think “misstep” is putting it kindly.

    Off topic, but I LOVED Clone High! When I first saw Will Forte on SNL, I was like, “That voice is so familiar”. Then he did a sketch where he was in a box and we could hear him and not see him, and suddenly, “Oh my gosh, it’s Abe Lincoln!”

  8. Caravelle

    I hated this episode. Everybody seemed to be uncharacteristically jerky, except for Rachel who was only a bit worse than she was in the previous episode. Especially Will, OMG Will what a stalker he was in this episode. All the sadder that a scene where Emma basically propped Will up despite his horrible (and promise-breaking, although Emma didn’t necessarily know that) behavior was followed by the one where Quinn comes on to Finn and he clearly and appropriately tells her to give up because he’s with Rachel and she should respect that. Why didn’t Emma say the same thing ? Oh, I guess because Will is a main character and dentist guy isn’t.

    I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t a pattern considering Kurt’s stalkerish behavior towards Finn last season that the show still hasn’t given a sign of condemning.

    Oh yeah, and how was Will’s performance of Toxic “not him” when he’s always performing crazy stuff ? I’d say it was about stealing his kids’ spotlight except that doesn’t seem to speak to what Emma said.

    And this might be because I know nothing of modern pop music so Britney, Lady Gaga and Madonna are all in the same bag for me, but what’s with the Britney hate ? Will’s refusal to let his kids perform her music might have been a bit of a subversion of his usual pattern (he usually relents a lot sooner if not immediately) but I just don’t see why he’d be that way.

    The whole going to the dentist thing made no sense to me, the first Britney fantasies didn’t seem to be about anything and while I agree it’s too bad they dropped Brittany halfway, it isn’t as though they were developing her character or anything. Maybe it’s unavoidable as I also felt she was less funny when she was the focus. Part of the genius of Brittany’s one-liners is how they always come out of left field, maybe that just doesn’t work when she’s central. This is not to say Brittany couldn’t be central, just that there might be adaptations to be made.

    One thing I did like : some more hinting that Santana and Brittany belong together. They’re such a sweet couple !

    One thing that didn’t bother me as much as it could have : Artie getting on the team. It makes no sense whatsoever (and although they lampshaded and handwaved it in the next scene I just don’t buy that there’s “no rule against it”. Yeah right) but the shot of the coach made me feel that she’s doing it for Artie personally. I still don’t see how it can work out well and plausibly but I can buy that the coach with a heart of gold decided she had nothing to lose and Artie had everything to gain from giving him a chance at the team, crazy as it might be.

    Finally the whole depiction of high school social dynamics is getting on my nerves. “I don’t feel we have a chance unless we’re both losers” ? Kill me now. I know it’s Rachel talking but still.
    Given it’s Glee‘s bread and butter that might mean I have a problem going forward. But I usually like this show well enough so I hope not.

  9. Caravelle

    Oh and I forgot this, I’m surprised nobody else mentioned it : Brittany has terrible teeth ?

    Yeeeeeeah. Good thing they had that blown-up picture of “her” cavities or I might not thought the premise to be implausible. It didn’t at all draw attention to the fact her teeth look nothing like that.

  10. Brad

    I didn’t understand why they switched to a Paramore song at the end. Britney’s “Sometimes” would have been perfect for Rachel at that moment.

  11. Amy

    Was anyone else confused by Kurt’s craziness, with him yelling at Mr Schuester? I’m hoping some underlying reason will be explained at some point because that seemed a little out of character for me. Unless I’ve missed something :-S

    • trippdup

      I’d say it was just Kurt’s turn to pick up the idiot ball and keep the plot moving. Nice of him to give Schuester as break from lugging it around.

      • Amy

        That’s a fairly good explanation 😛 The writers just decided that rude, insubornate Kurt might vaguely help the plot a little.

  12. Rebecca

    For those confused about why the football coach allowed Artie onto the team. I don’t think it’s about the effectiveness of the battering ram technique. The coach was hovering around the corner when the two bullies were like, “We can’t hit a kid in a wheelchair. It feels wrong.” I presume next week we will find that other teams won’t tackle the kid in the wheelchair – so he can just make his way across the field at his leisure.
    See? Now the storyline makes perfect sense! Or not at all. It’s ridiculous.

    And Belinda, I agree with you: Artie was really an ass to Tina in multiple episodes. Although I suppose it’s revolutionary in its own way to have a disabled main character on a network TV show who is a total jerk.

  13. William

    Nice analysis of ultimately what was a very slight episode of the already-slight Glee. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t overwhelmed by it.

    Also, you are the only critic who I’ve read who has called out the show for the horrible Jacob subplot in this episode. Maybe everyone else was just trying to pretend it didn’t happen. Watching that, I was embarrassed for the show and embarrassed for the actors involved.

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