The thing about a Ryan Murphy episode of Glee is that he'll take whatever he thinks worked in one of the last episodes he did and throw 500 different versions of it at the audience. Brittany one-liners making people laugh? Then count on Murphy to stuff his episode full of so many of them that they lose their impact (though hopefully not for all time). Shot-for-shot video remake goes viral and becomes a sensation? Then Murphy's going to put three more in his next episode, concluding with his lead actress in a remake of one of the most famous videos of all time. Murphy has never met a thing about Glee that he couldn't strip-mine and crank out for mass consumption. In his constant desire to just give the people what they want and more and more and more of it, he's like the George Lucas of Glee. Except Britney Spears takes the place of Ewoks. (It's an imperfect metaphor.)
It's safe to say that I have little to no relationship with the music of Britney Spears. I've heard most of her big hits (though that "Me Against the Music" song was new to me), and I, like every other straight male member of the class of 1999, found the "Baby One More Time" video to be … intriguing. But I don't have the fascination with her music and her public persona that so many others in my generation do. She's just a pop star who had a hellish road for much of the last decade, then inexplicably became culturally relevant again. So when I heard that Glee was going to follow up its Madonna episode from last season with a Britney episode, I had two thoughts. One was, "Of course." The other was, "They're going to have to make me care."
They didn't bother. "Britney/Brittany" is what people who say Glee is awful are talking about when they say Glee is awful. There are funny one-liners. There are some enjoyable musical numbers. There are some good performances. But for the most part, this is an hour of TV with little rhyme or reason, tossed together at random to celebrate a particular artist with renditions of her biggest hits that have so little relevance to the storyline that the show might as well be what its biggest detractors have always said it was: a bad teen soap with camp elements and karaoke numbers. It'd be one thing if the show wrapped some sort of storyline around the songs of Britney Spears - love 'em or hate 'em, jukebox musicals have something of a tradition - but the sole reason the episode exists is to feature songs by Britney Spears. Story? Character arcs? Those fall by the wayside. This is the worst thing that can happen when your show is a moment factory. Everything's sacrificed for making cool shit happen. But what if the shit isn't actually cool?
There are some good elements in "Britney/Brittany." For one thing, it's the best showcase Heather Morris has had yet as Brittany Susan Pierce, and she's hysterical throughout. Murphy seems intent on running this character into the ground, but Morris isn't going to have her stop being funny without a fight. Furthermore, she's probably the best dancer in the cast, so the video recreations done with her at the center of them are fun to watch, even as they don't really have anything to do with the story at all. The girl can move, and there's a simple pleasure to watching someone who's so fluid. In addition, there are any number of amusing lines throughout the episode, most notably a lengthy rant from Sue about the 1968 Democratic Convention that Jane Lynch knocks out of the park. Murphy may go in for overkill, but he's still very good at coming up with ridiculous, funny dialogue.
Unfortunately, pretty much everything else flops. The storyline, such as it is, is a shambles. Frankly, there isn't one. There's a rough attempt to come up with something about how Rachel is worried that Finn will break up with her if he's on the football team again, but it doesn't make a lot of sense and seems to make Rachel more unlikable while thinking that we'll find everything she does perfectly normal. (Contrast this with last week, where the show knew that Rachel was ridiculous and had no trouble pointing it out.) There's also a sort of runner about how the kids want to perform Britney Spears because of a Facebook campaign and the fact that they grew up with her music (God, I'm old), but Will won't do it because she's a bad influence and he wants to dedicate a week to Christopher Cross. I don't mind storylines making fun of Will - the most useless main character on television - but the show so occasionally taps in to what made the guy fitfully compelling in season one that it becomes frustrating to see him stranded in a storyline about how much he likes light adult contemporary.
Also, Emma's new boyfriend, Carl, arrived on the scene, played by John Stamos, and Will went acted like a high school kid about the whole thing. Murphy's the writer on the show who's most fond of making the teachers act like their students, and it's rarely funny. It wasn't here, and it didn't bother to examine the relationships between these characters with anything like depth (or even pseudo-depth). Plus, frankly, the idea that all of the kids were having hallucinations about Britney while under the influence of Carl's anesthesia was just stupid. There wasn't a plot here. There were a series of scenes stuck between Britney Spears performances because the show couldn't afford the rights to her entire back catalog. (And this is to say nothing of how totally useless Spears' cameo was. She turned up a couple of times, looking about 10 years older than she actually is, and said some flat, listless dialogue.)
I don't begrudge Glee theme episodes, based around one single artist. And I realize that what I said above - about the episode just stringing along a series of scenes between musical numbers that had little to no connection to each other - is going to be true of the show for a lot of people. But at its best - as I would argue Glee was last week - the show can be truly transcendent in a way no other show on TV can be right now. It can create scenes and moments and performances as good as anything in TV history. But the only way those moments have any resonance is if the show fills its tank with good character moments and compelling storylines as it goes along. The theme episodes, rather than examining these characters' relationships with individual pieces of music, seem more about examining the audience's relationship with that music. And if you're indifferent toward the artist involved, that's a recipe for disaster.
- Ryan Murphy steps away next week, taking his barrel full of random elements with him. Unfortunately, it looks like we're going to be examining Glee's take on religion. Lord. (Honestly, I may overrate next week's episode if it's not a complete disaster, because I'm already anticipating something on the order of the plague of locusts.)
- Does Britney Spears really inspire sexual frenzy? And why is Murphy always so intent on having Will get into weird, inappropriate situations with his students, like his performing in "Toxic"? Murphy's so intent on pushing what makes the show "edgy," that he's going to be the death of it. What makes Glee work is everything that ISN'T edgy.
- Another thing I disliked: The regurgitation of pop culture memes as dialogue. "Leave Brittany alone." "Is this real life?" Ugh.
- Nonetheless, I still like Coach Beiste.
- "I'm more talented that all of you. I see that clearly now."
- "It's not like that time I went all sad clown hooker."
- "Normally, you dress like the perverted fantasy of a Japanese businessman with a very dark and specific fetish, but I actually like this look."
- "I realize you're still mourning the loss of that bony, redheaded hominid you're in love with."
- "Every day, Tina's and Mike's Asian fusion grows stronger."
- "Fresh off their last place finish at the regionals, please welcome the New Directions."
- "Not sure if you heard, William, but my spinal column was ruptured in a sex riot."