Glee: “Britney 2.0”
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Glee: “Britney 2.0”

C

Glee

“Britney 2.0”

Season 4, Episode 2

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Why do we watch Glee? Now that Todd’s inspired, insightful reviews are no longer the dessert, it’s important to keep in mind that we only have 34 hours a week for television. Is it really worth giving one of those wash-cycles to the show that solves a teacher’s self-image problem with a paternalistic kiss from its Brillo-headed hero? To the show that parades paraplegics, deaf kids, and cancer patients past the main cast whenever it needs to teach them a lesson about what’s really important? To the show that has memorialized Britney Spears first by reenacting her music videos and now by reenacting a sad chapter of her life?

My hate-watching tends to aim upward at those critically branded elephants that strike me more as self-serious flab, but that’s because I don’t watch as much television communally anymore. I used to find Glee essential just for the rainbow reactions it provoked, but the camps seem to have settled long ago. Last year, in my Twitter neighborhood, anyway, Glee was a midnight movie where everyone shouted wisecracks at the screen, some of which are actually funny, trenchant, or both. It’s increasingly difficult to argue Glee is especially singular. There are richer teen dramas, wackier comedies, more coherent dance shows, whole evenings of top-40 TV, and progressive tracts with more internal consistency.

Of course, Mad Men serialization is hardly the goal; the season-three writers-room recruits have proven that much. And Glee’s discontinuity is hardly in the service of Childrens Hospital-style lunacy. Glee is sloppy because it’s neither rigorously adhering to narrative convention nor pointedly undermining it. The show has other priorities. The characters need to be malleable enough to slot into each week’s after-school issue and song list but still lively enough to inspire connection, even it’s just laughing at one of Santana’s insults or marveling at Brittany’s physicality. They're not people so much as relative stock types from the pop consciousness. As Todd has said many times, Glee is about moments. It’s a scrapbook of growing up, a hazily sketched-in sequence of photographs crystallizing those confusing, stirring, maddening moments when youthful fancy starts managing expectations.

Glee is a gut show. Its appeal is almost entirely emotional and visceral; think about it for a few minutes and you shatter the illusion that Rachel’s yearning is as exquisitely sad as Britney’s public plight. What I love about Glee, what keeps me merrily going, has nothing to do with what Rachel will learn this week or what new retcons will paper over the past. It’s the way Glee surprises me with its unpredictable stimulation. Are they gonna do a two-act homage to a Christmas special their target demographic hasn’t seen, or are they gonna cry over a PSA by way of emotional shortcuts? The machine-gun jokes, the bittersweet growth, the music with all its semantic connections bobbing to the surface. To me, Glee is exciting. As the broadcast networks renew their commitment to boring America into submission, that’s enough.

It helps that Ryan Murphy has style. He’s overcaffeinated, sure, hence the dense walls of polished, Hollywood chatter, some of which usually lands. But Glee gets good mileage out of its embedded reporting and popcorn focus, the immediacy and immersion of its filmmaking. The whir of Marley's head swimming as she walks away from Jake and Kitty nails that feeling, and I love the buzzing that follows a character with a bee in her bonnet. Several characters get to break the fourth wall (both on the soundtrack via narration and on the screen via direct camera address), and as long as Murphy’s shows are predicated on people hating each other, at least everyone gets to dish it. That’s the one area where Glee really does live up to its democratic ideals.

But I’m not so happy Ryan Murphy has a voice that I can ignore what he’s saying. His shows crumble so easily because they’re built on nothing but people being outrageously cruel to each other in order to come together at the end of a comedy or split apart at the end of a tragedy. Empathy is a foreign concept that is suddenly, arbitrarily discovered (and forgotten and rediscovered) by the Murphy antihero. American Horror Story follows sociopathic solipsism to a grand guignol finale in the ironic milieu of a suburban psychiatric institution. The nine-month crisis begun by Andrew Rannells’ vain flibbertigibbet on The New Normal concerns the surprising revelation that other people have thoughts and feelings brought on by his impending parenthood, and Ellen Barkin’s homophobic grandma softens enough to buy the gay couple baby clothes just because it’s the end of the episode and the feel-good music is playing. The Glee kids are constantly learning about People With Differences, which at least makes sense for kids coming of age. But for the first four acts, Glee wants us to laugh at bad behavior. It’s phony misanthropy and hollow redemption. Ryan Murphy wants us all to feel good about how hatred blossoms into appreciation, usually after prolonged exposure—the classic model for fighting homophobia—but because Glee is about thin pop iconography bouncing in and out of moments, he doesn’t often depict how that really happens. Compassion isn’t learned on a Murphy show. It’s phoned in by the writers at the end.

“Britney 2.0” is so upfront about its emptiness that it opens with Blaine puncturing Brittany’s out-loud voiceover and eventually reveals that Brittany is just going through the motions of Britney’s public meltdown. At first, I was all smiles. If this is just a vehicle for Britney Spears musical sequences, and the sudden teleportation to the football field suggests it is, then sign me up. Here I was expecting more expensive, meticulous recreations of music videos—pretty as they are, they usurp the creative power of Glee—and instead, we get more basic sequences that rely on filmmaking to pack a punch: the lateral gliding of “Hold It Against Me,” the symbolic lasso of “Womanizer,” the punctuating close-ups of Rachel’s “Oops! I Did It Again” do-again, the spiral zoom on Brittany staring at a laptop that says, “Santana Lopez Unavailable,” in “Everytime.” The recounting of Cassandra July’s public meltdown is so surreal we zoom into a Youtube video, move from camera to camera inside of it, and await Kurt’s disembodied head leaning into frame to narrate in profile. I’m still laughing about whatever that was.

On that note, there’s a weirdness tolerability line, and Glee just bounces all over the graph like it’s Miranda July. I’ll buy Brittany’s Happyville F- because it makes for some fun close-ups, and it doesn’t actually have any bearing on Brittany’s story. (Last year she had a 0.0 GPA, but by golly, Will and Emma are going to get her to graduate in a year because what’s continuity?) But needing a compass to get to class? Getting dressed out of the lost-and-found box? (Again, there was a post-“Thriller” period where Brittany and Santana wore street clothes, but who remembers 18 months ago?) Puck hits both sides in one sentence: “I had my first threesome at seven, and once I beat up a police horse.” Even though he’s certainly exaggerating, a 7-year-old threesome is so gross it expels me from whatever fun I’m having, but someone physically fighting a horse has a comic curiosity to it, or it would if Mumbly would learn to enunciate.

Back to Lima reality, there’s a kind of progress in the toothlessness of the jokes about Marley’s mom. It’s almost like the purpose isn’t to laugh at her obesity and instead to illustrate the inanity of the jokers. Time will tell how long this lasts, but it’s a step forward. There are several steps back, however, in the parody of Britney Spears’ tabloid life. If this pop icon is such an inspiration that she deserves two tribute episodes and the narrative role (haha!) of reinvigorating Brittany, I have two questions: 1.) Why is a third of the episode spent finding the comedy in her mental illness, and 2.) Why deprive us of Heather Morris’ dancing?  Oh, that’s right: “No matter what happened to her, she just came back stronger.” Britney's depression is fair game because she’s getting paid extravagantly to appear on The X Factor. Maybe it’s not just phony misanthropy but also careless misanthropy. Not a satirist’s precise skewering but a child’s spraying all over the toilet seat.

The other throughline of “Britney 2.0” is the difficulty of long-distance relationships. Turns out Santana rejected her mother’s money and went to Louisville after all, and she’s so busy with cheerleading that she barely gets to scissor-Skype with Brittany anymore. In swoops fellow dumb blonde Sam. I’d care more if I felt anything at all during the Sam/Brittany scenes, but she’s so unbelievably dumb that I can’t take her seriously. Then there’s Rachel and Brody and the absence of Finn, who is again glimpsed only in smartphone photos. The least I can say is I like that we feel the distance from Finn, too, since he’s allegedly training for the army. But Rachel has been so good at pretending Brody isn’t gorgeous that I was surprised and a little disheartened to see her paint over the heart-Finn on her wall. (She and Kurt have a place now; they bike around it like Jim Jarmusch.) I don’t even like Finn. It’s just that this Brody affair feels so ordained. The sexy orchid doesn’t help. Kurt, meanwhile, is having no apparent problems spending time apart from Blaine. I don’t blame him.

Last week felt like Matt Saracen in Chicago, and this week feels like Julie showed up. In “The New Rachel,” anything could happen in this exciting transition year. In “Britney 2.0” it’s pretty obvious what things are going to happen. What better time to remember that it’s not about the destination but the moments along the way.

Stray observations:

  • At the end, Artie says, “We scraped the bottom of the Britney barrel.” So I guess we’re never getting a “Lucky” rendition, are we?
  • Will gets crazy involved in a student’s life in an “I looked at your file” subplot. He even takes it upon himself to unite Puck, who didn’t know he had a half-brother, with Jake in order to convince Jake to join glee club in order to tame him? I don’t know. The point is Jake is now in New Directions. Poor Stoner Brett.
  • Marley is definitely The New Rachel, given the coveted closing-song slot, but Glee does seem genuinely low-hierarchy this year. Maybe that’s why Heather Morris only gets one clockwork-dance number, so that everyone gets a song.
  • Gay guys talkin’ ‘bout Glee: Why does Blaine insist on playing straight in song? Is this whole show a metaphor about music as alcohol?
  • Loved the sight gag of Brittany’s settanta and the meta of Brittany’s voiceover. Sometimes wacky is just right.
  • Aw, Rachel and Kurt playing at worldliness: “New York Domino’s is so much better than Lima Domino’s.” “It’s the water.”
  • Crazy July tells Rachel, “You’re dressed like a Walgreens underwear model.”
  • Rules make no sense on this show, but apparently Brittany’s still president, and this year you don’t need quite as many glee-club members to compete. And remember when Sue and Roz were going to depose Figgins? No? Neither does anyone else.
  • Stoner Brett gets the line of the night, shouting “J’accuse!” during the lip-syncing incident. Spinoff! Spinoff! 

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