this is now the stoner brett show
AV Club by Brandon Nowalk (C)
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 shouts 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 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 it’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 voice-over 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 seven-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. 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 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.
- 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 voice-over. 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!
Hit Fix by Geoff Berkshire
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."
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 school constitution 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 the 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.
- "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.
The RBI Report by Dr She Bloggo
It's a ballsy move, in the fourth season of a rapidly over-inflating television show, to include the phrase "2.0" in an episode title. I guess, in an ideal world, "2.0" would just indicate that it's a new incarnation of something we're familiar with. Bigger, better, faster, stronger! But "2.0" can also easily mean "oh hey we did this already," and unfortunately, much of "Britney 2.0" fell into that latter category.
Of course, "Britney 2.0" used the same angle as "Britney/Brittany" - it tied the work of Britney Spears to the student Brittany S. Pierce. But while "Britney/Brittany" actually had little to do with Brittany S. Pierce, "Britney 2.0" endeavored to give Brittany the A-story. To be honest, that might be the only new thing about the episode: Brittany S. Pierce was intended to be the hero of her own storyline. And for one hot minute, I thought she might actually be! The episode began with a Brittany narration that turned out to be actual dialogue. She seemed really optimistic about repeating her senior year, and is basically declaring that positivity to the entire hallway. But then, after realizing that she's doing her voiceover outloud, we get the real narration. The real voice in Brittany's head. And that voice is worried. It was a rough summer, and she misses Santana.
How promising is this? This lovely little construct alluded to the fact that what goes on in Brittany's head does not necessarily match what's coming out of her mouth - something we previously thought to be untrue, thanks to an endless parade of bad one-liners that were strung together to somehow create a character portrait. In one simple scene, I thought maybe the Glee writers could turn it around for Brittany. They actually created the idea that Brittany was having an identity crisis! I love characters in identity crisis! But ultimately, this narrative didn't really happen. Brittany's trajectory felt exactly like Brittany's character for the past three seasons: shallow, scattered, and confusing.
The first misstep came in the overused notion that the glee club can somehow sing actual emotions into people. No matter how much you serenade someone, it will not fix their problems. What's worse about that falsehood is that when used in a narrative, it takes every ounce of agency out of the character with the actual feelings. That person? Sitting in a chair. While someone dances around them like somehow it's stirring up magical happy dust to whisk sadness away. Rarely can this person be the subject of their own storyline when they're just being sung at. (Remember "I Kissed a Girl?" Me too, unfortunately.) Double tactless points for Artie and Blaine singing a mashup of "Boys" and "Boyfriend" when part of Brittany's problem is that she misses... her girlfriend.
I will say, it was good that eventually, the serenading characters realized that singing at someone does not solve problems. And it was nice to see them try and get through to Brittany using something she could personally connect to: giving her the spotlight. But watching Brittany spiral out of control during "Gimme More" (and earlier) was embarrassing at best, especially considering that the plummet was a disaster-by-disaster carbon copy of Britney Spears' actual downward spiral a few years back. When you sign over your music to Glee, do you also sign over the rights to your personal struggles? Maybe it's fair game, but for me it felt too exploitative. I cringed a lot
What's worse is that somehow Brittany had planned this all along...? She deliberately spiralled so that she could emulate the grand comeback of her idol. Oh. So not only does it just make light of Britney Spears' matching actions, it also raises the question: what was the point, then? Brittany didn't actually have an identity crisis, just a pretend one, and everything at the end of the episode was the same as it was at the beginning. Will and Emma still saw a cry for help, and this time Brittany accepted it. What, she didn't want their help when they offered at the beginning of the episode? And there's no change with the Cheerios either, or glee club, assuming Will lets her back in after he's done shouting at the students. The final kicker is that we see Brittany more depressed than ever about Santana during the final montage, as she stares numbly at Santana's "offline" message. No change! And she's still actually legitimately sad! That final shot of Brittany was heartbreaking! So why go through all that fuss? No matter which way you shake it, nothing about Brittany's arc makes sense.
I get the sneaking feeling that the writers somehow want us to think Brittany's actually a mastermind, as this is not the first time they've pulled out a "FOOLED YOU!" with Brittany's actions as though it were somehow a rabbit from a hat. But writing reveals don't really work this way, especially not for a character who has been written as so literally unintelligent. The early approach, in Brittany's narration shift, worked so much better at illustrating a "deeper level" to Brittany, and unfortunately it was forgotten. The one good thing about the storyline was the continuation of Sam's Emotionally Perceptive streak: he is now 2-for-2 this season, and it's nice to see a little bond between him and Brittany. Even though he was intuiting something completely dumb, the friendship construct is still welcome.
Basically, this storyline could have been great. The writers could have confronted, head-on, the idea that Brittany feels lost without Santana, and acknowledged that Brittany's barely had an identity separate of Santana in the narrative. Brittany has only ever been a real character when it's in conjunction with Santana's arc, and now that Santana is gone from Brittany's side, there's a real issue in demonstrating Brittany's independent identity. This was a perfect time to give her one. Who is Brittany S. Pierce, beyond the dumb jokes and the sex jokes? We still don't know. Brittany's identity crisis turned out to be a replica of Britney Spears' identity crisis, and then left completely unexplored and unresolved - talk about insult to injury.
Rachel seemed to be faring somewhat better than Brittany, in New York, although she is still struggling with dance class and missing the AWOL Finn Hudson. Now that Kurt's there, though, she has a shoulder to lean on, and someone else in her life who can dispense her fortune cookie wisdom. (Nauseating gem, re: Finn's absence - "Your freedom is a gift he's given you. Accept it.") We also got an update on Kurt, who informed us, through clunky dialogue, that he's happy he didn't get into NYADA on the first go-around and he's really grown as a person. I'm really glad all that character growth made it to the screen, writers, we wouldn't want to miss actual development!
Okay, okay, that was mean. Sarcasm is not a friendly mode of communication. But with a cast this big, the writing is cutting corners by necessity, and we're getting a lot of "oh hey by the way" expositional dialogue. "Show, don't tell" has really vacated the building, and I get a little grumpy about it.
Anyways, I'm entirely off track now. The whole point of Rachel's storyline was to move her forward in the interactions with both Brody and Cassandra, and the arc basically did that. Although the Brody stuff was predictable and a bit too reliant on the phrase "I think you're sexy," I did laugh hysterically at Brody intuiting the status of Rachel's relationship with Finn by pointing out the literal writing on the wall. Was that meant to be funny? Because it was. "Oh, yeah. You're still in love with your ex because... you painted his name in giant letters on your bedroom wall right behind me. Ah." Brody should play Blue's Clues.
But even despite the preposterous visual of Rachel having smeared Finn's name in white paint with hearts around it, "Britney 2.0" created a nice episode-ending action where Rachel painted over the name, with a lovely rack-focus to Brody's orchids. This can only mean that we are indeed moving forward on this Brody-Rachel business, which is perhaps the best course of action to take. It's certainly better than languishing Rachel in indecision indefinitely, at least. We'll only see how this shakes out when Finn inevitably shows up and confusing emotions bubble up.
Of course, Rachel and Brody grew closer this week because of Rachel's insistence on proving to Cassandra July that she can be sexy. After being barred from learning the tango on account of her no-sex-appeal, Rachel solicits Brody for a sexy rendition of "Oops I Did It Again." When Cassandra (somewhat rightfully) reproaches her for the performance, Rachel reaches for a secret weapon: she accuses Cassandra of being jealous of new talent because her own star burned out early. (Kurt gave us some backstory that somehow Rachel didn't know: Ms. July made it to Broadway It Girl status, only to snap publicly during a performance and lose all chances of stardom. I'm starting to question Rachel's Broadway knowledge. Remember when she didn't know that Cats had closed?)
The great thing about the Cassandra-and-Rachel storyline was that it took their by-the-book strict teacher-eager student dynamic and developed it into something more: turns out Cassandra July is a failed Rachel Berry. In the tradition of April Rhodes and Suzy Pepper, Cassandra July is a cautionary tale for Rachel Berry. Rachel snapped when things weren't going her way, just like Cassie did ten years ago. Cassie goes so far as to point this out to Rachel, and gives her a much-needed lesson about second chances and professionalism that no amount of name-calling could impart. And ultimately, this turn of events creates an instantly interesting relationship between these two women and their characteristics that I hope will be explored further. Who knows? A girl can dream.
The final storyline of the evening belonged to Jake Puckerman, who received a visit from his brother and learned about what it means to be a man. (At this point, we should really just be calling glee club Masculinity Club, in a strange plot twist that would make S1 Azimio scratch his head.) It's perhaps unfair to say, but Jake is basically Puck 2.0, and it seems as though glee club and the Love of a Good Woman is going to set him on the straight and narrow. (Eyeroll?) After having a moment with Marley, where she declares him a guy who's just been hurt, Jake stands up against the bullying of Marley's mom - only to start a fight in the lunchroom. Magically, Noah Puckerman is waiting in the wings for an intervention! He encourages Jake to join glee club, and extends the bonds of brotherhood. Jake accepts, joins glee, and apparently starts to date Kitty somewhere in the middle there. Because "OH BY THE WAY," Glee tried to do another reveal, where Marley thinks maybe she and Jake have a little spark, but actually Jake is dating the head cheerleader and seems to be confused about it. Cue sad mopey song. I think I've seen this before??? Sure, it's technically a conglomeration of the Puck-Quinn-Finn triangle and the Quinn-Finn-Rachel triangle, but any way you shake it, there's a lot of déjâ-vu going on.
Overall, "Britney 2.0" presented us with a lot of things we've seen before: Rachel moping about Finn, theatre boys chasing after an emotionally-conflicted Rachel, the Bad-Boy-turned-Good-Guy, the Bitchy Cheerleader hijacking an emotionally-confused boy from the Loser Girl, failed pep assembly performances, and characters feeling so sad they just need a good serenade or two. There's only so much freshness you can mine out of recycled material, unfortunately. Funnily enough, the covers of Britney's music showed more originality and rearranging than the actual episode content. Huh. Maybe Glee's just faking this downward spiral so it can make a stunning comeback. Britney 3.0?
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B-
Dance Numbers: B
Episode MVP: Sam Evans, he of emotionally intuitive superpowers
More Recaps and Reviews:
i'm dropping the performance reviews section because not enough reviewers are doing them any more to justify it. sorry :(