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Glee Watch: Oops! They Did It

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Spoilers for last night’s Britney Spears-themed Glee coming up:

After last season’s polarizing Madonna episode of Glee—I was firmly on the “couldn’t stand it” pole—I’ll admit I was looking ahead to the Britney Spears episode with dread. Turns out I had nothing to worry about. If “Britney/Brittany” wasn’t the best episode of Glee—it was still a theme episode, light on plot and built around forcing in the guest songs—it was damn near the funniest and most entertaining, thanks to the casting coup that is Heather Morris. And to the fortunately limited use of the actual guest star, Ms. Spears. And to that best friend of TV pop-musicals everywhere, oral-surgical anesthesia.

Having gotten her first break as a backup dancer for Beyoncé, Morris landed a role as Cheerio Brittany on Glee, where she was first distinguished as the best dancer in the ensemble. But the writers soon built a character around her, turning her deadpan dimwitticisms—she’s basically a teen-girl Ralphie Wiggum—into the highlights of any given episode. This season she was promoted to series regular, and “Britney/Brittany” showcased each of her strengths. (I’m not even going to bother listing her best lines here, but feel free to in the comments.)

From what I’ve seen online, the episode’s been panned, and I guess I can see why: it was definitely a one-off, with the slightest of storylines to offer an excuse for its various Britney video remakes. But it worked in part because, unlike “The Power of Madonna,” it owned its slightness: it kept the videos (and Britney’s appearances) where they belonged as fantasy, instead of, for instance, fabricating a Madonna makeover as an excuse to create a fan-pleasing Sue Sylvester video.

And for an episode that played as mainly straight comedy—excepting Rachel’s final serenade of Finn—it brought one hilarious run after another, capped off by Sue’s alternative history of the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. (One big exception: I’m sure somewhere in the universe there is a good butt-sweat joke to be made, but Jacob’s caricature is not funny, and became seriously out-creeping last night.)

But the big winner of the show was Spears, who hasn’t for years seemed as culturally relevant, positively or negatively, as the show made her out to be. The very notion that students in high school and their teachers would be arguing passionately over Spears—as opposed to, say, last season’s theme recipient Lady Gaga—might have made more sense in, say, 2003. Today, the most honest line about Spears in the episode was the remark that the New Directions kids “grew up” with her; they were grade schoolers when she became a pop sensation, and were gleams in their parents’ eyes when she was on the new Mickey Mouse Club.

That Sue Sylvester would think of her as a threat to anything today was probably the biggest plug the episode gave her—that, and being favorably compared with Christopher Cross, who was put down with a “He discovered America.” In reality, I’m starting to suspect that a real-world reference to Britney will increasingly get you: “She’s the girl on Glee, right?” And Heather Morris deserves credit for that.

Consider me pleasantly surprised. I’m still worried about the Rocky Horror episode, though.

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