Glee is a time capsule. After premiering over eleven years ago, Ryan Murphy’s break into the teen mainstream carries a bundle of throwbacks. Screencaps of the show reveal prehistoric iPhones, a hefty amount of skater skirts, and a deadpan style of humor that paved the way for shows like Riverdale. Set in a small–town Ohio high school, Glee follows a competitive show choir team of misfits to nationals and beyond, illuminating what it’s like to try to make it in the arts against stacked odds. Though its spontaneous musical numbers are what initially set it apart from the pack of teen dramedies popular in the early 2000s, Glee is better known for being socially progressive. By the time the show hit its hundredth episode in 2014, Vulture estimated it tackled over 294 unique societal issues. These include, but are not limited to, internalized homophobia, teen pregnancy, transgender acceptance, eating disorders, and the complexities of a sexual relationship with the mother who adopted the child you gave up for adoption.
Glee experienced a resurgence this summer after actress Naya Rivera, who played the fiery cheerleader Santana Lopez, died while boating with her son in California. As hordes of late Gen–Zs watched, captivated by Rivera’s knack for searing clapbacks, we realized something: The show aged poorly. What counted for progressive understanding in 2010 now feels ham–fisted and politically incorrect. Murphy’s inspired plot lines about self–acceptance are no better than a drunk lecture from your socially liberal, fiscally conservative aunt who experimented with lesbianism in college. Obviously, Glee was a standard setter. It aging poorly means we’ve evolved as a society.
That said, the best episodes of Glee are the ones least like our memories of the show. They lack a meaningful plot and are low on moral teachings. They’re irreverent, full of sharp one–liners from supporting characters, and use the musical numbers not as plot devices, but rather as breaks from storylines that did too much too quickly. When Glee stops taking itself seriously, it shines.
“Britney/Brittany,” season two’s second episode, is perhaps one of the series’ most memorable. Paradoxically, it’s also nothing like the rest of Glee. The plot is simple: The glee club kids are dying to do a tribute to Britney Spears at their homecoming assembly, but Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), their coach, refuses. Still pining over Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), the school guidance counselor who left him for a sexy dentist named Carl (John Stamos),Will invites Carl to talk about oral hygiene to the glee club. What follows is purely nonsensical; the musical numbers are woven together through dream sequences triggered by visits to the dentist’s office. Each spawns a Britney Spears fantasy, the music empowering the New Directions to take no shit and perform a raunchy version of “Toxic” at the assembly. (Spoiler alert: it causes a sex riot.) There’s a silly side plot revolving around on–again–off–again lovers Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith) and their inability to have a healthy relationship, but that’s par for the course.
“Britney/Brittany” stands out because it highlights what makes Glee fun: its theatricality. The episode feels like a montage of music videos, several performances near–exact mirrors of Spears’ source material. Rachel sings a carbon copy of “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” galavanting around the halls of McKinley High first in the signature school girl outfit and then Spears’ classic crop top and sweats combo. Meanwhile, Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris), the episode’s unsuspecting star, opens with a high energy rendition of “I’m a Slave 4 U.” It balances intricate choreography with odes to Spears’ iconography: the yellow raptor, the red bodysuit, the other sparkly bodysuit from “Womanizer.”
These numbers are refreshing. Lacking the pressure of moving a 21st–century parable about tolerance along, the cast is free to dive into the Spears canon wholeheartedly. The dancing is flashier, the sets are more grandiose, the vocals are poppier. With this episode, Glee leans into the fact that it’s a musical for the first time, falling into the tradition of throwing in a song and dance number just because.
“Britney/Brittany” also shifts the focus away from Michele’s Rachel Berry, allowing minor cast members to shine. The episode centers around Morris’ Brittany, who used to hate Spears because their names were so similar. Morris, who was originally brought onto Glee to teach the rest of the cast how to dance, unveils her uncanny comedic timing throughout the episode. Allegedly, Morris improvised most of her lines on the show, allowing her to pull from real–life tensions to create abrupt one–liners. “I’m more talented than all of you. I see that clearly now,” she deadpans after Rachel asks for another solo, hinting at the cast’s resentment of Michele.
Often, Glee falters under the weight of its aspirations. Murphy intended for it to be every teen’s coming–of–age show. By dealing with hundreds of problems, it could never allocate enough attention to the ones that mattered. Sure, Glee naturalized out–and–proud gay characters by having some of the show’s most enduring relationships be same–sex ones. But in Emma Pillsbury’s made–for–TV OCD, it creates a caricature of those living with enduring mental illness. And, yeah, Glee realistically depicted the aftermath of teen pregnancy, but it also made a hero of a teacher most would’ve considered predatory. Within the first two seasons alone, Will Schuester plants drugs on a student, leads another student on, stages a raunchy production of Rocky Horror to convince a colleague to cheat on her boyfriend, and constantly insinuates that the sole Black member of the New Directions is lazy. All of this is somehow justified.
Ultimately, in its afterlife, Glee has found a purpose beyond provoking conversation. It has reminded us how to laugh—how to sit back and watch a television show without impending doom. Episodes like “Britney/Brittany” are great not because of what they say, but because of what they don’t. Instead of packing a soap opera inside a 40–minute episode, it lets the music take over, creating the fantasy world Ryan Murphy wants us to live in. As cliché as it sounds, we return to Glee not for what it taught us—it can’t replicate those lessons. We return to Glee because it soothes us.