SOUND OFF: THE X FACTOR & GLEE: ...Britney, One More Time
This week saw the second Britney Spears-centric episode of the musical dramedy series GLEE, "Britney 2.0", as well as the second three-hour block of new episodes of the reality singing competition THE X FACTOR, the latter featuring none other than new judge Britney Spears as it continued to offer up even more preliminary auditions as the arbiters hone in on a Top 20 and we gear up for the live shows starting soon. While the theme of Thursday night on Fox may have very well been their $15 million investment given glam, grand primetime treatment as only the network AMERICAN IDOL and GLEE built really could, both shows proved that the pop princess of the 21st century is at the top of the entertainment heap for very good reason, leaving X FACTOR fans, gleeks and entertainment junkies alike left requesting one thing and one thing only by the time 11 o'clock rolled around: "Gimme gimme more."Oops, They Did it AgainThe back catalog of Britney Spears is surprisingly more durable than anybody has ever really ever given it credit for being - much like the music of pop king Michael Jackson and R&B queen Whitney Houston (both paid tribute to on the show in the third season), the oh-so-idiosyncratic originals shall always remain unbeatable, yet there are a plethora of pleasures to be reaped from other artists exploring the plosive, passionate, immediately recognizable sounds of Britney's vast collection of hits, 1999 to now, as well. Echoing the fireballs-to-the-wall, all-out extravaganza trappings of the best GLEE episodes - "Brittany/Britney" and "The Sue Sylvester Shuffle" being most memorable and obvious forerunners of this exceptionally strong Brad Falchuk-written, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon-directed super-special ep - "Britney 2.0" was a return to the best of GLEE as it once was (before the Great GLEE Schism of this year, as it were) and undoubtedly acted as sure enough evidence to signal the true-blue gleeks among us to emit a well-deserved sigh of relief; never fear, friends, the old GLEE is still here, too, just now with this new split-storyline style that the creators have pulled off thus far with little damage done. Indeed, I must myself admit, last week gave me trepidation, but this week was significantly more innervating, especially insofar as the impact of the musical numbers and their integration - as well as their upfront overall prominence and elemental importance to the actual plot and its advancement - and how that focus shaped the overall tone and style of the episode itself and how it all came together. While the NYC storyline imparts the didacticism of the tropes and truths discovered whilst in the glee club and the lessons learned through fear, fire, faith or friendship - very special messages we ourselves have been presented with - all now actually lived in the real world, both by new NYADA entrant and her best friend and respective NYADA hopeful, Rachel (Lea Michele) and Kurt (Chris Colfer) still unfortunately feel too much like parts of a much different show than the crew back in Ohio. They are Lima transplants in the big city, though, so maybe the shift in tone is the point being made - and, by hook or by crook, it is effective. I suppose one could say such is the way of the new GLEE universe all in all: take the new GLEE as it is or leave it all behind and move on. It's your choice - move or lose. As a result of the new style of the show, as discussed in-depth last week in this very column, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), Mr. Schu (Matthew Morrison) and Miss Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) have unquestionably gotten the short shrift in the new GLEE as it currently stands and from what we have seen so far in the first two of twenty-two S4 episodes, yet the soufflé is lighter and airier and scads more shrewd and smooth in its overall frothy likeability than much of the last season was for many, clearly, so the relative shelf life of the series is still totally up in the air, as it were, and we could be looking at GLEE as it will now always be: a double-decker sandwich. Heck, at this rate, it could run for two more years or ten - it's impossible to predict. Yes, judging from the 8.1 million viewers that tuned in for GLEE's Season Four premiere - a considerable jump from last year's final episodes, by the way - there is a clear-cut justification for the thesis to be bandied about that there is quite a life left in this once topmost hot topic entertainment that seemed to start sputter out as of late - a whole new cast coming and going every few years, maybe, even - somehow, some way- will keep it afloat indefinitely after all. In any event, "Britney 2.0" was surefire evidence that GLEE still can deliver musical numbers and rat-a-tat-tat dialogue with a hearty serving of riotous absurdity, characterlogical outlandishness and all-too-real-to-life heart, rife with as many truthful teaching moments as off-the-wall bouts of camp, too, while still all the while remaining one of the most consistently compelling and impossible-to-predict series on television, now or ever. GLEE is still formidable in its force, four seasons in - it still can mesmerize and conjure up that special theatrical magic that made us all fall more than three years ago. More than any other element, "Britney 2.0" was all about the music - and, as is almost always the case with theme episodes such as this one, particularly those based solely upon the song-stack of a single performer or group (see "Rumours", the Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson tributes from last year, the ROCKY HORROR and WEST SIDE STORY homages and a few more for further examples), the episode came off with nary a hitch. Reinventing many of Britney's biggest hits while also paying attentive, appropriate respect to the original iterations in equal measure, the seriously song-stuffed episode fit a whole lot of musical meat in to the sixty-minute glittery, leather-studded sub sandwich. Kicking off with one of Britney's most recent worldwide smash hits, the Ke$ha and Max Martin co-penned risqué earworm "Hold It Against Me" was delivered with fetching, fiery delight by a relish-worthy Brittany (Heather Morris), leading the entire Cheerios crew, complete with a hilariously and expectedly disapproving Sue there to boo the electrifying results by way of bullhorn in a winking echo of the unforgettably epic Super Bowl episode's opening number by the song's end. Next, Blaine (Darren Criss) and Artie (Kevin McHale) mashed-up Justin Beiber's "Boyfriend" with Britney's "Boys" and bounced it through the hoop as a hip-hopping, funky-fresh triple-pointer that should sell plenty on iTunes, no doubt. Truly, as has been said far too often in this column in seasons past, the charisma of Criss is something to behold, time and time again - he just keeps getting better and we can only hope this season shows him off to his very best effect for the benefit of not only the show, but the audience. The exit of many of the original gleeks, at least as far as weekly appearances go - Dianna Agron, Mark Salling, Naya Rivera, Amber Riley, Cory Monteith, Harry Shum, Jr., etc. - has more than merely made some room at the lunch table for the new kids on the McKinley block to have their moments to shine in the spotlight, and, to that point, Marley (Melissa Benoist) and Jake (Jacob Artist) are making much use of that fact with their pivotal new roles in the drama of the series - their stripped-down, crunchy granola, acoustically-driven take on Britney's "(You Drive Me) Crazy" mixed up with Aerosmith's "Crazy" was especially inspired, as was Marley's emotional "Everytime" at the episode's elegant, tearful conclusion. Fellow new glee-clubber Unique (Alex Newell) led Sugar Motta (Vanessa Lengies), Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) and Marley in the late-2000s Brit-Brit smash "Womanizer", while Tina joined Joe (Samuel Larsen) and Sam (Chord Overstreet) for another bare-bones, soul-bared show standout by giving voice to the eros-laden, bump-and-grinding #1 hit "3". Speaking of sexy, more than any other number in the across-the-board enjoyable episode, it was Lea Michele's edgy, fiery, staccato, lightly dubstep-tinged "Oops… I Did It Again" that positively lit the entire night aglow - Rachel and Brody (Dean Geyer) are on fire in more ways than one (their chemistry is palpable), as hard as she may be trying to quell the enduring embers; to say nothing of nefarious crackerjack instructor Cassandra (Kate Hudson) and how she figures into it all. Does Cassandra have a history with him? Hmm. Also, what will next week spell for the rest of the new NYC storyline, particularly once Sarah Jessica Parker joins the series as a tempestuous figure involved with Kurt's VOGUE internship? Will SJP square off against Ms. Hudson? When will Finn reappear - and what will he have to say about Brody? Furthermore, back at McKinley, what will the budding romance between Marley and Jake mean for the glee club - does McKinley have a new Rachel/Finn to lead the gleeks to sectional, regional, maybe ever national glory, perchance? We will have to stay tuned to the Britney Spears-themed Thursday night on Fox from now on to make sure we don't miss a move - or a note - of the festivities. And aren't we lucky. After GLEE's sensational "Britney 2.0" married with the Wednesday and Thursday helpings of THE X FACTOR, one can hope that come this week in 2013 we can be looking forward to another Britney theme night on Fox - this time titled "3".