If ratings are any indication, then “Glee” has burned up a lot of good will with its initial audience. Ratings are still healthy, but there’s little doubt that the show’s second season wore a lot of its audience down. Those that saw last year as less of television program and more as an incoherent iTunes delivery system haven’t come back this year, even though last week’s installment “I Am Unicorn” seemed to be a flare gun designed to bring the herds back to the fold. If those that abandoned the show heard that cry and came back this week for “Asian F,” they weren’t in for an episode on par with “Unicorn.” Instead, they got an hour-long example of everything good and bad with the show.You have to hand it to “Glee”. After all, “Asian F” represents a Rosetta stone for the series. If you ever wanted to demonstrate the highs and lows of the show as succinctly as possible, you could do no better than show someone this episode. Last week, I postulated that perhaps the influx of new writers behind the scenes might focus the show in a positive way. But it’s hard to focus the show when it’s still in the throes of a perpetual identity crisis. “Asian F” is far from the best “Glee” episode ever, but it’s certainly the best at showing the sum total of what “Glee” is. Its highs, lows, and WTFs were on full display in this scattershot hour. In fact, let’s just call this episode what it should have been named, and break down things from there.
That title? “The Good, The Bad, and The Ginger.”
If there was a highlight in Season 2, it was the breakout performance of Heather Morris. In no way did “Glee” intend her to be anything other than a back-up dancer in New Directions, but the show wisely beefed up her role upon learning how versatile she is as a performer. She brought multiple levels to a stock character, and raised the game for others such as Nya Rivera in the process. If Season 2 was Morris’ coming out party, then “Asian F” served the same function for Harry Shum, Jr.
Shum had a beefed up part of Season 2 as well (highlighted by his amazing performance of “Sing” back in “Duets”), but never had the opportunity to seize the moment as much as tonight. And every moment involving Mike Chang worked in “Asian F,” and it worked flawlessly on the most important level of all: the emotional one. The idea that performing in the arts somehow wars with getting into a good college is an old trope, to be sure. But it still works far better than Sue’s political ploys to get rid of the arts entirely. And if we’ve seen this type of story before, I’m not sure we’ve seen it told with as powerful a scene as Mike alone in the ballet room, haunted by the ghosts of his father and Tina. The normal “Glee” instinct would be to overlay that scene with sappy music, or an on-the-nose vocal performance. But by keeping everything quiet, and internal, “Glee” showed much can be mined from something so minimal.
To some, this storyline was undoubtedly the height of sap. But know what? I like sap in my “Glee”! At least, I like it when it’s earned. It’s easy to tell when shows phone in emotional moments, and how those differ from the one in which Mike and his mother share a dance after coming clean with each other. It’s a moment that works because it’s two people celebrating their love for each other not because of blood bond, but due to a shared belief that allowing oneself to follow one’s passions is the key to happiness. That’s the subtext to a lot of stories in “Glee,” but it’s rarely actualized onscreen. For all the talent in “Glee”, I’m not sure anyone in the show sings better than Mike dances. We’ve watched supposedly “lead” character stumble over each other and their own self-delusions in order to chase their dreams. But Mike Chang quietly has danced circles around them, both literally and figuratively. And yet, he still has the time, patience, and desire to help better those around him. Incredible.
The Rachel/Mercedes stuff this week is….tricky. In some ways, Mike’s story works like gangbusters because it’s a small part of the “Glee” universe, filling in a foggy corner off to the side of the main story. So having a huge download of personal story works for this secondary character. But Mercedes? The show wants us to consider Mercedes as a key cog in the machine. Unfortunately, we know next to nothing about her. So everything in tonight’s episode centers around a supposed injustice that has little to no context in the grand scheme of the show. What do we know about her? We know she housed Quinn for a while, that she dated Sam for about thirty seconds, and that she once got really angry about tater tots. That’s IT, really.
The notion that Mercedes fashions herself a diva has ebbed and flowed as much as the show has needed it to do so. Last week, she seemed overjoyed at Quinn’s return, and at the outset of tonight’s episode, she’s still hugging Rachel as a compatriot. But both the way Merceded reacted, and the way people reacted to her, in “Asian F” seemed design simply to get her into Shelby’s competing vocal choir. They weren’t the logic extension of long-simmering tensions so much as an outburst designed to create in-school competition as quickly as possible.
We know about Mercedes’ love from “Dreamgirls” going back to Season 1, when she sang “"And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" in “Sectionals.” But much of her self-identification with Effie from that film* we only learned about in tonight’s episode, thanks to the influence of her new boyfriend Shane. The idea that she consciously views herself as Beyonce but subliminally positions herself as Jennifer Hudson is a strong idea, but feels like something to play over multiple episodes, not within one-third of a single one. The fact that I can’t tell if Mercedes is justified** or not in her beliefs isn’t a testament to how close she is in talent to Rachel. It’s a testament to how underwritten her character currently is.
* I realize it’s also a play, but Shane’s discussion of their almost nightly viewings of the film indicate that’s her source of inspiration/identification.
** Here’s where I separate “Mercedes” from “Amber Riley”, who like many members of the cast often makes these characters work far more than they have any right to do so.
That’s all too bad, because I liked the fact that auditions for “West Side Story” carried over multiple episodes, and paralleled the plot for student council president. The attempt to keep forward narrative moment is laudable, especially since the show in years past has been less continuity-driven than “Louie.” But in pressing the pace of Mercedes’ leaving New Directions, it forced not only Mercedes to look bad, but Will and the rest of New Directions look bad as well. Last week, I applauded Will standing up to Quinn. That showed backbone and resolve. But Mercedes wasn’t entirely wrong this week in stating that Will was on her case much more than anyone else. Couple that with almost no one in New Directions defending Mercedes, AND the fact that Will’s threat to banish her seemed hollow given Santana’s quick return to the group, and the whole endeavor felt hollow and inorganic.
Now, in Rachel’s case, looking hollow is more complicated. I would give a better show a bigger benefit of the doubt here. That being said, what I HOPE is happening her is that the show’s intentionally making her into the worst person in the entire freakin’ world for the purpose of bringing her back up again. “Lost” did this with Jack Shephard for a few years, turning him into a shell of a character for the purposes of making his final season redemption that much more powerful. But I honestly can’t tell if the show wants Rachel to be this loathsome at this point, or if they have simply miscalculated their design of her character arc. I can’t imagine a single person is rooting for Rachel at this point. (Why would a single soul follow her into a potential New York spin-off as her character stands right now?) Whether this is intentional or not will remain to be seen.
I mean, Sweet Lord. Having Will at the center of any major storyline is a bad idea. Having Emma and her phobias tagging along is even more problematic. But “Ginger Supremicists”? Are you kidding me? This was “Glee” at its absolute worst, up there with Sue’s mom being an actual Nazi hunter. Even as a throwaway joke, it would be over the top. But to have Emma’s parents actually show up, and serve as a trigger for Emma’s psychoses? Just a brutal sequence, and one that’s really unfair to anyone involved. (When I rip on Will, I’m not ripping on Matthew Morrison. Except when he’s rapping. Then I’m definitely ripping on him.)
As if that wasn’t bad enough, then Will decides to pray to the God that is Coldplay in order to help her through the problems HE JUST CREATED. The song “Fix You” bothered me on approximately 745 different levels. Here is a sample of the levels I jotted down while watching this part of the episode
5) Why is New Directions performing in heaven?
68) Are these people actually performing, or are we seeing Will’s idealized life?
145) In an episode full of unfortunate racial/racist overtones, was “everyone wearing white” the best idea?
534) Honestly, the last time I told my wife I would “fix her,” I spent a week sleeping on the couch. Women usually hate this! They want you to listen and say you understand their problems, not try and fix them!
Number 68 is a perpetual problem with the show: how “real” each performance is within the confines of the show. Last week solved this problem masterfully. This week? Well, it featured straight-ahead performance, multiple performances intercut seamlessly, performances that took place only in one person’s head, and pep rallies that started in hallways. Not every episode need abide by the same rules (although that would be nice in a perfect world), but having a set of rules per episode is the least this show could do in order to make these performances actually work dramatically. I’m all for Heather Morris shaking her groove thang while others spontaneously fall in line behind her in the hallway. But when it’s a performance that makes little sense within the context of the entire piece, then it just falls short. It just feels like a fun thing to watch, as opposed to a powerful moment to experience.
In short: give me Mike Chang in silence over Brittany in the middle of a flash mob any day. “Glee” needs to take the advice it has Will give Mercedes early in the episode: "It's not about doing your best anymore. It's about doing better." Last week showed it can do better. Let’s see if it can do so going forth.
More thoughts about tonight’s episode:
*** As I thought last week, Rachel and Kurt have come to blow over their respective ambitions. However, I was beyond thrilled to see Kurt happy to support Blaine as the lead in “West Side Story.” I thought Rachel/Blaine working together would be the source of the conflict, but having the two would-be Broadway stars fighting over the student council puts them into direct conflict. Much better. Even it makes me wish Rachel would walk into incoming traffic.
*** Now that Coach Beiste is getting actual screen time, the random lines given to her seem a part of her character, not just random jokes given to Dot Jones. Also? I like that she’s as overworked as Mike Chang in this episode. The idea that everyone on this show would be struggling to make ends meet, and therefore would be doing 15 things a day in order to keep up with life, makes sense.
*** Will is an Awful Character, Volume 89: He takes credit for Mercedes’ stellar audition for “West Side Story.” Ugh.
*** No Sue tonight, save a quick shot mid-rally. At least she didn’t have to preside over another Britney Spears sex riot. So there’s that.
*** Finn fans cannot be happy about how marginalized his character has become this year. He’s all but holding Rachel’s purse while she preens at this point.
*** On one hand, I’m unhappy I didn’t get to see Santana audition for Anita. On the other hand, did we really need to see it? Who else could possibly play that role?
*** Worst out-of-context line of the night: “I don't have any clue what I'm doing down here, but I'm willing to learn."
What did you think of “Asian F”? A continuation of last week’s excellence, or a slide back into mediocrity? Should the show stick with its focus on its original core characters, or should people like Mike and Brittany be the real focus? Is there any way to redeem the continued presence of the adults in this show? Sound off below!
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