Glee – “Asian F”

“Asian F”

October 4th, 2011

You’re going to read a lot of reviews of “Asian F” which reference its problematic elements, and they are all correct. Will and Emma’s storyline, in particular, is one of those instances where a serious subject is treated as dramatic without being treated seriously, with bizarre caricatures (Emma’s parents) mixing with some problematic characterization (with Will offering to fix Emma, basically). While I’m glad the show isn’t created obstacles for the couple on a macro scale, regressing Emma is not particularly productive, and the entire storyline felt like it was happening in a different show entirely.

Of course, this isn’t uncommon for Glee. In fact, “Asian F” as a whole sort of exists in these different shows, simultaneously indulging in introspective looks at particular characters (Mike and Mercedes), large-scale numbers (Brittany’s “Run the World (Girls)” and the group sing of “Fix You”), and even some storyline continuity with the casting of West Side Story. In truth, there is little to no cohesion in these storylines, and their effectiveness is decidedly mixed, and yet I still think “Asian F” is a strong step forward for the show.

At the very least, it indicates that Glee is willing to try things, which is a good thing even if they don’t particularly work.

The Mike Chang side of tonight’s storyline is transcendent. Yes, the show plays fast and loose with some Asian parent stereotypes, and some of the elements of resolution (like his Mother having also dreamed of being a dancer) crossed the line into hyper-sentimentality, but this felt like a real coming out party for Harry Shum Jr. We can’t exactly call it a character arc, given that it encompasses a grand total of maybe three episodes (“Duets,” “Asian F,” with arguably his half-hearted attempt at playing Frankenfurter in “Rocky Horror” in between), but there is something very real about Mike’s struggle to make something of himself. It’s so effective because it suggests story that we haven’t actually seen, mirroring Shum Jr.’s rise from random background dancer to showcase dancer to legitimate song/dance man in Mike’s own off-screen efforts at self-improvement. “Asian F” effortlessly pulled Mike into the ongoing narrative thread of characters facing their futures, and on some level the relative simplicity of the character’s background allowed for a really straightforward and effective story. He was allowed quiet moments of introspection (those great mirror sequences), large displays of skill (his performance of “Cool”), and came through as a distilled look at a high school student realizing a dream and charting a course for his future.

The episode around him, of course, was more convoluted, but I’d argue that it was governed by similar principles. Mercedes’ storyline is problematic less because of what happens in the episode, which I will actually defend, and more because of disservices done to the character in the past. Whereas Mike Chang has never really been a character of note, Mercedes was early in the series, and so her subsequent marginalization has been both more noticeable and more concerning. As such, her sudden transformation into Effie White (to the point where she ends up in a fantasy version of “It’s All Over”) was a welcome return of the character to the forefront of the narrative despite the fact that it was, indeed, a bit jarring stylistically.

However, I’m a defender of musical numbers that offer insight into the character’s frame of mind, and once it became clear what they were going for – which they even foreshadowed with Mercedes performing Jennifer Hudson’s “Spotlight” – I was more or less on board. I do think that there are some problems with Mercedes taking the victim position, both in terms of exaggerating Will’s expectations and in terms of Amber Riley’s ability to play the victim without falling into villain territory (as I don’t think the show would be best served turning Shelby’s rival club into anything beyond friendly rivals), but I think the end result worked.

What the episode struggled with, I would argue, was in mapping out the characters in more nuanced fashions as they intersected with this storyline. Rachel’s panicked attempt at running for student council was just plain forced, and the entire audition process became overly complicated with the Diva-Off and everything else in between. I know what the show was going for, recreating the “Defying Gravity” moment from “Wheels” that was so effectively, but “back to basics” needs something more than repeating the same patterns, and neither Rachel nor Mercedes had the same clear sense of purpose as Kurt had in that story. Ian Brennan, who scripted the episode, just sort of got lost in trying to connect the dots at some point – these stories would have been better off running concurrently, and the show is at its worst when it becomes needlessly complicated (either by back stories or by the attempt to pull stories together for no real reason).

Yes, the Will and Emma storyline was pretty terrible and the random appearance of Sue in Brittany’s “Run the World (Girls)” number was enough to get me rolling my eyes at that character’s position in the series, but I don’t mind parts of the show standing in isolation. When they eventually brought together the various stories in that final montage, with Blaine and Kurt’s story (dropped this week, ruining the cliffhanger we noted last week) getting picked up alongside Mike and Rachel (and the barely mentioned Santana obviously slotting into the role of Anita in a case of blunt typecasting), I felt the season’s momentum hadn’t been squandered. “Asian F” might have been uneven, but the production of West Side Story remains a central space in which multiple storylines I care about to varying degrees are converging, and the idea of Mercedes anchoring the other glee club was rushed but logical.

I’m past the point where I expect Glee episodes to be even: instead, all I really want is something to latch onto. With “Asian F,” Mike’s storyline mixed with the plot-related momentum that (after some messiness) was recaptured quite nicely by the casting announcement were more than enough to suggest that the show isn’t in the rudderless place it was last season. The person in charge of the rudder might still be distracted, and we’ll see how the new rudder operators start fitting in next week, but the very presence of a rudder is honestly a real step forward to the show.

Which is silly, I know, but that’s Glee.

Cultural Observations

  • While I saw “Asian F” in advance, this week was still pretty busy, so this is shorter than usual. In future weeks, I may not have advance access at all, so reviews will likely arrive later on Tuesday.
  • Some colleagues of mine were concerned about the dance capabilities of the show related to West Side Story, but I think casting Mike is going to be helpful. Also helpful is randomly having Santana return, although I honestly hadn’t even remembered her leaving so long as we’re being honest, so it didn’t really bug me.
  • I think we’re due for the arrival of Damian from The Glee Project next week, which is definitely a driving interest for me. Logic has him moving to New Directions (to allow for a more substantial arc), but it’s possible he ends up with Shelby as well. I like the dynamism the two clubs give them, especially since (as noted above) they seem to be avoiding turning Shelby into a villain figure.
  • It seems we need to apply a new expectation of continuity on the show: if it gets picked up two episodes later, it still counts as continuous. Quinn and Puck’s situation with Shelby was entirely left out of tonight’s episode, but I’m fine if the show picks it up next week (which they may or may not do – I haven’t seen the preview for next week).
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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Glee – “Asian F”

  1. Matt

    Nice write-up. I largely agree with what you say but I found the whole Kurt subplot where he wasn’t ‘manly’ enough to play the lead in a musical ridiculous. Have the writers ever seen an musical performed on stage? Has Tony ever NOT been played by a gay man? Ok that’s a little extreme but you get the point.

    • But he’s NOT manly enough. And then compared to Blaine?

    • Tim

      Tony has been played by both gay and straight men (Richard Beymer in the film version and Matt Cavenaugh in the 2009 Broadway version come to mind as regards the straight orientation). The point is manliness, not sexual orientation (Blaine’s audition, as opposed to Kurt’s, is highly illustrative). Only the extremely politically correct would argue that the ability to project this trait doesn’t matter in a role that portrays a heterosexual teen gang member.

  2. Tausif Khan

    I really would like to see a review from on How I Met Your Mother. HIMYM is equally ambitious in its genre blending and attempts to play with structure. It has also fallen of the rails and trying to find itself again, trying to return to its core while growing. It would be interesting to hear your take on what is going on with that show and whether or not you can still love it like Bowman and Sepinwall clearly do.

  3. I thought that the show was on hiatus for a few weeks while Fox airs sports instead. Damian from TGP is in the next episode, but I think that we have to wait until the beginning of November to see it. I’d love to be wrong, though :)

  4. As a fellow hetero-dude Glee viewer, I was curious to see what you would say about Heather Morris’s performance. I couldn’t look away.

  5. Tim

    Myles, good job. My gut reaction to the Will/Emma storyline was very different from yours, but I admit that may just be because of the inspired casting of her parents and the ironic silliness of the “Ginger supremacist” gag. Her prayers and Will’s inept attempts to join her both seemed strongly in character – she was childlike but not childish in her faith, which I thought was a significantly nuanced performance. And “Fix You” was a strong choral arrangement (I heard definite influences from last year’s group a cappella performance on the finale of The Sing-Off; the two shows seem to be trading those influences more and more lately).
    I actually found the whole “Diva-off” storyline MUCH more problematic, in so many ways. The biggest: the auditions seem to be conducted without any regard toward the ability to act! I don’t care whether Mercedes is a marginally better singer than Rachel on one song – West Side Story is a musical, but it’s not an opera; does ANYONE believe that Mercedes would be anywhere near Rachel’s league in acting, not to mention the fact that we already know she can’t dance (has anyone other than Zach Woodlee actually SEEN West Side Story)? Now this wouldn’t bother me nearly so much if it weren’t for Rachel’s reaction to the competition; she of all people would protest that very thing. She would never have assumed she should or even could have lost. This is yet another evidence that we have a show about art from people who do not understand that art, in the same way that they ludicrously assumed last season that a group of high schoolers writing their own songs would impress either judges or audiences in choral competition. Beyond that, of course, is the wacky assertion that performing a song from the play itself is somehow a less appropriate vehicle to compete for a part in that play – almost amazing that I now consider that a relatively minor annoyance. The whole thing just seems like a contrivance to get Mercedes into the rival club (good) and Rachel into the race for class president (stupid).
    You used the perfect word for the Mike Chang storyline: transcendent, indeed. This level of heart keeps me coming back even though the show infuriates me at times.
    By now, you may have seen the ads for November’s return, including exactly what I predicted (and hoped) regarding Sue’s competition for Congress: someone far more dangerous for Sue than Will ever could be. Won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen them yet.

  6. Melkee

    Took me a while to sit down and write this as my head was still spinning from episode #3 (not really, just busy!). I am going to borrow from you, Myles. I am as committed to this series as I feel conflicted about it. I cannot pinpoint exactly what creates that dissonance. Maybe it’s the impression that the writers are attempting to do too much or that this particular episode made me feel I was watching a soap opera (and I dislike soaps). Maybe I am just getting into this new approach to presenting the stories. But, I have to admit, Asian F kind of made me dizzy. There were too many things going on at the same time and I didn’t totally fall for the storylines and what the characters were going through. I still like Glee and there are so many things I am looking forward to seeing unravel. But I am still hoping for a lighter, more fun show. It’s getting a bit too melodramatic, at times, for my taste. I just want to watch Glee because it is as silly as it is entertaining. On this note, I have to add that the Emma and Will scene, though well acted by Jayma Mays, not so much by Matthew Morrison, just made me wish for more scenes with the “kids” and their own teenage drama and fewer scenes with the grown ups. Well, let’s see how stories and character development continue to unfold in three weeks when one of the Glee Project winners makes his debut.

    • I don’t know if the word ‘ironic’ is correct – but how ironic is it the thing that many thought would destroy the show (adding new characters and removing old ones) would be the thing to save it?

      I, too, miss the days when the biggest issues the glee club had to deal with was whether or not their picture ends up in the yearbook. But inevitably, the longer a series is on the air, stories and plots become more intertwined and convoluted. This was largely absent from season two, which is why the show feels very busy. I think, despite it’s flaws, the pay off for each episode has been worth the work. Whether is was Blaine’s audition or Mercedes moving to another glee club (let’s look past the fact that there are now TWO clubs at the same school), the resolution of each episode creates momentum for the next , and the overall storyline for the series this season.

      • Melkee

        Andrew, I liked your comment on how they are building momentum. Let’s see how they continue to handle it all as the season progresses. On one hand, I am glad there will be no new episodes this month as I’ll be (already am) too busy to watch. On the other, that’s three long weeks without my addictive dose of Glee. Guess, Sue Sylvester was right. It’s like crack.

  7. AO

    Usually, I pretty much agree with everything you say Myles. But not so much here.

    I think that you nail it from an on-paper/theoretical perspective, but imo, the reality of the show is something else. For me, Glee has lost pretty much all of it’s charisma, all of the emotional resonance. That’s usually the biggest factor for me in whether or not I like a program and to see it completely absent (again imo) is quite surprising and a high hurdle to overcome.

    It’s a strange contradiction for me. Moreso than at any tinme in the past, the show is giving me more logical and sensible story lines, which is something thaty I’ve always hoped fpr, but it’s absolutely not working out as I’d planned. My interest is now pretty close to zero. It also doesn’t help that I’m not often a fan of Broadway music. I dont hate it, and some I do enjoy, but often times that aspect leaves me pretty cold as well.

  8. Didi

    I felt like this was one of the strongest episodes of the season and maybe even for the show. I thought they were able to juggle many character storylines without it seeming forced or random. I am mixed in terms of the “Diva-off” scene. It was a back and forth for me. I like the idea of Mercedes breaking out of the marginalization that the character has been stuck in for an incredibly long period; however, the catalyst being her boyfriend who basically suggested she not be friends with someone she has been friends marred it for me. It was manipulative and I didn’t like it. However, I also like that Rachel actually was able to admit that she was not better than her competition. I think it was growth for her character. I don’t deny that Rachel would be amazing as Maria, and her audition song was in my opinion infinitely better than Mercedes’. However, in On My Own, I thought Mercedes was better. I also have a problem with the lack of compassion that the rest of Glee club has for Mercedes in this episode. Granted, this could all be perceived by Mercedes and not necessarily a reality (which brings up other concerns). But this was an original member who Kurt, Tina, and even Artie turned on. I don’t feel that Mercedes deserved that, especially after essentially being the one that seemed the most concerned with the other members in other episodes. It just felt left field. Not one member takes Mercedes side that the Glee club perpetuates the stereotypes that they are supposed to be fighting (anti-marginalization). I’m looking at you Tina Cohen-Chang who barely gets one line in an episode these days. And also, hi, Will, you do tend to give a lot of solos to the same characters without any rationale or giving other members a chance to shine. It is a club and he is a coach, why not pick songs that showcase all your talent and perhaps attempts some equity? While this episode had problems, I was glad that it at least seemed more balanced in terms of character depiction and storytime. I can only hope that the writers continue to write for all their characters and not just their pet characters.

  9. Pingback: 2011: The Year That Wasn’t – Glee | Cultural Learnings

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