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.
- 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).