B+

Glee: “Asian F”

Glee’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness is that it has a lot of characters, and none of them are so well-defined as to defy those who might want to watch the show and find someone to identify with among the cast. The characters are more pure archetypes than anything else, like the kids in Peanuts or something. When you put a bunch of them into particular situations, you roughly know what you’re going to get. That’s problematic if you want the characters to gain dimensions and evolve as the show goes along, but it works out all right if you want to provoke the sorts of gut-level emotional reactions Glee usually goes for. One of the big problems with season two was that the show misplaced about half of the cast, and if you weren’t particularly a fan of Kurt or someone who could identify strongly with him, well, there wasn’t a whole lot for you to hold on to.

Glee is a Rorschach show, a show that invites you to read your own experiences into it. This doesn’t mean that the characters are complete blank slates, but they’re specifically kept a little vague to increase the show’s universality. One of my favorite things to do is compare this show to Community, and it’s interesting to see how that show dimensionalized its characters as time went on—and lost viewers—while Glee worked as hard as possible to keep the characters from getting too complex, lest they lose some of the bright, pop energy that invited viewers into the world initially. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either approach, but when you’re making a Rorschach show, you’d better have a wealth of experiences to draw from, because there are only so many ways to invite the audience into the world. (High school shows often succeed at being Rorschach shows simply because everybody’s been through adolescence, and the genre can coast on recognition.)

Inevitably, this means that Glee turns to one of the most irritating storylines in its set number of storylines: Someone leaves the glee club because they’re in conflict with Mr. Schu or someone else in the group. It’s a storyline the show had beaten into the ground in the first half of season one, and it’s a storyline the show really can’t keep returning to. And yet it does, again and again. In just the first two episodes this season, we saw Santana and Quinn dally with leaving the group (and in the latter case, the show seemed to set up Quinn joining Shelby’s glee club before it decided not to go that way), and as this episode starts, Santana’s a part of the group again with only a couple of spare lines of dialogue to indicate something ever happened. It’d be fine if the show realized how big of a joke this is, but it apparently doesn’t, since the crux of tonight’s episode revolves around Mercedes—the girl whose last storyline was about how much she likes tater tots—leaving the club because nobody takes her seriously.

Improbably, this somehow works. The best part of the episode is the Mercedes storyline, which is all about how she now feels appreciated—because she has a boyfriend, sigh—and so she’s willing to take on Rachel for the role of Maria (and, actually, beat her) and push for what she feels is rightfully hers, which involves more respect from New Directions. The boiling point comes when she’s at one of Mr. Schu’s dancin’ boot camps, which results in her being unable to do the “most difficult” show choir move of them all, something called The Widowmaker. Her ankle hurts, so she begs off, but Will keeps pushing her to be “better” than her best, so she storms out. If she leaves the room, she’s out of the glee club, Will says, a threat that’s stopping bearing any actual threat long ago, but whatever. She goes. She rejects the idea of a double-casted Maria, not wanting to share the spotlight with Rachel. She joins Shelby’s group. Also, in the middle of all of this, the glee club performs a number from Dreamgirls more or less in character from the show, with lyrics changed to fit the situation. It’s simultaneously daring and pretty weird, but that’s the best space this show exists in, much of the time.

The Mercedes storyline—out of nowhere as it is—manages to do some legitimately exciting things, and if Shelby’s glee club is going to exist just to give the characters who are unhappy about their current standing in New Directions somewhere to go, it still doesn’t make a lot of sense as a plot device, but at least it won’t constantly involve Sugar singing. So that’s something, I guess. But I liked that the episode played around with ideas of entitlement, with who should be in which roles and with what happens when those who’ve been comfortable playing support realize they don’t really need to be playing supporting parts. Mercedes probably did deserve the role of Maria. Rachel’s a more classical fit for the part, but she also was coasting, complacent and certain she’d get the part. Mercedes gave it her all, but in the end, it was hard for those casting to envision giving her the part as something other than a brief token of how good she was.

So should she take that token? The strength of “Asian F” is that it creates fairly strong arguments in both directions, just as it allows those who’d pick Rachel for the part of Maria an out. (The sequence where the two auditioned, and the camera kept cutting between them, was quite strong, particularly on an editing level.) Ultimately, it’s easy to understand why Mercedes does what she does, even if it’s regrettable to watch her do it. There’s some more clumsy retconning here—Mercedes has gotten out of the way because she was willing to pay her dues or something—and I really don’t like the notion that she’s abruptly got all of this confidence (confidence she had way back in season one) simply because she has a boyfriend. But that’s not really a huge matter. This is a nicely done storyline, and I’m intrigued by what it seems to be setting up.

At the same time, the show is setting up another big conflict between two characters most viewers like, having Kurt take on Brittany for senior class president and giving compelling arguments to both of them. In this case, the idea of being a token—a symbol of something more progressive than the status quo, but only that—is meant to work in Brittany’s favor. Her platform seems to consist entirely of the fact that there hasn’t been a girl president in an awfully long time, and in that time, the country has gotten worse and worse. (This scene is nonsensical but largely funny.) Kurt, on the other hand, has something he’s actually fighting for, a dream of creating a school that would be a good one for gay—or just different—students such as himself. It’s not as though Brittany would be actively against such a thing, but the show effectively gives good reasons for both characters to get the job. (I may be slightly biased here, since Brittany being senior class president would surely mean more Heather Morris dancing, right?)

The other major student storyline involves Mike Chang, who gets caught in the latest version of the “my parents just don’t understand my art” storyline this show has pulled every once in a while. The “Asian F” of the title refers to an A- he got on a chemistry test, an A- that his father informs him is simply unacceptable. He’s going to Harvard, like it or not, and if that means he has to quit glee club and break up with Tina, well, he’s going to do that. Now, this is Glee, so you know exactly where this is going—turns out that Mike’s mom wanted to be a dancer once upon a time too! Aw!—but it’s handled effectively, for the most part. It’s the spine of the episode, the idea, again, that someone shouldn’t be something just because they’re expected to be that. And Mike’s belief that he really can do it all certainly fits in with the show’s overall ethos that people just need to believe in themselves and everything will be all right, yippee. Mike’s dad probably didn’t need to be an overbearing Asian father stereotype, but, hey, you can’t have everything, and it’s always fun to watch Mike Chang do his thing. Also, he’s apparently a better singer now, which is why he lands the role of Riff.

I want to talk about the montage of the kids finding out who was cast in West Side before we get to the thing in the episode that was so bad that it drags this whole thing down a point. Set to the wordless bridge of Coldplay’s “Fix You” (no, I know), it might be the best thing the show has ever done. Those are pretty bold words, but as a silent piece of purely visual storytelling, it got at emotions of elation and disappointment like this show does at its absolute best, and it did so in a way that heightened the emotion of the episode and really made me want to see what came next. Cutting from Mike’s elation to Santana’s “of course I got the part” face to Blaine’s excitement (coupled with Kurt’s attempts to appear supportive but barely masked disappointment) to Rachel realizing everything that had happened to give her the part, it captured the feelings the episode meant to inspire as well as anything else, and it did so in a way that was legitimately moving. (If nothing else, Coldplay writes great underscoring music.)

Of course, everything then cut to Will dressed in white with the rest of the glee club behind him as he sang the actual song, directed at his girlfriend, whom he’s going to try to fix, I guess. (I’m not sure I got the point here. IT WAS REALLY SUBTLE, YOU KNOW?) I don’t have a problem with the show tackling Emma’s OCD—or its roots—head-on, but the show has always treated it as alternately a goofy character quirk and something Emma just needs to “overcome,” so it’s not immediately clear anybody involved realizes this is a serious psychological disorder they’re writing about here. The whole Will and Emma storyline was a mess, from the way that the opening verses of “Fix You” were shot, so the camera kept jumping around the bedroom to different angles, no rhyme or reason to the editing, to the fact that Emma’s parents are, uh, ginger supremacists, which is one of those big, goofy things Glee does because it thinks we’re all going to talk about how it’s soooooo funny the next morning, but, really, it’s just stupid, and everybody cringes as it happens.

Shows sometimes trap themselves with plots that don’t really work for ongoing story arcs, with character beats that make it problematic to do new things. Glee even had one of those in Tina’s stutter—one that it completely dropped for mostly unbelievable reasons—so it clearly knows how to get out of a situation like this. But overcoming Emma’s OCD would require lots and lots of painstaking psychotherapy, and it’s not immediately clear that Glee wants to try to smoosh a half-hour of In Treatment in with the rest of its wacky blend of genres (though I’m sure Gabriel Byrne would appreciate the work). I fear the show is heading down a path where Emma overcomes her issues via the all-consuming power of Will’s love, and that’s going to really suck. There’s just no good way out for the show, and I’m sort of impressed they’re even trying to deal with the issues, instead of just pretending they don’t exist. But this episode—despite featuring Don Most and Valerie Mahaffey doing their very best to make this play—just didn’t figure out a way to make any of it work.

On the other hand, though, “Asian F” is a very strong episode following up an episode that was almost as strong. The show is finally picking up long-dormant plotlines and utilizing the whole of its cast better, and it’s no longer relying exclusively on the Top 40 charts for its musical moments. What’s more, the focus—as it should be—is squarely on the kids and their hopes and dreams (aside from every week’s unfortunate Schu plot). “Asian F” has its share of problems, but it’s realized that the core of the show is heightened emotion, performed by archetypes, offered up in moments of raw energy and passion. So long as the show keeps to that formula, it just might salvage itself yet.

Stray observations:

  • It’s another good Glee episode featuring no Sue, to go along with last season’s “Duets” and “Silly Love Songs.” The character really adds nothing to the show at this point, much as I like Jane Lynch.
  • I’m enjoying Coach Beiste’s wacky enthusiasm about just about everything that happens this season. I wouldn’t mind if she gradually became the only adult character. Marry Will and Emma off and send Sue to Congress, then let Beiste teach every single class.
  • The week’s latest “PEOPLE HATE THE ARTS!” paranoia: Mike’s involvement in glee club wouldn’t be a benefit on his Harvard application and would, instead, be a detriment? What?
  • Just tell us about the songs, VanDerWerff, God: I continue to find “Girls (Run The World)” a singularly irritating piece of music, but I enjoyed the ginormous production number built around it quite a bit. Actually, there was a lot of music in this episode, and I think the only song that really didn’t work for me was the first Mercedes number, which was fine, sure, but was pretty much just there to sell singles. Again, the Dreamgirls number felt a lot like someone’s Michael Bennett/Glee crossover fan-fic, but I kind of enjoyed it on that level of ridiculousness.
  • Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: Please. I don’t even need to do this section this week. You guys can pretty much fill in my disgusting commentary for yourselves.
  • This was another pretty good Rachel episode, actually. The Internet apparently hates her, but I think the show is doing a good job of rehabilitating her character this season. Finn, on the other hand…
  • Puck is the first person who’s tapped out of the Widowmaker training process. He’s a better dancer than he’s letting on, people!
  • Theory for why Glee is less popular this year: Sure, the show was kind of terrible a lot of the time last season, but that's never stopped America from embracing a TV show before. I think it's the fact that there's much less Top 40 pop here than there was last season.
  • "And yeah, Kurt LOOKS like Jimmy Fallon's butch daughter..."

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