Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The RBI Report: "Asian F"

Before "Asian F" even hit our TV screens, it was already being proclaimed as one of the best episodes Glee has ever done.  So, did it hit that mark, or miss it completely?

"Asian F," written by Ian Brennan, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejón

"Asian F" saw several characters rotate through to the forefront that don't normally get the spotlight: mainly Mercedes Jones, Mike Chang, and to lesser degrees, Emma Pillsbury and Brittany Pierce.  On paper, this sounds like a certifiable way to win me over!  I love all four characters dearly and the lack of screentime for Mercedes and Mike in particular has been both befuddling and aggravating, considering the talent levels of the actors portraying them.

When it's all said and done, though, this episode belonged to Mike Chang.  Mike got an A- on his chemistry test, which is, of course, an "Asian F," and his overbearing and academically-oriented father insisted that he quit glee club to focus on his studies.  Firstly, this worked because we've never seen Mike have to choose between his passion and what he "should" do; whereas most of the other characters have confronted it at least once.  With Mike, this felt fresh, and it fleshed him out in a realistic way that simultaneously allowed him to shine.

Secondly, we got to see Mike's relationship with his parents, which was, of course, designed somewhat around Asian stereotypes - his father finds little value in the arts and has high expectations of him.  But finally, Glee let the storyline transcend the stereotype, and presented a situation where Mike's mother stepped in and supported his dream.  If this weren't a fantastic choice enough, we were also treated to the notion that Mrs. Chang gave up her own dream once upon a time - and it was the same dream as Mike's.  Cue heartwrenchingly sweet mother-son dance scene, and me needing a box of tissues.

In the end, Mike made a choice, to try out for Riff and show off his singing skills as well as his dancing skills, and embraced his future as an artist instead of a lawyer or doctor.  Hugs all around!  Mike's participation in "Asian F" was excellent.

Unfortunately, Mercedes' storyline wasn't nearly so well-handled.  There are several problems working against the writers' decisions in this arena, and it's a bummer because they really came close to hitting the right notes and just missed them, and bringing Mercedes into the spotlight therefore just results in clunky writing and double standards.

Mercedes' participation in "Asian F" was largely defined by her inferiority complex towards Rachel Berry, who, rather unfairly, hardly had any part in the episode.  This is the first problem, which of course spawns several other little problems.  If you're going to claim that Mercedes is in Rachel's shadow, then actually place her in her shadow.  I'm not buying that it's the Rachel Berry Show when Rachel's hardly in the episode in any real way, and when she is, she keeps trying to hug Mercedes.  (How dare she!)

Secondly, characters with inferiority complexes are tricky, and they tend to be much more likeable when they silently bear that burden and thus shift into tragic territory.  Because when they get petty about feeling inferior, they lose likeability.  No matter how much Mercedes can belt against Rachel, if she's petty about the situation, I'm less likely to be on her side.  In the case of Mike, his storyline was about his identity, which rings genuine.  But Mercedes' was about ambition and attention, and those are double-edged blades.

The third issue with this is the nagging thought that no matter how much Mercedes complains about being second to Rachel, I will always immediately think that it's the writers who made it that way.  Mercedes hasn't had a decent storyline handled even remotely well, and her character has been reduced to sassy black girl stereotypes, complete with a catchphrase.  The only reason that Mercedes has ever been in Rachel's shadow is because the writers neglect her.  So when they try and play up Mercedes' inferiority to Rachel, I can't help but think: Well, you wrote it that way.  And truthfully, they've also unwritten it by making the girls friends, and it's annoying to see them "diva-off" and disintegrate their own friendship.

The choice to make Mercedes and Rachel go diva over Maria irks me as well because we had three competition-based conflicts in "Asian F" - one between Kurt and Blaine for Tony, one between Kurt and Brittany for Senior Class President, and one between Mercedes and Rachel for Maria.  Which one resulted in the most conflict?  The one with the two diva girls.  Kurt and Blaine's conflict fizzled out completely as Kurt supported Blaine for the role, and Kurt and Brittany's competition played out in isolated instances without any bitchy direct conflict.  Yet, Rachel and Mercedes were burdened with some serious antagonism and pride issues, and the latent sexism and also the fact that we've seen this before made me tired of it before it even began.

Finally, the last issue I take with Mercedes' storyline is that it was it was motivated by her boyfriend, Shane.  Yes, I like that he wants her to be the best and supports her, and blah blah blah.  But here's the thing.  We barely know this guy.  It'd be one thing if it were Finn supporting Rachel or Kurt supporting Blaine, or Tina supporting Mike (and all three were represented in the episode) because we know enough about these relationships, and for the most part they're composed of main characters in equal part.  But Shane?  Shane's a new guy, and a new supporting role.  For New Guy to stroll in and say, "Baby, she's your arch-nemesis; you should stand up for yourself," and for Mercedes to therefore switch gears from "It's not like that," to "Hell yes I think I will!" is, well... it doesn't make me love New Guy.  It weakens Mercedes' decision entirely, because New Guy didn't provide encouragement so much as the reason for her storyline.  And this does nothing to convince me that this is an effective attempt to give Mercedes the spotlight in a thematic and character-driven way.

Okay, now that it's clear how I feel about the choices for Mercedes in this episode, I will say that there were some great moments with her arc, in execution.  I absolutely loved that Mercedes now has a running thematic connection to Dreamgirls in the way that Kurt does to Gypsy and Rachel does to Funny Girl.  "It's All Over," as a sequence, was fantastic.  Perhaps if Mercedes' arc was more in keeping with this scene, it would have played better - perhaps if she was less concerned with Rachel specifically, and more so her place in glee club as a whole, this would have worked better.  Because I loved seeing all the Glee gang interact with Mercedes in "It's All Over," and it was a great musical-style cutaway to a fantasy sequence.  Wonderful!

In the end, it was ironic that Mercedes felt she was second to Rachel Berry, because the writers wrote her exactly like they wrote the original, pre-development Rachel Berry.  She bitched about not getting what she wanted, and cut off her nose to spite her face, refusing to share a role and walking off the club to join Shelby's group.  While I can't say I'm not interested to see what this will bring about, I wish the writers had chosen a better way for Mercedes to get to this point.  

"Asian F" also gave us a continuation on Brittany and Kurt's campaigns for Senior Class President.  Brittany, with Santana's backup, is putting forth a pro-lady campaign, completely with a seriously kickass group number to Beyoncé's "Run The World (Girls)."  Sure, it didn't really fit in this episode, but who's going to complain about Heather Morris leading a giant troupe of dancing women in an expression of female empowerment?  Not this moi, that's for sure.

In that vein, though, I do think that this episode had a bit too much on its plate.  The conflict derived from the West Side Story auditions, as well as the rather intricate fallout with Finn, Kurt, and Rachel, really could have taken up the entire hour.  As it was, Rachel didn't get much investment in the episode, other than to be desperate about accomplishing something her Senior Year, acting as both an antagonist in Mercedes' and then Kurt's storylines.  It's something of a shame, especially considering that Rachel specifically cited being affected by Brittany's "Run The World" performance, and I felt such a pang of sympathy for her when she said she was inspired by it that it would have been nice for that to come into play at some point in a plot, either to mend bridges with Mercedes, or build one with Brittany.

Not only that, but the Will/Emma storyline in this was seriously out of place.  It's hard to deny this storyline its due, mostly because of Jayma Mays' stellar performance in it, but for that reason I also think it could have fit better in another episode, given a little more room to breathe.  Will invited Emma's parents over to meet him, and it turns out they are Ginger Supremacists (WTF?) who nitpick every little thing (Emma included) and flare up Emma's OCD.  I'm a little on the fence about this one, largely because of the redheaded racism (seriously, WTF?) and also the backtracking over Emma's original early experience with OCD, which was that she fell in a vat of unpasteurized cow's milk (as stated in "Showmance.")

But, Jayma Mays seriously rocked out this storyline, playing just the right amount of endearing avoidance (telling Will her parents are dead, and her phone call was to her ghost parents; trying to use a burst ovarian cyst as an excuse to send her parents away - "Works every time!") to pave the way for a real and true moment of her trying to cope with her stresses.  The line about God hearing her better on her knees (something about the acoustics of the linoleum) just killed me.  Even if it felt jarring with the rest of the episode, the dialogue in Emma's storyline was superb - by far the best in an hour that teetered dangerously on verbally heavy-handed.

In the end, the West Side Story audition arc came to a close, with Santana winning the role of Anita, Blaine getting Tony, Rachel defaulting to Maria, and Mike winning the part of Riff.  Bring on the next part of the process!  Because, really, the conceit that they're putting on a school musical as a multi-episode arc is a great way to keep characters involved in the same thing, with plenty of opportunity for conflict along the way.  Smart move, writers!  I'm game!  (Even though West Side Story is really not one of my more favorite shows.  But I'll live.)

Final note: Alfonso Gomez-Rejón continues to impress me with some solid creative directing.  He last knocked my socks off for the shot direction in "Born This Way," and "Asian F" was actually a little gem in cinematography and editing.  The scenes with Mike interacting with spectral versions of his father and Tina were ridiculously well done, and the transition to "It's All Over" was divine.  Not only that, but the "Maria-Off" was sharply assembled, and I must say - this man knows how to construct a sequence.  Hats off!

On the whole, "Asian F" wasn't the best episode Glee's done, being somewhat overstuffed and hallmarked by some confusing character choices, but at the same time it provided meaningful moments and its fair share of great character work as well.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A+
Dialogue: C
Plot: B
Characterization: B
Episode MVP: Mike Chang.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again for a great recap! You're one of the few re-cappers with astute storytelling insight and this recap was no exception :)

    Boy so many cast members were fantastic in this episode (Jayma, Heather, Matt, Amber), but for me, Harry stole the episode. While he's a decent singer, it's his sheer CHARISMA that keeps me captivated whenever he's on screen. I really hope they use him more this season because he's too talented to not showcase.

    With that said, I'm so happy this episode showcased those characters with less screentime, but it's a shame they crammed all of them into this one episode. I also wish they saved Emma's storyline for a later episode to give it more focus (But I'll never say no to a Britney dance number. Who run this world? Heather Morris apparently.)

    And again, I completely agree with you on how the writers handled Mike and Mercedes' storylines. Both had major potential but only Mike's truly succeeded. Once again, the writers have shown they have little idea on what to do with the female characters outside of conflict with other female characters. -____- You made an interesting point about how Glee is essentially about stereotypes, yet very often they don't transcend them. I'd be highly interested to hear your thoughts about the portrayal of race and ethnicity on Glee. I don't think there's enough material to devote an entire week to the subject like your Glee and Gender series, but even a post or two could spark some very interesting discussion.

    Lastly, I have to disagree with you on one minor point. While I agree that handling characters with inferiority complexes are tricky, I don’t think the issue with Mercedes should be that she comes across as ‘likeable’, despite her inferiority complex. I’m more concerned that she comes off as three-dimensional and most importantly, compelling. Now, what constitutes what a likeable or compelling character is highly subjective but I think we can both agree that for Mercedes, rehashing the same tired diva conflict with Rachel is not doing favors for Mercedes in either category. If Mike’s storyline can transcend stereotypes, why can’t Mercedes?
    Phew! This was way longer than I intended it to be! But on an optimistic note, the musical performances were stellar. If there’s one thing I can count on Glee for, it’s always a great song-and-dance number. :D


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