Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The RBI Report: "The Spanish Teacher"

Before I get into tonight's recap, it must be said that I actually watched "The Spanish Teacher" with my mother, who is, in fact, a Spanish teacher.  Like Will, she is not a native speaker.  Unlike Will, she actually speaks the language and is a good teacher.  So, needless to say, experiencing this episode with her was hilarious because she was pretty outraged at Will's behavior, cover-to-cover.  (But honestly, ever since Matt Morrison failed to roll his Rs at some point early in the first season, she's been dubious.  She also likes to complain about how Burt Hummel just walks onto campus like he owns the place and doesn't seem to get a visitor badge from the attendance office.  But that's neither here nor there.)

"The Spanish Teacher," written by Ian Brennan, directed by Paris Barclay

Truthfully, you don't have to be a Spanish teacher, Spanish speaker, or even know exactly where Spain is on a map to be outraged at certain parts of last night's episode.  And isn't it terrible (and telling, frankly) that we weren't sure if Glee was going to acknowledge how offensive it was being?  After souring episodes like "Mash Off" and "I Kissed a Girl," we couldn't be sure if dictionary-translating a long-lost Elvis song and choreographing a mariachi'd bullfight was really supposed to be an appropriate and realistic love letter to Spanish-speaking cultures.

But luckily, the offensive parts were highlighted as being genuinely offensive, and most of the wrongs committed were righted by episode's end.  How rewarding!  And, let's face it, unusual.

And what was so unexpected about the whole thing was how committed the writing was to portraying Will Schuester, Spanish teacher, and erstwhile hero to many people's lives, as a complete idiot.  He's a Spanish teacher who doesn't speak Spanish!  Demonstrably, on screen!  He legitimately does not know things a Spanish teacher should know!  It took me the first ten minutes of this episode to even just pick my jaw up off the ground at not only how offensive Will was in his incompetence, but simply how offensive his incompetence was, full stop.

Of course, watching this in the same room as a teacher - a Spanish teacher at that - meant that there was a lot of outraged gasps and scoffing.  The idea that Will has taught at McKinley High for three years without being able to proficiently speak Spanish is mind-boggling, and while it was a treat to see that oversight corrected, I think it also delineates how "The Spanish Teacher" could have been tweaked to have a stronger message.

Basically, excepting the next logical progressions with the Support Group to Prevent Finchel Marriage (McKinley High Chapter, co-presidents Quinn Fabray and Kurt Hummel), each of this episode's plotlines incorporated an educator demonstrating to the audience whether or not they deserved tenure - the objective for each of them.  In the A plotline, Will Schuester desperately tried to hang on to his relevance by belligerently bluffing about how little Spanish he knew.  In the B storyline, Sue Sylvester tried to pursue her dream of motherhood, only to be interfered with by a bad evaluation.  (She also tried to solicit sperm from students.  Bad form.)  In the C plot, Emma gave actual advice to Mercedes and Sam, and pursued creating more cheeky pamphlets that help educate teenagers on topics that are sometimes difficult to discuss out loud.

Basically, the bad teachers were given A and B - and the most screentime - and the best teacher had C - the least screentime.  In the end, it was the right decision to hold everyone accountable, which is why Will deferred his position, Sue took the criticism gracefully, and Emma was awarded tenure.  But at the same time, by having Will take up so much screentime being an idiot, it's hard to weight that against the outcome, no matter how justified.  

Bear with me for a moment while I step up onto a soapbox.  The thing is this: our education system is already a giant tangle in the United States.  Everyone knows it's important, but nobody in charge seems to realize how exactly to maximize student learning gains.  The focus has been placed on the students: how are the students performing?  If they take this test or that exam and achieve a certain score, are they meeting the standards outlined for educational goals?  In the process, teachers are getting slammed with paperwork and extra accountability, and measures have even been taken to tie teachers' salaries with the success rate of their students' test scores.

But truthfully, books and tests don't teach.  Teachers teach.  And good teachers find a way to make the material relevant and meaningful to their students - like Emma did with her pamphlets, or like David Martinez did with his idea about music and getting kids engaged with the content.  And while I know that not all teachers are good teachers, it'd be nice to see the media give more credence to the ones like Emma or David Martinez, rather than forcing us to watch Will Schuester make an idiot out of himself and Sue Sylvester care more about her womb than her students for a solid half-hour.

Okay, okay.  Soapbox done.  But if Will weren't hogging the first forty minutes with his offensiveness, we could've actually gotten an episode that appreciated the Hispanic culture - which is what I thought the writers were setting out to do.  We could've spent some more time with Santana, or with David.  What if we flashed back to Santana's quince?  (Assuming she had one, and that it could be made relevant to the plot.)  What if Brittany actually knew some stuff, through having spent time with Santana's family?  And hey, you know who speaks Spanish?  Harry Shum, Jr.!  Maybe he could've been used to prove that you don't have to actually be a native speaker to appreciate a culture!  Because Will certainly wasn't repping that crowd.

What if they sang songs that weren't just Spanish translations of American pop songs, but that were actually culturally authentic?  Where was Shakira?  David Bisbal?  Juanes?  Julieta Venegas?  It was great to hear the Gipsy Kings and Gloria Estefan (and okay, I guess Enrique too) - but I was less enthused about the lack of authenticity in "Sexy and I Know It," "La Isla Bonita," and "A Little Less Conversation."  If there had been a little less misappropriation at the forefront, we could've actually gotten a chance to be culturally aware and appreciative.  But when has Glee succeeded at authenticity anyways?  Perhaps I hope for too much.

Again, these are somewhat personal complaints that are made considerably less prickly when you consider how the narrative treated Will and his idiocy, by the end.  We even got a double dose of accountability in his treatment of Emma!  She came to him trying to show him her pamphlets, and he lashed out at her with a stinking mass of Macho Man Condescension.  Geez, Emma, can't you see I'm using this Spanish-English dictionary because I'm trying to take care of you?!  Get those silly pieces of paper out of here!  I'm translating an Elvis song!  (Yes, Will Schuester.  Emma's the silly one.)  

But I'm being harsh.  The resolution to this conflict was actually pretty adorable and well-written, with Will embarrassedly presenting his own pamphlets to Emma in apology and congratulation of her new tenured position.  There's the Will Schuester I remember!  And the show did a good job reminding us that Will has had his good moments as well, with Santana offering up what she learned from him: without passion, you can't succeed.  Aw, look!  A touching moment without any protesting from my gag reflex!  Ian Brennan pulled it off well.

While we're skirting the subject, let's talk Santana for a moment.  This was our girl, back in full form!  It's been awhile since we've seen Santana written to her best possible incarnation in the best possible role in the narrative.  And for a bit there, the writers seemed to love unempowering Santana while dialing up her snark into cruelty, just so that people yell at her.  Rude!  But "The Spanish Teacher" delivered a Titi Snix who, yeah, acted as an adversary, but who was also ultimately correct.  You can't argue with a student who is asking for a better education than they're receiving.  And you really can't argue with a Puerto Rican student who is questioning the way their culture and the cultures of other countries are being represented by a teacher.  This worked because Santana had a voice, and part of Glee's place in the TV world is providing a voice to young people who wouldn't otherwise have one on television.

Ultimately, Santana was wielded in the way that Glee's loveable villains should be wielded: she provided opposition, but was definitely reasonable in her perspective - and in this case in particular, she was completely right.  Unfortunately, Sue and Terri and Quinn and Santana are only occasionally given this opportunity, but Santana was blessed with it last night - to great effect.  She carried the entire message of the plotline on her shoulders.  Sue, on the other hand, didn't quite achieve the same treatment, although her storyline still allowed her to be multi-dimensional, which is always appreciated.

See, because even though "The Spanish Teacher" highlighted an incompetent Will Schuester, and despite the fact that we've seen countless instances where Sue professes genuine hate for the man... Sue still wanted Will's sperm for her baby.  Because he's such a nice, kind guy!  Meh.  I was not on board with this, because the strongest Sue Sylvester is the one who cares about the students but only has begrudging respect for Will.  And frankly, this is also the strongest Will Schuester, in terms of his relationship to Sue.  Furthermore, we saw a Will Schuester this episode that was probably more aligned to how Sue sees him all the time - thereby calling even more attention to the fact that Sue wanting his baby is seriously out of character.  If you want a touching moment with Sue and Will, have them slip into a comedic funk after having their egos deflated by a bad evaluation - make them gloomily eat ice cream together and mope about their overlapping woes.  It's charming, realistic, and doesn't have anything to do with sperm.

In all, the Sue-wants-a-baby thing whiffs faintly of Glee's attempts to find Sue Sylvester something else to do on this show that isn't insulting its main characters and trying to destroy the glee club.  Which is valid - I'm all on board for new conflict.  But unfortunately, none of these redirections are working out well for Sue because the writers aren't letting her succeed.  Serve as principal?  Nope.  Cheerios?  No national championship.  Running for public office?  Lose to Burt Hummel.  The insistence on forcing Sue into permanent "failure" because she's a "villain" prevents her from creating any conflict that could possibly make her an interesting villain again!  Catch-22.

What did work for Sue was her interactions with Becky, and the appreciation Sue had for Becky's honesty.  Truth be told, I felt a little bad for Sue, what with everyone's public disbelief (and sometimes mockery) about the possibility that she could have a baby at her age.  To that end, Sue's scenes with Roz Washington and Santana felt a little extraneous, and with Roz's inclusion in particular it seemed like Sue was misplacing her dissatisfaction with her job into the idea that she wants a child to care for.  From that perspective, Sue becomes somewhat tragic, but the episode didn't really hit those notes, and the Baby Storyline remains a large question mark for me.  We'll see where it goes - if anywhere.

Of course, we also discovered more members of the Support Group to Prevent Finchel Marriage (McKinley High Chapter) - with Rachel revealing her engagement to Mercedes and Kurt at one of their adorable sleepovers I'm super jealous of.  Turns out Mercedes and Kurt are also dubious about this progression, no matter how much Rachel protests that Finn's in all of her dreams and she really wants this.  But we've heard a lot from Rachel on the topic, so it was excellent to see Kurt going to Finn in an effort to have a real talk with him about his future.  The idea that Finn and Rachel's commitment to one another is a result of their insecurities about their futures is, as we've covered, mind-boggling, but also incontrovertible at this point.  Both Kurt and Quinn have highlighted that for not only the audience, but Finn and Rachel themselves.  But when will the writers choose to back them out of it?

The upside of this strange construct is indeed the way that Quinn and Rachel related to one another last week, and the way that Finn and Kurt echoed that dynamic this week.  If you go way back when to the origins of Glee, you could very easily argue that the most important characters for Finn and Quinn to interact with, as reigning quarterback and head cheerleader, would be Kurt, and Rachel, respectively, in their places as geeks who could actually become friends.  In that sense, it's rewarding to see that thought finally paid off in a real way, manifested onscreen and in storyline.  (Of course, it's interesting to note that the roles have reversed for Rachel and Quinn - or have at least gone through two cycles.  Finn has fallen from grace, and Kurt is bringing him back up.  But Quinn fell from grace once, Rachel helped bring her up, and now Quinn is returning the favor.  Take it and run with it, Faberry fans.)

Finally, we had a little Samcedes development that was much-needed for the couple.  Previously, the writers devoted time to their flirtation without really allowing the audience to see why we should be rooting for them as a couple.  In "The Spanish Teacher," Mercedes still feels conflicted, so she and Sam decide to confront the problem by seeking advice from Emma.  Firstly, this is adorable, and I wish more students at McKinley would take this route.  Secondly, Emma's advice involved Mercedes and Sam spending some time apart from one another, disconnected from technology, to really understand what their feelings are doing.  (This was made even better by Sam's attempt to get "Mercedes smells good today" trending on Twitter.  Adorable times two.)  In the end, Sam and Mercedes spent the whole episode apart, and when the clock ticked down on their week of incommunication, they were both waiting for one another in the hallway.  Say it with me: awwww.

Ultimately, this episode provided the breath of life into Samcedes that I've been waiting for!  It made them a couple we want to root for, with the least amount of needless pizzazz and flair.  Ian Brennan kept it simple, and in doing so, communicated more about this couple than any duet or love triangle could get across.  It's basic: they like talking with one another.  That's it.  It's instant likeability points, and so Samcedes now has a little foundation, and some charm propelling it into the resolution of Mercedes' choice.

Not only that, but it helped demonstrate an example of Emma being a good counselor, and combined with the success of the "Taint Misbehavin'" pamphlet (thanks, Coach Beiste!), Emma's tenure achievement is well-earned.  Most things in this episode were, and while it was a bit bewildering in parts, overall it was solid storytelling, with many well-written moments.  And even though Glee tried to throw a sombrero on anything that moved, it still delivered the right message - with or without Shakira.  (But let's face it, if you have a choice, the answer is always WITH SHAKIRA.)

Final quibble: where the hell was Tina?  The fact that Blaine had a plot-derived eye surgery explaining his absence, while Tina was missing with nary a mention makes me skeptical.  More Tina, please.  Like with Shakira, the answer is always: more Tina, whenever possible. 

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: C
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: A
Plot: A-
Characterization: A-
Episode MVP: Santana Lopez


  1. It was nice to see Will behaving like a jerk and then actually being held accountable for once, though I feel bad for anyone in his history class, given he's shown zero enthusiasm for it and will presumably muddle through it in much the same way he did with Spanish. It would have been better all round if he'd been given a music teacher role or similar, since that's something he actually has passion for.

    I was also bothered by one of Sue's lines, referring to Becky as writing in crayon. Seriously? When just two episodes ago the show was doing its best to portray Becky as a smart, witty character who people consistently underestimate? Granted, it was mostly done as the setup for a "Brittany is dumb" joke, but again, that joke only works if you find it amusing that someone could be dumber than Becky. I dunno, it rubs me up the wrong way.

  2. Love your writing as usual. I'd like to mention continuity. Emma has always said Will is the best teacher in the school. How can they suddenly make him the worst? I felt Will's character was sacrificed for this story.

  3. I was also pleasantly surprised by this episode. In fact, I was downright amazed that the writers were willing to tear down the whole "perfect, manly, white knight, savior of women everywhere" image they had constructed for both Will and Finn (more so on Will's part, but at least Finn's insecurities were finally revealed as just that, instead of him being romantic). Four for you, Ian Brennan. (Where were you for IKAG?)

    I LOVED Emma this episode. This feels more like season 1 Emma - awkward and quirky, but ultimately a kind, involved counselor who not only invites students to her office when she notices somethings wrong, and gives legitimate, sound advice in an appropriate, knowledgeable, and sympathetic way. Remember how she handled Artie during "Dream On"? Plus, I've always loved her pamphlets. Seriously, if I saw those lying around, I'd read them even if they had nothing to do with me.

    And finally, so glad you pointed out the Faberry. One of the best relationships in Season 1 to me was the one between Quinn and Rachel. They were perfect foils for each other. In fact, I think it was one of the most well-written, realistic, heart-breaking comparisons between two characters in the entire show. Something about the way Quinn, so outwardly beautiful, desirable, perfect, is so empty and so easily broken the moment a crack appears. And Rachel, so strong and confident and driven, staying her course despite being shunned and harassed and bullied, still offers her aid. I agree with you wholeheartedly - the role reversal of one reaching out to the other really has the potential to be amazing.

    ps: the Sue/Will's angel!sperm/baby storyline was completely ridiculous. Sue may grudgingly respect Will as teacher, but she doesn't secretly think taking the high road is a good trait - she thinks the best defense is a good offense. There's no retreat in her book. But it wouldn't be Glee without some sort of step back somewhere. At least there were more steps forward this episode.

  4. My Abuelita wouldn't even watch the ep. after La Cucaracha... I'm working on convincing her to watch the end ;)

    Also, Harry Shum Jr. actually is a native Spanish speaker (if by "native" you mean it was said person's first language). I'm kinda bummed they didn't have him sing anything. Harry singing Camisa Negra? Yes please!

  5. *Shh sometimes I forget that Harry≠Mike* *Pretty sure Mike isn't a native speaker* *Hehehe*

  6. Honestly I think I'm just glad that a sentence like "How about a flashback to Santana's quince?" can exist.

  7. Frankly I found this episode apalling, though I can't really put my finger on the exact reason. Maybe the ridiculous Spanish songs? Maybe Sue's absurd plot?
    Anyway, just wanted to thank you for your comment on embarrassing mistakes and stereotypes (I sighed in relief when they acknlowledged that yes, Will dressed as a bullfighter with backup form a mariachi choir was idiotic and offensive on several levels). Frankly, normally on American and TV shows and movies we tend to see this kind of thing but played completely straight, and it's embarrasing and annoying. Anyone remembers Mission: Impossible 2? Valencian fallas mixed with the Procesiones? Tom Cruise's boss commenting on "how crazy these spaniards are, burning their saints"? And to top it all, Tom, at the time, was dating PENELOPE CRUZ. Did they, like, communicate at all?

    One last thing: I'm impressed that you know David Bisbal and Julieta Venegas, never imagined they'd be known in English speaking countries... David Bisbal is a technically fantastic singer, though I must say that the music he does is rather stereotypical and soulless, like the Hallmark version of spanish folklore. Julieta Venegas is, in my opinion, the most interesting artist among the list you mention, combining traditional roots and some personal touches. Her first tow records weren't as succesful but very innovative and experimental, nowadays she's much more mainstream, but still has something unique about her...

    I guess Jenna was busy with something else (or maybe sick?), but it would have been nice to get some throwaya explanaition for Tina's abscence like Blaine did. One day, when Glee is over and the contracts have expired, we'll get to know the truth about her treatment on the show...

  8. "Perhaps I hope for too much." You do, unfortunately. After IKAG, I dialed my expectations down to zilch... wherein anything that didn't make me roil w/ anger was a positive. and that has allowed me to be moderately amused by the last few eps. I really am only in it now for the 20-somethings with more performing talent than is fair, but what a come down from when it was brilliant and the music perfectly accentuated/accompanied the narrative.

    I enjoyed this episode more than I should have just b/c I felt vindicated in my opinion that Will is a craptacular teacher. I really don't think he's that great at glee either, he let them go to freaking nationals w/o a set list. I've not seen him do much worthwhile since Blame it on the Alcohol, but i'm terribly biased at the moment. My Will!loathing aside, this episode was decent but still a missed opportunity to be something more.... which is sort of the watch-word for glee these days.

    I ship anything that gets Santana more screen time and she was 100% justified in reporting that Mr Schue is a travesty of a spanish teacher, both for his lack of spanish competence and his appallingly limited view that all latino culture can be summed up w/ tacos, sombreros and bullfights. don't get me wrong, i freaking love tacos.... and bullfights, as much as i want to condemn them, are strangely beautiful.

    but instead of actually looking at all latin songs by latin artists (despite the weeks lession), we got partially translated american songs? wtf? worst of all, we got the actually latin characters singing them. david martinez wants to demonstrate what Duende means? the most obvious thing is for him to burst into "i'm sexy and i know it"... i'm sorry, wtf? and when martinez and santana want to duet together they pick a song by madonna? are there really no latin artists? please. i find spanish language music beautiful and i don't understand spanish at all. i could've found more authentic latin songs... hell just check the latin itunes charts, if you want popular spanish-language music.

    i so wish glee hadn't sold it's storytelling downriver in favor of a quick buck on itunes. good music will sell on itunes, regardless. and good music transcends language. a good story will sell DVDs forever. just make it good and people will like it. i totally realize that good is subjective, but my point is they should focus less on crafting the story to fit the songs and more on picking the songs to fit the story.

    i at least wasn't totally insulted by this episode since as you mentioned the offensive parts were pointed out and addressed as being offensive, unlike usual. Will was not rewarded for his incompetence or arrogance except to gobble up more screen time than i'd like. i loved that emma got the tenure (so figgins is not 'totally' useless), and loved even more when she said "I can take care of myself!" hallelujah girl. but careful glee, that is a dangerously feminist slant you are taking there. better dial that down for next eppie, so she'll need rescuing again by one of our gallant straight, white, slightly-confused male heroes.

    i do enjoy your recaps! look forward to this weeks!

    ps- on a technical note- i think your "comment as" select list is messed up. i keep trying to post w/ my LJ profile, but the option value for the LiveJournal is value="NONE" (many in the drop-down list have value="NONE") so it keeps trying to log me in with OpenID.

  9. Was I the only one who found this episode insulting on a social and intellectual level? We've been reminded for two and a half seasons that Will is the best damn thing to happen to McKinley since tots. We've been given the occasional glimpse into his classroom before and seen him competently teaching and even speaking spanish outside of the classroom. Moreover, in the pilot he was a well known spanish teacher at McKinley who had been around for some time before it was even possible for him to coach Glee club. Why would they suddenly throw all of this continuity out of the window and assassinate his character?

    Quite frankly, to me it communicates that they really really really thought it would be a hoot to have Ricky Martin guest star, but couldn't think of anything else for him to do. This week's guest star is a Latin pop artist, therefore he must give everyone spanish lessons.

    Its lazy, shallow writing. Its the same as when they announced that finally the silent asian would get his very own plot line and it centered around him being too asian for his chosen career. These are people, damn it! Every time a minority has a problem it shouldn't have to be a problem specific to the hokey stereotypes of that minority.

    Ricky Martin could have played any character. Why was it necessary to introduce yet another nail in Will Scheuster's coffin (and force us to sit through Ryan Murphy and Co.'s bastardized take on latin music) just to have him on the show?

    Also, I know that Glee is a "satire" and not at all grounded in the real world, but it is also a satire that takes place in a school and devotes a large amount of dialogue to education and ethics. At least make the tiniest effort to give your fictional school some structure. A teacher cannot just bounce through several different topics. The stupidity of that is glaringly obvious to anyone who has ever considered teaching. You don't graduate college with a degree in TEACHER and pick up whatever job you can find. This isn't even the first time we've watched Will contemplate a career change. He's gone from Broadway Hopeful to Spanish Teacher to Accountant and is now a History Teacher? I would like to know what exactly he went to school for.

    The Glee writers have really blown their perfect world apart at this point. The Ricky Martin character is a better spanish teacher and a better Glee Club instructor than Will. Why is Will even necessary anymore?

  10. I love your episode reviews, and I totally agree that it was lovely to see Will actually being called out on his actions. If they're going to sacrifice continuity, at least have it be in the service of correcting their mistakes. Now, if they'd give Finn the same treatment for outing Santana, I'd have more patience. (Small quibble: Will's been teaching for at least 5 years, because in season 1 he references that Susie Pepper's crush on him was two years before.)

    I do have to disagree that Emma was a good teacher who deserves tenure. While she did give Sam and Mercedes some decent advice about not speaking for a week, her first reaction was to hand Mercedes a pamphlet calling her a "two-timing ho." Emma has a nasty history of projecting her own discomfort with sex all over everyone else, including vulnerable students, with no concern about the real harm she might cause. Any teacher who thinks that slut-shaming is appropriate, and actively tries to prevent students from getting sex ed, has no business counseling teenagers. Coach Beiste is truly the only good teacher at McKinley, and it should have been her getting tenure.

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