In my review of the Glee season three premiere a few weeks ago, I spent some time talking about how formulaic the series’ has tended to be. For some reason, instead of trying new things with the characters, the production staff loves to have them repeat similar or near-exact stories that worked (and worked better) in season one. In most cases, like with Quinn and Finn dating again last season, this doesn’t work and the stories loudly point out how repetitive Glee can get.
In my review of last week’s episode, I discussed how problematic it is for season three to pick back up stories that were powerful in season one and then completely disregarded and forgotten in season two. Circling back to Quinn and Puck’s maturity (or lack thereof) and their baby or Rachel and her mommy issues is welcome, but also highlights how weird it was that the series ignored them for an entire season and only further acknowledges that season two was a damn mess.
In two weeks, I’ve pointed out two big problems with Glee that will probably never go away. This frustrates me a great deal. Moreover, both of those issues are prevalent in this week’s episode, “Asian F.” This effort repeats a storyline we’ve seen the series go to a few times in two-plus seasons (the Rachel vs. Mercedes showdown) and colors/frames it in a similar way to other past stories (the callback sequence is clearly trying to evoke the “Defying Gravity” moment from “Wheels” and Mercedes’ departure from New Directions is the 77th time that’s happened in 47 episodes). And “Asian F” is also powered by a Mercedes story that realistically could have taken place in season two or even the back-half of season one. You know, if the writers weren’t too busy giving her little beats about loving food. So “Asian F” has a lot of elements in it that drive me a bit crazy.
But here’s the thing: It all works. Very well. Glee’s biggest strength is its ability to create these singular moments of raw intensity or emotion, even amid all the caricatures and hackneyed storytelling. And when an episode of the series finds a way to string together a handful of those individual moments, Glee sucks you in and you stop recognizing how rushed, retconned or out of left field some of the beats are, at least in that moment.
There was a lot of buzz about this being the best episode ever or since the earlier half of season one and while I don’t necessarily agree with that, I see where people were coming from. This feels like a season one episode, partially because it explores the kind of stories we experienced at that time (sometimes to a T), but also because “Asian F” piles up a number of those tingly moments that made us fall in love with Glee in the first place. I still prefer the few truly great season two episodes (“Duets,” “Silly Love Songs” and “Rumors” come to mind) over this one, however, this is indeed one of the better episodes Glee has done since that initial 13-effort arc.
Like I said above, Mercedes’ big spotlight story here is full of good moments, but is also severely flawed (which is basically the norm for Glee and always has been). Having Mercedes stand up, actually want to compete with Rachel and then legitimately beat her? That’s pretty cool and creates a great platform for Riley to remind us how good of a singer she is. We have all been crying for Amber Riley and Mercedes to get something to do for a long time now because we saw some of the things in Glee that the character pointed out were happening in the story. Lea Michele and Rachel do dominate the stories and especially the songs and while we all understand why, Riley/Mercedes is just as talented. It was nice for Ian Brennan’s script to not have Mercedes give up, but to also actually let her win and for Rachel to know that her competitor was better. It will hopefully mean good things for both ladies moving forward.
Nevertheless, getting to those moments created a few problems. Mercedes’ newfound confidence is almost entirely because she has a boyfriend and while A.) I love Lamarcus Tinker and B.) see some of the character consistency since Mercedes was complaining about being alone last season, the impact of her self-actualization is muted because of its connection to a man. Moreover, I think many of us would argue that Mercedes already stood up for herself and her performances at times during the opening 13 episodes and so to have her regress back into the shadows and then randomly say that she’s been “paying her dues” rings a little false. She’s always been a diva and that’s great! I don’t need this episode to try to convince me of something else by re-writing history.
Brennan runs into similarly troubling territory with Mercedes’ exit from New Directions. I like that the dance bootcamp has become a small little story that carries over, but I think this episode turned Will into more of a blind, asshole of a glee club director so that it could fit Mercedes’ arc. Some of it is OK, like the scene with Mercedes watching Will talk to Rachel in the choir room, because those moments are all a matter of perception anyway. But Will’s pushy, obvious treatment of Mercedes in the bootcamp scenes didn’t entirely work because Will is almost never that forward with the kids. There is some recent evidence of him being that way (see last week’s conversation with Quinn), but Will is usually too busy destroying his own life to be that forceful with slacking members of ND. I get why Brennan went there, but I don’t totally buy it.
But ultimately, those problems don’t matter as much (partially because they’re always going to be there and at a certain point, I have to let it go) because “Asian F” gives us a number of solid Mercedes scenes and performances. The Dreamgirls sequence was sometimes awkward and weird, but it hit the right emotional buttons, making it one of the better things the series has done in a long time. And the final conversation between Mercedes, Rachel and the musical directors was well-played all around. It appears that Shelby’s musical group is going to be a place for all the “misused” performers go and while I’m intrigued on where that could go, I hope the groups stay more friendlier than not.
Mercedes’ issues got much of the publicity in the promos and things of that nature and while I did like her story here, it is the episode’s namesake story that really makes “Asian F” go. On one hand, it is pretty sad that we’re just now getting a big Mike Chang story, but on the other, waiting this long allowed Harry Shum Jr. to sneak up on his and deliver one of the series’ best individual performances, probably ever. Again, the “New Directioner defends their love of the arts to someone else” story has been done before, Mike’s parents walk right up to and wave feverishly at stereotypes and the final reveal that his mom also loved dancing is completely on-the-nose in a way that only Glee can be, but dammit, Shum is so good here. We know that he can dance and he’s shown a few flashes of solid acting ability, but his physical and facial work in the mirror sequence was tremendous. That scene is one of those things that only Glee can pull off and when it does, the emotion of it all hits you hard.
Everything culminates at the end of the episode with the slow-motion reveal of the West Side Story main cast list. And although we were either aware or could easily guess who had what role, the sequence was so well done, both on a performance level and with the “Fix You” as the soundtrack, it didn’t matter. Mike’s elation contrasted beautifully with Mercedes’ disappointment and Rachel’s conflicted satisfaction and the two tacked-on casting announcements (Blaine getting the lead male role while Kurt has to try to hide his disappointment, Santana scoring Anita) worked well despite a lack of focus in this episode. Even though the audition process only took up two episodes, that final sequence felt entirely earned. Glee did a really solid job of building to it by giving each of the leads their time in the last two weeks (except for Santana, but Naya Rivera’s “obviously” head nod basically made up for it). The whole thing was relatively simple to execute, but Glee is great at finding the gravity and emotion in what could be executed with ease. I just loved that sequence so much.
Well, until it cut to Will singing “Fix You” in front of all his students. Ugh. More on that below.
“Asian F” isn’t the best episode of Glee ever and it’s certainly not without problems. But it nails so many of the character-adjacent moments that it seemingly forgot to how to do at times last year and that will carry the series a long, long way. Two good episodes in a row!
- Will and Emma’s story was basically dreadful. I like that Will defended Emma’s honor to her parents, but her parents were horrible, horrible characters. Ginger Supremacists is one of those things Glee does that they think will be so awesome and it’s just stupid and kind of offensive. I appreciate that the series is interested in exploring Emma’s issues, but we’re headed to a point where she gets magically fixed because of Will’s love and caring nature and we all know that OCD doesn’t work like that. And the whole praying/”Fix You” performance was just odd. I guess Matthew Morrison needed a lead track.
- This episode also furthered the student election story and unfortunately allowed Rachel to throw her name in the ring as well. I get why she did it and I see that it will cause some major tension in her relationships with Kurt and Finn, but I’d prefer to keep it to two candidates. Third parties always mess things up! Brittany’s big dance number was outrageous, but awesome. Again, that’s just one of those great things that Glee can do that no series can touch.
- God bless Dot Jones. The series is dedicated to making Coach Beiste look as goofy and kind of awful as possible, but somehow Jones makes it work every single time. She’s turned into a likable, enjoyable character – making her the only adult character that we can say that about.
- No Sue, outside one quick cut to her during Brittany’s performance. Yet another great episode that she’s not part of.
- This is your weekly reminder that Cory Monteith and Finn are, indeed, still on this series. I know you wouldn’t know it based on this episode.