Glee, “Asian F” (3.03)

Mercedes (Amber Riley) all dolled up as Effie White.

A review of the season’s third episode, written by Ian Brennan and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, with both spoiler-free and spoiler-y sections, after the jump…

First, a few spoiler-free tidbits for those who haven’t seen it and just want a taste:

  • The show has a theme that’s both a guiding light for the entire episode, and not (like in season one) a recurring phrase that gets thrown around six times a scene. That theme is choices, particularly the choices we make in pursuing the life we want to lead.
  • The main stars this time around are Mercedes, Rachel, Mike and Schue.
  • Mike Chang (new series regular Harry Shum Jr.) has a showcase to prove exactly why he was added to the regular cast this season. And, unlike last year’s “Britney/Brittany” (2.03), it does so with an hour that gives its leading man respect and screentime without losing the show’s internal logic or interest in the other characters.
  • There’s only one big clunker of a joke, and it’s mostly used so the show can use it as a codeword to discuss something much darker.
  • All in all, it’s another episode of the new, more grounded and realistic Glee, that’s both less bombastic and offensive. Not only that, it’s a very good episode.

And now, for the spoilers!

I guess that answers those who would challenge both that Mercedes is going into the series’ third year without a solid personality, and that Mercedes is a tragically ignored character. And it does so in a way that, rather than ignoring the elephant in the room, underscores it: Mercedes is constantly overlooked in New Directions, often getting tossed the glory note but always swaying in the background during, say, “Faithfully” (1.22) or “Pretending” (2.22).

Mercedes, as the show has hinted previously, someone who doesn’t live her dream 24/7 like Rachel. She doesn’t spend every night practicing, whether that’s because she’s lazy (as Jesse charged in “Funeral”, 2.21) or because she secretly sees herself as Effie White, as her new beau Shane tells her here. It’s very likely a little of both. She’s proud, and though it only really shows itself in outbursts when she has little at stake, she’s learning to fight for what she wants.

She fights for Maria. And she loses.

Inside of one hour, Mercedes accuses Mr. Schuester of favouring Rachel over her (which leads into a great performance within Mercedes’ mind casting her, of course, as an overreacting/betrayed Effie White), loses out on Maria because she won’t share the role with Rachel… and joins Shelby Corcoran’s (Idina Menzel) rival Glee group at McKinley.

Whew. What I love about this plotline is that it works wonderfully as a slow build. Mercedes has had a moment or two to shine, but in the series’ first two years she was chronically underused. Even at last year’s mid-year Sectionals, when Schue decided to mix it up, Mercedes didn’t get her groundbreaking solo: instead the spotlight went to Quinn/Sam and Santana. And while there have been many points where Schue hasn’t liked Rachel very much, he invariably gives her most of the leading roles.

So now, we have New Directions up against a singer who can match Rachel Berry note for note, with a teacher whose strict style will push her to work just as hard as Rachel does. This battle doesn’t just hurt Rachel: after all, Shelby Corcoran is a more talented glee coach than Schuester, and up until this point has been held back only by having no singers. Now William Schuester is up against a wonder team of Shelby Corcoran and Mercedes Jones… and I suspect that Mercedes is not the last to switch sides.

After all, doesn’t Quinn want to buddy up to Corcoran in order to get her daughter back? And I’m sure Puck might appreciate the chance to work alongside her as well. And if Mike is as ambitious about dancing as he was about his grades… anyone who saw the “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1.22) performance Corcoran headed up would be intrigued by learning directly from her. And if things started turning against New Directions, what are the chances Rachel Berry would choose loyalty to Will Schuester over an International Championship win alongside the birth mother she longs to be closer to?

Mercedes’ move here has made things very interesting. I’m not sure whether the show will live up to the potential, but I can certainly be excited to see.

The episode also gave time to shine to new series regular, but longtime supporting character, Mike Chang. I’ve seen with my own two eyes the success vs. fulfillment conflict Mike endures with his parents here, and though not just an issue for children of immigrants, it does happen within them plenty. High school is the time where you decide what you want to be. A best friend in high school, caught between his dream of digital design and the more lucrative engineering, was persuaded to focus on engineering by his parents. And I watched the struggle play out from the sidelines. So, I appreciated seeing that conflict play out here, especially as it called nicely back to the storyline in the pilot: do we do what will earn us things, or what will earn us happiness? Especially with its inclusion of Mike’s mother, who was offered the choice Schue was in the pilot, and chose success and regretted it ever after.

And the show explored this well with Mike’s desire to do too much. He’s studying his butt off, he’s in New Directions, he’s leading Schue’s Booty Camp, and now he wants a spotlight of his own: Riff in the school production of West Side Story. He does a great job, giving a very good performance, both singing and dancing. And, happily, he gets the part. This was a plotline very true to the show’s core themes, and it was a winner.

(And Shum, for his part, also does very well with his first real acting challenge. There are small moments, lines that were generally innocuous but that Shum added layers to with his performance. He earned that promotion fair and square, and proved it here.)

As for the series’ last main plot, Schue and Emma. And, for once in probably over a year, I wasn’t frustrated by it. Though the ‘ginger supremacist’ joke was ridiculous, it treated it like what it was a stand-in for (racial supremacy), and gave us insight into Emma’s upbringing. It doesn’t really matter where her OCD came from. The thing we learned that mattered: She comes from a family who wouldn’t support her, who judged and looked down on her and refused to support her choices.  That is what stuck for me.

And I think this was the moment Schue realised for the first time in over two years, despite the song he sings, that he can’t just fix her. That they can’t just work on her symptoms until they vanish. “Son of a biscuit, I lost count again.” was one of the show’s most heartbreaking moments. Because Schue has been treating her, subtly, like his own ‘freaky deeky’, talking about how cute her problems are and about how he’s going to help her get better. And I hope this is the moment where he realises that she doesn’t need a white knight to save her. She just needs someone to stop judging her and, once in a while, pray alongside her. A strong showcase for Matthew Morrison but especially for Jayma Mays.

A very good episode. This season has opened strong, and though it hardly resembles where it began, I’m definitely enjoying the new Glee.


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