When “Glee” debuted on May 19, 2009, it was like a breath of fresh air. The pilot centered on high school Spanish teacher Will Shuester, who wrestled between choosing a higher-paying job to suit his materialistic wife’s needs and reliving his glory days singing in the school’s glee club.
At the end of the episode when he decided to lead the glee club, it was a teary-eyed moment for anyone who’d considered going after their dreams and usually rationalized why they were no longer important or those who stood up to their fears and decided to go for it.
The cast’s remake of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” went to No. 4 on the pop chart, five notches higher than the original. The show was a smash and everyone couldn’t wait for its real season to start in September.
And there was a lot for Asian Americans to latch on to: Jenna Ushkowitz, who’s Korean American, played regular Tina Cohen-Chang, and there were three recurring characters, including Henry Shum, Jr. as dancing marvel Mike Chang (later upped to regular) and football coach Ken Tanaka (Patrick Gallagher).
Student cast members were white, black, Latino, Asian, gay, disabled. Though the white producers still demonstrated racial bias/stratification through those who got to have their own episode where they narrated their own story: They were almost always white. White chick, white football player, white guy in wheelchair, white gay guy, etc.
As far as I know, we never got to hear Tina’s “inner voice” until the final episode, which aired last week Friday in a two-hour finale, and that was shared with others.
But there were amazing episodes that dealt so many issues, including homophobia and pressure from Asian American parents to not go into the arts. In “Asian F,” Mike Chang’s dad pressured him to drop out of the glee club so he could concentrate on getting into medical school. As he passed by a practice room, Mike couldn’t help warming up and dancing to relieve the stress, which also helped him confront his own feelings.
Tina, his then-girlfriend, warmly told him how much she loved him, that he came alive when he danced. Tamlyn Tomita, who played his mom, gave a fantastic, tearful performance admitting she too had wanted to be a dancer but wasn’t as brave as her son to go for it. Eventually, Mike’s father came around to his son’s decision to pursue a career as a professional dancer.
It made it that much easier for young Asian American kids considering life in the performing arts and maybe gave them some ammunition against their more traditional-minded parents.
In another landmark episode, the confrontation between the fathers of Kurt Hummel and Dave Karosfky — who constantly bullied Kurt for being gay — was so realistic and heartfelt, I was excited that this kind of information was being put out for millions to see: For people to consider how much we hurt others simply for being different.
In an annual Asian Pacific American Media Coalition meeting with Fox, I told then-President Kevin Reilly how much of a public service they’d done for both gays and Asian Americans.
But “Glee” began to lose its way. Before the fourth season was over in 2013, Fox renewed the series for two full seasons even as ratings were beginning to fall sharply. In the end, that final season was reduced from 22 to 13 episodes and shipped off to Friday nights (Siberia in television land). Whereas the show had once averaged a whopping 5.9 rating in the 18-49 age group and 13.5 million viewers in Season 2, it could only muster a .8 and 2.6 million for the final episode.
In October 2013 when they acknowledged the death of Cory Monteith (who played Finn the football player) and refused to say how his character had died, I was furious and decided to stop watching the show (except for a couple episodes that focused on Tina and Mike). But by this time, I was sick of people singing on television and would fast-forward through most of the songs. They focused too much on the divas Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer).
Just as “Community” did in its recent series finale, we got to see a few flash-forwards of what happened to some of the main characters in the future — in this case, five years later. And like that show, everyone had a happy ending.
The cast of “Glee” also placed more songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart than anyone in history — 207. But 171 of them — 83% — fell off after just one week and none of them were played significantly on the radio. They got on the chart solely because of downloads — a total of 45.2 million tracks (the show also sold 7.9 million albums and EPs).
Yay? Department: I should be proud of the fact that Bruno Mars, who’s from Hawaii and is half Filipino/half Puerto Rican, is currently in his 11th week at No. 1 as the featured singer on Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.” I’m not. Except for “Locked Out of Heaven,” I don’t like his music, and after hearing “Uptown“ twice in its entirety and twice more in television commercials, I never want to hear it again for as long as I live.
Why? It combines James Brown, Prince, and who knows what else, into an annoying mash-up that perhaps includes too many catchy elements for its own good, thus my fatigue.
Hypocrite/Crybaby Department: It was funny reading Michael Douglas’ article in The L.A. Times decrying what he calls “anti-Semitism.” To my frustration, he and many Jewish activists inaccurately equate criticism of the government of Israel with that term. Hey, I hated it when George W. Bush was in office. Did that make me un-American? Pfft!
I remember watching “Politically Incorrect” shortly after the L.A. riots when the issue of Korean Americans came up and with a lot of snark he said he believed they were responsible for their own bad reputation with black people. Should we have called him “racist” back then? In the media, being “anti-Semitic” — however loosely defined — is worse.
Channel Surfing Department: Kal Penn is one of the regulars of CBS’ mid-season replacement show “Battle Creek,” which takes place in the Michigan town known for making some of your favorite cereals. But he seems to be “passing for white” because his last name IS White. He was the partner of Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) until Milt Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel) got transferred from the FBI to work with the police force and chose Agnew as his partner. Though listed as a guest star, Liza Lapira has appeared in every episode as another detective.
It has a rather tired formula: While investigating the murder of the week, Agnew constantly comes up with a cynical scenario while his “I believe in people” partner believes something more positive and is always proven right. Winters looks like such a sad sap that you feel sorry for him, and as Agnew continues to show his pathetic desperation. He claims he needs to know what makes his partner tick because otherwise he can’t trust him in the field, but I think Winters is miscast and hard to watch.
Following “The Good Wife” (which doesn’t have great 18-49 ratings but is a critical favorite), “Battle” premiered with a 1.0 then slipped to .8 for the next four weeks. Doesn’t look good unless a lot of people are recording it at 10 p.m. and watching it later.
“Fresh Off the Boat” Update: I’ve been worried about the show’s ratings. They kept falling from 1.9 in the 18-49 demo to 1.7 to 1.6 to a 1.0 last week. The 1.6 could be explained away because it came two days after the start of Daylight Savings Time and most series were off by about 15% that week. And last week, ABC ran a repeat of the pilot episode. So this week’s rating would be more telling as we were back with the ninth new episode.
Unfortunately, this week’s installment fell further to a 1.4.
FOTB star Randall Park was one of three celebrities who appeared on the program right after that, “Repeat After Me,” a “Candid Camera”-type show where the host speaks to celebrities through earphones telling them what to say to civilians, often making fools of themselves. At the very beginning, Park stood with the host announcing that he was going to be in that episode, so to stay tuned.
Looks like it didn’t help, because the ratings remained the same at 1.0 from last week. It should’ve gone up since it now had a new, higher-rated episode of FOTB leading into it (1.4) than last week’s repeat (1.0).
The good people at Nielsen were nice enough to furnish me with “exclusive” information about how well the show has been doing among Asian Americans. 19.4% of all Asian American households have watched at least one of the first seven episodes (vs. 13.9% of all races combined) within seven days of their broadcast. Looking at the first eight episodes, Asian American households are about 127% more likely to watch the show within the week. In other words, the community’s engaged, which is terrific.
Asian Americans are harder to reach because they don’t watch television as much as blacks and Latinos, so a series like this that caters to us is a great way for advertisers to catch our attention. In fact, on the eighth new episode, I saw a commercial for oranges that featured two AAs, an animal, and no one else. A coincidence?
According to TVSeriesFinale.com, FOTB’s nine new episodes are averaging a 1.86 18-49 rating; Nielsen tells me for its eight new episodes, it’s about 2.68 for those who watch it within seven days. That’s not great, but not bad for the Tuesday 8 p.m. timeslot. However, there’s no hiding the fact that the series is continuing on a downhill slope.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.