In the past, the arrival of the new fall TV season usually meant another opportunity to gripe about the lack of Asian American representation on the air. But recently, with shows like Heroes and Lost, Asian faces are becoming more commonplace. Yet, there is much room for improvement. Reel Stories columnist Philip W. Chung takes a look at the new fall schedule.
KOREAN AMERICANS RULE
If any one Asian ethnic group will be ruling the airwaves this fall, Koreans are it. The majority of the new regular Asian American cast members on the prime-time schedule are Korean, including Tim Kang (Rambo) co-starring with Simon Baker in The Mentalist, Smith Cho (Ping Pong Playa) as the ditzy but intelligent office administrator in the re-boot of Knight Rider, Brian Tee (Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift) as an ex-gang banger turned emergency medical technician in the new series based on the film Crash, Jamie Chung (Real World: San Diego) as the titular ninja-fighting lead of Samurai Girl, comedian Margaret Cho headlining her own VH1 reality show The Cho Show and sassy half-Korean model/ ex-go-go dancer Sheena Sakai strutting her stuff on America’s Next Top Model.
These newbies join established favorites Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim (Lost), Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), James K. Lee (Heroes), Lindsay Price (Lipstick Jungle), Grace Park (The Cleaner and Battlestar Galactica), Rex Lee (Entourage), C.S. Lee (Dexter) and Bobby Lee (MADtv) showing things have come a long way since the days when there was a dearth of Korean American actors to portray Koreans on shows like M*A*S*H and All-American Girl.
REALITY SHOWS = DIVERSITY
Although reality shows are guilty of giving us the likes of William Hung and Tila Tequila and tend to cater to our basest impulses, no other genre consistently reflects the real diversity of America.
In addition to the aforementioned The Cho Show and America’s Next Top Model, Asian Americans are prominently featured this fall on Survivor: Gabon, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, Top Design, America’s Toughest Job and others. And the fact that Yul Kwon has become one of our community’s most spoken advocates after winning Survivor is indicative that positive things can occasionally come out of this genre.
JAPANESE GAME SHOWS INVADE THE U.S.
For those who bemoaned the very presence of I Survived a Japanese Game Show, the premiere of Hole in the Wall (FOX’s version of the Japanese game show where contestants have to jump through holes of various shapes on an oncoming wall or get knocked into a pool of water) was not greeted with open arms. That’s too bad because there’s likely more on the way.
With the success of these shows and others like Iron Chef, American TV executives are searching the Japanese airwaves looking for the next hit game show to adapt. And what of Hole in the Wall itself? It may be one of the most inane half-hours of TV ever, but strangely enough, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
IS ‘WHITE FACE’ THE NEW ‘YELLOW FACE?’
We’re all used to seeing non-Asian actors playing Asian characters in “yellow face,” oftentimes embracing every stereotype in the process. But when was the last time you saw an Asian actor on American TV putting on exaggerated Caucasian “white face” make-up to poke fun at “the man”?
On the season premiere of MADtv, Bobby Lee took on the role of presidential hopeful John McCain in a spoof of So You Think You Can Dance. Lee’s resemblance to McCain is tenuous at best, and the nature of the role (McCain is old, slow and decrepit) goes against Lee’s naturally outrageous energy (see how he shined in the same episode’s Johnny Gan sketch). I hope Lee continues to play the role, sending a strong message to young Asian Americans that they too can grow up to become old Caucasian Republican presidential nominees.
Who knows—maybe this will start a trend: Sandra Oh as Sarah Palin?
THE WHITEST NETWORK ON THE AIR
It’s not like any of the four major networks have the best track record when it comes to Asian representation, but one in particular stands out head and shoulders above the rest this fall—the CW, the network merger of the WB and UPN. Aside from a handful of “urban” shows it inherited, the network’s focus is on shows featuring pretty white people like Gossip Girls and the new 90210. With hapa Kristin Kreuk no longer on Smallville, the landscape is even worse.
We all know there are plenty of good-looking, slutty, superficial Asian Americans in real life—the perfect types to appear on a typical CW show, so let’s reflect reality in all its dimensions.
SHOW MORE LOVE TO THE ASIAN MALE
This season, there is no prime-time series that features an Asian male in the lead. Women don’t have it great either, but at least you can claim Lipstick Jungle, The Cho Show and Samurai Girl as your own. It’s been over thirty years since Pat Morita headlined the short-lived series Mr. T and Tina, and it’s about time the guys got another shot.
The obvious man for the job is John Cho. In recent years, he was the star of several TV series including The Singles Table that never made it to air, and with his burgeoning film career (the Harold and Kumar series as well as next year’s Star Trek re-boot) he may be focusing more on the big screen. But Cho’s natural boy-next-door charm is ideal for the medium. Someone give this man his own sitcom.
‘SATURDAY NIGHT’ DEAD FOR ASIANS
Since debuting in 1975, Saturday Night Live has become the comedic institution whose influence is unmatched. Some of its alumni who have passed through its doors include Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Chris Rock and Tina Fey, and the list goes on and on. But in its over three decades on the air, there has not been one regular Asian cast member.
True, Rob Schneider and the talented Fred Armisen are part Asian (though do we really want to claim Schneider as one of our own?), but wouldn’t it be great to have someone on the cast who is visibly Asian and proud to be so? Wouldn’t it be great to have a real Asian performer play figures like Kim Jong-Il and William Hung?
The show’s record with Asian hosts hasn’t been great either—only Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan have had that privilege. You can argue that there is a lack of recognizable Asian celebrities to fill that position, but John Cho and Kal Penn could have easily co-hosted around the time of the release of the second Harold and Kumar film or Kristi Yamaguchi off her Dancing with the Stars performance—she couldn’t have been stiffer than fellow Olympian Michael Phelps in this season’s premiere.
AND THE REST…
Some of the other brothers and sisters who are appearing as regulars on shows this fall are: B.D. Wong on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Kal Penn on House, Michaela Conlin on Bones, Julia Ling on Chuck, James Saito on Eli Stone, Michael Paul Chan on The Cleaner, Lucy Liu on Dirty Sexy Money, Ken Leung and Naveen Andrews on Lost, Sendhil Ramamurthy and Masi Oka on Heroes, Parminder Nagra on ER, Mindy Kaling on The Office, Lauren Tom on King of the Hill and Carrie Ann Inaba and Cheryl Burke on Dancing with The Stars.