ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: APAs making air(waves)

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The cast of ‘Fresh off the Boat.’ photo courtesy of ABC

The next year of television is set to be a big one for Asian Pacific Island Americans. A couple weeks ago, when ABC picked up the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first Asian American network sitcom in a good two decades, it sparked some discussion (and reflection) on the role of APIs on TV. The only other Asian American sitcom, 1994’s “All American Girl,” which was created by and starred Margaret Cho (though her control over it was nominal), was widely panned by the community. This time out, things are looking much better. “Fresh Off the Boat” is based on the childhood memoirs of Eddie Huang, who has been described as an “Asian American bad-boy celebrity chef” (a description that initially sounds weird until you think about it and realize that it’s somehow almost become, like, an archetype at this point). Based on the title and trailer alone, it already looks like a sharp departure from “All American Girl” in some interesting ways.

“All American Girl” seemed to be saying to white America, “we’re just like you, except when we aren’t, and in those case we’re hi-lariously backwards.” “Fresh Off the Boat,” on the other hand, looks to be saying something very different. In explaining the title of the show, Eddie “Magic Dong” Huang, who is a second generation Taiwanese American, had this to say in an interview with Buzzfeed, “I would never call myself an American.” Huang added, “I’m a Taiwanese Chinese American. My parents came here in the late ’70s and had me about three years after they’d lived in this country. So I consider myself fresh. You can’t tell me to not consider myself something.”

Knowing the “Rich Homie” Huang from his other works (mostly his blog and his Vice travelogue video series, also called “Fresh Off the Boat”), I wouldn’t have guessed he’d make a sitcom that’d get picked up by ABC. He’s a tremendously entertaining dude — a witty, confrontational, politically radical (though sometimes sexist), answer to the model minority stereotype.

Still, the show will, indeed, air on ABC this fall. It stars Randall Park, Constance Wu, Ian Chen, Forrest Wheeler and Hudson Yang. And early buzz is enthusiastic. Jeff Yang, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and father of the younger Yang, who plays the young Eddie Huang in the show, giving him reasons to have both a more informed and more biased opinion, wrote the following: “The show is like nothing you will have ever seen before on television. If it makes it to air, it will blow minds, raise eyebrows. … It’s that different.’”
(For what it’s worth, my instinct is to trust the elder Yang’s ability to separate his personal connection to the show from his professional opinion.)

Angry Asian Man Phil Yu wrote, “having read a draft of the pilot script for ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ and being privy to some of the production, I think this is something wholly fresh and different, and really worth looking forward to.”
And Margaret Cho tweeted about the show, “FOB is much better and I’m so proud to have influenced it even in the smallest way. I’m humbled and joyous.”

There’s been a little bit of controversy over the name (many find the term “Fresh Off the Boat” offensive), but mostly eager anticipation.

Having only seen the trailer, (it’s all that’s available at the moment), I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic. Jenn Fang of the Reappropriate blog wrote about her impressions and I think I mirror most of what she wrote. I laughed out loud a couple times, (a rarity even in previews for comedies I ended up loving) and feel like a lot of the humor is aimed at an Asian American audience. And, like Fang, I worry a bit about the mom’s character falling into stereotype. She also voiced concerns that the show’s treatment of an Asian kid who is into hip-hop might be culturally exploitative, as the trailer seemed to suggest, but I’m somewhat more hopeful that this is just a marketing angle and the show will take this on in an interesting and meaningful way. Similarly, I’m hopeful that the trailer is focused on the fun and the actual show will really embrace some of the dark and angry stuff from the memoir it’s based on.

While “Fresh Off the Boat” is undoubtedly the must-watch/must-have-an-opinion-about show for APIs, its far from the only significant show.

“Selfie,” which is also on ABC, stars John Cho as a marketing specialist who tries to help a vapid celebrity played by Karen Gillan repair her social media image. I watched the trailer and, to be honest, I hated every second of it that Cho wasn’t in. Still, it’s substantial to have a major network sitcom with an Asian American lead. And Gillan is really funny on the cop show spoof “NTSF:SD:SUV.” And comedy trailers are the worst, (the worst!). So I’ll reserve judgment for now.

Meanwhile, the other star of the “Harold and Kumar” franchise, Kal Penn, is set to play a supporting part in the new show from “Breaking Bad” showrunner Vince Gilligan.

There are also plenty of returning shows with API actors in major parts. “Hawaii Five-O,” which has Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park in the main cast and several API actors in supporting and guest parts, got renewed. Joe Dante has directed a few episodes (which means I’ll be checking out at least one episode).

“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is back for another season and I’m actually fairly happy about this. The show features Mandopop Chloe Bennet as the show’s thus far racially ambiguous protagonist Skye (though it looks like her ethnicity may be revealed to be Chinese next season) and Ming-Na Wen as Agent Melinda May. Wen does great work with scripts that are sometimes a bit hackneyed and, even though her “cold but deadly” character sometimes careens dangerously close to a stereotype. Bennet also does good work with questionable material and if there’s any stereotype she comes too close to it’s the hot and sassy hacker, not anything racial. The show itself got off to a really rocky start. It was essentially a case study in what’s wrong with the network TV drama: It tries to appeal to too broad an audience and it has to fill 20-something hours with 10-or-so hours of quality content. But the last quarter of this past season has been great fun, and it does features many solid actors of color in prominent roles, so I’m really rooting for it to step it up in the second season.

The well-received “Silicon Valley,” which stars one of my favorite comedians, Kumail Nanjiani (if you haven’t checked out his standup, you’re missing out), will also be back next year. I haven’t watched it yet, but will do so before it returns.

“Parks and Recreation,” which features Aziz Ansari and is easily my favorite network show, will also be back for what’s likely to be its final season.

“The Mindy Project,” starring Mindy Kaling, “The Mentalist” which features Tim Kang, and “Modern Family” with Aubrey Anderson-Emmons are all back next year as well.

Lastly, “Game of Thrones” appears to be looking for an actor of East Asia descent for a supporting role for its upcoming fifth season. The character is called “the waif” and in the books, her race is not specified. It’s too early to know much — the role has yet to be cast and, though the character does appear in the book, the book and the show don’t always align. However, if they do hew closely to the book, I’ll say, without giving too much away, that the character runs the risk of embodying some Eastern mysticism and deadly Asian female clichés, but there’s no point in judging prematurely.

There are definitely going to be a lot of Asian roles on TV this coming season. But quantity and quality aren’t necessarily the same thing. (And the former is much easier, obviously, measure before seeing the shows). A decent predictor of good, or at least not bad, roles is people of color in the writers’ and producers’ rooms. Aland Yang is a writer, and more recently a producer, for “Parks and Rec” and Aziz’s character Tom has never stepped into even questionable territory. And Maurissa Tancharoen is a writer and showrunner for “S.H.I.E.L.D.” The pilot of “Fresh Off the Boat” was written by Nahnatchka Khan and produced by Melvin Mar and Eddie Huang. Sanjay Shah is going to be writing for the series. As promising as the cast is, perhaps the biggest reason to have faith in “Fresh Off the Boat” is the people working behind the camera.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine. The views expressed in the preceding column aren’t necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Comments

  1. What about Elementary co-starring Lucy Liu? Wasn’t a fan before due to her rep, but her character as Joan Watson, an adopted to a white last name but still chinese American, is not so bad at avoiding stereotypical API portrayal and this Sherlock Holmes remake is enjoying a 3rd season.

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