ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: Unprecedented TV visibility is the biggest API entertainment story this year, but lesser-known works hold their own

The big story in Asian Pacific Islander entertainment of 2015 is undoubtedly the return of the Asian American sitcom. Not one, but two shows featuring an Asian American family at their center, “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken,” respectively, debuted in a year in which APIs, and people of color more generally, have reached an unprecedented level of visibility on network TV.

As the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition pointed out in a statement, ABC alone, which is home to both shows, will reach a historic high of 18 Asian regulars on their primetime television series for the 2015-2016 season. And to name just a couple others, Vincent Rodriguez III is great in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which is a much higher-quality program and has better gender politics than its name suggests. (Rodriguez and his character Josh Chan are a case study in how a character can be a terrible person but still be a genuinely “positive” portrayal). Meanwhile, Steven Yuen continues to be a fan favorite on “The Walking Dead,” a show I don’t care for at this point, but is popular as all get-out.

(Even people, like me, who don’t like the show overall, often enjoy his character).

But the most attention has been lavished on “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken.” Given their landmark status, it seems only natural they’ve been picked apart and examined by the kind of people who obsess over media depictions of APIs, a group I include myself within.

Needless to say, the opinions are mixed and there’s been plenty of debate. (As of press time, the show’s Wikipedia article has sections on “diversity” and “hegemonic representation,” which are essentially lengthy and grammatically-dubious criticisms of the show’s politics — not that I completely disagree with the points it makes, but seriously guys, put that content in proper Wikipedia format.)

But the scrutiny is really borne out of the fact that there are so few representations of APIs, that each one is unfairly burdened with the duty, according to some, to elevate the public image of Asian Americans. But given how unreasonable such demands are and the fact that we are rapidly gaining visibility in the media in such a way as to take pressure off any one given work, the shows’ obligation are not to create an unassailably positive portrayal of Asian America, but rather to simply avoid outright offensive portrayals. From this lens, both shows pass with flying colors.

The fact that they largely portray their characters as complex and multidimensional is a big deal in-and-of itself. (Sadly and ironically, both shows feature characters who verge on, if not fully embrace, gay stereotypes).

Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen photo by Jordin Althaus-ABC - © 2015 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen
photo by Jordin Althaus-ABC – © 2015 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

A show’s only true obligation, really, is to be good. And “Fresh Off the Boat” more or less succeeds. In its second season, the writing’s gotten tighter, Eddie Huang departed as the narrator (which never felt right, mostly because it was Eddie Huang’s voice, but it wasn’t really Eddie Huang’s voice), and the focus of the show has shifted a bit toward the adults — all changes that have improved the show.

Constance Wu and Randall Park continue to be terrific. The extended family (Susan Park, C.S. Lee and Justin Chen) kill it every time they appear. And its solid supporting cast and roster of guest stars includes Paul Scheer, Maria Bamford, Ken Marino and even Ray Wise. (That guy could appear in a thousand adaptations of Ayn Rand novels and it still wouldn’t diminish my love of his work in “Twin Peaks”). And even though the stuff with kids doesn’t always work, it’s not really due to child actors, who are quite good, as much as it is the writing. (Comedy with kids is just something difficult to pull off. Aside from “Freaks and Geeks,” I can’t think of any truly successful examples.)

“Dr. Ken” is not as good. But then again, it’s not really trying to be. It’s a full-on multicam sitcom, laugh track and all. And it’s certainly not as bad as many critics’ reviews suggest.

The primary cast (Ken Jeong, Suzy Nakamura, Albert Tsai and Krista Marie Yu) turns in solid performances. And its supporting cast includes Tisha Campbell-Martin (“Martin” and “My Wife and Kids”) and Dave Foley of “NewsRadio.” It’s also just getting started and it may find its footing when it enters its second season.

And perhaps the best thing that could come from these shows is that their API stars and staff grow in influence in the media and then use that influence to give a platform to a more diverse range of API voices.

In some, we can already see this happening. Jeong, for instance, helped produce Jennifer Phang’s sci-fi film “Advantageous.” The genre has been especially popular in recent years, but aside from 2013’s “Under the Skin,” Phang’s feature is the only work that I found to be genuinely thought-provoking and emotionally resonant (sorry “Inception,” “Interstellar,” “Ex Machina,” etc). In addition to genuinely having something to say about class, race, age, and gender, it’s often gorgeous, chilling and heartbreaking. Plus, it boasts stellar performances from Jacqueline Kim and Samantha Kim. Jeong delivers as Kim’s brother in-law, proving fully capable of an understated dramatic turn. Personally,

I’ve always wanted to see the manic intensity he puts to such good use in his comic roles channeled into a menacing character in a thriller or horror film.

The film is available on Netflix, which has joined the API film festival circuit as a premier distributor of API content. In addition to Phang’s film, it also currently carries bold works from fellow East Bay APIs Cary Joji Fukunaga and Amy Everson.

Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” has received some deserved criticism, Zeba Blay expertly illuminates in a piece for the Huffington Post, that the film, which takes place in an unnamed African county, “promotes this idea of Africa as a monolith, as a site of misery and pain so widespread that it doesn’t matter where in Africa the story is actually taking place.” It’s hard to argue with that, but at the same time, the film is masterfully crafted. It manages to be shocking and revolting without being exploitative. It manages to maintain empathy for people who engage in horrible atrocities. And it takes the kinds of events we hear of in distant news reports and find inexplicable and make them understandable, (though not at all justified of course). Plus, the entire cast is black (as Blay points out, there’s not a white savior in sight) — its stars Idris Elba and Abraham Attah, in particular, give astonishing performances.

Felt_Blackout_Films“Felt,” the powerful independent film starring and co-written by Amy Everson, is harrowing as well, though not as frenetic. It turns its eye to atrocities that are subtler and closer to home, and draws our attention to our own complicity to them in a way that “Beasts” does not. Though it’s gorgeously shot and full of arresting visuals and impressively naturalistic performances, the weight of the subject matter makes it difficult to watch, though ultimately well worth it.

These three films on Netflix are leagues better than anything in mainstream cinema this year. I love broad, big-budget spectacle as much as anyone, but didn’t find anything particularly captivating of that ilk this year.

“Furious 7” traded Chinese American director Justin Lin for Malaysian Australian James Wan, and Sung Kang for a sadly underused Tony Jaa in the cast. While the film lacked for Lin’s experienced hand and grip on the grammar of car chases to give the audacious action sequences coherence, it’s still a decent distraction. Plus, it made all the box office money this summer with an audience that was 75 percent people of color.

“Jurassic World” managed to be kind of a snooze despite being chock full of CGI dinosaurs, but I had to admit there was something satisfying about Irrfan Khan and B.D. Wong sharing a decently lengthy scene together. (It didn’t hurt that, as silly as it was, it was one of the better acted scenes in the film.)

But in terms of work that falls within or at least very close to the mainstream, my favorite piece of API entertainment this year was the dramedy series “Master of None,” created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, also on Netflix. The two worked together extensively on “Parks and Recreation” which Ansari starred in and Yang co-wrote and co-produced. In “Master,” Ansari stars as the series’ protagonist, and he also gets involved behind the scenes, directed a couple times and co-writing several episodes with Yang. Ansari has long ago more than proven himself adept at comedy, but with “Master” he proves he can pull off drama as well — and carry a show as its lead. I was a big fan of “Parks,” but always felt Ansari was underutilized in that show. And while it had plenty of twee charm and was frequently hilarious, it never provoked much emotion, with a couple of notable exceptions, much as it tried. This is not the case with “Master of None.” While it’s ostensibly a comedy first and a drama second, the two elements conspire in a really delightful way. The comedy engages and amuses and the dramatic moments sneak up on you, culminating in a poignant finale. And while API issues aren’t at the series’ center, they aren’t far from it either. Brian, a character played by Kelvin Yu who seems to be based on Yang, is one of Aziz’s character’s closest friends, and their relationship is strengthened by shared experience as the children of Asian immigrants. One episode, guest starring Ravi Patel, explores racism in the entertainment industry and manages to both be unflinching and avoid being heavy-handed.

In short, there’s plenty of great API content. And here I’ve only discussed film and television. Some of my favorite API art this past year has come in comic book form (a subject that deserves, and may get time allowing, its own column). Jillian and Mariko Tamaki released the poignant and haunting “This One Summer.” Jen Wang followed up the gorgeous and heart-wrenching “Koko Be Good” with the arguably even better Cory Doctorow-collaboration “In Real Life.” (These last two were released late 2014, but I read them this year). Jason Shiga’s thoughtful, disturbing and hilarious ongoing series “Demon” is his most epic work to date. And Adrian Tomine, whose work is so good I couldn’t imagine it getting any better, released his latest compilation, “Killing and Dying,” completely proving me wrong.

Looking at my favorite API art of 2015, many feel like seeds that are likely to grow into something truly remarkable in the coming years. Others remind me that even longtime favorites continue to grow long after achieving greatness. All of these works, across various mediums, though, make me eager to see what these artists, and others I’ve yet to discover, will do in 2016.

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, and writes about entertainment for the Nichi Bei Weekly. The views expressed in the preceding column aren’t necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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