ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: For Asian American entertainment, 2020 marks a new beginning — but the beginning of what exactly?


Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series.

When we talk about eras in entertainment media, we often define them by decades.

Eighties movies, sixties rock or ‘90s video games. This is ultimately pretty arbitrary, of course — when the calendar flips from December 1999 to January 2000, what’s happening in film, books and music doesn’t undergo instantaneous radical change — but it’s a convenient way to group broad trends in entertainment.

This past year, though, has actually felt like a new beginning. What’s happening in entertainment and art can’t really be separated from what’s happening in culture more broadly, or from politics or the economy. And 2020 was pivotal in all those areas. But while COVID-19’s complete upending of daily life, and the bizarre, high-stakes presidential election made it abundantly clear that it was a year of transition, what we are transitioning from and to remains murky.

So for this Asian and Pacific Islander entertainment year in review, we’ll look at this year’s notable works and events in Asian and Asian American media, not only as a way of reflecting on the year that was, but also, of anticipating the years ahead.

Streaming as the Vanguard of Asian American Content
According to a recent Nielsen report, AAPIs are cord cutting at a much higher rate than other groups, and 82 percent of us subscribe to at least one streaming service. It’s hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg, but it’s probably not a coincidence that these platforms offered way more Asian and Asian American content than traditional television this past year.

Netflix alone is home to a steady flow of decent-to-outstanding content, much of it commissioned directly by the company. This past year saw the premiere of Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age sitcom, “Never Have I Ever.” It stars Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as teen Devi, based loosely on Kaling, and Nikkei Darren Barnet as the object of her affection. Other Asian and Pacific Islander actors make up the majority of the main cast, with Poorna Jagannathan playing the protagonist’s mother, Ramona Young playing her best friend, Richa Moorjani playing her cousin and Eddie Liu her cousin’s boyfriend.

To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You” was released on the platform this year as well. The second in the “To All the Boys” trilogy, based on Jenny Han’s books of the same name, it stars Lana Condor in the lead role. Han reportedly chose to sell the rights to the wildly popular teen romance books to Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment because it was the only production company that promised not to cast a white actor in the lead role, and the resulting films have received critical and popular acclaim. The first film was controversial in some corners of the Asian American Internet for not featuring any Asian males in its cast, and whether or not you believe the controversy was warranted, Asian American Pacific Islander actors Jordan Fisher and Ross Butler joined the returning cast for the sequel.

The platform also debuted a new season of “Kim’s Convenience,” a highly-acclaimed Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sitcom starring Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Jean Yoon, Andrea Bang and Simu Liu as the titular family that runs the titular convenience store.

Hulu, meanwhile, is home to “PEN15,” a cringe comedy about junior high co-created by and starring East West Players alum Maya Erskine. The most immediately striking thing about the show is that Erskine and co-creator Anna Konkle, who are both in their early 30s, play themselves at 13, amid a cast of actual 13-year-olds. Rather than wring cheap laughs from the incongruity of adults behaving like pubescents, they play it straight, resulting in something deeply unsettling and affecting. The dissonance actually brings into sharper focus what it means to be an adolescent and what it means to be an adult. And in particular, it forces the viewer to confront the fact that, for many of us, the experiences of those formative years — the pain, fear and humiliation, but also the everyday joys and occasional triumphs — never really leave us, no matter how old we get. And some of those experiences it depicts are deeply connected to Erskine and her family’s ethnic and racial identity. Her character’s brother Shuji is played by Dallas Liu, while her character’s mother is played by her real life mother, Mutsuko Erskine. Her real life brother, Taichi, meanwhile, serves as an editor on the show.

These shows and films firmly establish streaming services as a great repository of Asian American and Pacific Islander stories that would likely have only been screened fleetingly on the festival circuit in the past. And as the pandemic forced festivals to go partially or fully online, the transition from arthouse to online over the 2020s is all but assured. But these services are likely to serve not only as the venue for what would have been festival fare in the past, but also as host to content that is custom-made for the medium.

This year, I started watching programs on NHKWorld-Japan’s English language streaming app, which features some breaking news segments, human interest stories and profiles of places and people across Japan, and to an extent, across all of Asia. The content is culled from its cable broadcast, but feels very much in its element as a streaming service. The fact that it’s a state-enterprise and is accessible online across just about any device gives it a different set of incentives, resulting in shows with a distinct tone. For the most part, its coverage isn’t focused on the kind of terrifying, infuriating stories that dominated the U.S. news cycle this particular year. Instead, you might open the app and come across a profile of a Japanese baker who recently won a prestigious international competition, a segment on efforts to preserve the Ainu language or a mini-doc about a woman pioneering “agritourism” in Laos. The stories are informative, certainly, but also seem aimed to promote Japan tourism, highlight the efforts of Japanese nationals abroad, and maybe even attract international students and workers. For our family, it served as something safe to put on the TV when we wanted news or nonfiction content to help us feel connected to the larger world and its events during the COVID lockdown, without being worked up into a fit of rage or broken down by incapacitating despair. (That’s what news Websites and Twitter are for!.)

And I think a similar dynamic might be animating the popularity of  “Terrace House” in its early Netflix run. When Netflix rebooted the Japanese reality show, which moves a bunch of 20-somethings trying to find their place in life into a house and follows them over a period of months, it clearly had international ambitions. The comparative diversity of the cast, its rollout with subtitles in many languages and its availability in most regions make that clear. And the show did indeed find an international fanbase who largely responded to the relatively calm and understated vibe of the show. Episodes consisted largely of reasonable, thoughtful people having fairly normal conversations, forming friendships and romantic bonds, and occasionally coming into conflict, set to an unobtrusive soundtrack — a stark contrast to U.S. reality TV, which is full of comically unnecessary conflicts bombastic music and frenetic editing.

Usually, quiet, subtle entertainment works demand more attention. If you don’t pay careful attention and think about what you’re watching, you can totally miss the point. But “Terrace House” is different. It’s a reality show, after all, and as best as I could tell, never particularly aspired to have “a point.” I watched one season and found it compelling, but never insisted on hitting the pause button when I got up to do something else. I cared about what was happening on screen, but felt like I could generally drop in and out when I wanted. In that way, it has a lot in common with a Internet-specific genre of media, live-streaming, that offers companionship as much as entertainment.

Cultural critic Kyle Chayka posits that the show’s slow pace and lack of drama is actually more aspirational than relatable to its fans. It offers them, he argues, the fantasy of having “the time and space to think about your personal problems and goals instead of worrying about paying rent or confronting the twin apocalypses of global political nationalism and climate change.”

2020, though, marked an abrupt end to any such fantasy. At the start of the year, Chayka noted that the show had gradually strayed from its original premise, and as such, was losing its appeal. The show’s success, its fame and the exposure guaranteed to its cast each year, undermined the intimacy and introversion inherent to its early years, and the show was getting more, well, showy and dramatic. When a cast member, Hana Kimura, an up-and-coming professional wrestler, lost her temper at another cast member, she was showered with a torrent of online abuse, some of it racialized. (Kimura’s father was Indonesian). According to Kimura’s friends and mother, the scene was staged at the instruction of producers, a seeming confirmation of the longstanding rumors that the show’s drama, such that it was, was actually engineered, just as in  countless conventional reality shows. A few months later, isolated in her apartment due to COVID-19 and still receiving a steady stream of Internet abuse, Kimura took her own life. She was 22. Shortly thereafter, the show was canceled.

The abrupt end of “Terrace House” is defined, first and foremost, by human tragedy, a real person’s life cut cruelly short. But it’s also hard not to see it as a sort of parable or cautionary tale about the futility of indulging in the fantasy it depicted, of a life removed from the larger world’s turmoil. Not that we’re likely to stop trying.

The streaming models’ looser definitions of success and smaller consequences for failure will likely lead to lots of new entertainment genres. In a decade in which most of us will likely travel less due to climate instability, making flight more unreliable and economic inequality making it unaffordable for even more of us, and, yes, the possibility of more pandemics leading to more lockdowns, new forms of escapist entertainment are likely to proliferate, ones that are less based in fantasies of superpowers and epic battles between good and evil, and more anchored in a desire for safety and stability. Which is fine. We all need a break sometimes, and more importantly, we need something to aspire to. And the kind of fantasy that “Terrace House” initially depicted, of a laidback life spent in the company of friends, secure in the knowledge that food, shelter, and dignity are guaranteed, is both more achievable and more desirable than gaining super strength or the ability to leap tall buildings in one bound.

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 are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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