The Overdue Asian TV Movement
A new series based on Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir does something totally new on TV. It lets Asians be both Asian and American.
It’s 1995, and 11-year old Eddie’s family has moved from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, where his dad has purchased a Western-themed steak house. Eddie is a hip-hop obsessed kid who wears Notorious B.I.G. t-shirts, watches Dirty Old Bastard videos, and is desperate to own a pair of Air Jordans.
He’s also Chinese-American. And his parents are Taiwanese immigrants.
Which makes “Fresh off the Boat,” the new sitcom debuting on ABC Wednesday night at 8 p.m., the first show to feature an Asian-American family since “All-American Girl,” Margaret Cho’s critically panned 1994 program about culture clash in a Korean-American household. And it also means that after years of neglect, the TV industry might finally be paying attention to the Asian-American community.
“Fresh off the Boat,” which is based on the memoir of the same name by restaurateur Eddie Huang, “has a lot going for it, by having a fresh, authentic voice,” says Phil Yu, who blogs at angryasianman.com. “And there has been nothing on TV like it, this Asian-American family being the heroes of their own story. It’s a fish out of water story I think a lot of people can relate to. As an Asian-American viewer, I feel like I have been waiting for this show my entire life.”
“What we really want to underscore is the feeling of being the outsider, I think it’s something people can relate to whether you’re an immigrant or not,” says Nahnatchka Khan, the program’s showrunner told The Daily Beast. “The new kid at school, some version of that. And in the show, Eddie is even a black sheep within his own family. That’s the universal theme people can connect with.”
For Asian-Americans, this kind of imagery has been a long time coming. African-Americans have starred in TV series since the early 1950s, and there are several current shows with African-American leads, including hits like “Black-ish” and “Empire.” But Asians have been practically invisible in the medium. For years, George Takei of “Star Trek” was just about the only prominent Asian-American on the tube, and the first sitcom to star an actor of Asian descent, 1976’s “Mr. T and Tina,” with Pat Morita, lasted a whopping five episodes. Even though in recent years there have been a number of Asians cast as series regulars—Daniel Dae Kim in “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-O,” Grace Park in “Battlestar Galactica” and “Hawaii Five-O,” Sandra Oh and Ming Na in “Grey’s Anatomy,” etc.—almost all of them play second fiddle to the Caucasian lead. This is especially ironic in the case of “Hawaii Five-O,” which takes place in a state where Asians constitute the majority of the population, yet the series leads—Alex O’Laughlin and Scott Caan—are Caucasian.
“On TV for the most part we’ve been seeing the quirky best friend role, the girl at work, the crime lab technician,” says Khan. “But there are exceptions. For me the best is Glenn in ‘The Walking Dead’ [played by Korean-American Steven Yeun]. He’s a badass, and he’s with a white woman.”
But Glenn is still a secondary, even tertiary, role. Which is pretty much how TV sees Asian-Americans. “The industry answer is that Asian-Americans don’t sell, which is based on a false premise,” says L.S. Kim, a professor of Film and TV at UC-Santa Cruz. “I have this theory about a false premise that Hollywood operates on, which is identification, that you only like to watch people like yourself. So the argument is that Asian-Americans constitute only about 2 percent of the population, so we won’t take a risk on something that only 2 percent of the population will watch. I think identification is not about your own personal race, sex, etc., but it’s about the potential to have compassion.”
“Part of it is just numbers,” says Yu. “Asian-Americans are a fast-growing population in the U.S. now, but we have been a fraction of the U.S. population, and we have been ignored as a viewing population. But it’s also people not knowing how to write things about Asians.”
Yet Margaret Cho, currently hosting “All About Sex,” a late night talk show on TLC, told The Daily Beast that a critical mass of population is not really the reason for the under-representation of Asian-Americans on TV.
“I don’t know a bigger critical mass than Asians,” she says. “How do you fight against invisibility? It’s a racism by omission.”
Cho feels that the notorious failure of “All-American Girl,” which essentially killed any hopes of another Asian-American show for years to come, had as much to do with her immaturity—she was 23 at the time—as the inability of the show’s producers to figure out what the show was about. “I don’t want to say it was before its time, because any family story is in time for anything,” she says. “I was too young, I was very desperate, I had nothing else, my comedy had not even taken off yet. I didn’t have the character to stand up against the network. They didn’t know what they wanted, and everyone thought they were so outlaw by having a show about Asian-American people. The comedy was so soft, it was not really my voice to begin with.”
“Margaret Cho says she was hired to be taught how to be Asian,” adds Kim. “And in ‘All-American Girl,’ it puts in opposition American and Asian. You’re either American or Asian. She has to be either Korean or American, she can’t be both. In ‘Fresh off the Boat,’ we have the simultaneity of children of immigrants who are both Asian and American. To me, that is utterly new. When are we going to be presented as Asian-American?”
There is certainly plenty of “Asian” in “Fresh off the Boat.” In one early episode, Eddie grosses out the kids at school when he brings a particularly pungent noodle dish to the lunchroom. Entering a clean and quiet Orlando supermarket for the first time, Eddie’s mom flashes back to the familiar chaos of an Asian market in D.C. And when her new neighbors invite Eddie’s mom over for a get-acquainted chat, she brings a tofu dish—which no one eats.
“We’re hoping when people see an Asian-American family on TV that they will tune in because it’s a funny show, and they will embrace these characters,” says Khan. “I don’t think it’s people won’t watch an Asian family; they just haven’t had the opportunity yet.”
Does this mean that things are getting better for Asian-American visibility? Recent shows featuring Asian-American stars like John Cho (“Selfie”), and Maggie Q (“Stalker”) have them playing second fiddle to Caucasian actors (as Lucy Liu does in “Elementary”). And when Kal Penn pops up on March 1st in the new series “Battle Creek,” he’ll be a third-stringer behind Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters.
Yet this might actually be a sign of progress. “What is important is the ability for there to be different perspectives and different stories,” says Kim. “It’s about the availability of other perspectives. What we need is a wider lens, a wider scope, because that widens the ability to understand on the part of viewers.”
Adds Khan: “The more visibility, the more opportunities for Asian-American actors to play great roles. It goes to the studios opening up roles they might not have considered Asian actors for. The talent is there. I don’t think there needs to be one superstar, but having more roles open up, that’s the way changes happen. That’s the progress—suddenly you look around, see all these Asian faces, and go ‘Whoa!’”