(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on August 12, 2010.)
It’s been four months since we heard the announcement that R&B singer Tyrese was developing an Asian American version of MTV’s popular “Jersey Shore,” the reality show which focuses on mostly 20-something Italian American underachievers getting drunk, rowdy, and stupid. A pilot for “K-Town” has been shot, but it’s yet to be picked up by any cable channel. This is what we can glean from press notes and the trailer:
Over a high tech, catchy theme song, we’re introduced to blonde hairdresser Jasmine Chang, 23, originally from Hong Kong; Young Lee, 24, originally from Guam, who dresses in suits and walks like a gangster as guys light his cigarette; Jennifer Field, 26, a hapa-hottie who won the 2006 Miss Asian American Pageant; Peter Le, 26, a buff gay porn star who’s seen working out in the gym; the likewise muscle-bound Joey Cha, 25; the scantily clad Scarlet Chan, 24, a stripper/hooker who talks to us while doing her business on the toilet; the bikini-clad single mother Violet Kim, 27; and Steve Kim, 25, who wears a mohawk.
We don’t actually hear most of them talk except for Jasmine Chang and what appears to be Jennifer Field at the end. After screaming a song at a karaoke bar, she exits exclaiming, “I just tore that place up like I tear up every place in K-Town!” She has a remarkably annoying, over-articulated voice (is she a wanna-be newscaster?!) and that one line gave me the impression that she’s totally self-absorbed and for no good reason. Why so defensive? Why was it so important she prove to someone that she could “tear it up?” And really, who cares?
Tyrese put together the production with three Asian Americans who say they want to break stereotypes by showing that we’re just like everyone else. Although many are alarmed at the prospect of seeing loud, outrageous, trashy young people from the community, I’m not that concerned: What’s wrong with seeing buff Asian dudes surrounded by (usually) attractive Asian women? Would we rather see the women surrounded—as usual in TV shows—by white guys?
One community’s stereotype is another community’s godsend. While many Italian Americans protested the cast of “Jersey Shore” saying it reinforced stereotypes about their people, Asian American men are stereotyped as quiet, nerdy, and asexual. Showing us at our gaudy best (worst?) would certainly turn that impression on its ear. If nothing else, we’d see some very bold and confident young Asian Americans who—unlike on countless television shows and movies—don’t need to be saved by nor sacrificed in place of Whitey. And hopefully, Asian women who don’t only want to date white men.
Co-producer Eugene Choi asked The Daily Beast, “Why can’t you see the Asian man get the girl?” He pointed to the ending of Romeo Must Die, where Jet Li didn’t get to kiss his Juliet, Aaliyah—just hug her! Choi’s heart seems to be in the right place. Perhaps a more alarming concern is if this series doesn’t get picked up for broadcast. While it could be because it’s a crappy production with uninteresting people, my first guess would be Hollywood assumes not enough people would watch an all (or pretty close to it) Asian American cast. Maybe they’d wanna see more of the ladies and less of the men.
This is what it comes down to: You don’t have to actually like the people in “K-Town” to appreciate the greater good they could do for our community. In much the same way, you won’t catch me dead watching “Grey’s Anatomy.” But I’m glad Sandra Oh’s there being her usual imperfect self reminding viewers that we’re in mainstream positions, don’t all talk with accents, and are just as relatable as any white or black person.
End Of An Era Department: This weekend, “At The Movies,” the syndicated movie review program which made Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert household names, will air its final episode. The show evolved out of “Sneak Previews” on PBS in 1975 and went through various name changes as it was syndicated, finally arriving at its final incarnation. After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert carried on with Richard Roeper. Then Ebert lost the ability to talk, so Roeper carried on with Michael Phillips. When Disney couldn’t come to contractual terms with Roeper, they started clean with the oft-ridiculed duo of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. After a year, they were fired and last September, some of the program’s legitimacy was restored when Phillips was brought back to host with A.O. Scott.
Apparently, that wasn’t enough to correct the ratings downturn and cities shifted the show to less-desirable time slots (KABC moved it from Sundays at 6:30 p.m. to Saturdays at 4 p.m. and often preempted it without warning). In March, Disney announced its 24-year syndication of the show would end on Aug. 14. The same day of that sad news, Roger Ebert revealed he was “deeply involved” in discussions to produce a similar program called “Roger Ebert presents At the Movies,” but nothing has emerged since. After Roeper was booted from “At the Movies,” he said he’d been working on returning to the air on a new review show, but that never panned out either.
I probably began watching “Sneak Previews” in late 1978 as I wanted to see what the top critics in the country thought of the new Superman film starring Christopher Reeve (they loved it). Because I’m a critic at heart, I reveled in watching the honest discussion these two had and learned a lot about movie criticism even though I rarely saw more than just a handful of films every year. It became a weekly habit which has lasted for over 31 years.
I didn’t always agree with their assessments once I saw one of the projects they reviewed, and they usually didn’t understand the racial ramifications of films featuring Asian Americans. But it was certainly heartening to see them tear apart movies like Rising Sun and (with Ebert and Roeper) Pearl Harbor which I wanted to do poorly at the box office. And it made the campaign against The Last Airbender that much stronger that Ebert, in his newspaper column, came out early against the white-washed casting saying it was an insult to use white actors to play Asian characters. And when he blasted it on every level once he saw it late June, it was icing on the cake.
Hopefully, the current hosts will welcome back Ebert to the stage just to acknowledge his legacy in helping to bring a higher level of legitimacy to critiquing movies on television. I’ll be watching this Saturday afternoon to find out (and KABC, if you preempt it again, I swear I’ll…).
Not So Sad Farewell Department: On July 24, quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, 59, passed away after complications from surgery for a chronic bed sore. His work, which satirized everything from feminists to the KKK, was syndicated in newspapers and magazines including The L.A. Weekly. It was there around 1994 that MANAA first became aware of his work. He drew a one panel cartoon of Jolly Ole Saint Nick with slanted eyes with the caption “Slanta Claus.”
There was nothing satirical or clever about it. We contacted his manager at the time who made the usual excuse that his work was politically incorrect and that it offended everyone from time to time but that he didn’t mean to offend Asian Americans. Callahan, like many handicapped people, wanted to be treated like anyone else and not be treated nicer because of his disabilities (to draw, he stuck a pen between the fingers of his right hand and used his shoulders to guide the pen with his left hand).
While I’m sure some of his work had redeeming social value, when it came to Asian Americans, we were just a bunch of slanted-eyed people. So good riddance.
Airbender Update: The movie, as I predicted, is on track to make $130 million in the U.S. Internationally, it’s so far brought in an additional $53 million, raising its tally to $183 million. Not that impressive considering a $150 million production cost and $130 million marketing budget. Some in the community wondered if there was a second Airbender film if Paramount could hire someone other than M. Night Shyamalan to direct it. Doesn’t look like it. At a press junket in Mexico last month, the defensive director revealed he took less money up front so he had “sequel rights” to all of his movies. Meaning either he makes the follow-up or no one does.
To me, that further seals the fate of a second Airbender: Paramount’s not that stupid to give this now talentless idiot another try. When a journalist in Mexico confronted him on his reputation as a fading filmmaker, he shot back: “I think if I thought like you, I’d kill myself.”
“Everything you said is the opposite of my instinct as an artist. The way you just thought, I literally would kill myself… Your impression of my career is not my impression of my career. It’s something you read on Google or something. It’s a fascinating thing that you would even characterize my whole career the way you just did, dismissively like that. It’s sad for me to even hear you think like that.”
Yeah, well, the rest of us think like that too, pal. So it makes sense you’re in denial.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.