I’ve never quite trusted Tina Fey. When she was the head writer of “Saturday Night Live” and co-anchor of its “Weekend Update,” I often got complaints about anti-Asian jokes she made. Nothing significant enough to complain to NBC about, but enough for me to think she didn’t feel that kindly toward the Asian American population.
So when people started complaining about a Vietnamese immigrant character named Dong on a comedy series she executive produced, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” I was prepared for the worst. Online, many were upset about his accent and stereotyped job of working as a Chinese food delivery boy. But then again, he was one of the love interests of the title character.
On one hand, many of us have been conditioned to believe that any Asian-accented character on television or in movies is a stereotype because historically, Hollywood tended to ask our actors — most of whom do not speak with an Asian accent — to speak with one. It didn’t matter if they were portraying Asians in Asian countries or Asians living in the United States. The lines were blurred. We were usually seen as foreigners either way.
However, some 62% of Asians living in this country are immigrants, so many of them would naturally speak with accents. Some of the harshest critics should record their immigrant parents speaking and play it back online. Do they really sound that different from Asian-accented characters on television?
And in finally catching up with this 13-episode season, which was (originally planned for NBC but) released all at once on Netflix on March 15, I didn’t sense stereotyped jokes against Dong. He came off as a sweet, sincere, even lovable character. Moreover, throughout the episodes, Fey and her writers made many sensitive points about the experiences of Asian, black, and even Native Americans.
For 15 years, Schmidt (Ellie Semper) and three women were locked in an Indiana bunker with the Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (“Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm), who’d convinced them a nuclear war had killed everyone outside, and he was keeping them safe 20 feet underground. Since she was kidnapped while in the 8th grade, Schmidt had a lot to catch up on once she was freed at the age of 29 (surprisingly, the series doesn’t capitalize on the comedic potential of her learning what she missed out on and getting pop culture right; she seems to be hip to present day-isms unrealistically quickly).
She moves to New York and rooms with Titus, a gay black man who still dreams of a Broadway career, though having to take jobs masquerading as fictional characters. Schmidt works as a nanny for Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), who’s married to a rich businessman who cheats on her. At one of Voorhees’ parties, Schmidt meets Logan Beekman, a Connecticut native taught to speak with a more distinguished British accent. Though he becomes Kimmy’s boyfriend, by that time, she’s also developed a friendship with Dong Nguyen (Ki Hong Lee of “Maze Runner” fame), who sits next to her in her GED class.
We meet Dong in the sixth episode. When he introduces himself, Kimmy laughs, but he in turn laughs at her when she identifies herself because “In Vietnam, Kimmy means penis!” (This makes me think that the title character’s name was chosen just so it could make this tie-in. Or maybe they named her Kimmy then later realized it had another meaning in Vietnamese.) Later on when Kimmy tries to rally the class, Dong exclaims, “You make no sense, Penis!” Pretty funny!
In the eighth episode, the two become study partners with Dong trying to help Kimmy with math and Kimmy trying to improve Dong’s English. Dong says he came to New York because so many great movies were filmed there, and he was trying to find where the opening water fountain scene was shot for “6 White Complainers,” otherwise known as “Friends.”
Kimmy excitedly tells him she knows where that is and the two joyfully recreate the opening scene until a policeman interrupts them, mistaking them for a couple. Kimmy corrects him, “I just like Dong.” To which the cop responds, “Me too. Don’t tell the guys.”
I realize there’s always been sensitivity around making puns of Asian names, but it’s not usually bothered me, this scene included.
In the ninth episode, Kimmy turns 30 and Dong takes weeks to build her a bicycle, surreptitiously leaving it in her apartment, for which Logan takes credit (his assistant bought presents for Kimmy and when she thanked him for the bike, he assumed “he” had bought it). Dong, angry that he made the bike “out of love,” gets into a physical fight with him at the birthday party.
In Episode 10, Logan convinces Kimmy to cut all ties with Dong, arguing that the latter will always want more with her, so it’s best not to encourage him. Kimmy finds Dong at the restaurant — where he was living — only to learn that immigration raided the place, arrested all the workers, and were looking for him.
She invites him to stay on her couch, and they fondly recall all the fun times they’ve had together. With a warm smile, he adds, “And we agree on everything!”
Nevertheless, Kimmy gives him the news, which he sadly accepts. But soon, Dong tells her of his true feelings for her: “Kimmy, I don’t think I can just be your friend… I can’t pretend I don’t have feelings for you anymore. I’m sorry. I can’t stay here.”
Logan comes over and admits he called immigration to get Dong out of the way. Furious, Kimmy tracks Dong down to a bus station, telling him, “You’re kind, and you’re funny. And both our names mean penis! But I don’t want to be your friend anymore. Because I like you. I mean, I like you!”
They kiss, and it’s a wonderful scene. Because he’s an illegal immigrant, however, he suggests they get married so he can safely remain in the country. So let’s make this clear, as in ABC’s “Selfie” (Karen Gillan, John Cho), the attractive white star just rejected her white boyfriend and chose an Asian man.
The final three episodes focus mostly on the trial of Rev. Wayne, and it’s only in the closing minutes that we learn (SPOILER ALERT: Skip to next paragraph if you want to avoid hearing the cliffhanger) Dong just married a senior citizen from the GED class because Kimmy missed nine of his calls while she was testifying in court.
It’s also interesting that in one episode, Kimmy’s wacky landlord Lillian (Carol Kane) points out, “For some reason, that Asian fetish thing tends to go one way: White guys and Asian women. But swim upstream, and a lady can clean up. Trust me.” She opens her wallet and a fold-out album reveals pictures of nothing but Asian men she’s “hooked up” with!
There’s a telling scene where Titus comes home still wearing the werewolf costume he had to wear for a job. “I’ve decided to live as a werewolf! It’s so much easier than being an African American man. Security guards don’t follow me around in stores, dogs will stop barking at me, and nobody mistook me for Samuel L. Jackson all day!”
Later, when the glue starts losing its grip on his mask and he begins to “revert” back to his usual self, Logan yells, “Oh God! The werewolf! It turned into Samuel L. Jackson!”
Surprisingly poignant are flashback scenes involving Voorhees and her parents, both Native Americans. We see her 20 years earlier rejecting her ethnic heritage and wanting to be white. Yet in the present day, she consistently finds her ways out of jams by remembering lessons her parents instilled in her despite her not wanting to listen at the time.
In the end, Voorhees even attacks a high school marching band and mascot for having “The Indians” on their drum. Shades of Emma Stone, the actress is not Native American. But all in all, not bad coming from Tina Fey.
Two weeks ago, the series got seven Emmy nominations, including “Outstanding Comedy Series” and four acting nods. The second season begins shooting next month and is supposed to be released on Netflix next spring.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.