In case the purpose of this column isn’t known to most Rafu readers by now, it’s to comment and report on media as it relates to Asian Americans and Asians. Sometimes it’s a mainstream media portrayal of an Asian American or Asian character, maybe it’s something out of China, Japan or S. Korea, it could be a news story or perhaps an Asian American or Asian who has appeared in, directed or created a movie, TV show, musical recording or podcast.
I’d like to think I’ve written some satisfactory commentary and opinion pieces, as well as having done some decent reporting over the nearly a quarter-century of writing about all kinds of stuff that falls under that rather broad rubric.
Lately, the trending topic has been the reaction to the renewed vigor shown by Hollywood’s movie studios to put a 21st-century spin a pair of creepy, offensive, disgusting and morally bankrupt 20th-century phenomena known as yellowface and whitewashing.
Related to that was the Feb. 28 Academy Awards telecast in which Asians were mocked in a couple of instances, all the more galling because in the run-up to the show, there was an #OscarsSoWhite social media movement decrying an acting nominee lineup that included not a single person who wasn’t of the Caucasian persuasion, despite some movie performances that could or should have been considered as well. While diversity in casting (and behind the scenes) should have been more than a black and white issue, it was somehow OK for the Oscars to disrespect people of Asian heritage.
Worthy topics, right? Well, yeah. But I never know what’s going to connect with readers. Turns out that what got the most reader reaction (in the form of emails) were two columns where I “broke format” and wrote about the phenomenon known as cord-cutting, i.e., ditching pay TV for high-definition over-the-air (OTA) digital TV signals, while still keeping the broadband or high-speed internet provided by your cable or phone company. (Turns out we’re not really cutting the cord after all.)
I think the reason for the reaction was nearly everyone watches TV and nearly everyone thinks they overpay for cable. Anyway, while OTA TV is fine, thanks to relatively inexpensive streaming services (which you can get via that broadband connection you still are paying for), you can supplement the “free” stuff with movies and TV shows via Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Vudu, Crackle, et al. While Crackle is free a service, the others are less than $10 a month.
And, if you’re still not able to let go of premium cable shows found on HBO or Showtime, they now stream, too, for less than $20 a month. So-called skinny bundles like Sling TV (a streaming service from Dish Network) can also give you CNN, TNT, TBS, ESPN and ESPN2 — about 20 channels in all — for $20 a month.
You will need a streaming device, however, to use those services. The most popular ones are made by Roku, Apple, Google and Amazon.
Anyway, tying together the cord-cutting phenomenon and the continued mishandling by Hollywood movie studios of all things Asian, it turns out that one streaming service — Netflix, which also happens to be the streaming leader — has done unusually well with Asian American content.
Case in point: Netflix’s Seasons 1 and 2 of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a farcical comedy co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and starring Ellie Kemper. In season 1, the show cast Ki Hong Lee as Dong Nguyen, Schmidt’s boyfriend. I binge- watched the first season when it came out last year but didn’t get very far into Season 2, but the third episode caught some flack for satirizing the subject of cultural misappropriation when Schmidt’s friend and roommate, the black and gay character Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), creates a one-person show in which he dons a kimono and portrays Lady Murasaki (as in “The Tale of Genji.”)
A mythical media watchdog group (Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment. Figure out the acronym on your own.) takes offense. It wasn’t that bad, to be honest — it just followed the show’s modus operandi of having its cake and eating it too when skewering a target.
Next, comedian Aziz Ansari co-created with Alan Yang Netflix’s original series “Master of None,” which just won a Peabody Award, preceded by a Critics’ Choice Television Award win for best comedy series (the same group also nominated Ansari for best actor in a Comedy Series), not to mention nominations from the American Film Institute (TV Programs of the Year), a Golden Globe nom for Ansari in the category best actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, and two nominations from the NAACP Image Awards. I binge-watched it a few months back; all those endorsements for “Master of None” are deserved.
Then there’s Netflix’s “Ali Wong: Baby Cobra.” It’s a stand-up comedy performance by the comedienne and “Fresh Off the Boat” writer. It’s a barnburner of a show, not for the easily offended, faint of heart or anyone under 18 — and very funny. Ali Wong, a.k.a. Alexandra Wong, is fearless, raunchy and triple x-plicit — but her comedy is built on a foundation of intelligence and, believe it or not, a real Asian American point of view. (She majored in Asian American studies at UCLA.)
Wong is Vietnamese and Chinese and her husband is Japanese and Filipino. (Really odd fact: Her father-in-law is Ken Hakuta, a.k.a. Dr. Fad of Wacky Wall Wacker fame from many years ago.)
Why is Netflix, of all things, the one place you can find all three of these shows? There are probably many reasons, but one reason might be because Netflix actually isn’t a product of Hollywood — there’s more Silicon Valley in its DNA than glitz, glamour and vapidity. Its business model has gone against much of Hollywood’s standard operating procedure, after all.
Also, while pure speculation, it is worth noting that the June 2 Los Angeles Times ran a feature titled “Our Diverse 100,” in which it highlighted 100 individuals “who could help fix the academy’s diversity problem.” One of the people highlighted was Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s VP of original documentary and comedy. Maybe she’s part of Netflix’s secret sauce.
I’m not going to rehash Ali Wong’s best bits here. First, that would just be lazy, just regurgitating something that I watched on TV. Also, this is a newspaper that could be read by young people, not just people over 50! So, you’ll just have to watch it on your own — with headphones if there’s anyone in earshot who might be shocked at the language.
Of course, you’ll have to have Netflix to watch Wong, Ansari or “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” If you’ve already cut the cord, then it’s a no-brainer.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.