INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Sayonara to Ken Park, Hello to Dev Shah

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

As a cable TV cord cutter, I have a Channel Master DVR+, a digital video recorder that allows me to record TV shows that were broadcast over the air. It’s like a VCR for the era of digital TV. I also have a Slingbox M-1, which allows me to watch shows I’ve recorded on said DVR, anywhere I happen to be (as long as there’s good Wi-Fi/wireless data connection), on my smartphone. The Slingbox also lets me watch live, over-the-air broadcast TV, again dependent upon a good Wi-Fi connection.

On top of that, I also have Netflix and Amazon Prime Video subscriptions. Having already paid for the DVR and Slingbox, it’s a cheaper scenario than cable — so while I don’t pay for cable TV, I do pay for the broadband (which I’d have to pay for anyway), which works out for me.

In theory, then, I can watch live TV and recorded shows, as well as the offerings from those aforementioned streaming services, anytime the mood strikes. In practice, however, I only get to watch stuff when I’m stuck in one place doing chores like washing dishes. (I know, pretty pathetic.)

On my DVR, I have 21 unwatched episodes of “Dr. Ken,” which ABC recently announced was getting canceled. The show, starring comedian and actual physician Ken Jeong, aired its season finale March 31.

Why do I have 21 unwatched episodes of “Dr. Ken,” you may be wondering? It must be because there aren’t enough unwashed dishes, right? (By the way, am I the only one who equates leaving just-used plates, utensils and glasses in the sink for later equivalent to taking a dump and not flushing the toilet? Is it that hard to rinse off your stuff and put it in the dishwasher?! Or actually just hand-wash it?!! OK, deep breaths … think butterflies, think puppies. Ah, better.)

Back to “Dr. Ken,” I have an admission to make: I liked the idea of the show better than the show itself. In my many years of writing this column, I’ve been an advocate for not just including Asian Americans in ensemble casts in TV series, I’ve also been on the bandwagon for getting an Asian American to be the lead of a show. Since that has happened so few times, criticizing “Dr. Ken” was never something I did. (Same thing for “Fresh Off the Boat.”)

But now that it’s finished, I can say that “Dr. Ken” was just OK. It was not a show so compelling that I’d make it a point to watch it if I had a choice between watching an episode of it vs. say, an episode of “Better Call Saul” on Netflix while washing those dishes.

But don’t get me wrong — I consider “Dr. Ken” to have been a success. Just getting a TV series produced and on the air is so tremendously difficult, having had “Dr. Ken” on for two seasons is an outstanding accomplishment.

Here’s the thing: Most ideas for TV shows don’t make the cut. Those that do get funding for a pilot get no further than that. Those shows that do make it to being aired can still have the plug pulled after just a couple of airings. “Dr. Ken” lasted for two seasons! That’s good! Not only that, the series that preceded “Dr. Ken” — “Last Man Standing,” which starred Tim Allen — also got the axe. That is what happens most of the time.

Ken Jeong (center) on the set of “Dr. Ken” with members of his TV family (from left): Dana Lee as father D.K., Suzy Nakamura as wife Allison, Albert Tsai as son Dave, and Krista Marie Yu as daughter Molly.

All the actors were talented and versatile, and Jeong’s portrayal of Dr. Ken Park as a smarter and more competent Deputy Barney Fife was perfectly fine. I didn’t, however, much care for some of the show’s characters in the protagonist’s actual family and work family.

“Dr. Ken” was a shticky network sitcom with the requisite smart-ass kids and put-upon spouse, and wacky and weird co-workers and in-laws who sling zingers and engage in routine setup-punchline repartee.

But, in the greater calculus of American network TV, that is what I call an achievement, a proof-of-concept that a sitcom with a primarily Asian American cast could be as conventional, middling and pedestrian as any other network TV offering! It was what people like me wanted and what was delivered.

What Pat Morita accomplished in the 1970s with the short-lived “Mr. T and Tina” was carried a bit further 20 years later by Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” for an entire season, and carried a bit further another 20 years later by Ken Jeong’s “Dr. Ken.” But things have improved now in Hollywood to the point that it won’t take another 20 years for the next Asian American sitcom.

More positive news: All of “Dr. Ken’s” Asian American cast members are now on the radar screens of casting directors, showrunners and the like. Thanks to “Dr. Ken,” Jeong proved that he had the talent and stamina to be the lead of a show. He’ll get more work. In fact, Jeong has been cast for a role in the upcoming movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” based on the novel of the same name.

Also, I have to surmise that Jeong and the show knew the music was about to end. After getting the news that “Dr. Ken” was canned, I finally decided to watch that aforementioned season finale I had recorded, and I have to say, it was very meta. (I can’t call the following a spoiler since it already aired, but in case you also have a digital stockpile of unwatched “Dr. Ken” episodes, skip to the next section of this column.)

In it, Ken Park learns that he has been called in to audition for a part in a sitcom. It turns outs a talent scout had seen Park doing standup at comedy club. (It was already established in the show that the good doctor had been doing some moonlighting as a standup comedian.)

To cut to the chase, a TV showrunner, a character named Dan Harmon, decides to cast Park in a sitcom — which means Park now must choose between pursuing what he loves and the uncertainty of show business and quitting his medical practice.

With the support of his wife, Allison (played by Suzy Nakamura) and other family members, and co-workers who conveniently are visiting his house, he chooses the sitcom, meaning his ties to this work family will be ending. Then, Ken Park’s blood family and work family engage in a group hug.  Would that have happened if they didn’t know the end was nigh? Not only that, the Parks’ daughter, Molly (Krista Marie Yu), is leaving for college. Everything, it seems, in the “Dr. Ken” universe, is changing.

The final scene is Park playing a nutty Spanish-language teacher at a community college, opposite a student played by actress Allison Brie, who co-starred with Jeong in “Community,” whose showrunner was Dan Harmon. In other words, Park’s role mimics Jeong’s part in another show that preceded this one, kind of like the finale for “Newhart.” Like I said, very meta.

So, while “Dr. Ken” has had its run, there are no losers here. Don’t be surprised when Ken Jeong comes back on another show. (And, for fans of conventional network TV sitcoms with a mostly Asian American cast, there’s still, for now, “Fresh Off the Boat.”)

Meantime, on Netflix, “Master of None,” a show I liked very much in its first season, is back for its second season. It stars Aziz Ansari, and it’s so far removed from conventional network TV sitcoms, it can’t really be called a sitcom. He plays a character named Dev Shah, a 30-something NYC-based actor who interacts with his group of friends and family members.

Unlike “Dr. Ken” or “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Master of None” isn’t suitable for watching for or with youngsters. It is, however, quite funny at times, yet it’s daring enough to not go for the obvious gag and deal with actual, real-world issues. It’s also definitely is not “comedy by committee,” but, rather, the vision and voices of Ansari and the show’s co-creator, Alan Yang.

In its first season, it was nominated for a slew of awards, winning many, including a Primetime Emmy for Ansari and Yang in the category Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, an AFI Award for TV Program of the Year, a Critics’ Choice TV Award for Best Comedy Series and a Peabody Award for Entertainment and Children’s Programming.

I’ve started watching some of the new episodes and so far, so good.

Back to Netflix, at the end of last month it picked up a 2015 documentary I’ve also started watching, titled “Mifune: The Last Samurai,” directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki.

Toshiro Mifune is a singular personality among Japanese movie actors, beloved not just by Japanese movie fans, but also by Western movie lovers and Japanese Americans of a certain age, with Okazaki no doubt in that last category. There’s an interview on IndieWire.com (http://tinyurl.com/kpn6fv7) with Okazaki, headlined “Toshiro Mifune: The First Non-White Movie Hero,” which backs up that speculation. Asked when he first encountered Mifune in a movie, Okazaki answers:

“I was 10 years old when I saw my first Mifune movie. ‘Seven Samurai’ was shown at the Japanese Community Center in Venice, California. We sat on rickety wooden seats, the noisy 16mm projector was propped up on a table and the screen was two white bed sheets clipped together in the middle.

“I remember walking behind the screen and watching the last battle scene — the bandits roaring into the village, the horses struggling in the mud, and Mifune falling and dying in the rain. I was hooked. Is there any action movie that tops ‘Seven Samurai’?”

Mifune, of course, had a symbiotic relationship with the great director Akira Kurosawa, and the pair made 16 movies together.

“Mifune” has interviews with the actors and crew who worked with Mifune and Kurosawa, as well as current-day admirers like actor Koji Yakusho, plus renowned American directors (and Mifune admirers) Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

Also interviewed are the sons of Kurosawa and Mifune. And, the voice doing the narration belongs to Keanu Reeves, who notes how many great movies, including “The Magnificent Seven,” “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Star Wars,” have Mifune and Kurosawa in their respective DNA. “Mifune: The Last Samurai” is worthy of the 80 minutes needed to watch it.

Back to “Dr. Ken,” I have 21 more episodes to go, and I will watch them all. But only after finishing “Master of None” and “Mifune: The Last Samurai.” Just need some dirty dishes!

Chicken Man Dept.: In my last column, I wrote about Albert Okura, the founder of the Juan Pollo chicken restaurant chain. He wrote me and said: “I would give any reader a complimentary latest edition book if they were curious about Juan Pollo. I would also pay for shipping. They just need to email me with name and mailing address.”

Well, I don’t necessarily want to give out Okura’s email address, so if you’d like a copy, send me an email that arrives before the end of this month requesting a copy of his book, “Albert the Chicken Man,” and I’ll forward it to him.

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 © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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