INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Pivotal Beginnings and Ends for Many TV Shows Featuring Asian Americans

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AOKI-GUY-color1By GUY AOKI

February has proven to be a significant month for many television series with Asian American regulars. Of course, on the 4th, Asian American family sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” debuted and last summer’s surprise hit “The Night Shift” (with Ken Leung) was moved up to the winter for its second spin.

Last week, after 6 ½ seasons, “The Mentalist” featuring Tim Kang came to an end and this week, so did “Parks and Recreation” with Aziz Ansari.

“The Mentalist.” Though listed third in the credits, Kang was far behind star Simon Baker and Robin Tunney in screen time. In the last two seasons, the show moved from the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Sacramento to the FBI in Austin, shedding two cast members along the way and adding three or four new ones.

Agent Kimball Cho (Kang) landed at the FBI months ahead of Teresa Lisbon (Tunney) and Patrick Jane (Baker), so he outranked them, but only once did he order them around. Even when the bureau chief (Rockmond Dunbar) got a promotion and anointed Cho his successor, we never got to see him really take command because the old boss stuck around for those cliché of cliché series closers: the marriage of two main characters (Jane and Libson).

If that wasn’t enough, Lisbon told Jane she was … can you guess it? … pregnant. Oh snore (just like Season 6’s “Red John” resolution).

Cho’s personality was like Jack Webb of the old “Dragnet” series: Serious, by the book, and rarely cracking a smile. He had a girlfriend (Sandrine Holt) who showed up for only one episode and when she was beaten, he went crazy, kicking the crap out of the culprit.

Robin Tunney, Tim Kang, Simon Baker in “The Mentalist.”

Robin Tunney, Tim Kang, Simon Baker in “The Mentalist.”

The most interesting storyline he got was falling for former police informer Summer (Samaire Armstrong). They had great chemistry and her bright disposition inevitably loosened up our boy a bit. But when the former drug user relapsed, Cho sent her away on a train. When she asked him if he’d visit her, he just looked at her as if he wanted to cry but said nothing. It was a haunting and moving scene (Summer later returned briefly to get married to someone else).

At first, it seemed the producers were setting up Cho for a romance with new agent Michelle Vega (Josie Loren), who clearly had eyes for him. But for some reason, that subplot was dropped without any explanation. One of the team members (Joe Adler) fell for the rookie and finally got the nerve to ask her out (she accepted) before she was surprisingly killed in a police shootout.

Hopefully Tim Kang will land in another series that will make further use of his talents.

“Parks and Recreation.” In the course of playing the extroverted huckster Tom Haverford, Aziz Ansari’s audience grew and he continued to make movies and gain new fans through his standup tours across the country.

In the final episode, we saw “flash forwards” for each of the regulars letting us know what would happen to them in the future. Haverford expanded his Tom’s Bistro into a chain of 20 outlets, the stock market crashed, and he went bankrupt. But after 50 more tries at different business ventures, he bounced back with a best-selling book: “Failure: An American Success Story.”

Cast of “Parks and Recreation” (Aziz Ansari is on the right).

Cast of “Parks and Recreation” (Aziz Ansari is on the right).

“Fresh Off the Boat.” The fifth episode — and the second to run in its regular timeslot of Tuesdays at 8 p.m. — was hilarious. Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) feels it’s important for workers at her husband’s restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch, to undergo sexual harassment training. What’s funny is that in teaching it, both she and the “expert” sexually harass the employees. And when the tape gets out to 11-year-old Eddie’s classmates, the guys use it as an instructional video on how to pick up girls!

Because his mother won’t allow him to have a sleepover at his friend’s house, Eddie concocts a reason to get his friends to come to his — he’s got a dirty movie he can show them. When he fails to steal an adult video from a store, he knocks on the door of neighbor Nicole, the girl with the attitude who was previously seen showing him the finger when he stared at her. After he introduces himself, she replies, “Yeah, I see you staring at me all the time.” He asks if he can videotape her. She closes the door on him.

In the end, Jessica, who’s seen too many “Nightly News” scare stories about everything from diseases to date rape, attacks Eddie with a plastic animal, warning him, “No means no!”

The fun episode, written by Asian Indian Sanjay Shah, was rewarded with a 1.9 rating in the 18-49 demographic, actually up from 1.7 the previous week. This week’s episode about Eddie having to work at the restaurant serving fajitas in order to raise enough money to buy a Shaq Fu video game was probably the weakest of the six episodes so far.

Despite that, happily, it didn’t matter: Even though the show had to go up against NBC’s returning “The Voice” (which hit a 3.8 rating in the 18-49 demo) and not the weak-rated “Parks and Recreation” (1.15 last week) — which was pushed into the 10 p.m. hour — FOTB maintained its 1.9 rating (how is that possible?!). Hey, even “Master Chef Junior’s” finale couldn’t beat it (1.6). Our show’s a solid performer!

Ken Leung (center) in a scene from "The Night Shift."

Ken Leung (center) in a scene from “The Night Shift.”

“The Night Shift.” Ken Leung (as Miles Straum he could “talk to the dead” in “Lost”) returned in this Monday night NBC hospital drama as Dr. Topher Zia. Like Tim Kang, Leung’s third billed (in a cast of eight) and also behind a romantic couple — T.C. Callahan (Eoin Macken) and Jordan Alexander (Jill Flint).

What was nice about this Season 2 opener is that Jack Yang (who played Lucy Liu’s love interest in ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia” and set social media ablaze with the question, “Is that the first time we’ve seen a young Asian couple kiss on TV?”) guest-starred as a motorcyclist who gets into an accident and winds up with a metal rod through his head and his white wife’s. Thankfully they both survive, though his language center is affected and he only knows Mandarin and has to relearn English all over again!

A veteran learns she has cancer but doesn’t have insurance, so T.C. secretly pays a surgeon $15,000 and sells his motorcycle to cover for the surgery. Topher displays his warm side, pointing out what a great guy T.C. is, hugging him and saying, “I love you, bro!” And that’s after reassuring a usually by-the-book hospital administrator that he didn’t make a huge mistake by authorizing an operation that opened the institution to a lawsuit. To illustrate this, Topher points to a relieved daughter, who now has her dad back.

Based on previews for next week’s show, we’ll see more male bonding between T.C. and Topher. “Night Shift” airs Monday nights at 10 p.m.

“Stalker.” After a new stalker takes an unhealthy interest in Lt. Beth Davis (Maggie Q), he teams up with her original stalker, a former boyfriend who burned down her family’s home (he intended to save them to show what a good guy he was and to get back into their good graces) and killed her family. Now, her old lover’s kidnapped her with her team hot on his trail. The CBS drama airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

“Elementary.” After moving out of the brownstone of Sherlock Holmes to get her own space and open her own private detective agency, Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) has to deal with one of her enemies fatally poisoning her boyfriend Andrew (Raza Jaffrey, a South Asian Brit who played Katharine McPhee’s boyfriend in “Smash” and was so stupidly written I cheered when he was written out of the second season; he made for another boring boyfriend here) with whom she was breaking up. Watson decides to embrace being a detective, believing she can no longer have a normal life. She moves back into the brownstone but into the basement so she can maintain some personal and psychic space. The show airs Thursdays at 10 p.m.

“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” If all of that’s not enough, this series returns next Tuesday with Skye (Chloe Bennet), who’d just learned she is half Chinese, finding out she’s also part alien with earthquake powers. This will lead to another revelation that she’s part of a group known as the Inhumans. Marvel’s scheduled a motion picture of the same name for late 2018, which makes me wonder if she’ll be the only actor from this television show besides Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson) who’ll actually make the big jump to Marvel’s superhero movies.

But how do you vamp for 3½ years and keep that superhero group under wraps for that long in a weekly television series?

Plug Department: I’m quoted in this week’s L.A. Weekly cover story on the lack of diversity in the television and motion picture industries.

Arigato Department: Thanks to Louise Sakamoto for inviting me to speak to the Greater L.A. chapter of the JACL. More people turned out than expected, and it’s always a pleasant surprise to meet older people who enjoy my column. I’d planned on dividing my talk into three sections: My redress and media activism, the MANAA video, and my pop music background: helping Donny Osmond make his comeback in 1989, and working with Casey Kasem and Dick Clark.

But the first part took longer than expected (I should’ve known), so I had to give the last section short shrift. It was good to see people like James Ito (whom I hadn’t seen in years) and Iku Kiriyama.

’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.

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