A few years ago, there seemed to be a conspiracy to keep Asian American cast members and Asian American guest stars on the same television show away from each other.
For instance, B.D. Wong was a regular on NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU” and Joel de la Fuente was a recurring actor, but we never saw them in the same scene together (we assumed it was because producers felt getting two Asians together would make the series “too ethnic”). In fact, at a MANAA meeting, former MANAA President Jeff Mio brought in video to show us when it finally happened! Why, it was like a miracle!
Getting an Asian American family on the airwaves again would obliterate all of that nonsense, of course. And cynics could argue it wasn’t a coincidence that it took 20½ years — between 1994’s “All-American Girl” and 2015’s “Fresh Off the Boat” — to finally get another one.
Still, the fact that a second Asian American family sitcom — “Dr. Ken” — debuted a mere eight months later (and strong ratings generated full season orders for both series) offers hope that the “too ethnic” concern is going the way of the dodo bird.
What was even better was seeing double Asian American families for each show’s “Thanksgiving episode.”
On the first season of “Fresh Off the Boat” earlier this year, we met Jessica Huang’s side of the family, the Chens. Both clans were continually trying to outdo the other and win the battle of which family was doing better. Recently, the Chens once again journeyed to Orlando for the holiday and Jessica was trying to prove she could put on a better feast than sister Connie (Susan Park) to win favor with their mother. Only this time, there was the added drama of Connie and Steve (C.S. Lee) being separated. And Eddie (Hudson Yang) was once again frustrated in trying to keep up with his hip, older cousin’s ever-changing musical tastes.
Over on “Dr. Ken,” not only did we get to see Allison’s (Suzy Nakamura) side of the family, star/co-creator Ken Jeong took the opportunity to differentiate between Korean and Japanese culture (in real life, his wife is Vietnamese, but because Nakamura is Japanese American, he decided to make her character that as well). Ken (Jeong) realizes that while his daughter and son know about Japanese food and culture (Molly’s Japanese tattoo sets him off), they know nothing Korean because he never bothered passing down any of his heritage to them.
So, of course, this makes him competitive, and he tries to outdo his wife by proving he knows just as much about being Korean as she does about being Japanese. It was great seeing Clyde Kusatsu play Allison’s father (he was Margaret Cho’s dad on “All-American Girl” and Cho herself guest starred in the previous week’s episode as Ken’s popular talk show host sister).
What’s more, Jeanne Sakata played Allison’s mother. Over the last few years, I’d seen the actress at pre-screenings of TV series featuring Asian Americans like “Stalker,” “FOTB,” and the special World War II episode of “Hawaii Five-O,” which was inspired by her play “Hold These Truths” (Daniel Dae Kim saw it in New York and got the producers of his show to see it in Hawaii).
In fact, at the pre-screening of “Dr. Ken” in September, we were talking about what an amazing year it’s been for Asian Americans in the media. How great that she got cast in this Thanksgiving episode a few days later and can now celebrate being part of this encouraging trend.
It would’ve been better if Allison’s side of the family got to say more at the dinner table, but Ken’s gruff Dad (Dana Lee) discouraged small talk.
Ironically, perhaps the best “Thanksgiving” episode featuring an Asian American family was on a non-Asian family show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) doesn’t want to travel back to New York to be with her stereotypically overbearing, never satisfied, Jewish mother. So her friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) suggests she spend the feast with the object of her affections, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), and his family.
Although she initially rejects the idea, Rebecca considers, “l mean, would I like to go to the Chans? Would I like to be surrounded by the unconditional love of a hundred and fifty Filipinos? Of course I would!”
Now, Asian Americans have been conditioned to expect that whenever an Asian ethnicity is mentioned in television or film, it’s usually done in jest. Not so here. Rachel was sincere; being with 150 Filipinos was preferable to being with her own mother.
Paula sneakily gets Rachel to go with her to what turns out to be an Asian market where they (surprise, surprise!) bump into Josh’s mother, who’s played by Amy Hill. Mrs. Chan remembers Rebecca from when she and her son were an item in high school, and she invites her over for Turkey Day.
Rebecca’s encouraged when a neighborhood Latino kid tells her that every Thanksgiving, Josh and his girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) almost break up because they always get into a fight as his parents hate her because she’s dumb. Could Rebecca’s presence push them to the breaking point and get Josh back into her arms again?
We see our girl learning how to speak Tagalog through an app as she makes a Filipino dish to bring to the party. Long story short, Rachel has a great time with the family, and when Mrs. Chan invites her to go with them to mass, she says, “I would be so honored, Mrs. Chan. Thank you!” And with a look of sincere gratitude, she adds, “Can I just say you have made me feel like I truly belong?”
To which the kindly Mrs. Chan answers, “Oh, of course you do!” Beautiful. Simply beautiful.
Turns out Josh and Valencia do get into a fight, but they make up and, in front of everyone at the party, Josh asks his girlfriend move in with him, and she accepts (Mrs. Chan and Rebecca both quietly react: “Nooooooo!”).
Amy Hill even gets to perform in one of the musical bits in the episode, “I Give Good Parent,” sitting on a couch with an upper golden grill looking like a gangster and repeating the title/vocal riff. It was great seeing Amy adding music to her long list of accomplishments. Watch the non-explicit version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsTKwps2jJc
And if all of this wasn’t enough, this episode was written by Filipino American staffer Rene Gube, who also appeared in a previous episode as Josh’s priest. And on set when the real Filipino food got stale and looked more like Mexican food, Gube bit his tongue, but when a producer asked him what was wrong, he told her, and she immediately decided to redo the food to make it look right.
And this week’s episode (the “fall finale” before the series returns in late January), was directed by Steven Tsuchida. That’s right, in just eight episodes, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” did something that neither “Fresh Off the Boat” nor “Dr. Ken” have managed to do so far — hire an Asian American director!
(Also, if you haven’t noticed, that’s three of the stars of “All-American Girl” appearing in a two-week period and a fourth one mentioned as well!)
Sign of the Times? Department: Earlier this year after MANAA launched a media campaign against Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” the director apologized for casting Emma Stone as a half Hawaiian/Chinese character instead of just hiring a real API. In a Nov. 26 “Saturday Night Live” pre-taped skit of various actors trying out for parts in the upcoming “Star Wars” film, a woman playing Emma Stone says, “I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie ‘Aloha,’ but I can play a very convincing part-Asian woman!” (A point for you, “SNL!”) Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T_pjMr7-n0
In October, when MANAA received a lot of press coverage for blasting Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” because it turned Indian and Korean characters into black and white, we also reminded the industry that Scott’s previous biblical film, “Exodus,” was a white-washed mess. Well, “Gods of Egypt” doesn’t even come out until February, but Friday, both the director and Lionsgate Studio apologized for also casting white characters as Egyptians, acknowledging they should’ve done a better job of reflecting reality. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay tweeted: “This kind of apology never happens — for something that happens all the time. An unusual occurrence worth noting.” Amen.
Nice Save Department: For years I’ve bemoaned the various white-washing patterns of the producers behind the current “Hawaii Five-O,” which includes regularly allowing cops from the mainland (with only one exception in six seasons, ALWAYS white or black) to tag along with the team on cases. Well, the latest “on loan” officer from San Francisco is… that’s right, also white! Only she’s played by the beautiful Julie Benz, and she’s set up to become a love interest for Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim).
In the two episodes we’ve seen her in, we notice an easy chemistry between the two, and she marvels when Chin opens the door because no one — besides her father — has ever done that for her (Oh, c’mon!). Hey, whatever gets the two of them together. Asian men need love too, ya know? So I can’t believe I’m saying this, but watch “Five-O” on Fridays at 9 p.m. on CBS!
’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.