When the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) began meeting with the top four television networks in late 1999, I probably would’ve predicted that within five years, every one of them would have a series starring an Asian American. And within 10 years every company would have at least two.
But since then, the only show to debut with an Asian person appearing first in the credits was ABC’s 2008 “Sex and the City” wannabe “Cashmere Mafia,” starring Lucy Liu.
In the fall of 2011, as co-chair of the APAMC, I told the presidents of the networks they’d succeeded in increasing the number of Asian American regulars, mostly on ensemble shows where we were in the mix, but never the star. They needed to wrestle with this question: Is an Asian American star — the face of a new show — a liability? And come to terms with it, or 12 years later we’d still be starless.
They needed a timetable because it wasn’t happening on its own. So I gave the networks three years to debut a series where we’re the star.
The very next year, Fox greenlit “The Mindy Project,” starring Mindy Kaling. A Fox executive joked, “All you had to do was ask, Guy!”
Recently when I analyzed the new shows that would be debuting in the 2014-2015 season — just in time for the deadline — I was pleasantly surprised that we may’ve achieved that with two more networks.
ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” will not only star an Asian American but an entire family of six, the first Asian American sitcom since Margaret Cho’s “All American Girl” a full 20 years ago. And CBS’ “Stalker” may star Maggie Q (on their website, CBS lists Dylan McDermott first, though the story seems to be based on Q’s point of view and in promos, her name comes first, so I’m not certain).
If that’s not enough, John Cho appears to be the second-credited actor in ABC’s “Selfie,” and he’ll eventually be in a relationship with the main white star (a few years back, he was also second lead in that same network’s “FastForward”).
Even more impressive is that ABC is leading the way in showing the rest of the industry what true diversity is about. This season, they’ll have new shows featuring black, Latino (“Cristela” starring stand-up comedienne Cristela Alonzo), and Asian families! Two additional series will star African Americans: Viola Davis in “How to Get Away With Murder” and Anthony Anderson in “Black-ish,” about a father dealing with a son who’s more interested in his Jewish heritage than his black one.
The network will tackle other racial issues in “American Crime” (written by John Ridley, who won an Oscar for “12 Years a Slave”), in which a Latino is accused of killing a white couple.
Finally, at least one network seems to get it. They’re not just featuring people of color, they’re getting into the issues they face (though the premise of “Black-ish” is laughable; with Jews making up just 2% of the U.S. population, it’s “funny” how often their culture seems to work its way into programs. Wake me when there’s a show about Buddhists).
But other networks are getting on the black bandwagon with new dramas featuring black stars: Fox has “Red Band Society” with Octavia Spencer and “Empire” featuring Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidlbe (the obese woman from “Precious”) and created by Lee Daniels (“The Butler”).
How did this happen? Let’s break it down: The black leads trend was probably encouraged by the success of African American-themed movies, Oscar wins, and ABC’s “Scandal,” which stars Kerry Washington — the first black woman star of a network show since 1974 (“Get Christy Love” with Teresa Graves). It’s executive-produced by Shonda Rhimes, who years ago created the successful ”Grey’s Anatomy.”
“Scandal” was a smash (its ratings actually grew in its second year) with critical buzz —and Emmy nominations — which probably emboldened Rhimes to create “Murder” starring another black woman. ABC is so confident in her vision that they’re turning over all three hours of Thursday night to shows created by the woman who lays the golden eggs.
“FOB” came about because Nahnatchka Khan (“Don’t Trust the B* in Apartment 23”) was on a Visual Communications panel with Eddie Huang, writer of his memoir of the same name. The two hit it off and decided to try turning his book into a series. Khan wrote and executive-produced the pilot, and ABC chose it as a midseason replacement (supposedly set for January unless one of the fall shows croaks early and they need a quicker replacement).
As for Fox’s “Empire,” which boasts such a dominating black cast, it’s a step deeper from the network that last year defied the unwritten “no two regular actors of the same ethnicity in any given show” rule with “Brooklyn 9-9,” which featured two black and two Latina regulars.
OK, but the black community has always had a leg up on the rest of the minority groups, having developed more well-known actors. My concern for Asian Americans is that if “FOB” isn’t successful, we’ll have to wait another 20 years (or even longer?) before another network greenlights another Asian American series. We should be able to succeed or fail like any other group.
Look how many chances Christian Slater gets. He starred in three consecutive failed TV series, yet earlier this year ABC let him co-star in another one — “Mind Games” —which was — what else? — also cancelled. The wooden Alex O’Loughlin starred in two failed CBS dramas, but the network still let him be Steve McGarrett in the rebooted “Hawaii Five-O.”
For now, though, I’m guardedly optimistic that the tide may finally be turning closer toward my initial vision that every network should have a series starring someone from our community. We’ll see how it all pans out beginning in September.
Give Me a Break Department: Because Sandra Oh was ending her 10-year tenure on “Grey’s Anatomy,” I forced myself to watch the last four episodes (it was painful seeing characters I couldn’t stand in situations I didn’t understand). But more irritating was the fact that there were black doctors with speaking parts in just about every single scene of the Seattle hospital. I thought it took place in South Central L.A. Of course, like most white producers defending an all-white cast, African American creator Shonda Rhimes has said, “We simply get the best actor for the role,” which is pure bull.
As I mentioned earlier, her success has helped create other series starring blacks, which is better than more shows starring whites, the default since television began. But if nothing else, I hope it makes Asian American creators less self-conscious about casting multiple Asian American regulars in shows wherein we have “every right” to be: those set in hospitals, San Francisco, or Hawaii. It’s just a question of who has the guts to force it.
Consider that Justin Lin’s one of the executive producers of CBS’ upcoming “Scorpion,” which is about a team of geniuses, and he directed the pilot. Jadyn Wong is one of the regulars, fifth-billed. I don’t know the circumstances, but I wish he’d pushed for an Asian American star.
Nice Guys Finish Last (Well, Second) Department: In last week’s “Survivor” finale, Woo Hwang from Los Angeles won the final immunity idol and got to decide which of two players to take to the finals with him. The jury of nine would then decide who deserved to win the million dollars. Although he said he’d be the stupidest player in the history of the game if he took Tony with him, that’s what he did.
The New Jersey cop certainly deserved to win, as he played a reckless, risky game and went out of his way to find immunity idols and somehow managed to survive despite pissing off a lot of people. Woo’s Asian/martial arts values got in the way — honor, loyalty, blah blah blah. Tony persuaded him that if Woo didn’t choose him out of loyalty, he’d have nothing to stand on with the jury.
Well, Tony won 8 to 1. So much for honor, loyalty, blah blah blah. Host Jeff Probst asked how everyone would’ve voted had Woo instead taken with him the hated Kass, and Woo would’ve won by a landslide.
Guarantee of Excellence Department: Kudos to David Ono for his expanded hour-long documentary on the Japanese American internment camps, which ran on KABC. Ono often focuses on various people, gets you into their story, and only later reveals their current-day significance. And that’s when it hits you.
Alan Simpson and Norman Mineta becoming friends during the camp days… and years later co-sponsoring the redress bill even though one is a conservative Republican and the other a liberal Democrat. One woman remembering her father not being able to find a job after getting out of camp, so — feeling his family would be better off with the insurance money — commits suicide… then we learn it was Judge Lance Ito’s grandfather.
Ono never lets me down. Even with a subject so well known to me, he always finds a way to get my attention. And my tears. Thank you, David.
’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@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.