Fresh Off the Boat Put in Context. Asian American Representation on American Network Television, 1965–2015

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[This post was edited on March 1, 2015.]

As the first TV show with an Asian American main cast in over two decades, much is at stake for ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. So much so that before the pilot had even aired, the show was described as “historic.” The reason for this description is the fact that because of the lack of Asian American characters, regardless of being in leading or supporting roles, the success of Fresh Off the Boat will potentially determine Asian American network representation for years to come.

As an historian I take an interest in the description of Fresh Off the Boat as “historic.” Whenever something is described as “historic,” my initial reaction is to object to the use of that word. Looking to the past to make predictions about the future goes against everything that historical research is about. The only way we can say anything about the significance of an event is by relating the event in question to other similar events that have already taken place. In other words, the way to determine the significance of Fresh Off the Boat from an historical perspective is to contextualize it within a discussion on how minorities in general, and Asian Americans in particular, have been represented on scripted network television shows over the years.

In the following discussion, I will focus on scripted TV shows with a diverse main cast broadcast by the three major networks of American television, i.e. NBC, CBS, and ABC. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, these three networks are the oldest of all the TV networks available to the American public today. Therefore, they provide a time span long enough for performing an historical analysis. Secondly, these three networks reach the most viewers on a daily basis. With the exception of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the most watched shows on American television are broadcast on these three networks.

Some of the TV shows mentioned below are problematic in how they portray the minorities they set out to represent. My discussing these TV shows does not mean I endorse these portrayals in any way.

NBC
NBC was founded in 1926 as a radio network. In 1939, NBC expanded into television. On February 18, 2015 I completed a survey of the shows stated as current on nbc.com. Of these shows, one had a diverse main cast—Saturday Night Live. In the past, NBC has been the home of several iconic diversely cast TV shows, e.g. I Spy (1965–1968), Star Trek (1966–1969), Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Diff’rent Strokes (1978–1986), The Cosby Show (1984–1992), A Different World (1987–1993), The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990–1996), and Community (2009–2014). Several of these shows had an African American main cast. As far as I have been able to determine within the scope of this investigation, NBC has never broadcast a TV show with an Asian American main cast.

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In 1927, CBS began as a radio network and branched off into television in 1941. In the survey I did on February 18, 2015, of the current shows listed on cbs.com, I identified twelve shows with a diverse main cast. However, of these twelve shows only three had a person of color as the lead actor. Two of them were African American (Halle Berry in Extant and LL Cool J in NCIS: Los Angeles) and one of them was Asian American (Lucy Liu in Elementary). For the past few decades, CBS has been the home of several TV shows with a diverse main cast, e.g. Hawaii 5-0 (1968–1980), Good Times (1974–1979), The Jeffersons (1975–85), and Martial Law (1998–2000). Good Times and The Jeffersons had an all African American main cast and Martial Law had an Asian American leading actor. Meanwhile, Hawaii 5-0, both in its original and its rebooted (2010– ) form, stars a diverse main cast that include Asian Americans.

ABC
Youngest of the three major networks, ABC launched as a radio network in 1943 and went into television in 1948. In the February 18, 2015 survey of abc.com, I identified thirteen shows listed as current and with a diverse cast. Of these thirteen, nine had one or more persons of color as lead actors (Blackish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat, Galavant, How to Get Away with Murder, Agents of SHIELD, Modern Family, Scandal, and Selfie). Moreover, three of these nine shows had a main cast consisting only of persons of color (Blackish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat). Over the years, ABC has had several TV shows with a diverse cast. Unlike NBC and CBS, these shows have predominantly been cast with Asian American actors, e.g. The Green Hornet (1966–1967), Barney Miller (1974–1982), Mr T. & Tina (1976), Gung Ho (1986–1987), All-American Girl (1994–1995), and Lost (2004–2010).

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Three conclusions can be drawn from the survey done on NBC, CBS, and ABC. First of all, NBC seems to have relinquished its role entirely as a network where diversely cast TV shows can find a home. Instead, ABC seems to be carrying the torch at present. Second, the diversely cast shows on NBC and CBS were predominantly African American. In the case of NBC, the number of African American shows does not seem to be because of a network policy, but rather because of the network’s collaboration with Norman Lear and Bill Cosby, respectively. After NBC and CBS stopped producing shows with all African American casts, the number of persons of color in supporting roles seems to have increased. The number of leading roles for persons of color has not. At present, the diversely cast shows on ABC represent several minorities, both as leading actors and as supporting actors. On the other hand, in the past, ABC seems not to have produced any African American TV shows of lasting significance. Third, the absolute majority of all known TV shows starring Asian Americans as leading actors have been produced by ABC.

Where does this leave Fresh Off the Boat? If you put Fresh Off the Boat into a network television context in general, the show is indeed something of a rarity. Asian Americans as a group are poorly represented on television. However, put Fresh Off the Boat into the context of ABC over the past fifty years and it becomes the network’s latest attempt in representing the Asian American community.

Several of these previous attempts by ABC to represent Asian Americans have been failures. The characters were played according to stereotypes and as a consequence the ratings suffered which resulted in early cancellations. However, with 6.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating in its third week, Fresh Off the Boat could very well be the show that will survive.

Bearing in mind that the last TV show with an Asian American cast aired in the mid-1990s, Fresh Off the Boat being broadcast on one of the biggest networks in the United States is of great significance. However, only time will tell if the show will turn out to be historic.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

 

John Steinbeck’s Chinese Housekeeper

Previously on The Boomerang I have written about John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. I decided to read the novel because, many years ago, I saw the movie, starring James Dean as the emotionally conflicted Cal. I have now read the novel and absolutely agree with those who say it is an American literary masterpiece. However, after finishing the book, I began comparing it to the movie. Something was not right. And then I realized what bothered me. The most important character in the book had not made it into the movie. That character is the Trask family’s Chinese housekeeper, Lee.

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James Dean as Caleb in East of Eden (1955)
Source: Trailer screenshot

East of Eden is a novel about Adam Trask and his family. Adam marries Cathy and moves to California with her. After the birth of their twin boys – Caleb and Aaron – she abandons Adam and her children, leaving him to raise the twins. Adam, however, distraught by Cathy leaving him (and shooting him in the shoulder when he refuses to let her go), totally neglects his children. Instead, they are taken care of by Lee, who develops such a close relationship with the boys that Cantonese, instead of English, nearly becomes their first language.

Lee becomes a member of the Trask household when Adam is looking to hire a cook. Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants. His mother died when he was born. In the book, Lee is the only character with a college education (University of California) but when we are first introduced to him, he speaks broken English as a strategy not to intimidate people around him. He translates Chinese poetry into English as a pastime and he is rarely seen without a book.

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John Steinbeck and President Lyndon B Johnson, 1966
Source: LBJ Library and Museum

As the story progresses, Lee becomes the anchor in the Trask household. The boys grow older and Adam continues to have problems connecting with them emotionally. When there is a conflict in the household, communication between father and sons go through Lee. Lee is the only person who can speak the truth to both Adam and Aaron and Caleb. Lee is the first person to see Aaron’s girlfriend, Abra, for who she truly is. When the relationship with her own father crumbles, Lee develops into a father figure for Abra.

Lee is also responsible for the Biblical theme that runs through a substantial part of the book. When Lee and Adam, with their mutual friend Samuel, discuss what to name the boys, they base their discussion on Genesis and the rivalry between Cain and Abel. The one to push the discussion forward and make it more complex and analytical is Lee. Later on, Lee again brings up the subject of Cain and Abel. He has discovered discrepancies in the English translation of different Bible editions. Because of this he asked his family elders for help. They, in turn, began to study Hebrew and consulted a rabbi. The result of this exegetic exercise forms the backbone of the final section of the novel and even becomes the last spoken line in the entire story.

All of this has been removed from the movie adaptation because of the exclusion of Lee. The movie is a good work of art in and of itself, but, as I suspected when I first saw it, much has been left out from the original story. Instead of being a family chronicle steeped in the multicultural society of early Californian settlement, rife with religious symbolism, East of Eden the movie is a melodrama centered around an all-white cast where the anchor has been lost at sea.

Perhaps it is time for a remake.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
John Steinbeck East of Eden (Penguin, 2002)
East of Eden

Note:
The images of James Dean and John Steinbeck were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Update: From Bruce Lee to John Cho

When writing, especially fiction, the subconscious has a tendency to play tricks on you. You have an idea that you wish to convey and you have created a setting that will help you in this endeavor. But once the story begins to take shape it is as if you are channeling a part of you that somehow functions independently from you. That is how I ended up with a love story where the male protagonist is Korean.

What is surprising to me in this development is that I have no connection whatsoever to anything Korean. After wracking my brain, trying to figure out how my male protagonist could come to life in this way, I have begun to suspect that it could come from three Korean-American actors whose work I appreciate, namely Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun and John Cho.

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Daniel Dae Kim at 2008 Emmy Awards.
Source: Greg Hernandez, Flickr

I know Daniel Dae Kim (b.1968) mostly from his work on the TV-show Lost (2004-2010) where he played the Korean businessman Jin Kwon, who is married to Sun Kwon, played by Yunjin Kim. Throughout the seasons of Lost, Kim portrayed Jin Kwon in a great display of his skills as an actor. Unfortunately Kim has not been granted this opportunity to the same extent on the show where he currently can be seen, Hawaii 5-0, which in many ways is a show inferior to Lost. What Lost and Hawaii 5-0 do have in common is that in both shows Kim is a member of an ensemble cast led by Matthew Fox and Alex O’Loughlin, respectively.

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Steven Yeun at the Detroit Fanfare 2011
Source: Tony Shek

Steven Yeun (b. 1983) portrays one of my favorite characters in the on-going TV-series The Walking Dead, Glenn Rhee. Just as with Kim’s portrayal of Jin Kwon, Glenn’s story arch is a formidable one, where his relationship to Maggie Greene, played by Lauren Cohan, gives added depths to the character. Unfortunately, we don’t know that much about Glenn’s background. In Lost, the characters’ lives before the plane crash are shown through flashbacks. This narrative strategy is not implemented in The Walking Dead. After three action-packed seasons we still watch the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of the show’s lead character, Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln.

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John Cho at TV Guide panel, San Diego Comic-Con 2009
Source: Melody J Sandoval, Flickr

John Cho (b. 1972) is probably best known for his work as Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek franchise. I first became familiar with his work through the cult classic Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Unlike the characters portrayed by Kim and Yeun, Cho’s character Harold Lee does not experience a dramatic story arc. That privilege is given to Kal Penn’s character Kumar, although most of this development takes place in the second movie, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008). What sets Harold Lee apart from Jin Kwon and Gleen Rhee, is that Harold is in fact a romantic leading man. Harold has a crush on Maria (played by Paula Garcés), who lives in the same building as him and Kumar, and in the end Harold actually gets the girl.

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Bruce Lee wall painting, Tbilisi, Georgia
Source: Giga Paitchadze, Flickr

In the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000) it is stated that after Bruce Lee (1940–1973) there has not been an Asian actor cast as a romantic leading man in a major motion picture. The same year as the documentary came out, one such film did hit the screens, namely Romeo Must Die starring Jet Li and Aaliyah (1979–2001). Therefore, the statement about Bruce Lee can be modified, but only slightly. Since Bruce Lee, there have been two Asian actors cast in romantic leading roles: Jet Li and John Cho. However, neither of these movies are what you can call mainstream. Romeo Must Die is a martial art movie where certain fight scenes are still branded into my brain, although I haven’t seen the film again since it came out. Harold and Kumar are more in the line of Cheech and Chong and Pineapple Express than anything else.

If there are any other major motion pictures, or TV-shows for that matter, starring an Asian leading man in a romantic role, I would be interested to know. To my, admittedly limited, knowledge, there are only those I have discussed above.

Source:
http://www.imdb.com Daniel Dae Kim
http://www.imdb.com Steven Yeun
http://www.imdb.com John Cho
Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (Directed by: John Little, 2000) http://www.danieldaekim.com

Note:
Images of Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun, John Cho and Bruce Lee have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Update:
After publishing this blog post, the following blog has come to my notice: http://asianvibe.blogspot.se/2013/04/why-hollywood-wont-cast-asian-actors-to.html
Thank you, Sara Ellis Nilsson, for the tip. The views of the blog are not mine but they point towards the argument made in this post.
Furthermore, I would like to clarify that when I talk about “major motion pictures” I am referring to mainstream films produced for an American audience.