WHAT YOU'RE NOT WATCHING Week Two: Prime Time's Asian Problem

TV blogger Jonathn Elliott asks: Where are the leading roles for Asian-Americans on TV this season? Or any season?

This started with a casual thought about "Sullivan and Son," TBS' new sitcom starring Korean-American comedian (and Freehold, NJ native!) Steve Byrne.

"Huh," I thought. "Here's a half-hour comedy starring an Asian-American, and none of the ads are really drawing attention to any of the cultural elements of his race."

Where are the Asian-Americans in leading roles on TV? Why did it feel so rare to us to have Steve Byrne's face as the headliner of a television show?

This question led me down the rabbit-hole in search of Asian-Americans in prime-time programming. After a long, loooooooong series of discussions with friends who are TV critics, entertainment professionals, and avid watchers, I think I have some answers.

(I have to give a quick shout-out here: my mom's friend Lois participated in this hunt with exhaustive, impressive consistency. Her pop culture-ferretting skills rival mine, and I'm humbled.)

So, let's begin.

  1. Sullivan and Son.

  2. The upcoming CBS show Elementary, a modern spin on Sherlock Holmes spin with Lucy Liu in the Watson role.

    Aside from Margaret Cho, about whom we'll talk about in a moment, Liu, was *the* face of Asian-Americans in 1990's television. She was arguably the most prominent of all Asian-American stars, beginning with her role on Ally McBeal and moving into Charlie's Angels.

So, from our count...that's two shows, premiering now and in the near future, with Asian-Americans in the leading roles.

That's it. Two. Two new programs on major networks. Tell me if I'm missing something, here, please. Because this sort of worries me, dear reader.

A number of Asian-Americans hold supporting roles in current and recent programming. BD Wong is a tremendous actor whose work on the Law & Order franchise and the disappointing Awake is consistently good, not to mention his stage and film careers.

There's also Grace Park of Hawaii 5-0 and formerly Battlestar Galactica, and we'll talk Lost in a moment.

There's supporting players like Matthew Moy on Two Broke Girls and Tim Kang on The Mentalist (a lot of CBS in here, huh?), and then there's Olivia Munn on HBO's The Newsroom, but delving into that program is a troubling mess of gender and race issues found in a lot of Aaron Sorkin's work.

(Case in point: it's currently a show with two African-American female supporting characters who we know HATE ONE ANOTHER—but no one's bothered to name them in four episodes and six months of continuity.)

I mentioned Margaret Cho earlier. Her 90s sitcom, All-American Girl, was touted as the first series to feature an Asian-American family, and it launched to great ratings before falling away into obscurity and cancelation after one season.

Okay, let's talk about Lost for a second. I obsessed over that show, alongside millions of other Americans, and I might admit to throwing a shoe at the screen during the fateful deaths of Sun and Jin, two of the most mesmerizing characters on TV.

Here were deep, funny, private, mysterious, deceitful, honorable, and complex human beings with storied pasts, realistic motivations, and healthy and active sexual appetites for each other. Daniel Dae Kim (now on Hawaii 5-0) and Yunjin Kim portrayed perhaps the most fleshed-out couple on TV. They were fascinating humans whose race, while part of their characters, was secondary to their allure.

And that exact portrayal brought to mind exactly this argument. Why, dear reader, is it so difficult to find great Asian-American actors in great roles on American television?

I know the talent exists; I've seen their work. Cho has gone on to a diverse and storied career as an activist and stand-up comic. Her devious series of cameos on the last two seasons of 30 Rock are among the funniest things you'll find on television.

She's brought this problem to the forefront in her work consistently, both in terms of the work currently available and harkening back to her own childhood, when the only Asians on TV were in bit parts in M*A*S*H.

I know that there are brilliant and creative Asian-Americans in the entertainment professions. I know that there are equally smart Asian-Americans amongst the audiences who are thirsty for entertainment that features prominently their culture.

So why isn't it reflected on our screens? Let's discuss. I'd love your thoughts.

Jonathan Elliott is a writer, arts futurist, pop omnivore, journalist, marketer, and troublemaker. He’s worked in arts marketing and management for the past twelve years, for organizations including Grounds for Sculpture, Princeton Summer Theater at Princeton University, Washington National Opera, The Contemporary American Theater Festival, Sycamore Rouge, McCarter Theatre Center, and ArtPride NJ.

Jonathan writes pop culture and TV pieces for Cinema Blend and Pop Break. His play, Forward Motion, is published via Playscripts, Inc., and he is the co-creator of the made-for-web series NeverLanding.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ben Blohowiak July 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM
I'm guessing that focus group testing (or lack thereof) may have something to do with this in terms of what demographics networks/channels want to deliver to advertisers. There may be an assumption among advertisers or programmers--empirically founded or not--that coveted demos would prefer to view protagonists with other characteristics. That such an assumption may be self-perpetuating is an unfortunate likelihood; I think we'd all like to see content providers take the lead rather than follow meekly on things like this.
Porterincollingswood July 19, 2012 at 12:33 PM
Ben - you are correct. Any show will have a pre-determined target demo that closely matches the network's sweet spot. So CBS will be old, NBC young. And the characters will reflect that, the format will reflect that, and the complexity of plot will reflect that. That's why they essentially never stop making the same "family comedies", "mismatched roommate comedies", and "cop (and now lawyer, medical) buddy dramas" with new faces. It's a formula. The networks know where the money is, where the demand for advertising is, which advertisers spend / pay the most...and then they deliver a show that meets that demand by virtue of hitting a specific, usually 'mass' (meaning old and white since that's the primary makeup major network viewership) audience. This explains why there are so few dramas with African Americans or comedies with Asians. Why roll the dice with one of those when you can remake "The Odd Couple" or "Friends" for the 1000th time and do a decent rating in Prime Time. Maybe you get an occasional hit. It had to be TBS that did this, the Big Four never would. And if "Sullivan" fails, you won't see another Asian comedy for a decade. Why does TV suck? It's lazy and risk-averse.


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