K-Town goes to Youtube and the short history of Asian-American TV - Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
After two years of shopping around to various TV networks, the Jersey Shore-inspired Korean-American reality show K-Town has just been picked up -- not by any of them -- but as a Youtube exclusive set to debut July 2nd.
Although the trailer describes it as “The most anticipated reality show of all time” and “the reality show no TV network could show you,” I have to wonder if the people behind it (who brought us Jersey Shore, Mob Wives and The Hills, the trailer informs) aren’t trying to put a positive response on network disinterest. With shows like the Skinemax-meets-Magic the Gathering softcore dorkfest that is Game of Thrones barely raising an eyebrow and what with Youtube’s ban on sexually explicit material, animal abuse, drug use, underage drinking and smoking, and bomb making, I doubt that there’s anything on K-Town that wouldn’t fly on cable… except that the enitre cast is entirely Asian-American.
American TV has, since its earliest days, never been comfortable with too many Asians (or Latinos, even more glaringly) on the screen at once. Asian sidekicks are cool, Asian guest stars too -- but there have been only a handful of TV shows starring Asians on the small screen and even fewer with largely Asian casts. Meanwhile, Youtube has become the great democratizer, allowing Asian-Americans like Ryan Higa, Michelle Phan, Freddie Wong, Kevin Wu and others to garner millions of followers each and become internet celebrities, if not TV ones. Meanwhile, TV networks drag their feet even as viewers increasingly abandon traditional media.
Here’s a very short timeline of Asian-American TV:
THE GALLERY OF MADAME LIU-TSONG
The first American show with an Asian lead was obscure The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which ran only ten episodes from 27 August to 21 November in 1951 on the DuMont Television Network (which itself only existed between 1946 and 1956). It starred Chinese-American, former silent film superstar Anna May Wong as a detective. It was cancelled after one season and no episodes are known to exist today.
MR. T & TINA
The second American TV show starring an Asian-American had an even shorter run. Mr. T and Tina, a spin-off of Welcome Back, Kotter starring Pat Morita, ran for only five episodes in the fall of 1976. Morita starred as Taro Takahashi, a Japanese inventor married to a ditzy, white American, Tina Kelly. According to the recollections of the few that remember it, hilarity didn't really ensue.
Ohara, the third American show with an Asian lead again starred Pat Morita, this time as Lt. Ohara. It ran for 30 episodes from 17 January, 1987 till 7 May, 1988. Of course Ohara used martial arts and spoke in fortune cookie/Charlie Chan-esque epigrams.
Vanishing Son was the first Asian-American show made for syndication. It ran from 16 January, following the airing of four Vanishing Son TV movies in 1994. Hunky star Russell Wong played a foreigner – in this case a fugitive Chinese musician named Jian-Wa Chang. It was cancelled after thirteen episodes.
All-American Girl starred actress/comedian Margaret Cho and depicted her as and her family in TV’s second Asian-American sitcom. It's notable for being the first American TV show with an overwhelming cast (rounded out by Amy Hill, B.D. Wong, Clyde Kusatsu, J.B. Quon, and Jodi Long). It was also the first TV series to star an American-born Asian actually playing an American-born Asian rather than an Asian-born foreigner -- a fact underlined by the series's title. Nonetheless, an "Asian Consultant" was hired to teach the Korean-American star of the semi-autobiographical show how to “act more Asian.”
It ran for nineteen episodes between 14 September, 1994 and 15 March, 1995.
A SHOT AT LOVE WITH TILA TEQUILA
Tila Tequila (née Tila Nguyen) was a popular import model who starred in the “reality” show, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, in which she “played” a bisexual in search of love. She courted 32 contestants -- male and female. It debuted at No. 1 in its time slot and was MTV’s second highest-rated debut series that year (2007), seemingly disproving conventional TV wisdom about Asian-American leads (at least female) and simultaneously re-affirming the ancient adage, "sex sells."
THE CHO SHOW
Perhaps the producers of The Cho Show were encouraged by Tila Tequila’s success when they decided to give Margaret Cho another shot at TV with a reality series/sitcom. The Cho Show debuted 21 August, 2008 on VH1 and concluded seven episodes later, on 25 September.
Half-Vietnamese actress Maggie Q stars in Nikita, a CW series that has, to date, aired for 45 episodes, beginning with its debut on 9 September, 2010. In it, Q plays a vengeful former assassin and spy in a role adapted from the French film of the same name.
Two of four stars of Hawaii Five-0 are Asian-American, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park (who, though born in the US, is a Canadian citizen). Reflecting the fact that Hawaii’s largest racial group is Asian-American, many of the recurring charaters and guest stars are also played by Asian-Americans. It debuted 20 September, 2010 and was an immediate critical and commercial success. In 2011, it entered the Guinness World Records for “Highest-Rated New Show in the U.S.” when the episode “Kai e’e” garnered 19.34 million viewers. And whereas there's a long tradition of fetishization of Asian women in American culture, the fact that a Google search of "Daniel Dae Kim" brings up related searches of "Daniel Dae Kim shirtless" and "Daniel Dae Kim muscles" probably reflects changing mainstream attitudes about Asian-American men as well... at least as far as objectification goes.
SULLIVAN & SON
Popular half-Irish/half-Korean stand-up comic Steven Byrne co-wrote and co-created the pilot for Sullivan & Son with with Rob Long. In it he stares as the son of an Irish-American father (played by Dan Lauria of The Wonder Years) and a Korean-American mother (played by Jodi Long of All American Girl). His sister is played by Vivian Bang (best known as Soo-Mi in Yes Man). TBS ordered ten episodes in February, 2012 with a premiere date set for this coming summer.
*****So there you have it, eleven American shows (and one Canadian) in roughly 65 years of TV. The fact that six made their debut in the last decade suggests that things on the small screen are very slowly changing.
In Los Angeles, where most American TV series are filmed and many (if not most) shows are set, Asian-Americans make up roughly 14% of the population compared to Anglo whites, who make up 28% and blacks, who make up 9%. That reality isn't even close to represented on TV which more than sixty years after the introduction of color remains stubbornly black and white.
As some who loves sociological schadenfreude spectacles like Jersey Shore, Shahs of Sunset, Mama's Boys of the Bronx (and all the much-missed dating shows), I personally hope K-Town moves to TV... or that our TV otherwise begins to reflect the diversity of our country (not holding my breath, however). Also, please bring Geordie Shore to the US – maybe PBS. PBS viewers love British TV. Thanks!