by OLIVER SARIA
Truth be told, back in 2010, when I first heard rumors about this alleged “Asian Jersey Shore” reality show, my immediate reaction was one big eye-roll. Like the plastic-wrapped Coach handbags my aunt used to sell, I thought, the Asian knock-off of anything had to be inferior to the original. After all, how could any show possibly out-Jersey-Shore Jersey Shore? Little did I know two-and-a-half years later that I’d be chilling with the producers and cast members of the “Asian Jersey Shore” reality show, K-Town, at an informal viewing party July 11, the night the first episode premiered on YouTube’s Loud Channel.
The fact that the series ended up on YouTube felt telling. Despite whatever biases I initially had about the project, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that it had apparently been relegated to the land of cat videos and Asian kids on webcams. In a sense, YouTube is the perfect vehicle for it. The New York Times reported that while there’s a persistent dearth of Asian American representation in Hollywood, “it’s an entirely different story, however, on the democratized platform of YouTube, where a young generation of Asian-Americans has found a voice (and millions of eager fans).”
But this phenomenon of Asian Ams blowing up on YouTube often reminds me of one video in particular. Search “Asians” and “wave pool” on YouTube, and you’ll find a clip from Tokyo, Japan, where waders have literally taken up every square inch of a wave pool. The floating horde starts to undulate as the waves desperately try to crest under the weight of all that humanity. There are times when Asians on YouTube, to me, seem like that overcrowded wave pool. Everybody in the pool all at once, bobbing in the water, making a bit of a splash, but ultimately not really going anywhere.
Initial eye-rolling aside, I was secretly hoping K-Town would break out into open water, where it had a chance to ride a more mainstream wave. What I discovered that night, talking with the producers—Eugene Choi, Mike Le, and Eddie Kim—is that they got tantalizingly close. Closer than folks may realize.
If you read the comments section on YouTube, where detractors gleefully express their schadenfreude, the assumption is that the networks passed on this doomed project: “No network would wanna carry an Asian Jersey Shore type show. One Jersey Shore is already enough for the networks,” said a viewer self-identifying as the TheRaginNation.
According to Le—vice president of HQ Pictures, Tyrese Gibson’s production company, which produces the series—that wasn’t the case. “The [networks] didn’t pass on it. We had a bidding war from two networks. That’s a dream scenario for anyone that pitches in Hollywood,” he says.
Ultimately, though, issues of creative control and shifting network dynamics scuttled the project. As reported by Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal, “According to Le, a combination of ‘regime change’ and a refusal by the net’s new guard to let the producers make the show they’d had in mind led to the show going on an extended hiatus.” Eventually, the show found a home as the tent-pole series on Loud, a new YouTube channel launched by Electus, a self-proclaimed “next generation studio” founded by Ben Silverman (former NBC Entertainment co-chairman who served as executive producer of The Office) in partnership with IAC, broadcast media and internet tycoon Barry Diller’s digital powerhouse.
With Electus, the producers found a forward-looking approach to new media and the freedom they had always wanted. “It’s been pretty awesome that [Electus’] stamp of approval is in line with our original vision,” says Kim. In addition, says Choi, “I’m very proud of being able to participate with this experiment that’s going on with YouTube and all these Hollywood studios, which is, I think, the future.”
So what did they ultimately create? Based on the teaser, which declared K-Town “the reality show no TV network could show you,” and the two episodes that were screened at the viewing party, “K-Town,” compared to other shows of its ilk, delivers sufficiently trashy and mind-numbing, but largely paint-by-the-numbers fare. The characters have their stock personas: Jasmine, the Jokester; Young, the Entertainer; Scarlet, the Troublemaker; Steve, the Party Animal; Violet, the Drama Queen; Joe, the Bad-Ass; Cammy, the Sweetheart; and Jowe (pronounced like “Joey”), the Heartbreaker. Add booze and testosterone-fueled chest-thumping, girl-on-girl tonguing, body-shots and booty-wiggle, sprinkle some manufactured conflict, and cue the obligatory thrown drink and subsequent hair-pulling. It’s like, well, every other reality show out there, except Asians are doing it.
According to Le, the depictions of Asian behaving badly serve two purposes: 1) That is what people expect from this type of reality show. He adds, “If I could make a scripted TV show about Asians Americans with an all-Asian-American cast, I would in a heartbeat, but, you know what? Scripted TV is too expensive. Reality TV, because it’s cheap to produce, it allows the networks to take more of a risk.” 2) The producers adamantly believe, in the long run, it is better for Asian Americans. “There’s a belief within the Asian American community that there’s a good stereotype,” Le says. “I’m of the philosophy that there is no good stereotype. So Asians embrace this good stereotype—that we’re smart, that we’re hardworking, that we’re studious. Because we embrace that, it’s being applied directly through mass media. And that’s why we see in mass media a one-dimensional type of Asian American.”
Christine Balance, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, who has written about Asian Am YouTube celebrity, welcomes more representations, good or bad. “I personally would like to be able to teach a class where we can move beyond the model minority or the dragon lady or whatever. I want to have different conversations with these students,” she says. “We’re so contained in that way of talking about things that we can’t imagine things any other way. With YouTube, everybody is talking about it changing the game. Well, maybe we can just simply think about it as a different way of being in the world, making us think of other [Asian American] representations.”
Others, however, aren’t completely sold. Abe Ferrer, director of exhibitions for Visual Communications, the organization behind the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, notes, “If you shoehorn genre into Asian American things and stuff, and wind up with something that people will most likely laugh at and blow off, like an Asian American, um, Tila Tequila show or something, which on its face K-Town looks like, how are you going to grow an audience out of something that has already invited a lot of scorn even before it’s started?”
That scorn, in fact, has often gotten personal, according to Kim, who is also the founder and executive producer of Projekt NewSpeak, an entertainment company focusing on independent Asian Pacific Islander multimedia arts. “I had people defriend me on Facebook … and a lot of weird talk behind our backs about us selling out,” he says. The backlash was so intense he took to defending himself on the popular blog, Angry Asian Man, asserting his commitment to supporting different Asian American and Pacific Islander voices. Still, Kim is adamant that he has no regrets. “I wouldn’t change anything. I would go through it all over again,” he says. “This has been an eye-opening experience.
The journey, however, may have taken too long. The constant comparison to MTV’s Jersey Shore that initially helped fuel early hype around K-Town now hampers it. There’s a distinct been-there-done-that feeling to the early episodes. In the more than two years “K-Town” took to launch, Jersey Shore has finally begun to recede back to the basement tanning bed whence it came. And since the producers who once prodded a-now-pregnant Snookie to behave badly have apparently drawn the line at fetal alcohol syndrome, there is a definite sense that the party is over—and K-Town arrived a tad too late.
But all is not lost. So far, the first episode has drawn over 160,000 viewers, which doesn’t sound like much, but is by far the most viewed video on Loud channel. In addition, one character in particular shows promise. The most interesting character in K-Town is the town itself. There’s a moment in the first episode when newbie, Scarlet Chan rides an elevator in a staid office building to the fourth floor, where the doors open to reveal a bumping nightclub/restaurant. To the extent that the show can replicate that sensation of opening a door to a corner of Los Angeles, hidden in plain view, I’ll keep watching.
Similarly, in Balance’s opinion, the show begs the question, “Why is Koreatown like this? I think that’s also interesting because growing up in L.A. in the ’90s, K-town wasn’t like that at all.” She concedes, however, “This is a completely different show, but you can add those layers to it. Now that they’re on YouTube, I hope they play up the cultural aspect.”
Maybe diving into the cultural deep end isn’t such a bad idea. As scholar and media critic Oliver Wang noted on KCET’s Artbound blog, cable television is rife with shows about little-known subcultures, like the History Channel’s hit Swamp People and Bravo TV’s Shahs of Sunset. He writes: “Each respective show is either subtly or explicitly premised on a voyeuristic window into communities that seem starkly different from ‘the rest of us.’”
I’m also eager to see if the cast members develop more dimensions. Scarlet, for example, is a former erotic dancer with an undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She confesses, “I’m addicted to the money I was making. It’s definitely addicting.” But she has since stopped stripping because, “in L.A., it’s tough to really make a profit for yourself without crossing that line. And I feel stripping is the gateway drug for any kind of dancers to start with stripping and then you start seeing clients outside the club and then from there you might start doing porn. A lot of girls fall into that pattern.” Hopefully, this works its way into the show because compared to her label as “The Jokester,” “Feminist Ex-Stripper” sounds way more compelling, though admittedly, not something you’re likely to see in the opening credits.
Choi acknowledges, “We’ve kind of been straddling the fence.” The ultimate goal is still to sell the series to a network. So the producers know they must ampup the antics, make the characters relatable, while acknowledging Koreatown’s distinct culture. To the degree that the show can strike this delicate balancing act may be the difference between whether the project sinks or swims.
I, for one, am hoping for the best.
(Disclosure: Eugene Choi, one of the K-Town producers, has in the past and currently does marketing work for KoreAm Journal.)