Picture this: A 7th-grader sits on the couch of her living room, rewinding a well-worn tape in her VCR. She just finished watching an episode of a show she taped when it aired a few days before. She’s going to watch it again, and probably once more before the day is over.
It was 1994, and the show I was watching ad nauseum was All-American Girl, an ABC sitcom starring Margaret Cho as a young Korean American woman struggling to reconcile her interests and ambitions with those of her traditional family. Reviews of the show were mixed at best, but to me as an Asian American middle-schooler in suburban Michigan, this show was everything. It didn’t matter to me that the show featured stereotypes that I would now probably denounce, along with some truly cringe-worthy accents; it didn’t matter that the show’s premise changed several times mid-season without explanation. What mattered to me was that, for the first time in my life, there was a family on TV that looked like mine, and experiences I had that I didn’t know anyone else had were being enacted and validated on national television. And because of that, I watched the show over and over again, even after its cancellation the following spring.
I’m reminded of that show now, a full 20 years later, as ABC introduces not one, but two shows with Asian American leads for their fall lineup. These shows take drastically different approaches to portraying Asian American characters, and I’m sure each will face its own barrage of criticism. But the 11-year-old in me who thought she was alone in her experiences is thrilled that these shows even exist.
Fresh Off the Boat, a sitcom based on the eponymous memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, is the story of a 12-year-old Taiwanese American kid who moves with his family from DC to Florida as his father pursues his dream of owning a restaurant. (A cowboy restaurant, no less.) Hijinks ensue. In this show, the racial identities of the characters are the focal point. The trailer is filled with cross-cultural experiences — the Asian kid at the mostly-white school, the Asian family at the white grocery store, and on and on.
Feedback on the show has already been mixed. On one hand, it’s a show about an entire Asian American family! (Given how infrequently Asian American characters appear at all on TV, and how poorly the last show about an Asian American family — my beloved All-American Girl — fared, this is pretty close to miraculous.) My experience of bringing Asian food to my mostly-white elementary school has now been documented and validated! But detractors have criticized the show’s stereotypical representations of Asians, wondering why the first Asian American family on TV in two decades features so many caricatures. Why can’t they just be a normal family, like the Cosbys? Do they have to own a restaurant? Do they have to have accents? If Asian American families only have this one shot at representation, do we really want it to be this?
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Selfie, a sitcom loosely based on Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. It features a self-absorbed young woman, played by Dr. Who’s Karen Gillan, who turns to a confident marketing genius, played by John Cho, to improve her image. Considering how the media generally portrays Asian American men as socially and sexually inept, the idea of an Asian American male romantic lead — and master of social mores — is nearly unheard of. (Also nice: an Asian American male lead whose confidence isn’t rooted in his martial arts skills. Just sayin’.)
In contrast to Fresh Off the Boat’s angle, Cho’s race, and his character’s interracial partnership, won’t be discussed at all. “To not even talk about it is a really new and, I think, mature way to look at it,” Cho remarked to the Toronto Star. And he has a point — by simply presenting an Asian American lead and an interracial relationship without making an issue of either, you communicate that they’re normal. It’s a lot like how 24, in its early seasons, portrayed an African American president without comment. And I find that pretty refreshing.
These shows take wildly different approaches to telling Asian American stories, but in my eyes, having multiple shows featuring Asian Americans in primetime (on one network, no less) is a win. I’ll be tuning into Selfie to see how the handsome and likable Mr. Cho comports himself in the Henry Higgins role. My feelings about Fresh Off the Boat are mixed, much like its feedback so far — but whenever I think of my criticisms, I can’t help but remember that 7th-grader sitting in front of the TV, watching episodes of All-American Girl over and over again, rejoicing and relieved to see people who look like her on TV at all. For her sake, and for the countless others like her, I’m glad this show will be on the air. So I raise my glass to ABC for making such bold moves — and to a day when TV shows with Asian American leads are so commonplace that they aren’t even worth writing about.