TV Sweep: Asian Faces Now Showing

East West Magazine
By Kirthana RamisettiÝ
February 11, 2007

By the time you read this, Japanese American actor Masi Oka will have won a Golden Globe for his role as the geektastic time-traveling hero Hiro Nakamura on the hit freshman drama ìHeroes.î His speech will be one of the most popular of the night, humble and amazed to be at this point in his career, winning an award in the same room as his idols. In the audience will be his Indian American co-star Sendhil Ramamurthy, as well as the Canadian-born Korean actress Sandra Oh, past Golden Globe winner for her role on another hit show, ìGreyís Anatomy.î

OK, this didnít happen.

But it could haveóhe was nominated and heavily favored to win, after all.

But still, the fact that Oka, Oh and Ramamurthy were even in attendance indicates the television landscape has changed. In fact, six years ago, the only Asian American television actors of any prominence were B.D. Wong on ìOzî and Lucy Liu on ìAlly McBeal.î If asked to name Asian American actors starring on prime time series today, the list would be impressive for both its size and its talent pool. Besides the aforementioned actors, the list includes, but is not limited to, Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim and Naveen Andrews on ìLost;î Mindy Kaling on ìThe Office;î Parminder Nagra on ìE.R.;î, Ravi Kapoor on ìCrossing Jordan;î, Navi Rawat on ìNumbers;î, Grace Park on ìBattlestar Galactica;î and Keiko Agena on ìGilmore Girls.î

Once relegated to small and often stereotypical roles with few lines, actors of Asian descent are now being interviewed by Joan Rivers on the red carpet, parlaying their TV success into burgeoning film careers and even getting recognized by the pop culture zeitgeist like ìPeopleî magazineís ìSexiest Men Aliveî issue. But some might wonder, despite the glitz and the media attention, how much progress has truly been made?

For actress Lauren Tom, the heart of the answer lies in the difference between working as a guest star on ìFriends,î the must-see sitcom of the 90s, and working now as a regular cast member on the romantic dramedy ìMen in Trees.î ìIt seems every week the writers are adding another character of color. We have me, Suleka Mathew, who is Indian, John Amos, who plays my husband and is black, and theyíve just added another recurring role of George, Buzzís son. When I was on ìFriendsî as Rossís girlfriend, I think I was the only minority for years and years until they brought on Aisha Tyler,î an African American actress who played another one of Rossís girlfriends.

Tom has worked steadily in film and television roles for the past two decades, most memorably in the film The Joy Luck Club and in a recurring role as Julie on ìFriends.î She notes that the growing trend of diverse ensemble casts on prime time shows such as ìMen in Treesî has made it easier to find work. ìI donít think I can remember a time when so many Asian faces have been on the small and big screen,î she says. ìWatchdog groups such as MANAA [Media Action Network for Asian Americans] seem to have inserted a chip in the networks collective brains to make the casting of minority actors a priority.î

Karen Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, a non-profit advocacy group, agrees that there has been an increase in acting opportunities. ìI think the popularity and critical acclaim that Masi Oka and Sandra Oh have received is proving the case we have been making that Americans of all races and ethnicities will watch good actors working with good writing.î She adds that ABC and NBC are leading the way by airing shows featuring casts from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, such as ìUgly Betty,î ìLostî and ìHeroes.î

ìThe fact that some showrunners, with the support of their networks, are being given opportunities to do different material with much more diverse casting does indicate that we are making progress. Itís slower and more incremental than what we want, but it is happening.î

But is this gradual increase in diversity resulting in a balanced and truthful portrayal of Asian Americans? ìGreyís Anatomyîís Sandra Oh has won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award and has been twice nominated for an Emmy, which makes her one of the most critically lauded Asian American actors in Hollywood. But sheís also the only Asian American cast member of a show about doctors. In fact, of four current prime time series set in hospitalsóìScrubs,î ìHouse,î ìE.R.î and ìGreyís Anatomyîóonly the latter two feature a character of Asian heritage. A considerable number of Asian Americans have careers in medicine, yet this reality is not reflected in the casts of these shows.

A study conducted by the AAJC also points out a broader discrepancy. In its 2005 study, ìAsian Pacific Americans in Prime Time: Setting the Stage,î the AAJC found there were few quality roles on television for what the report describes as Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. This group makes up 5 percent of the U.S. population, but consists of only 2.6 percent of the regular roles on prime time TV. Just as telling, the shows that were set in cities with major Asian populations, such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, had few regular Asian or Pacific Islander characters.

The fact is, most programs, with the exception of ìHeroesî and ìLost,î have only one Asian American actor in their cast, if any. Is it so impossible that Christina Yang would make rounds with another Korean American doctor at Seattle Grace Hospital, or that Kelly Kapoor on ìThe Officeî would have at least one other Asian co-worker at Dunder Mifflin?

Narasaki believes the only way Asian Americans will be accurately reflected and represented in the prime time arena is if minority writers are promoted to showrunners and gain senior positions in the industry. ìThey are more likely to accurately portray urban landscapes that are far more diverse than TV shows. While the networks have improved the diversity in terms of background characters in their one-hour dramas, and [have] done better in showing integrated workplaces, minorities, particularly Asian Americans, are seldom at the center of the show or even primary.î

A quick review of the actors listed above proves her point. A majority of them would not be considered the stars of their respective showsóeven Sandra Oh, arguably the most high-profile Asian American actor on television, falls in the supporting actress category on the award circuit rather than the leading actress category for her role on ìGreyís.î Even so, the good news is the characters these actors play are written as complex, well-rounded people whose personalities evolve over the course of the series. Christina Yang could have very easily been the typical ìmodel minorityî roleóhighly intelligent and aggressively competitiveóbut her character has softened and deepened over time through her complicated friendships and romantic relationship.

Similarly, when ìLostî premiered, Daniel Dae Kimís character Jin was originally criticized by many in the Asian American community for seeming to epitomize the stereotypical angry and domineering Asian husband to Yunjin Kimís submissive Sun. But as episodes unfolded, their poignant love story showed how Jin was not the ìbad guyî in the relationship and that the two were deeply in love.

It is also interesting to note that in the television status quo, there are Asian and Asian American superheroes, stranded island castaways and in the case of ìBattlestar Galactica,î Cylons (humanoid robots). As refreshing as it is to see Asian Americans involved in such creative and high-concept series, rather than restricted to only playing the usual array of cab drivers, gang members, convenience store owners or even just doctors, where are the series that are focused on Asian Americans in more simple family or relationship settings?

There has been one attempt at thisóthe ill-conceived Margaret Cho vehicle ìAll-American Girl.î Lasting one season on ABC before it was canceled in 1995, the sitcom focused on Choís carefree character and her clashes with her traditional Korean family. The showís failure typifies the television industryís inability to accurately portray Asian Americans in familial settings. Tom believes the show was hampered because ìthe writing did not seem real to the Asian community, and so the community did not support the show.î There has not been another show with an Asian lead or primarily Asian cast since then.

Narasaki, however, is optimistic that this will eventually come to pass again, noting that the networks have, in the recent past, commissioned pilots starring or centering on Asian Americans, though none of them have been developed into series yet. Her own personal dream show would be a comedy about an Asian American couple. ìI want Americans to see that [we] have the same in-law issues and kooky dysfunctional family issues as most other families . . .The fact that the networks are willing to invest in developing pilots is a sign that it should just be a matter of time.î