K-Town goes to Youtube and the short history of Asian-American TV - Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 27, 2012 05:30pm | Post a Comment
K-Town opening title

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.

K-Town cast

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 primarily Asian casts. Meanwhile, Youtube has become the great democratizer, allowing Asian-Americans (and Canadians) like Michelle Phan, Freddie W, Kev JumbaKevin Wu, Peter Chao, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions and others to garner millions of followers each and become internet celebrities, if not TV ones. Similzrly, web series like Awesome Asian Bad GuysBaby MentalistBFFs, Boystown, Car Discussion with Sung KangChop Socky Boom, Flat3, The FoodHome Is Where The Hans Are, How Are You?, I Am Asian, Katana, Lumina, Manivore, Millions, Mixed Blooms, Model Minority, Mother Lover, Mythomania, Nice Girls Crew, Normal Gays, One Warm Night, On the Clock, Prison Dancer, Silent Terror, Slanted Show, SuperTwins!, The Ho’s on 7th Avenue, Urban Wolf, Video Game High School, and When it Counts flourish online. Meanwhile, American TV networks continue drag their feet even as viewers increasingly abandon traditional media.

Since I first published this blog entry, one of the show's producers contacted me and asked me to share his comment:

"I am extremely pleased to have set up the show on Electus' Youtube channel, Loud. They've given us the freedom to to produce the show we wanted, with the cast we feel best represents the K-town culture. TV viewing habits is rapidly shifting to online -- the younger generation doesn't distinguish between digital content vs the traditional "premium" content we think TV & Cable as. With the production value of a network show, by putting K-TOWN online we're looking to the future. Asians may be under-represented in TV, but we are over-represented online. Hopefully, my K-TOWN show will be a bridge to those two realms." 

Here’s a very short timeline of Asian-American TV:


Anna May Wong

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.


In 1972, CBS aired The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. It may've been a cartoon but many of the voice actors were Asian, including Keye Luke, who provided the voice for Chan (and was the only actor of Chinese descent to play Charlie Chan in any screen adaptation). In fact, when it debuted all of the voices were provided by Asian-American (and Asian-Canadian) actors except for the talking dog (this was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon so it had mystery, a band made up of kids, a magic vehicle and a talking dog). However, most of the voices were subsequently re-dubbed by non-Asian actors (including Jodie Foster). Sixteen episodes aired in all.


The third American TV show starring an Asian-American had a very short 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.


The fourth TV series with mostly Asian-American stars was the short-lived Gung Ho, adapted from the Ron Howard film of the same name that opened earlier in the year (1986). In addition to Heidi Lawson, Scott Bakula, and Stephen Lee; the nine-episode series co-starred Gedde Watanabe, Patti Yasutake, Rodney Kageyama, Sab Shimono, and Scott Atari.


Sidekicks was the first Asian-American show made for and aired on cable television. It co-starred Ernie Reyes, Jr. as Ernie Lee, the Last Electric Knight, and Gil Gerard as Sergeant Jake Rizzo. It aired between 26 September, 1986 till 13 June, 1987. Disney would revisit the formula of Asian kid who masters martial arts with the training of an elder with their Brenda Song film, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2008).


Ohara, was the second Asian-American television show to star 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

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 entirely Asian starring-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. 


Relic Hunter wasn’t an American series – it was Canadian. However, it did star an Asian-American, in this case, Hawaiian-born Pinay, Tia Carrere. It ran much longer than its American predecessors, lasting three seasons and 66 episodes total between 1999 and 2002. One possibility is that Canadian network officials gave it a fairer shake. Of course, another possibility was Carrere's sex appeal. As Wayne Campbell expressed of Carrere's "Cassandra" character in Wayne's World, "She's a fox. In French, she would be called 'la renarde' and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her." I never watched the show but do remember it being promoted with billboards promising "dangerous curves ahead" so I reckon sex was a big factor.


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 - VH! - Margaret Cho

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.


Nikita promo - Maggie Q

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.


Hawaii Five-0

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.



Another show that debuted in September, 2010 was NBC's Outsourced. Many of its stars were Indians from Canada, England, Germany, South Africa, and the United States (and in only a couple of cases, India). The plot concerned a white American being transferred to India, and thus Asians from several continents played Asian Asians (i.e. foreigners). I haven't seen it but it seems to have garnered a strong but small following. Nevertheless, it wasn't renewed for the 2012 season.


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.



Angry Little Asian Girl

Actress/cartoonist Leela Lee's comic Angry Little Asian Girl is set to air on MNET America as an animated series debuting Fall 2012.


The Mindy Project

The Mindy Project stars Tamil-Bengali-American actress Mindy Kaling as a physician named Mindi Lahiri. The plot was greenlighted by FOX in May, 2012. The series is due to debut on 25, September, 2012.


So there you have it, fewer than 20 -- mostly-obscure --  American shows (and one Canadian) in roughly 65 years of TV. The fact that eight made their debut (or are set to) 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!


Update: On 22 July, 2013 HereTV announced the greenlighting of From Here On Out, a series set to co-star Suzanne Whang and Julie Brown.

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